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Ireland: St Patrick's Cross

Last modified: 2012-06-06 by rob raeside
Keywords: ireland | cross: saint patrick | saint patrick | saltire | cross pattée |
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[St Patrick's cross] by Vincent Morley

See also:


The St. Patrick's Flag

In 1782 Britain acknowledged the exclusive right of the Irish parliament to legislate for Ireland. To reflect the country's enhanced constitutional status, an order of chivalry called the Order of St Patrick was established in the following year. The regalia worn by the knights of this order showed a red saltire on a white background.

After the union with Britain in 1801, the St Patrick's Cross continued to feature in the arms and flags adopted by various professional and public bodies during the nineteenth century: examples include the Royal Dublin Society, Royal College of Physicians in Ireland, Queen's University Belfast, the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland, etc. These bodies were non-political but tended to draw their membership from the upper classes in which Unionists predominated. They favoured the St Patrick's Cross as a 'safe' national symbol which, unlike the harp, was not associated with nationalism and revolution.

Three uses of the St Patrick's Cross in the twentieth century are worth mentioning.

  1. A fascist movement of the 1930s, commonly known as the Blueshirts, used a flag with a red saltire on a pale blue field: they referred to the saltire as the St Patrick's Cross but it's doubtful whether the name can correctly be applied to a red saltire on a blue field. The saltire also appeared on the breast pocket of the blue shirts which they wore.
  2. The flag of the Irish Rugby Football Union, which is used by Irish rugby teams when playing overseas, shows a red saltire on a white field, a shield of one the four provinces appears in each of the segments formed by the saltire, and the badge of the IRFU is placed in the centre of the saltire.
  3. In recent years a flag has been adopted by advocates of an independent Northern Ireland which shows a red saltire on a blue field (combining the crosses of St Patrick and St Andrew). The red hand of Ulster appears on a six-pointed yellow star (representing the six counties of Northern Ireland) in the centre of the saltire. The use of this flag is very marginal: advocates of independence won only 0.28% of the vote in the recent elections to the Northern Ireland Forum.

Vincent Morley, 20 January 1997

A report on the Irish television channel TnaG about yesterday's St Patrick's day parades showed one which was held at Downpatrick, the town in Northern Ireland where St Patrick is buried. The interesting aspect is that many of the spectators were waving St Patrick's crosses - the first time that I have ever seen the undefaced flag in use. The commentary didn't refer to this directly but said that the organisers had asked those attending not to carry 'bratacha a d'fhéadfadh olc a chur ar dhaoine eile' ('flags which might cause offence to others') - clearly a reference to tricolours and Union flags. I presume that the organisers must have reinforced their suggestion by distributing the flags to the public as they would not be widely available.

Vincent Morley, 18 March 1997


St. Patrick's Flag as flag of Church of Ireland

From the Church of Ireland website's archives: The Church of Ireland General Synod meeting at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham on Tuesday 18 May 1999 passed the following motions:

1. The General Synod of the Church of Ireland recognises that from time to time confusion and controversy have attended the flying of flags on church buildings or within the grounds of church buildings. This Synod therefore resolves that the only flags specifically authorised to be flown on church buildings or within the church grounds of the Church of Ireland are the cross of St Patrick or, alternatively, the flag of the Anglican Communion bearing the emblem of the Compassrose. Such flags are authorised to be flown only on Holy Days and during the Octaves of Christmas, Easter, the Ascension of Our Lord and Pentecost, and on any other such day as may be recognised locally as the Dedication Day of the particular church building. Any other flag flown at any other time is not specifically authorised by this Church. ...."

