Taken from Military Observations for the Exercise of the Foot by Thomas Venn - 1670.
The Original and beginnings of Ensigns and Colours.
Of this Subject I have never thought to have spoken any thing, but this last Summer perceiving most Ensigns (having the Honour assigned them by Commission) knew but little what belonged to their Office; and think it a thing of little or no difficulty, but only a Rag or Mark, which any man may carry, so it be born up, or swung about mens ears, and sometimes in the teeth of such which are next unto them.
And for the Election of these Officers by some new Commissionated Captains; It is not ny the greatness of his skill, but the largeness of his body; not how able he is in his mind, but how strong he is in his Arms; not what his Spirit, Activity, Dexterity, but what is his wealth, and how near he is allyed to the Captain in blood, friendship, or service; or some other beholdingness to him, for this piece of Honour: As if this place deserved nothing else, but a meer man, or some Friend: For when shall you see an Ensign almost in any Imployment, more than in ordinary Marches, or standing still, and observing other mens Actions? When shall you see either Captain or Lieutenant, teach the Ensign his Postures, or the Dignity of his Place, his demeanour before Kings, Princes and Potentates; and other his subjection to his Superiors; his State and Gard to his Equals, and his Humanity and Courtesie to his Inferiors.
I am sure that some are so far from making inquiry after these discoveries that you shall see some Ensigns let fly their Colours, when they should sink them; and some to stoop them to Pesants or Comrades, when Superiors have gone unsaluted: There are a great many other absurdities, but I shall hereby endeavour a Reformation; although it may not be to the satisfaction of all, yet I will lay open and plain what I know of these Concerns, as not to puzzle him who is desirous to learn, not lull asleep with amazement the weakest capacity.
Therefore in the first place I shall endeavour to declare the Original and first beginnings of Ensigns (or Colours) in the Wars, and how they have grown up by succession, and continue as now they are.
It's true, that the Antient Historians and Heathen Writers, hold divers Opinions, touching the first beginnings of Ensigns: Some deriving of them (especially the old Poets) from Hercules; in imitation of his Lyons skin: Others take the beginning from Perithous, the Companion of Hercules in imitation of his inchanted shield; whereon was painted the head of the Monster Gorgon; on which whoever gazed was instantly transformed into a stone: But these fictions are more moral than true.
There be others which suppose, that the first Ensign was born or carried before Theseuss, when he went to combate with Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, whom he bravely conquered and afterward married.
Now as these, so many other writers suppose divers other beginnings of this Mystery: Some lay it upon Mercury, because of his Caduceus: Some upon Vulcan, when he forged Mars a Shield, and an Armour; and some upon Jupiter, whose Ensign was Thunder and Lightning.
But those which go much nearer the Truth ascribe the beginning of this Dignity unto Tubalcain the Son of Lamtech, who painted in an Ensign the whole History of his Fathers Actions and Conquests, when he conquered (or rather tyrannised over) his weaker Neighbours: And that after him Japhet the Son of Noah, did the like, and caused his Actions to be painted out, and born before him in an Ensign.
But upon the credit of these old Poets, Historians and Rabbins, we may not rely, but must fly to the truth iself; which is ever a faithful and a constant Warrant.
We find in holy Writ that the greatest Chieftain that ever led Army upon the Earth was Moses, the great servant of the great God; He was truly Dux a Duke, a Leader, such a Duke and such a Leader, as after him (Christ excepted) was never the like seen in the World; and the Army which he lead, was the greatest, strongest, and most fortunate in Number, Power, and in all manner of hazardous Actions, that ever the World saw, or the Sun shined upon.
Now we find this Duke, this Prince over Israel, by the holy appointment of God himself was the first that began true Martial Discipline; for as himself was General over that huge Body; so for the disposing and governing of every particular member, he constituted and appointed several Colonels over the several Tribes, and under every Colonel several Captains, as Commander in Chief over particular Companies, who as Inferiors did execute the Commands of their Superiours, and had also executed under them, by others, whatsoever they lawfully commanded, that was for the good and benefit of the Army. As thus he divided the twelve Tribes into twelve war-like Bodies; so also he ordained them several Ensigns or Banners, charged with twelve Marks of Divisions, under which they marched; which by solemn oath and protestation they were bound to guard and follow in all places and all dangers.
By these Ensigns and tokens of Honour, the Tribes were first of all distinguished and known one from another; and by the carriage of them in the field, and their waving and prospects in there several places, was the dignity of place and precedency of greatness first known; the Elder being distinguished by his Ensign or Mark from the younger, the greater from the less, the eminent and more superiour from those of lower rank and inferiour.
