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Wessex (England)

Historical Region of England

Last modified: 2021-05-21 by rob raeside
Keywords: wessex | wyvern | dragon (white) |
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[wessex] image located by Jason Saber, 21 May 2011
Source: The Flag Institute: Wessex

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Introduction: Kingdom of Wessex

Wessex was never a shire (county) of England, but rather a historical region of England where an ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom once existed. The Kingdom of Wessex (from "West Saxons"), was an Anglo-Saxon kingdom ruled by the Wessex family, or House of Wessex. Wessex, at its greatest extent encompassed the area of the modern counties of Hampshire, Isle of Wight, Dorset and Wiltshire, and parts of modern Berkshire and Somerset. It existed as an independent kingdom for 408 years between 519 and 927.
The House of Wessex, also known as the House of Cerdic, ruled the kingdom starting in the 6th century under Cerdic of Wessex until the unification of the Kingdom of England in the early 10th Century by Æthelstan, a grandson of Alfred the Great. Today, Æthelstan is considered by modern historians to be the first King of England. Perhaps Wessex's most well-known ruler before Æthelstan was Alfred (the Great) who ruled between from 871 to 886.
Alfred was the youngest son of King Æthelwulf, who died when Alfred was only about 3 years old. Three of Alfred's older brothers, Æthelbald, Æthelberht and Æthelred, all ruled the kingdom before him. Once made king, Alfred successfully defended the kingdom against the Danes (or Vikings) and their attempts at conquest, brokered a deal that separated his lands from theirs (Danelaw) becoming the strongest ruler of England at the time. Remembered as a wise and learned ruler he is also considered the founder of the English Navy. Because of this Anglo-Saxon past, residents of the area still feel a great deal of pride in their West Saxon heritage. Many organizations, businesses, and groups still use the name Wessex to identify themselves. There are also regionalist political groups still seeking political autonomy for the Wessex region.

The Golden Wyvern of the House of Wessex

[Wessex] image located by Pete Loeser, 18 May 2021

Because of the use the wyvern by the House of Wessex, William Crampton, the founder of The Flag Institute, in the early 1970s designed a flag for the Wessex region which depicts a gold wyvern on a red field. Crampton's flag design of a Wessex flag was officially registered as a provincial flag on the United Kingdom's Flag Registry in 1974.
Pete Loeser, 18 May 2021

Description of the Wessex Flag
Registered 1973

"The Wessex Flag is a community flag proclaiming the unique identity of this historic region. The flag of Wessex is based on the ancient West Saxon standard, which was carried into battle by the English until the 15th Century."

  • Flag Type: Provincial Flag
  • Flag Date: 1974
  • Flag Designer: William Crampton
  • Adoption Route: Regional Organisation
  • UK Design Code: UNKG7421
  • Aspect Ratio: 3:5
  • Pantone® Colours: Red 186, Yellow 109
  • Certification: Flag Institute Chief Vexillologist, Graham Bartram
Source: The UK Flag Registry: Wessex.
Pete Loeser, 18 May 2021

The Wessex Flag: A Discussion about the Golden Wyvern

The wyvern existed only in heraldry. It is an ancient symbol associated with the old kings of Wessex. It is a two-legged, winged dragon with a barbed tail. "Wyvern" is derived from the Old French guivre, meaning "viper". In recent military history, the gold wyvern on black square background was the formation sign of the 43rd Wessex Division in World War II. A wyvern on a pedestal inscribed "Wessex" was the badge of the Wessex Brigade, 1958-69, and the Wessex Regiment, 1967-95. In all of these representations, the wyvern has one leg raised.
T.F. Mills, 17 February 1997