Ned Smith, 19 June 2002


Origin of the St. Patrick's Cross Flag

The origin of the St Patrick's Cross has been traced to the establishment of the Knights of Saint Patrick in 1783, when the red saltire on white was included in the Order's regalia. But where did it come from? Three theories have been put forward:

  • The 'old flag' theory:
    This is the theory that the St Patrick's cross may have been an old but uncommon flag of Ireland. This theory has been supported by a selection of maps, seals and drawings which show saltire flags being used in Ireland at various times during the 17th and 18th centuries. However all of these examples can be explained as either the Scottish St Andrew's cross or the Spanish Cross of Burgundy.
  • The 'Duke of Leinster' theory:
    The arms of the Duke of Leinster, the highest-ranking member of the Irish aristocracy, were a red saltire on a white field and the duke was a founding member of the Order of St Patrick. This theory holds that the Order may have included the duke's arms in its regalia as a compliment to him, but the contemporary sources contain nothing to support this view.
  • The 'St Patrick's-day badge' theory:
    It was a common custom, from at least the early 17th to the mid-19th century, to wear a cross made of paper or ribbon on 17 March, St Patrick's day. The Saint Patrick's Cross in the regalia of the order may have been inspired by these popular badges. However, surviving examples of such badges come in many colours and they were invariably worn upright - as equal-armed crosses rather than as saltires.

Vincent Morley, 29 May

Whether there is a link with the Duke of Leinster appears to be unproven, but his family (the FitzGeralds or Geraldines) had borne arms of argent, a saltire gules since early Norman times.

Mike Oettle, 15 December 2001

[Badge of the Order of St Patrick, 1783] by Vincent Morley

Contemporary evidence indicates that the proposal to include a saltire in the insignia of the Order of Saint Patrick was condemned by contemporary Irish opinion. One press report from February 1783 complained that 'the breasts of Irishmen were to be decorated by the bloody Cross of St Andrew, and not that of the tutelar Saint of their natural isle'. Another article reported that 'the Cross of St Andrew the Scotch saint is to honour the Irish order of St Patrick, by being inserted within the star of the order' and described this as 'a manifest insult to common sense and to national propriety'. It is clear that the saltire was not associated with either Ireland, the Duke of Leinster, or Saint Patrick in the popular mind in 1783. Why, then, was it included in the regalia of the Order of Saint Patrick?

This is the official description of the badge of the Order of Saint Patrick which the lord lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Temple forwarded to his superiors in London in January 1783:

And the said Badge shall be of Gold surrounded with a Wreath of Shamrock or Trefoil, within which shall be a Circle of Gold, containing the Motto of our said Order in Letters of Gold Viz. QUIS SEPARABIT? together with the date 1783, being the year in which our said Order was founded, and encircling the Cross of St Patrick Gules, surmonted with a Trefoil Vert each of its leaves charged with an Imperial Crown Or upon a field of Argent.
It seems clear that Lord Temple regarded the saltire as a recognised symbol of Saint Patrick. However an open letter addressed to Lord Temple which was published in a Dublin newspaper in late February 1783 explains why the saltire was rejected by the Irish public:
The Cross generally used on St Patrick's day, by Irishmen, is the Cross-Patee, which is small in the centre, and so goes on widening to the ends, which are very broad; this is not recorded, as the Irish Cross, but has custom for time immemorial for its support, which is generally allowed as sufficient authority for any similar institution ... As bearing the arms of another person is reckoned very disgraceful by the laws of honour, how much more so is it, in an order which ought to carry honour to the highest pitch, to take a cross for its emblem, which has been acknowledged for many ages as the property of an order in another country? If the cross generally worn as the emblem of the Saint who is ascribed to Ireland, is not agreeable to your Excellency, sure many others are left to choose from, without throwing Ireland into so ignominious a point of view, as to adopt the one that Scotland has so long a claim to.
When I first came across this letter I was surprised and more than a little sceptical because I had never heard of a link between Saint Patrick and the cross pattée. The St Patrick's day badges from the early 19th century that I have seen in the National Museum of Ireland all have Greek crosses, i.e. arms of equal length and thickness. But just a few weeks ago I came across proof that the cross pattée was indeed associated with Saint Patrick. I found it in a booklet that happened to be bound in the same volume as a pamphlet I was reading in the National Library of Ireland. The booklet is called The Fundamental Laws, Statutes, and Constitutions of the Ancient and Most Benevolent Order of the Friendly Brothers of Saint Patrick and was published at Dublin in 1763. The 'Friendly Brothers' paid regular dues to the Order and in return were given financial support if they fell on hard times. The Order used quasi-Masonic rituals and was organised in lodges. One of their rules was that members had to wear the medal of the order when attending lodge meetings. The badge was described as follows:
the Ensigns of the ORDER, being a golden Medal, on which shall be impressed Saint Patrick's Cross, fixed in a Heart, over which is a Crown. The whole being set round with an emblematic Knot embellished with Trefoil, or Shamrogue Leaves, and this motto, FIDELIS, ET CONSTANS: implying Fidelity and Constancy in Religion, Loyalty, and Friendship.
There was an engraving of the badge, and I made a freehand drawing of the central element only, a scan of which is shown below:

