The so-called Jersey flag

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This article by Norman Rybot was first published in the 1961 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise


The following notes summarize the information I have been able to collect on the curious fate which, during the last three centuries, has overtaken the arms of the FitzGeralds, Earls of Kildare, a fate which first caused the arms to be shared improperly with the Kingdom of Ireland, then with the Knights of Saint Patrick and Union Flag, and lastly with the Bailiwick of Jersey where, unsupported by official recognition and historic justification, they are now known and flown in banner form as 'The Jersey Flag'.

19th century appearance

I have contributed to the publications of La Société Jersiaise and La Société Guernesiaise in the past 30 years many articles dealing with heraldic matters which concern, directly and indirectly, the study of insular armorial history and, in consequence, am able to assert that 'argent, a saltire gules' was of no local significance until 'The Jersey Flag' appeared here in the third decade of the 19th century.

In the engravings and paintings in the Museum of La Société Jersiaise, printed or painted between the years 1550 and 1830, 'The Jersey Flag' on land and sea will be sought in vain. The saltire, moreover, has no place in the fine collection of local Militia accoutrements (1790-1890) exhibited in the same institution; nor does it figure among the trophies of arms in the headings of our old newspapers or in the decorative designs which embellish the parochial and other bank-notes that formerly circulated in this island. The silver tokens issued by the States of Jersey in 1813 and the copper and bronze local coinage which began to be issued later in the century show no signs of it, and it receives no mention either in the Acts of the States of Jersey or in the records of the Jersey Chamber of Commerce (founded in 1768).

Lastly, I found that it was impossible to foist the saltire on to anyone of the Saints after whom the 12 ancient parishes of the island are named, for each had his own particular emblem, such as St Clement his anchor: St Lawrence his gridiron: St Peter his keys: St Saviour his crown of thorns: St John his eight-pointed cross: Saint Helier his axes; and so on.

Blundering Bowles

Having exhausted insular sources of information by 1936, and having refused to admit the validity of the undocumented evidence of local 'authorities' that the flag had been flown here from time immemorial and that its use had been sanctified by tradition, I sought and obtained from experts overseas extracts from the works of late 17th and early 18th-century Dutch cartographers wherein the words IERSE and IRLANDOIS stand for ERSE and IRISH respectively. This word IERSE, in spite of its context, was taken to mean JERSEY by the blundering Bowles in the very year in which the Most Illustrious Order of Saint Patrick was created and the saltire of the FitzGeralds wrongfully incorporated in its Jewel.

I shall not follow the saltire from Jewel to Jack, for that has been done so often by able writers, notably by W G Perrin in his British Flags. I intend only to trace the origin of Bowles's blunder and pursue its perpetuation from 1783 onward to the present century; a task I could not have accomplished had I not been helped by Mr J W Kells of the British Museum, Mr R A Skelton, Superintendent of the Map Room of the British Museum, Dr Ottfried Neubecker of Berlin, and Mr A. Thompson of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Ierse Irlandois

  • Extract from J W Kells' letter to me, dated 19 December 1936:
"I have consulted the early Dutch Atlases and find your description is correct. The flag appears in a miscellaneous collection of Dutch Charts by J Van Keulen, Amsterdam, 1720. I beg to enclose a very rough tracing."
  • Extract from R A Skelton's letter of 12 June 1950:
"The ultimate document in the series which leads to Bowles' curious error is the Neptune Francois, published at Amsterdam in 1693. Many copies of Vol 1 contain 12 large plates of flags, among which we find "Y rse Flagge Wit ". These illustrations were copied on a greatly reduced scale on the plate published by van Keulen, to which you refer; on this plate two flags are labelled "Ierse-Irlandois". This plate was copied by several other engravers and publishers, eg Peter Schenk (Amsterdam 1711), the Homann workshop, etc.; but the plate of van Keulen is evidently the prototype. Bowles could have fallen into his error by using any one of these plates.

The plate by van Keulen deserves a little further examination. It now forms part of a miscellaneous collection of charts of the Keulen family, conjecturally dated in the Museum catalogue 1720; but this plate must in its original form be considerably earlier. The sheet is, in fact, printed from two plates, the original one being of the normal Royal dimensions (20 in by 25 in) as found in atlasses. Internal evidence suggests that this plate was engraved before 1700, the date of the death of Charles II of Spain; the terminus post quem is, of course, 1693.