William Crampton wrote a pamphlet for the Flag Institute back in 1973 or 1974 which advocated flags for the English regions (there was talk of regional councils being set up as part of the local government reorganisation then occurring), but his suggestion for Wessex was a gold wyvern on red. It was, of course, not official and as far as I know, never raised much interest locally. There was also a small Wessex Regionalist Party that was active about 15-20 years ago, but they never made much headway. This may possibly have been their flag - I didn't live in the area at the time, so I can't say.
Except for the special case of Cornwall, which is more an assimilated Celtic nation rather than an English region, the only English regional flag that has had much popular acceptance is that of East Anglia (Norfolk and Suffolk - sometimes extended to include some or all of Cambridgeshire and Essex), designed in (I think) 1903 or 1905 for the London Society of East Anglians. It is the Cross of St George of England with over the centre of the cross the shield of the traditional arms of East Anglia, blue with three gold crowns. The arms are effectively identical to the small arms of Sweden, from where the East Anglian royal dynasty, the Wuffingas, were supposed to have originated.
Roy Stilling, 17 February 1997

The banner of Wessex features a gold wyvern and is in use for a wide variety of touristic purposes. The best-attested background colour is red. The 43rd (Wessex) Division badge is sometimes quoted as being on black but the illustration I have seen uses a blue background. Black is used by Lord Bath of Longleat House for his personal wyvern standard, black and gold being the family colours. The Wessex Regionalists have used black, green, and red flags, their current flag having a red background.
David Robins, Secretary-General, Wessex Regionalist Party, 31 May 1999.

There is now an official flag of Wessex which is a gold (two legged) wyvern on a red background. The wyvern is appearing more and more as a symbol of Wessex (my son's school, for example, has a wyvern on its badge) and the flag is used by the Wessex Regionalist Party, the Wessex Society, and it is the symbol of the Wessex Constitutional Convention, the group pushing for a parliament for Wessex. The flag was designed by the Flag Institute, and it is proposed to fly this flag throughout Wessex on St Aldhelm's Day, the 25th of May, from Reading in the east to Plymouth in the west, from Bournemouth in the south to Gloucester in the north. Wessex is a dynamic and very distinct region, where there is a growing demand for a parliament with the same level of powers as that in Scotland. The Wessex Constitutional Convention was launched on 19 May 2001, in Exeter.
Stephen Sainsbury, 9 July 2001

We should keep in mind that England had a history long before the Normans, and the flag of Wessex betokens this. What we might nowadays call the "wyvern" is the "drake" (OE draca) or "wurm" (OE wyrm) of the West Saxons - that is, a "dragon". The Wessex men flew a mythofaunomorphic flag of a golden dragon (as similarly the Cymru or Welsh flew a red dragon) overhead into battle. Indeed, such a golden dragon was carried by the English of King Harold Godwinsson at both of his last battles, those of Stamford and Hastings, and is illustrated, no less, within the Bayeux Tapestry. I think this speaks to the great age of the Golden Dragon of Wessex.
Jeffrey Hull, 28 February 2002

I wouldn't disagree that there are wyverns about (in coats of arms and so on), but it would be misleading to suggest that the flag is widely used.
André Coutanche, Bristol (allegedly Wessex), 12 September 2002

Wessex "White Dragon" Flag
Historically Questionable

[white dragon flag] image located by David Dawson, 20 June 2006

I have recently stumbled upon the following text on a commercial website:

The years around 450 AD witnessed the landing, in what was then Celtic Britain, of the first Anglo-Saxon war bands who were to go on and lay the foundation stones of what was to become the English Nation. Two of these warrior traders, Hengest and Horsa, together with their Saxon, Angle and Jutish followers are traditionally regarded as the founders of England. From the coast they gradually pushed inland up the rivers with small squadrons of ships whose crews became the founders of new communities as they advanced from East to West through Celtic Britain. During the next four centuries, the Saxon, Angle and Juttish settlers together with the northern Vikings, would become known collectively as the English. History records that the White Dragon was their emblem.

Various accounts of the times record many battles between armies carrying the Celtic British Red Dragon Banner (now the Welsh Dragon) and the white dragon flag of the early English. Legend has it that the defeat of their Celtic enemies by the early English was foretold in a prophecy. It goes that in an underground lake slept two dragons. The Britons were represented by a red dragon and the English by a white dragon. When they awoke they started fighting and the red dragon was overcome by the white one, symbolically representing the victory of the Anglo-Saxons over their Celtic adversaries.

