Flags of the North: a St George’s Day special

One of the objectives of the Hannah Mitchell Foundation is “to improve knowledge and understanding of the past, present and potential future socio-economic, cultural and political identity of the North and its constituent parts”. 

Flags were probably not front of mind when that objective was drafted, but flags are certainly all the rage at the moment in the Westminster politics/media circus.  They are one weapon being enthusiastically deployed by Boris Johnson’s Conservative party in their ‘culture war’ strategy aimed at consolidating their appeal to former UKIP/Brexit party-voting pensioners, and at teasing and tying up in knots the ‘under new management’ Labour party of Kier Starmer. 

Also keen to tease the new management of the Labour party are the lively young socialists of the new Northern Independence Party (NIP), who leaven their underlying serious purpose with a hefty dollop of social media mischief.  So what better time to stir things up a bit further with a map of the flags and emblems of the regions, counties and cities of the North of England, which is designed to stimulate debate?  Here’s the map:

Flags of the North’s counties and selected city emblems

On a more serious note…

The essay below discusses all the flags and emblems shown on the map, and in doing so dares to stake out a position in a number of fiercely contested territories along the way, including on the dangerous minefield that is pre-1974 versus post-1974 counties.  It is offered in a light-hearted spirit but does has its serious purpose: to provoke debate and thereby improve the level of knowledge and understanding of the North’s past, present and future identity.  

But there is another dimension that must be acknowledged.  Flags and colours ought to be a mostly harmless matter, but they aren’t always.  Just like the fans of two opposing football teams proudly waving their rival colours can be a wholesome experience which is positive all round, it can also degenerate into the nasty stuff.  Many people see something much darker behind the Tories’ current antics with union jacks.  Hard Brexit has landed the country in an economic and diplomatic mire, going nowhere and sinking alarmingly.  Flag games are symptomatic of a deeper, darker determination to hang on to power at any price.  Anybody living in the North, but particularly those from an ethnic minority, can feel unsettled: the Tories are adding quite a lot of fuel to the culture war fire now when they are under no threat – how low will they be prepared to go when if they ever get in a panic about losing power?  Boris Johnson doesn’t seem to have many scruples or limits. 

The Hannah Mitchell Foundation aims to promote a progressive concept of Northern regionalism.  A direct analogy is with the Scottish nationalists’ ‘civic nationalism’ as opposed to ‘blood and soil nationalism’.  Anybody who makes their home in Scotland can consider themselves a Scot, whatever their race, ethnicity and personal history.  The same applies to the North of England in progressive regionalism. In discussing and promoting Northern history and identity, including daft stuff about flags, the aim is not to exclude but to broaden the debate and welcome everyone in. 

Flags can be fun, but they can also cause harm: be responsible with them!

A flag for the whole North

There is no traditional official flag or emblem for the North of England, which is perhaps not surprising given that the last independent sovereign state in the North ended with the death of King Eric Bloodaxe in the year 954, and there was no political movement to create a new one until 2020. 

The concept of the North of England as a single region is less well-established than the concept of it as three regions or more.  However, the concept of England having regions at all is a contested matter.  The three administrative regions of North West England, North East England and Yorkshire & the Humber set up by John Major’s Conservative government in 1994 were a political football booted off the pitch by Eric Pickles of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government in 2011, before any of them had got as far as registering an official flag.

Yorkshireman Eric Pickles was as enthusiastic a culture warrior as his predecessor Eric Bloodaxe was a battlefield warrior, but his aim was to eradicate rather than empower the regions of England.  A member of the Westminster parliament for a constituency in Essex, he claimed to be a localist, and was a keen supporter of the establishment and popularisation of county flags for the historic counties of England.  However, he also ruthlessly wielded his centralised powers to deny local authorities the discretion to raise taxes locally to replace his swingeing austerity cuts to funding.  His political legacy remains an all-powerful centre and a crippled local government sector.

One unexpected side effect of the popularisation of county flags was the registration at the Flag Institute of a flag representing the ancient Kingdom of Northumbria, which waxed and waned in territorial extent but broadly covered the whole of what is now the three regions of the North of England from the 7th to the 10th century.  The flag has been adopted by the new Northern Independence Party, but the colours don’t belong to the NIP, they belong to the North. 