Although we have a large Basis to superstruct our imitations upon, yet there was not the general use of Ensigns then, as now there is; for these Ensigns were due only to the great Colonel, or chief head of the Tribes, not to every particular Company, but to one Tribe was allowed but one Ensign, and after one manner and form; so as Simeon may not carry that of Levi, nor Levi that of Judah; but were tied to their own Colours: Also if that one Tribe were divided in to many Bodies, yet did they not carry several Ensigns, but every Body the Ensign of his own Tribe; so that Companies were not distinguished by their Captains or Chiefs, but by their Tribe; not there marches Aaron, but there marches the Tribe of Levi; and thus of the rest.
Hence, and from this ground was taken up the use of Ensigns, or Banners of Kingdoms, by which several Armies display to the World their several Nations; as with us in England, we have the Ensign of St. George, (as we term it) which is a bloody Cross in a white field, which shews to the world not what private Company I follow, but what King I serve, and what County I acknowledge; for howsoever private Captains are allowed their Ensigns for private respects or distinctions; yet they are not allowed (or to be born on foot) without this general Ensign of this Kingdom: for thus it holdeth in all Christian Kingdoms, and amongst the Turks also, as appeareth by their Cressant or Half Moon in all their Armies, as the Ensign of their Universal Monarchy.
Thus you see Moses first (and that by the Commandment of God himself) began Ensigns, which by succession of time, descended and came down with a more general use, and made Kings of many spatious and fruitful Countries; they took liberty to alter their Ensigns, according to their own fancies: The glory thereof when it came to the eares of the Gręcians and Macedonians (for Alexander is supposed to reign in the time of the Maccabees) they took to themselves a lawful imitation thereof, and so commanded their Captains, etc. to carry in their Ensigns, Devices in honour of their Renown and Conquests.
Then from the imitations of then Gręcians, the Romans took to themselves the carriage of Ensigns; and because they found it the chiefest beauty and ornament of Armies, they made it therefore the noblest and richest spoil which could possibly be taken from the Enemy; and so made it an hereditary right for any man that should take (in honourable fashion) such spoyls, ever after to bear them, as his own, to him and his Posterity for ever.
The Romans first brought this custom into the Monarchy of Great Britain, when Cęsar first invaded and got footing into the same: Howsoever there is an opinion taken that Brute, when he first conquered this Island, brought in the Trojan Ensigns, and other Ornaments of their Wars; yet it is certain that through Civil Dissentions, and other Forreign Combustions, all these Honourable Marks were lost and forgotten, and only the Romans renewed and brought them back into memory, partly by their glory and example, and partly by their loss when they repulsed back; who left behind them many of these spoyls to adorn the Britains: From these times hath the use of Ensigns remained amongst us; and as the Ages have succeeded, and proved wiser and wiser, and one time more than another, so hath the alteration of these Emblems (or Ensigns) changed and brought themselves into form wherein they are at this instant carried; as the Romans, and the Danes from the Saxons: But the French the n being the most refined Nation of all other, altering from them all; and now the English have altered all into the present mode of Uniformity, they may display them to the World for their Gallantry.
The Definition of Ensigns.
After the Original, Antiquity, and first beginning hath been endeavoured to be made to appear; I shall now descend to the definition and distinction of them; and by what proper names they were called in the best and most renowned Wars of Christendom, and for what reason they have held and retained them.
To begin with the first and most ancient name belong to Ensigns, I think it not amiss to borrow it from the Romans; for although the Hebrews, Chaldeans and Gręcians, were the first Inventors, yet the Names and Attributes they gave them, were much incertain and unconstant, and as the experience of Wars grew great, and as the Invention dilated and spread further, so did the signification alter; for what was proper and substantial in this Age, in the next was utterly lost and forgotten, so as I shall not rest upon these Titles and significations.
The first then that retained a constant and firm settled name for those Trophies of Honour, is taken to be the Romans, who indeed being the greatest Schoolmasters in the Art of War, are the most worthy to be held for Imitation or Authority.
The name which the Romans first gave the Ensign, or him that carried the Ensign (for to the man was ever attributed the Contents of the thing he carried) was Insigne, or Sign bearing, (and so Ensign-bearer) because they carried in those Ensigns, Marks, Empressaes or Emblems, best agreeing with their natures and condition, according to their own Inventions; or else the Pourtraictures of their former Battles and Conquests; either of which was so honourable, that indeed they were made Hereditary; descending down to their Children, from Generation to Generation: And no more were called Signs, etc. but Coat-Armour, or the Honour of the Families; nor were they of slight or ordinary esteem, as at first; nether had men liberty any longer to make election of them at their own Wills, but this power was incabinated within the breast of Emperours, Kings and Generals, who indeed (under God) are the unbounded Oceans of Honour, they only have liberty of bestowing and confirming Honour at their own pleasures.