[Detail from the badge of the Friendly Brothers of St Patrick, 1763] by Vincent Morley

In the last week I have turned up a further, and much earlier piece of evidence. Irish coins in the middle ages typically had the king's head on the obverse and a thin Greek cross on the reverse. In 1460-1 however, a copper farthing was issued which showed the head of Saint Patrick on the obverse and a cross pattée on the reverse - the coin is number 4399 in Seaby's Coins and Tokens of Ireland catalogue. Both features are very unusual and it is unlikely to be a coincidence that they occur together. In fact, this would appear to have been a very early example of a commemorative coin: 461 is one of the dates reported for the death of Saint Patrick and it seems likely to me that the farthing was a special issue struck to mark the 1,000th anniversary of the saint's death.

There can be no doubt that the third of the three theories about the origin of the Cross of Saint Patrick put forward above is the correct one, but it must be asked why Lord Temple substituted the saltire for the cross pattée? I suspect that this decision was a result of the desire to link the cross and the shamrock in a single badge. It is not possible to combine a large shamrock (and it must be large if it is to bear a crown on each leaf) with a cross pattée without obscuring one or the other, but it is very easy to superimpose a shamrock on a saltire - which is, after all, only a rotated cross. While this change angered members of the Irish public, it probably seemed like a minor and a reasonable modification to an English viceroy who, in any event, took a very cynical view of the Order of Saint Patrick, referring in his private correspondence to 'the nonsense of the farce of the Order'.

Vincent Morley, 30 May - 1 June 1999

Use of the flag seems likely to increase as a result of a recent decision. The general synod of the Church of Ireland (the governing body of the Irish branch of the Anglican communion) has decided that in future 'only flags specifically authorised would be flown in church grounds. These are either the flag of St Patrick, or the Compass-rose flag of the Anglican communion' (report in the Irish Times, 19 May 1999). This decision is intended to end the common practice of flying the British Union Flag from churches in Northern Ireland - a practice which was felt to be involving the church in politics.

Vincent Morley, 2 June 1999

Friendly Brothers

The Order of the Friendly Brothers was founded in the west of Ireland, sometime in the mid 1600's and established its headquarters in Dublin in 1750/51, minutes books and records from that date are preserved.

Early insignia, cross and crown, were as illustrated but gradually developed into what would now be recognised as a 'Maltese Cross' surmounted by a 'celestial' crown. In earlier times the insignia was made to individual specification (hence the variation in form), by local silversmiths or medal-makers and some fine examples are in the possession of present-day members, who meet, not in 'Lodges', but in 'Knots' - signifying knots of friendship.

The principal stated aims of the Order at its foundation were: ' To promote among men the practice and encouragement of the social virtues. To put down the barbarous practice of duelling, an activity unknown in the politest nations.

Peter Cavan, Medallist to the Order, 26 February 2003

1625 reference to the Flag of St. Patrick

An early reference to the Flag of St Patrick does not seem to have been recorded in any of the usual works on the subject. It is in "The Voyage to Cadiz in 1625", a journal written by John Glanville, Secretary to the Lord Admiral of the Fleet, Sir Edward Cecil, 1st Earl of Exeter. Edited by The Rev Alexander B.Grosart and printed for the Camden Society in 1883; NS Volume 32.

"That this was an Englishe and not an Irishe action, and the colours contended for the fflagg of St George and not of St Patericke, which hee intimated to himselfe being a Baron of England much auntient to my Lord Cromwell (whoe alsoe is a Baron of that Realme) to bee more proper and worthie to carry then anie Irish Viscount whatsoever."