“The stripes of St Oswald”, the registered flag representing the ancient Kingdom of Northumbria

Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written at Jarrow and completed in the year 731, describes the banner of King Oswald of Northumbria (604-642) which was hung on his tomb, as being of stripes of gold and imperial purple.  Having spent his youth in exile in Argyll (the Scottish kingdom of Dalriata), Oswald reunited the Kingdom of Northumbria and ruled over a territory covering the whole of the North of England and more.  He brought St Aidan over from Iona to continue the conversion of Northumbria to Christianity and achieved the status of ‘Bretwalda’ or overlord of the whole island of Britain.  He was killed at Oswestry (Oswald’s tree) by the pagan King Penda of Mercia and immediately became venerated as a saint.  The registered flag is a warm yellow and carmine red, colours representing how the available dyes would have faded in those days.  

That’s not a bad pedigree for a flag, and it certainly compares favourably to England’s cross of St George, which commemorates a saint who may not have existed, and some say was rented from the Republic of Genoa for a fee by the King of England in the late middle ages as a means of helping protect English ships by borrowing Genoese prestige.

Flag of England
Flag of the Most Serene Republic of Genoa (‘La superba’)

The historic counties

The North of England is traditionally thought of as comprising seven historic counties: Cumberland, Northumberland, Westmorland, Durham, Lancashire, Yorkshire and Cheshire.  Or six, if you count Cheshire as being in West Mercia/the West Midlands, rather than in the North, which historically speaking, it is. 

The historic counties of the North (credit: Wikipedia)

These counties all have their own distinctive, specific history different to that of the counties of the rest of England.  They don’t fit so neatly into a ‘1066 and all that’ conception of William the Conqueror taking over a fully formed Kingdom of England, with all its counties as they are today. 

The name Cumberland (from the word ‘Cymry’) recalls the Welsh-speaking kingdoms of the Old North or Hen Ogledd, although it was mainly populated by Norse Vikings by 1066.  Northumberland, the land north of the Humber, recalls the ancient English Kingdom of Northumbria, which stretched from the Humber to the Firth of Forth, but was displaced from Yorkshire by the Danish Viking Kingdom of York in the 9th century.  Westmorland was a relatively late creation, being established in 1226.  The Kingdom of Scotland laid claim to both Northumberland and Cumberland until the Treaty of York of 1237, when the current border between England and Scotland was agreed.  

Durham was a bishopric rather than a normal English county.  Arguments over whether it was subject to the Sheriff of Northumberland were resolved in favour of the Bishop in 1293, and it became a county palatine, famously ruled over by a Prince Bishop who commanded his own private army, until Henry VIII put a stop to that in 1536.  Islandshire and Bedlingtonshire were exclaves within Northumberland belonging to Durham until as late as 1844. 

Lancashire was founded in 1182.  The title King or Queen of England has come as part of the job of being Duke of Lancaster since 1399, when Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Lancaster, seized the crown.  The current Duke of Lancaster is Elizabeth Windsor and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is a cabinet post in the British government, currently held by a person called Michael Gove. 

Cheshire was created as a shire by Edward the Elder in 920.  Its history is tied up with arrangements for governing the Welsh marches, and the title Earl of Chester is held by the Duke of Lancaster’s eldest son alongside the more widely known title of Prince of Wales. 

Yorkshire also has a proud history, but sadly there is no further space to relate it here.  The title Duke of York is traditionally bestowed on the Duke of Lancaster’s second son.  The current holder of the title is Andrew Windsor, a gentleman wanted for interview by the FBI in relation to a string of alleged sex offences. 

1974 and all that

The historic counties were established as administrative counties with elected county councils in 1889, under the provisions of the Local Government Act 1888.  Yorkshire had three county councils, one for each of its ridings: North, West and East.  

Under the Act, the other largest cities and towns (with populations of over 50,000) became self-governing ‘county boroughs’, separate from the counties.  In 1889 15 county boroughs were created in Lancashire, 8 in Yorkshire, 3 in Cheshire and Durham, and 1 in Cumberland and Northumberland and more were created as the years went on. 

