Five hundred years before the arrival of Columbus in the New World, Eric the Red is supposed to have guided his ships, square-sailed, decorated with curiously carved figureheads, and manned by hardy Norsemen, to the shores of Vinland (Labrador, or Nova Scotia, or the New England coast), and there planted for a brief period this flag with the strange device of “a Raven, with wings extended and open bill, upon a white ground.”
Brief History of the Raven Flag of the Vikings
The raven flag was flown aboard Viking longships by various Viking chieftains and other Scandinavian rulers during the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries.
So far as may be judged from the scanty records that remain, the ancient inhabitants of these islands do not seem to have known the use of flags until the Romans made them acquainted with their military signa. Adopted by the Saxons either directly from the Romans before they left their homes on the continent or from the Britons whom they subdued, flags formed, from the seventh century onwards, an important part of the regalia. Speaking of Eadwin King of Northumbria, under date 628 A.D., the Venerable Bede says:
His dignity was so great throughout his dominions that banners (vexilla) were not only borne before him in battle, but even in time of peace when he rode about his cities and towns or provinces the standard bearer was wont to go before him. And when he walked about the streets that sort of standard which the Romans call Tufa, and the English Tuuf, was borne before him .”
A few years later, on the translation of the bones of King Oswald, the royal vexillum of purple and gold (auro et purpura composition) was placed above the tomb, a practice that was followed through many centuries.
The Saxons of Wessex adopted as their principal war standard the dragon, which in various forms was destined to appear at many crucial moments in English history. At the battle of Burford in 752, according to Henry of Huntingdon, the Wessex standard was a golden dragon, while the Mercians used the vexillum .
The Danish Vikings, who commenced their descents upon the southern coasts of England in the middle of the ninth century, had as their ensign a raven embroidered in a flag, which appears to have been used for divination. In the year 878 Hubba the brother of Hingwar and Halfdene, with 23 ships… sailed to Devon, wherewith 1200 others he met with a miserable death, being slain before the castle of Cynuit . There (the Christians ) gained a very large booty, and amongst other things, the flag called Raven , for they say that the three sisters of Hingwar and Hubba, daughters of Lodobroch, wove that flag and got it ready in one day. They say moreover that in every battle wherever that flag went before them if they were to gain the victory a live raven would appear flying in the middle of the flag, but if they were doomed to be defeated it would hang down motionless, and this often proved to be so .
From this description, it is clear that the raven flag was attached by one side to staff, instead of by the top to a crosspiece like the Roman vexillum. We meet with it next at the beginning of the eleventh century, when the Danish hordes again invaded England under Sweyn and Cnut and conquered it. The anonymous author of the Encomium of Queen Emma, the wife of Cnut, gives a description of the flag and attributes to its magical properties, in which he is good enough not to expect his readers to believe. He says:
For they had a flag of wondrous portent, which, though I may well believe this to be incredible to the reader, yet because it is true I will mention it in this truthful account. Of a truth, although it was woven of quite plain white silk and there was no image of any kind in it, yet in time of war there always appeared in it a raven, as though it was woven thereon, which when its own party was victorious appeared with open beak, shaking its wings and moving its legs, but when that party was defeated, very quiet and with its whole body hanging down (toto corpore de missus) .
Possibly this flag was triangular, for in the early years of the tenth century the Viking kings of Northumbria introduced into the reverse of their coins a triangular flag affixed laterally to a staff . The top edge of this was horizontal and the lower, which was inclined upward from the staff, was heavily fringed. In the field was a small cross, which had—possibly under the influence of a nominal Christianity replaced the raven, although that bird is found on the obverse of some of the later coins . These coins are of especial interest to us as they contain the earliest representation of a flag of any of the northern nations. This triangular flag appears first in a coin of Sihtric, who, after being driven from Dublin by the Irish in 920, reigned at York and died about 927, and later in a coin of Regnald (King of Northumbria in 943) and upon coins of Anlaf (949-952) .
It is about this period that flags first become associated with particular saints. Among the treasures sent by Hugh the Great, Duke of the Franks, to King, Athelstan in 927 was a banner of St. Maurice, which is said to have been of especial assistance to Charlemagne in his Spanish wars. We do not know what form this banner took, presumably it was a representation of the saint, but it is of especial significance to us that this saint had been a soldier, for it enables us in some measure to understand why St. George had such an extraordinary vogue a few centuries later.
At the battle of Assandune (1016) in which the English under Eadmund Ironside was defeated by the Danes under Sweyn and Cnut, the Raven was opposed to the Dragon and to another ensign described as a “Standard.” This is the first occasion on which an English king appears in the field with two different “standards,” and it is of interest to note that his place in battle was between them.
1 Beda, Historia Ecclesiastica, u, 137. For Tufa, see ante, p. 11.
2 Historia Anglorum: “Aciebus igitur dispositis, cum indirect urn tendentes appropinquarent, Edelhun praecedens West sexenses, regis insigne draconem scilicet aureum gerens, transforavit vexilliferum hostem.”
3 Probably Combwich, vide Major, Early Wars of Wessex, 1913.
4 Under the Devon earldorman Odda, Alfred being then in hiding at Athelney.
1 “Vexillum quod Reafun Dominant.” Cf. the A. S. Chronicle.
2 Asser, Life of King Alfred.
3 Emrnae Reginae Anglorum Encomium, lib. II.
Anlaf seems to have lived alternately in Ireland, Scotland, and Northumbria, and to have been King of Dublin in 945. On his final expulsion from Northumbria in 952, he returned to Ireland, and after the battle of Tara in 980 became a monk at lona. See Todd, War of the Gaedhil with the Guill (Rolls Series).