Why Vexillology Isn’t Flagging

Will Amor 28 April 2014

When I first suggested an article on vexillology, the study of flags, my editor seemed pretty incredulous, doubting that it would arouse much interest. Indeed, in the popular American TV series The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon Cooper launches a series called Fun with Flags, which is deliberately meant to be geeky, uncool and boring. However, I was sure that Cambridge was in fact a city of flag enthusiasts who just need to be shown that flag culture is really very interesting, or at least just as interesting as typefaces.

First of all, flags have been all over the student press recently: the King’s bar is home to a Soviet flag which is a source of perennial controversy amongst its members. Obviously for some Cantabs the political significance of a national emblem is still very strong. More recently still, the Scottish Society held a debate in the Union on Scottish independence last term where there was a vexillological vexation. Three flags were flown in the chamber to mark the occasion: the St Andrew’s Cross, the Union Flag (only Jack at sea) and the Lion Rampant of Scotland.

Fairly uncontroversial choices in themselves, except how they were flown: either the Lion Rampant or the Union Flag is upside down. If they were flown on a pole where the Lion Rampant was at the top, then the Union Flag is incorrectly flown as the broad white stripe is below the narrow stripe in the top left hand corner. If they were flown where the St Andrew’s Cross was at the top, then the Lion would be very noticeably upside down. This could very obviously have been read as an anti-independence or anti-Union message depending on your affiliation. Fortunately, however, it was only due to human error rather than a subtle political message. However, the other attendees I pointed this out to were a lot more forgiving than I. Nonetheless, they were reasonably bemused at the sight. Hopefully if the Union chooses to fly flags at its Scottish independence debate later this term it should make sure not to fall prey to the same mistake.

In any case, Cambridge is a great place for casual vexillology. You will probably have noticed that a number of days throughout the year the colleges and other University buildings will fly a flag, most recently to celebrate a graduation, the Queen’s birthday and Easter. Most colleges will fly the college flag, basically the coat of arms on a flag, but the three royal colleges, King’s, Trinity and John’s fly a historic variant of the Royal Standard. These colleges’ royal connection is also why they get to graduate before everyone else. So, next time the flags are out in force, take a second to think about the power of an image, and then think about all the cool banners on Game of Thrones.