As the 20th century progressed the North’s largest cities sprawled into continuous conurbations; neither the historic counties nor the independent county boroughs were ideal for their local government.  The Redcliffe-Maud Commission of 1966-69 came up with radical proposals which in the North would have created three ‘provinces’: the North East composed of 5 unitary authorities, Yorkshire composed of 10 unitary authorities and the North West composed of 2 metropolitan areas and 6 unitary authorities.  The proposals were too radical and were campaigned against by the Conservative party, which won the 1970 election. 

The rejected 1969 Redcliffe-Maud proposals (credit: Wikipedia)

Instead the Local Government Act 1972 brought in a different set of reforms, which came into force on 1 April 1974.  In the North, there was a new geography of 12 counties: 5 metropolitan counties –  Merseyside, Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire and Tyne & Wear, and 8 shire counties – Northumberland, Durham, Lancashire, Cheshire, North Yorkshire, and the new shire counties of Cumbria, Cleveland and Humberside.  The new county of Cumbria was a merger of Cumberland and Westmorland plus the additional of ‘Lancashire north of the sands’ and chunks of Yorkshire West Riding.  Cleveland was based on the Tees estuary and Humberside on the Humber estuary, its two halves joined by the Humber Bridge. 

Traditionalists hated it, but the new councils were quite good at their job, although the two tier structure of counties and districts did create new frictions.

Despite the great progress they had made, the metropolitan county councils were abolished in 1985 in an incredibly gross act of vandalism by the Thatcher government.  In effect they were abolished as cover for the abolition of the real target, Ken Livingstone’s left wing Greater London Council.  The Major government made further reforms in 1996 which abolished the unpopular Cleveland and Humberside county councils and upgraded their constituent districts to unitary authorities.  It also restored some old county boroughs as unitary authorities, including Warrington, Blackpool, Blackburn, York and Darlington.  However, the new county of Cumbria was left untouched. 

The concept of the ‘ceremonial county’ was introduced, which allowed the districts of the abolished counties of Humberside and Cleveland to be restored to the counties of Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and Durham respectively.  The five new metropolitan counties of 1974 were retained as ceremonial counties (despite having no county council) and the boundary changes of 1974 were also kept.  The North therefore comprises 11 ceremonial counties: Northumberland, Tyne & Wear, Durham, Cumbria, Lancashire, Cheshire, Merseyside, Greater Manchester, North Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire and the East Riding of Yorkshire.  

Traditionalists dislike it, but a case can be made that the boundaries of the ceremonial counties do in some cases match up to real local identities and loyalties better than the historic counties do.  This is certainly the case for younger people born long after 1974 and all that.  The next section describes the choices made on the map, and attempts to justify them.  Give me a hearing! 

1974 boundary changes: territorial gains and losses, Lancashire (credit: Wikipedia)

The map and its flags and emblems 


This is an easy one.  The Northumberland county flag represents the stripes of St Oswald as discussed above, but has an alternating pattern that was adopted as part of Northumberland County Council’s coat of arms in 1951 and registered as the county flag in 1995.  The flag is well known and popular in the county and in recent years has been flown on the border with Scotland at Carter Bar in preference to the flag of England. 


This is also an easy one.  The flag harks back to the county’s ecclesiastical heritage and comprises the cross of St Cuthbert on the county’s well-established existing colours of blue and yellow.  The design won a competition for a new flag for the county and was adopted in 2013.


This is the first less easy one.  I have decided not to represent the ceremonial county of Tyne and Wear on the map.  However, there is clearly both a Tyneside and a Wearside urban identity that is different to that of the historic counties.  The largest city and the traditional regional capital of the area is Newcastle-upon-Tyne and so I have put it on this map. The city dates back to Roman times and the bridge over the Tyne called Pons Aelius. The “new castle” was actually built in 1080. The town was chartered in 1175, had its own Mayor from 1216 and was given the status of being a county in its own right from 1400, although its jurisdiction excluded the castle.  It didn’t actually formally become a city until 1882.  Two seahorses have been the bearers of Newcastle’s coat of arms since 1575, and they symbolise the city’s seafaring prowess.