The White Dragon was, and still is, the emblem of Wessex, the territory of the West Saxons. It is the banner under which King Alfred the Great defeated the great Viking Army at the Battle of Edington and it was the banner carried by the mighty King Athelstan when he smashed the combined armies of the Scots, Welsh, Norse and Irish at the Battle of Brananburgh in 937. The White Dragon was flown by Harold II, when he destroyed the Norse army at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 and it was the banner under which he and his warriors fought to the death, three weeks later protecting their homeland from invasion. The White Dragon flag of the English is shown on the battle scene of the tapestry sewn by Englishwomen to commemorate the battle. It is also seen displayed on the same tapestry featuring a scene at Westminster Abbey during the crowning ceremony for the usurper, William the Bastard.

Moves are now under way to once again raise the White Dragon flag, not as the flag of England, but as the flag of the ethnic-English community within England. We need to see our banner flown as a signal to everyone else that although we may well have been forgotten about by our beloved leaders we most certainly have not gone away and we are once again finding our voice.

In a world with few certainties this flag tells us who we are and from where we have come. It imparts a sense of permanence and continuity. It is a symbol of our identity, our common history, tradition and of the kinship of all the Anglo-Saxon people. It is also a stark reminder that in multi-cultural England unless we embrace these things then we will surely die."

The commercial source for this information is no longer available.
Paul Jones, 14 November 2005

The white dragon or wyrm is associated with Mercia. It is not, and never has been, the flag of Wessex.
David Robins, 22 January 2007

Possible Wessex Regional Flag - Proposed

[wessex] image by Tomislav Todorovic, 17 September 2016
Image derived from the SVG image of the flag of Wessex on Wikimedia Commons.

An early alternative flag proposal was seen on Somerset Live, dating from 1999, which shows a group of people at the Malmesbury Abbey in Wiltshire on St Aldhelm's Day (May 25th), displaying the current flag of Wessex, as well as a sheet of paper with the depiction of a flag clearly derived from that one: gold cross on red field with a gold wyvern in the canton. The image caption says that these two were "the standard and flag of Wessex", so perhaps the current flag was originally intended to be the banner of arms of Wessex. The flag with cross and wyvern seems to have quickly fallen out of use, if it had ever been used at all, for no other sources currently show it. Its design also resembles the flag of St Aldhelm and it is possible than one of these designs was influenced by the other one, but which of them is older, is currently impossible to say.
Tomislav Todorovic, 17 September 2016

Wessex Coat of Arms

[Wessex] image by Pete Loeser, 18 May 2021

This coat of arms was attributed by medieval heralds to the Kings of Wessex. They first appeared in a 13th century manuscript where they are described as "blazoned as Azure, a cross patonce (alternatively a cross fleury or cross moline) between four martlets Or." They were the coat of arms historically of King Edward the Confessor. The heraldic design continued to represent both Wessex and Edward and can be found on a number of church windows, the most famous being those at Westminster Abbey. It short, Wessex might be gone, but certainly not forgotten.
A question araises about the arms of Edward the Confessor. Most of the common descriptions I find state that his arms were "blazoned as Azure, a cross patonce between four martlets Or" yet the pictures used clearly show five birds. An example can be seen at Wikipedia: House of Wessex Coat of Arms. It clearly says "four martlets" - but shows five.
My attached illustration uses "5 doves" rather than "four martlets" - I'm not sure what the difference between the birds are. My source says: "Edward the Confessors Arms consist of a golden cross 'flory' and five gold doves on a blue shield; Azure, a cross flory or between five doves of the same.
Source: Heraldic Times: The Arms of Edward the Confessor.
Pete Loeser, 18 May 2021

I'm afraid to say (that whilst doves of various descriptions are not uncommon in English heraldry) these are definitely "martlets" in that a martlet is defined by (regardless of how the bird actual looks) having thighs but no visible legs.
A "cross patence" (not to be confused with a 'cross potent') is actually an early form of the "cross fleury" (see the DoV), so I would incline to the earlier form in description. I don't know how many years after Edward's death (1066) that these "attributed arms" began to appear, but the date must surely have a bearing on how the cross is blazoned?
Christopher Southworth, 21 May 2021

