Symbolical standards were used by the ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, and Jews. Biblical references to standards, ensigns, and banners are numerous. Early flags usually had a religious significance. The Dannebrog of Denmark, a red ensign that is swallow-tailed and bears a white cross, is no doubt the oldest flag design still in use. In France the Cape de St. Martin, originally kept in Marmoutier abbey, was borne upon the standards of the early kings, but this was succeeded by the oriflamme, the ancient banner of the abbey of St. Denis. The oriflamme was later replaced by the Bourbon white flag sprinkled with fleurs-de-lis, which in turn was succeeded by the tricolor at the time of the Revolution. William the Conqueror received his banner from the pope, and the ensign of Great Britain, the Union Jack (or Union Flag), is formed by the crosses of St. George, St. Andrew, and St. Patrick, the national saints, respectively, of England, Scotland, and Ireland.
In medieval times there were numerous flags in use—banners, banderoles, gonfalons, gonfanons, pennons, pennoncells, standards, streamers, and guidons. The banner, usually quadrangular in shape, was a battle flag bearing the arms of the person entitled to carry it. The banderole was smaller in size than the banner. The gonfalon and the gonfanon, also battle flags, were hung from a crosspiece attached to a staff or spear. The pennon was a long triangular flag, generally swallow-tailed, used as a knight bachelor's ensign. The pennoncell was a small pennon used for ceremonial purposes. The standard, used by nobles on ceremonial occasions, was a long, narrow flag, tapering toward the free end and richly decorated. The royal standard of today is derived from the medieval banner; it bears the royal arms and is smaller than the national flag, or ensign. The streamer was a long, narrow flag, tapering toward the fly, and generally carried at the masthead of a vessel. It has been replaced by the present-day pennant (or pendant, as it was earlier called and is still called in the British navy). The guidon was carried by cavalry; today it is used by the U.S. army for practically all units in dress parade and as a distinguishing flag.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.