People from the wider Tyneside area associate with a Newcastle identity, but those in Wearside do not.  There isn’t room to show Sunderland on the map so the map permits them to associate themselves with their old county of Durham.


The White Rose is the long-established symbol of the county. It is of course famous as the symbol of the House of York during the Wars of the Roses (1455-1487). The white rose was adopted by the first Duke of York, Edmund, the fourth son of King Edward III, in contrast to the red rose adopted by John of Gaunt, the third son of Edward III and the first Duke of Lancaster. The county flag of the white rose on a light blue background dates from the 1960s and was registered in 2008. It’s a popular and widely adopted flag in Yorkshire. I took the decision not to represent either the three historic ridings of Yorkshire or the four current ceremonial counties of Yorkshire on the map. Instead I have represented four cities which I think have a special urban identity within Yorkshire.


Middlesbrough is not in fact a city; appropriately ‘Boro’ is a borough.  It was the largest town and administrative centre of the short-lived county of Cleveland (1974-96), and is now a unitary authority within the Tees Valley Combined Authority area.  Middlesbrough was a hamlet with a population of just 40 in 1829.  It was developed as a company town and its population grew to 7,600 in 1851 and 90,000 by 1901.  It became a municipal borough in 1853 and a county borough in 1889.  Middlesbrough actually abolished itself and became a part of Teesside County Borough jointly with Stockton and Redcar from 1968-74, but it was re-established again in 1974.  Its name even eventually got back on to road signs.    

Teesside is an identity which is definitely separate from that of the rest of Yorkshire, and is also separate from that of the North East region as well.  Although Cleveland was not a popular county name, the Tees Valley Combined Authority area (which also includes Darlington) seems to fit the sub-region well.  However, it is not a ceremonial county, so I have decided to represent Middlesbrough on the map. Its emblem is the blue lion rampant of the de Brus family, landowners in the Cleveland area and founders of Gisborough Abbey.  A member of the extended family, Robert de Brus, went on to become a rather famous King of Scotland. 


Kingston-upon-Hull was founded by King Edward I in 1299.  It became a leading North Sea port, was incorporated with its own Mayor in 1440 and became a city in 1897.  Its symbol of three ducal coronets is supposed to symbolise the “three kings of the Orient” of the bible story who travelled and traded widely.  This emblem is shared with the city of Cologne.


Sheffield was first chartered in 1297, became a municipal borough in 1843 and a city in 1893.  Its ancient emblem is the “sheaf of arrows” representing the city’s metalworking tradition.  The bearers of its coat of arms are the metalworking gods Vulcan and Thor. Sheffield is historically part of the West Riding of Yorkshire but became part of South Yorkshire in 1974.  South Yorkshire is definitely a real identity but I have decided to represent Sheffield on the map.  The mayoral combined authority is currently called ‘Sheffield City Region’, as a result of its attempts during the 2010s (ultimately unsuccessful) to add parts of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire to its territory.


Leeds is originally the name of an area rather than a city: Bede mentions a church in “the region which is called Loidis”.  But a town did eventually grow up which was incorporated as a borough in 1626 and became a city in 1893.  Its emblem is a golden fleece (which looks more like a dead sheep), representing its status as a mecca of the wool trade.  The city’s coat of arms is supported by two owls.  However, I have not used an owl as the symbol of Leeds, as it may get confused with Sheffield Wednesday FC, whose nickname is The Owls.  The owls also came from the emblem of the local Savile family, some of whose members are less well thought of than they used to be. 

The North West

Enough teasing of West Yorkshire.  The North West is where the map gets more difficult.  In the North West the map also represents the post-1974 county boundaries for Lancashire, Cheshire and Cumbria, but not the ceremonial counties of Greater Manchester and Merseyside, which are represented as Manchester and Liverpool.  


Traditionalists would argue that the historic counties of Cumberland and Westmorland should be represented on the map.  The two historic counties had flags officially registered in 2011 and 2012, and they are good ones.  However, the new identity of Cumbrian is widely liked, and the new county fits the geography better with the whole of the Lake District, coast and Eden Valley coming under one county.  Arguably the identity of ‘Lancashire north of the sands’ has been lost, and there are not many left in a pub in Coniston who would say they were in Lancashire, not Cumbria.  The flag of Cumbria has blue, green, white and yellow, supposedly representing the sea, the lakes, the mountains and the fields of Cumbria.  The flowers are the red and white roses, representing the parts of historic Lancashire and Yorkshire incorporated into Cumbria, whilst the parnassus flowers (a flower also known more prosaically as the bog star) represent Cumberland.      