An Anglo-Dutch fleet sailed to Cadiz in October 1625 with the aim of destroying Spanish shipping. The 89 English ships were organised into three squadrons, that were sub-divided into three parts, each with an admiral in command. The Blue and White Squadrons had plain admiral's flags, flown at the appropriate masthead, but in the Red Squadron the Admiral flew the Royal Standard, and the Vice and Rear Admirals flew "a redd flagg with a little white, and St George's Crosse at the top of the fflaggstaff."

The ship of the Admiral of the White Squadron was found to be unseaworthy and did not sail. The Vice-Admiral of the Red Squadron took his place, and Lord Delaware was appointed "to carrie the fflagg of St.George in the foretopp;". This appointment was disputed by Lords Valencia and Cromwell, Vice-Admirals of the Blue and White respectively, on the grounds that as Irish Viscounts they out-ranked Delaware, an English Baron. The Admiral of the Fleet then cancelled Delaware's appointment and made Valencia Vice-Admiral of the Red. Delaware objected and put forward five reasons why he and not Valencia should have the appointment. The quotation is one of Delaware's reasons, as reported by Glanville. The meaning in modern English seems to be;

that it was an English and not an Irish fleet, and since the disputed flag was of St George and not St Patrick, it was more appropriately flown by an English Baron than an Irish Viscount, who, although also an English Baron was, as such, junior to Delaware.

There is no description of 'the Flag of St Patrick' but I suggest it was more likely to have been the red saltire on white than anything else.

David Prothero, 9 June 2003

There are instances of early saltire flags which _might_ have been "Flags of St Patrick". In considering them, there has been a tendency for some to start from the assumption that there was no connection between St Patrick and "the red saltire on white flag" before the creation of the Order of St Patrick in 1783. The saltire flag is then said to have been derived from the arms of the Fitzgeralds, and any instances that cannot be linked to them, are called Spanish raguly saltire flags, or wrongly coloured St Andrew's saltire flags. Where the 'red saltire on white flag' is clearly meant to be Irish, as in the Neptune Francois of 1693, it is said to have no connection with St Patrick.

The significance of the 1625 quotation is that it refers to a "Flag of St Patrick" that is meant to be Irish. It is unlikely to have been a "harp flag" because as far as I know the harp, although clearly associated with Ireland, has never been linked to St Patrick.

I am not suggesting that all old saltire flag drawings connected with Ireland, that have not been positively identified, must be "Flags of St Patrick", but that the possibility that they are "Flags of St Patrick" is as good as the possibility that they are raguly saltires or St Andrew saltires.

David Prothero, 10 June 2003


About St. Patrick

[Note: this was originally written for an Anglican audience. There was no intention to offend or exclude people of other faiths, merely to inform people within a particular church context. An updated version of this article can be found at the Saints and Seasons webpage.]

A Welsh apostle across the sea  

Shamrocks and snakes are the emblems associated with Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, whose day falls on March 17. Neither has a definite link to the saint: there never were any snakes in Ireland, naturalists inform us, and there is no proof that Patrick ever explained the Trinity by means of a shamrock plucked from the ground where he stood in order to satisfy the doubts of Laoghaire, High King of Ireland, in the hall of Tara, the High King's central court in Meath. Nonetheless, stained glass windows still depict the saintly old man standing on snakes, in memory of the time when he allegedly cast them all out of the Emerald Isle. Perhaps they are a symbol of the evil that his mission removed from the island. And even if it's not true, the tale of the shamrock still has something to teach us, for it is indeed a leaf that is both three and one, as is the Lord. But who the king was who heard the explanation, no-one can say for sure. Was Laoghaire High King or even alive in Patrick's day? Where was his hall? All that can be said for certain on that subject is that Patrick based himself in Antrim - the part of Ireland nearest to Scotland's probing finger of the Mull of Kintyre - where the most powerful ruler of the time had his court. And don't forget the attachment of the Irish to their national floral badge, the shamrock.