Hence it came that Ensigns thus carrying of Coat-Armours, were of such reverend esteem, that men took it for the honourable place that might be, to fall near of about the Ensign; and for defence of it, no hazzard could be too great, nor any torment insupportable: So that many times the Zeal of those that did defend these Ensigns, etc. and the inflamed desire or greediness of those which fought to conquer and achieve them, was so immeasurable and unbounded, only for the purchase of one of these honourable Trophies.
This when the wisdom of the Romans perceived, and that those Insignias were not Bugbears to affright, but rather fires, which did inflame their Enemies courage beyond their proper natures; they forthwith forbad the carrying of any Coat-Armour or Devices in their Ensigns; but only such slight inventions, as might not make the Enemy much richer by the enjoyment thereof, nor themselves much the poorer by their loss.
And hence it followed that the word Insignia was put out of use, and they then called the Ensign Antesignia, and made other Devices contrary to all Coat-Armour; intimating to the Enemy that whatsoever they got by those purchases, was dishonourable rather than any way worthy of Triumph: And from this word Antesignia, or Antesigne, (for it hath been so written in antient records) it hath been judged that this word Antient in many places used amongst us, and given to out Ensigns, hath been corruptly retained by us; for it hath no coherence in signification, nor can any way be alluded unto this Officer, more than to Antiquity and long standing in the Wars.
But this did not quench any flame in the Enemy, for the Romans found them every way as eager in pursuit of these weak and fained Devices, as the greatest hereditary Coat-Armour they could carry; for when in any skirmish Fortune made them Masters thereof, they took as great Pride, as if they has subdued whole Armies, and bare them with as much Pomp and Triumph, as if they had got all Rome in subjection: which the wisdom of the Romans, and other Nations looking into, it presently became a custom among all Armies, that thence forth, no Foot Company or Chieftain of the Infantry should carry in his Ensign any Coat-Armour or other Device what ever, more than the mixture, or true composition of two colours, together with the general Ensign of the Kingdom in the most eminent corner thereof. (Read Markham's Soudiers Accidence) And after this time the Romans called their Ensign-bearers no more Antesignia, or Antesigne; but of later only Signifier, from Significo, to signifie a thing, as being men of special note and regard; and that the thing signifying was only a Mark of much Honour etc.
The Spaniards and Italians that took all their imitation from the Romans, who were their great Lords and masters, do at this day call this Officer Alseres, and make account of him next unto their Captains, not suffering any second to step between them.
The Dutch call this Officer Vandragon, or Vandragar, which holdeth with the same significations.
And we of England properly call him Ensign, and in some Countries Antient: The first from the thing he carrieth, and the latter from the Honour and Antiquity of the Institution: And both may well be agreeing with the first Titles, conceiving better cannot be invented.
The Original of Horse and Horse Colours.
Having treated of the definition and signification of the several names which belong to the Ensignes of Foote, I will now take leave to speak a little to the Colours or marks of Honour that are born on Horseback; which I find by experienced Souldiers to be full as ancient or rather more than those which belong to the Foot Companies.
But omitting all prophane Opinions and vain circumstances, I find when the children of Israel passed through the Red Sea, how they were pursued by Pharaoh, and all hist Host, which did consist most of Chariots (which in those days were accounted Horsemen) and very properly too) because being drawn by the violent force of Horse, and laden with strongest and best experienced Souldiers, they had a double power to enter into Battalias to difrank and break their array, and to make their Enemies to run into a rout and confusion; and though they had not the use of our Discipline, nor the true managing of the Horse as we have, yet all their pirpose and intents in the use of Chariots, were to the same ends, to which at this day our Horse are applyed.
To these Chariots belonged Colours, or Ensignes of Martial Honours; which were called Standards or Standarts, or the Kings Emperial Trophie: Indeed these were nothing so general, as those on Foot, but more precious and reserved, as an Attribute only belonging to the King and not to any other.
These Standards were charged with the Kings Emperial Coat-Armour, and usually born by a prince or some man of high place and dignity, the imitation whereof we still pursue and follow at this day, giving it a superiority above all other Ensignes.
After the use of the Chariots was found out the use of Elephants a, warlike beast and of all other the strongest; for these carried certain little artificial Houses (in the form of Castles) on their backs in which were some few experienced Souldiers placed with warlike Ensignes, and weapons by which they overthrew the Foot Companies and made passage through them in despight of all opposition; as you shall read in the History of Porus King of India.