[wessex] image located by Pete Loeser, 21 May 2021
Illustration of arms in the Rous Roll, c1483-5. (source)

For reference, Edward the Confessor died in 1066 (just before the Norman Invasion). Some sources say the arms began to appear in the herald William Segar's Rolls starting as early as 1270-1280, so that might very well may explain the differences in the type of birds. I remember reading somewhere in my research that the earlier arms of the House of Wessex may have had less birds (as little as three), but I've misplaced it. However, the cross eventually became cross patoncé and the birds martlets and increased in number to five. Also, it must be remembered that these particular arms were attributed specifically to Edward the Confessor, not the Wessex family in general.
Source: The Obsessed Genealogist 2018.
Pete Loeser, 21 May 2021

I would guess that four was increased to five to correspond with the Five Wounds.
Will Linden, 21 May 2021

One could of course add something to the effect that the 200 year difference between the dates given could account for the difference between a 13th Century "cross patence" and a 15th Century "cross fleury", but it is hardly important. I agree that the five wounds of Christ and five martlets are connected, and indeed, Edward the Confessor was the only English King to be canonized so it makes a sort of sense (to the Medieval mind at least).
Christopher Southworth, 21 May 2021

Royal Wessex Coat of Arms

[Earl of Wessex Coat of Arms] Earl of Wessex    [wessex] Countess of Wessex
images located by Pete Loeser, 18 May 2021

The Earl of Wessex is a title that has been created only four times in English history. The first and second times were in Anglo-Saxon England when in 1019 Godwin was given the title and then later his son Harold Godwinson in 1053. The third time was by William the Conqueror for his knight William FitzOsbern in 1066, and the last time, in keeping with the tradition of a monarch's son receiving a title upon marriage, to Prince Edward of the House of Windsor in 1999. His wife Sophie became the Countess of Wessex.
Pete Loeser, 18 May 2021

Wessex Regiments

There are several units in the British Army that use the name Wessex. The Royal Wessex Yeomenry, the Wessex Regiment/Rifle Volunteers, and the 32nd Wessex Regiment Royal Artillery would be examples of this.

Royal Wessex Yeomenry Flag

[Royal Wessex Yeomenry Flag - commercial] image by Pete Loeser, 18 May 2021
Based on this commercial illustration.

The Royal Wessex Yeomanry (RWxY) is the United Kingdom's only regiment of part-time armoured soldiers. It is officially a Reserve armoured regiment of the British Army Reserve consisting of five squadrons. They can trace their history back to 1794 and the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry, but the modern Wessex Yeomanry was formed in 1971 from the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry, the Royal Gloucestershire Hussars and the Royal Devon Yeomanry squadrons. The Wessex Yeomanry was granted its royal title becoming the Royal Wessex Yeomanry, in 1979. Since 2013, the regiment has been the United Kingdom's only armoured reinforcement regiment providing trained armoured personal to man their main battle tanks of the regular army armoured regiments. The honorary Regimental Colonel is the Earl of Wessex, currently Prince Edward.
Be aware that this flag is a commercial offering, not the official regimental colours.
Pete Loeser, 18 May 2021

The Wessex Regiment - Rifle Volunteers Colours

[The Wessex Regiment - Rifle Volunteers]     [Wessex Regiment Volunteer Riflemen] images located by Pete Loeser, 18 May 2021
First image based on this photo minus the honours.

The Wessex Regiment was the Territorial Army infantry regiment of the British Army, in existence from 1967 to 1995. The regiment was formed as the Wessex Volunteers in 1967 as successors to the former Territorial Army infantry battalions of the regiments of the Wessex Brigade. They are the 1st Battalion, Wessex Regiment (Rifle Volunteers), and the 2nd Battalion, Wessex Regiment (Volunteers). Their motto on the first colours is "Their Land to Defend."
Pete Loeser, 18 May 2021