Patrick was not the first missionary in Ireland, nor even the first bishop. That honour fell to one Palladius, who was sent by Pope Celestine in AD 431 to be "first bishop to the Irish believers in Christ". But he was not long in Ireland before Patrick succeeded him.

Patrick(1) was born around 385 or 390 in Bannavem Taberniae, a Romano-British town perhaps on the Severn. As a Briton he would have been called Welsh(2) by the Anglo-Saxons. His father, Calpurnius, was a local councillor and deacon and his grandfather was a Catholic priest(3). At the age of 16 he was captured by slave raiders and sold into captivity in Hibernia (as the Romans called Ireland, a land they never conquered) - tradition has it that this was at Slemish in Antrim. There he was sustained by his faith in Christ: a faith he had not held strongly in Britain, but now clung to in long hours of prayer.

After six years he escaped and took ship, some say for the Continent, others that he returned home after a further brief captivity. Patrick's Confessio (an autobiography) tells of a dream in which a man called Victoricus delivers him a letter headed Vox Hiberniae (Voice of the Irish) in which he is begged to return across the Irish Sea. The uneducated Patrick delayed going for several years while he was trained and became a priest. (The French Catholics claim this was in Gaul, others say it was in Britain.) Shortly after Palladius's death he was made bishop and set sail, even then doubtful of his fitness for the task.

Strangely, Patrick avoided the south-east of Ireland, where Palladius had worked, but visited almost every other part. He set up his see in Antrim, and later other bishoprics in other regions. "Utterly confident in the Lord, he journeyed far and wide, baptising and confirming with untiring zeal. In diplomatic fashion he brought gifts to a kinglet here and a lawgiver there but accepted none from any. On at least one occasion he was cast into chains. On another, he addressed with lyrical pathos a last farewell to his converts who had been slain or kidnapped by the soldiers of Coroticus(4). Careful to deal fairly with the heathen, he nevertheless lived in constant danger of martyrdom."(5) Although he was sometimes accused of having sought office for its own sake, the one fact about him that stands out above all in his writings (in laboured Latin) is that he was a man of utterly simple faith.

Patrick did not convert all of Ireland, but on his death in 461 he left it a land where the Christian Faith was firmly established. He had also established a bridgehead for Christianity in the British Isles, for the Anglo-Saxons were about to bring the Church to extinction in their quarter. After Patrick, men would carry the faith first to Caledonia (Scotland) and at last back to northern England.

(1) The name Patricius means one of noble birth - the old Roman aristocracy were called Patricians.

(2) The German invaders called the natives Welsh, meaning foreigners, deriving the word from "Gaulish"; the Britons were Gauls whose ancestors had crossed the Channel.

(3) It was not until mediaeval times that the Church of Rome began insisting that priests be celibate.

(4) A British chieftain and slave-raider who had kidnapped a number of Irish Christians. Patrick's farewell speech is recorded in a letter (the Epistola), which has survived along with the Confessio.

(5) Quoted from the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Mike Oettle, 23 January 2002

See also:


Knights of St. Patrick

Banners of the Knights of St Patrick are displayed in a church (as are the much better known ones of the Garter, for instance). See a photo taken in St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin: http://travel.webshots.com/photo/1199865811044828181MclGPi
"Behind the chorus sat the Knights of the Order of St Patrick. Each flag is the coat of arms of one of the knights. The last knight was added in the 17th or 18th century."
This last sentence is not to be taken literally, I suppose. Boutell (ed. Scott-Giles and Brooke-Little) says that - except for members of the Royal Family - no one has been admitted to the order since 1922.

Other pictures:
http://flickr.com/photos/44124306710@N01/190640056
http://flickr.com/photos/55501300@N00/101148675
http://flickr.com/photos/26757452@N00/145513467

A second location for the banners (since 1871) is Dublin Castle (St. Patrick's Hall): http://flickr.com/photos/54128636@N00/167920715
"Deriving its name from its association with the "Most Illustrious Order of St Patrick" instituted by King George III in 1783 the walls are adorned with the names and crests of those invested into the Knighthood of St Patrick."
The Order's King of Arms is Norroy and Ulster King of Arms.
Jan Mertens, 17 November 2008

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