Not long after the Exercise of Elephants, was found out the use of the single Horse, and in those Countries where Horses were most frequent, as in Arabia, Parthia, Persia, and Seythia, for the Asian parts; in Barbary, Egypt and Carthage, for the parts of Africa; and with us in Europe, in Russia, Muscovia, Poland Hungary, Italie, but principally and above all the rest in France, who were accounted in ancient time the flower of warlike Horsemen, both in number and discipline; therefore from them hath been taken our Authority and examples: But now I concive we may not go so far for either, referring for satisfaction to the present mode of Discipline in England, for his Majesties Horse now in Command it is thought none can exceed them.
I have read of a Guydon used with the light Horse in former times: Antiquity tells us of Gentlemen at Armes, Launciers and light Horsemen.
In the old Wars the Gentlemen at Armes belonged to the Kings own person, or in his absence to his General only; and the Empresa of honour that they followed was the Kings Standard Royall, being Damask and charged with his Coat-Armour.
The Launciers they had their Cornet to follow, which Devices in them according to their commanders pleasures.
And then the Light-hors-men had their Guydon which was somewhat long and sharp at the end but with a slit which made it double pointed much like to our late Dragoneers; but for these Guydons I need not stand upon, only to shew all along there were Horse Colours, as Ensignes of honour used. And now the Cornets being most in use with us in England, for the Horse service I need not decypher the length or breadth of them.
Of the Dignitie of Ensigns.
Of the Disgraces to the Ensigne.
There are as many disgraces that belong to the Ensign as dignities; I shall for brevity sake mention some few: all which must proceed from mistakes on one of these three, Unskilful composure, Negligent government, or Reflex actions.
Of the right use and ordering of the Ensign or Colours; With the Postures and Flourishes thereunto belonging.
As to my best Remembrance, I have given you a Catalogue of the Disgraces, so I shall here insert as to my knowledge the true use of the Ensign, whereby those injuries may be avoided.
To proceed to the Postures of the Ensign.
They are in general as followeth, so well as I can express them ; for they are better in execution, and to be taught be example, than any pen can describe them.
And if it be your pleasure to be compleat in the Exercise of them, you go back to the tenth, and to conclude with the first.
And in your conclusion I have seen some to furl them up as they display them, and so to open them again.
But to furl them up in the field it is most ridiculous.
Others there are that I have seen to round them oftentimes about their middles, but I cannot justifie it upon any Military account.
Others I have seen, that thinking to display their Colours bravely delivered them from hand to hand under leg; I must boldly inform such as use it, that 'tis a debasement to the Captains Colours, and an unworthy Act in the performers of it.
I told you of some particular Postures and proper for the Ensign-bearer to observe.
The retiring or retreiting posture is a mixture compounded of the three former; for in the first retreit, or drawing away of the Company, he shall use the posture of marching : but if the Enemy press near upon him, he shall stand upon his guard, and use the posture of charging ; and in fine, having quit himself of danger, he shall use the standing posture a little, and then march or troop away, according to the directions of the commander.
And lastly, when the Ensign returns from the field, and is lodged; in former times the Lieutenant had the Vanguard; but I shall not insist upon, because I have observed it to be left off by able Souldiers.
The Captain leading them out of the field, coming near the place intended to lodge his Colours, Converts the ranks of Musquetteers of both divisions to the right and left outwards and joyns them; being so fixed, the body of pikes stand in the reer, and the Ensign in the head of them, the Captain before the Colours, with the Drums and Serjeants guarding the Colours on each side, and the Lieutenant behind, the Ensign-bearer, and all being advanced, shall troop up with the Colours furl'd to his lodging or quarters; and as he approacheth thereto, he shall with a bow to his Captain carry in his Colours; then shall be given to all Musquetteers to make ready; that being done, they shall all present, and upon the beat of Drum, or other word of command, give one intire Volley; and then command every Officer to go to their quarters, and to be in readiness upon the next summons, either by Drum or Command.
It may fall out, that time will not permit this large circumfrance; then the whole company being drawn up in a body shall troop up to the place, where the Ensign shall quarter, to see the colours safely lodg'd, which being effected, the Musquetteers shall with one intire volley discharge their Musquets, and so depart to their respective quarters; commanding all upon the next summons to be in readiness, etc.
And I might here adde the funeral posture : if for a private souldier; the Ensign-bearer is to march in his place on the head of the Pikes, with the Pikes trailing revers'd, but the Colours furl'd and revers'd only : But if it be a commander that is to be interred, he is to march just before the Hearse, with his colours revers'd, etc.
If I have writ anything amiss, or omitted any thing as may prejudice the honour of the Ensign, I beg your better advice, for it was in the years 1641. and 1642, that I minded any of the military actions; therefore for any error herein, let the length of time plead my excuse: However, I could with that every Ensign would but observe these rules, he would better know his worth, and what duty lieth incumbent upon him; and being careful in the performance of them, his own honour will be displayed in his Colours.