In the imprint at the end of the title the name and address of Gerard van Keulen have been engraved over an earlier name and address, which have been erased but can just be deciphered as those of Abraham Allard (1676-1725). This plate contains 16 columns of flags. At the right-hand side of the same sheet are printed a second plate about 6 in wide, four more columns of flags, headed by the title "A New Table of all the Ships collors." The first flag is the English Royal flag, entitled "Kon: George Vlag". The inference is plainly that some time after 1714 the original plate was acquired from Allard by van Keulen, who added his own imprint and the additions, bringing the picture up-to-date.

I have found the word "Ierse" in no earlier maps or atlases than those which I have named. These, however, may well have been current until the middle of the 18th century. We have found no cartographer making Bowles' error before his Universal Display, which is dated 1783.

  • Extract from O Neubecker's letter of 12 May 1950:
"the flag book by Jacques van den Kieboom of 1737 has the inscriptions only below the flags and only in French, but I possess the flagbook of Carel Allard, Amsterdam 1705, who says in his text, item 10: IERSE FLAG is wit, daar op een Rood St Andries-Kruis ..... The plates in de Vries book De doorlughtige Weereld, Amsterdam 1700, give the same flag but with the inscription "Yrland", while the text runs "Yrland heeft een witte Vlag, met een rood Andries Kruys".

Ierse Jersey

Having now, from information received, recorded the origins of Bowles' blunder, I turn to the blunder itself, which entered on its successful career when Carington Bowles published his first edition of the Universal Display of the Naval Flags of all Nations in 1783. In this work, the flag is presented to an uncritical world as 'The Jersey Flag' and is accepted as such, unchallenged, by publisher after publisher, as the following list, compiled by R A Skelton, shows:

  • Bowles and Carver: Universal Display etc, London, ND (must be post-1793)
  • W Heather: Flag chart, London, 1800
  • A Display of the Naval Flags of all Nations, London, Caxton Press, 1823
  • J W Norie Plates descriptive of the Maritime Flags of all Nations, London, 1838
  • J W Norie 306 illustrations of the Maritime Flags of all Nations, London, 1848
  • J W Norie 308 illustrations .... London, 1853,
  • R H Laurie The Maritime Flags of all Nations, London, 1861
  • R Siegel Die Flagge, Berlin, 1912

And to these I add one of Dr O Neubecker's contributions:

  • Depperman und Kuschke Flaggen Almanach, Hamburg, c1844

From the end of the 1780s to the present day, almanacs have been published by local printers or newspapers, and the Library of La Société Jersiaise possesses copies of most of them. At first little attention was paid by the editors to shipping; but as the industry developed, lists of vessels began to appear with their tonnage, description and owners' names. Illustrations of local signals, accompanied by engravings of merchants' house flags, eventually in colour, were provided. In 1818 the island owned only 77 vessels; but during the peak period, roughly 1855 to 1865, St Helier became the home port of no fewer than 387 vessels with a total tonnage of 38,882.

In addition to the almanacs, the Société has a large collection of gouache, watercolour and oil paintings of local vessels; but from none of these sources can it be proved that the flag achieved official recognition either at home or in foreign parts. A contributor to The Mariner's Mirror states that this distinction was granted it in 1906, but if he reads the Actes et Correspondance au sujet de l'emploi par le vapeur Duke of Normandy des pavilions distinctifs (States of Jersey, 1905-7), he will learn that the flag referred to was not 'The Jersey Flag', but a flag specially designed by the Admiralty for the States tug Duke of Normandy, ie the Blue Ensign with the shield of arms of England in the fly.

Whatever its acceptance as a maritime flag on the high seas, on land The Jersey Flag, from 1841 onward, established itself so firmly that it became the island's territorial flag and, as such, continues to be flown on official occasions from every State office and building, as well as from most of the business establishments in the town.

The evil done by Bowles lives after him. His flag was not interred with his bones.

The only person who has the right to fly this flag is His Grace the Duke of Leinster, whose arms are 'argent, a saltire gules'. Others will do so at their peril.
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