Lancashire is represented by the red rose of the House of Lancaster. After that it gets more difficult.  Lancashire’s portrayal in this map is offensive to the Friends of Real Lancashire, some Scots, all Yorkshire folk, and the Flag Institute.  So be it – I’ll tek you all on.  The flag of Lancashire that was familiar to cricket fans at Old Trafford was a red rose with two layers of five petals on a white background.  The Flag Institute refused to let this be registered as the flag of Lancashire on the grounds that the small Scottish town of Montrose had already taken it – a montrosity of a decision.

 Instead a dog rose on a yellow background was registered instead, which I have not used as I find it aesthetically less pleasing.

The boundaries of Lancashire represented also have no official status.  The Lancashire/Yorkshire boundary shown is the post-1974 one in which the Forest of Bowland belongs to Lancashire for no better reason than it is surely the right thing to do.  The territory north of the Mersey in Warrington and Widnes that was lost to Cheshire in 1974 should also be depicted as white on the map, but the map’s designer had got fed up of making fiddly changes, so it isn’t. 


The Redcliffe-Maud report’s name for Greater Manchester was ‘Selnec’: South East Lancashire North East Cheshire.  The boundary between historic Lancashire and Cheshire was along the Rivers Mersey and Tame, which meant that the boundary ran through urban areas in places like Stockport, Ashton and Stalybridge.  The intention of the map is to obscure this complexity by hiding it all behind the emblem for Manchester, the bee.  Madchester has a massive popular identity which many people beyond the boundaries of the city proper identify with.  Greater Manchester, less so.

Although it was originally a Roman fort, Manchester had no ancient municipal corporation and famously sent no MP to the Westminster parliament until the Great Reform Act of 1832 by which time its population was 142,000.  It became a city in 1853.  The bee emblem represents Manchester mills and factories as hives of industry.  The bee also stands for Boddington’s beer. 


Three wheatsheaves have been a symbol of Cheshire since the 12th century, although the county is more associated with dairy farming than wheat.  The golden sword represents Cheshire’s former status as a county palatine, dispensing its own justice.  Historic Cheshire was quite extensive stretching from the Wirral to the Woodhead Pass in the Pennines. At certain times it also included large tracts of North East Wales. 


The borough of Liverpool was founded in 1207, sent MPs to the Westminster parliament from 1547, and became a city in 1880.  The city’s symbol, the Liver bird, was originally an eagle on the city’s medieval seal, but it was badly drawn and began to be thought of and represented as a sea cormorant or ‘lever bird’ more appropriate for a seafaring city.  The ceremonial county of Merseyside is not represented on the map, and the name Liverpool City Region is used nowadays. Just like Greater Manchester, the identity of Liverpool extends beyond the boundaries of the city proper, but some people prefer their old Lancashire or Cheshire identity.  The map deliberately blurs this boundary so that people can choose.  Would Lily Savage of Birkenhead consider herself a Scouser or a Real Wife of Cheshire?  A bit of both perhaps – the idea of the map is that she can choose. 

Let the debate begin

So there it is, a salvo on the geography, identity and symbols of the North, offered up for debate and refinement.  There’s no doubt that it’s a bugger’s muddle.  But within that context, all feedback gratefully received.

Flags aside, possibly every Northerner – including every adopted Northerner who has moved into the region(s) and every Northerner-in-exile who has moved out – has an essay in them about their particular Northern identity, how it makes them feel and (hopefully) how it might spur them to act in the political arena to make the North a better place.  I know I do, I’ve been trying to write it for 15 years. 

If you have an essay to share or something to say about Northern identity, flags, or anything else in this space, please do send it to us at the Hannah Mitchell Foundation.  The good ones we will print and, if there’s a demand for it, hold a discussion event on the whole issue.  

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