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United Kingdom: Regimental Colours

Last modified: 2022-02-05 by rob raeside
Keywords: united kingdom | ministry of defence | army | lion | swords |
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[Colours, 1900] image by Martin Grieve

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Normal British military practise is that the Queen's Colour of a regiment is the Union with badge, whilst the Regimental Colour has a plain field with the Union in its canton plus badge and battle honours, etc.
Christopher Southworth, 26 May 2011

Here is a sample Guards Queen's Colour, in this case the current one carried by 1st Battalion Welsh Guards: It was presented in 2006, and will be carried for approximately 10 years.
T.F. Mills, 26 May 2011

Blue is the facing colour of "royal" regiments of the infantry of the line, and hence the field colour for their Regimental Colours. Royal status is a special honour and designated by the words "Royal" or "King's" or "Queen's" in their title (e.g. The Royal Welch Fusiliers, The King's Regiment). Guards regiments are de facto "royal" by virtue of their guards status, and thus have blue facings, but they never have a royal designation in their title. Yes, it's confusing and complicated.

Further complicating matters, Guards do not follow the same conventions as infantry of the line in the design and nomenclature of their Colours. Most commentators say that the Guards are the "reverse" of infantry practice with regard to Queen's and Regimental Colours, but in actual fact it is the opposite since the Guards follow a more ancient practice ~ or more precisely have evolved differently. So, to make a long story short, Guards regiments have not carried blue Queen's Colours, despite their royal status, since 1707. The Coldstream and Scots Guards previously had blue colonel's Colours, but the Grenadier Guards had had a crimson Colonel's Colour since 1660, and that became the norm for all Guards regiments.

It is hard to generalize about the pre-1707, or even pre-1747, era, since little is known. Until 1707 every company carried a colour with insignia representing its Captain. The three field officers (colonel, lieutenant-colonel, and major) who commanded three wings of the battalion, also doubled as Captains of the three senior companies. In 1707 the number of colours was reduced to three for the three wings or the three field officers. In 1747 this was further reduced to two, both representing the whole battalion rather than individually representing wings. Guards, however, continued to be issued Captains' Colours until 1838, although in practice only two were carried at the same time. 1855 regulations intended for all regiments to carry a Regimental Colour of appropriate facing hue, but the Guards appealed this. Queen Victoria intervened and allowed the Queen's Colour to be crimson and the Second or Regimental Colour to be the Grand Union or national flag. Since there were three Guards regiments in 1855 (Irish and Welsh did not yet exist), and each had three battalions, the individual battalions' Queen's Colours followed the previous field officers' pattern, and were even still called that, i.e. 1st Battalion = Colonel's Colour, 2nd Battalion = Lieutenant Colonel's Colour, and 3rd Battalion = Major's Colour.
T.F. Mills, 26 May 2011

Honour guards and quarter guards (i.e. 80-man detachments as typically provided for head of state State visits, Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, Trooping of the Colour, etc.) only carry one Colour. Which of the two Colours is paraded is determined by the presence of the Sovereign: Queen's for her presence, Regimental in her absence. By definition, I think a State visit requires the presence of the monarch to attend the visiting head of state. I think a visiting head of state gets a 100-man honour guard and a visiting head of government a 50-man honour guard. Where they are one and the same (e.g. United States), it is probably the nature of the visit that determines the protocol.  Only a full battalion parade (400-1000 men depending on the era) would merit both Colours on parade.

Off the top of my head, I don't think Queen Elizabeth has ever missed a Trooping of the Colour, which is the official observance of her birthday (a Saturday in June, so selected for the better chance of good weather). So, the Colour trooped is always the Queen's Colour. At this event only one of the quarter guards carries a Colour, and that is the one found by the Battalion which in annual rotation has the honour of trooping its Colour before the monarch.

Several series of defence cutbacks since WW2 have reduced all five foot guards regiments to one battalion, but a representative company of the 2nd Battalion of some regiments has been retained. This permits a wider selection of Colours to be trooped in annual succession, as well as a faster rotation of company badges to be displayed on the Regimental Colour every ten years.
T.F. Mills, 27 May 2011

Regimental colours

Called the 'Great Union' if I remember correctly, and commissioned by the military (from the College of Arms) specifically for use on colours. David Prothero will, however, be able to confirm this. The saltires of St Andrew and St Patrick are of the same width with a fimbriation added as in the original of the 1801 pattern Union Flag.

This Union forms the basis of the Queen's Colour, and the canton of the Regimental Colour (except for Guards Regiments where the system is reversed), and the regulation size was, and as far as I know still is, 3'.0" x 3'9"
Christopher Southworth
, 24 February 2003

Martin's illustration shown at the top of this page is not of a flag as such, but of a 'base', to which badges and battle honours can be added to construct the Queen's colour of line regiment battalions, and the regimental colour of Foot Guards.

Answering a question, asked in Parliament by Mr Dundas White on 20 May 1909, Secretary of State at the War Office, R.B. Haldane said:

"The amended design for the Queen's (now King's) colour was approved by Her late Majesty Queen Victoria in 1900. All Queen's and King's colours issued since have been in conformity with the amended design. The previous design was in use since 1801. It was approved by Queen Victoria only as a standard, to govern dimensions of flag as represented in Queen's colour of line battalions and regimental colours of Foot Guards. The War Office has not adopted the design for any other purpose than that for which it was expressly sanctioned. The change was made on heraldic grounds in order to bring the Regimental Union into closer accord with the description of the Union Flag given in the Royal Proclamation of 1 Jan 1801, and at the same time to create a standard pattern for the colour."
36 inches on the staff, 45 inches flying, fringe 2 inches.
St George 9 inches wide
St Andrew and St Patrick 4.5 inches wide.
All fimbriations half an inch.
David Prothero, 24 February 2003

As I understand it, every battalion in a regiment has its own Queen's colour ? But does each battalion also have a regimental colour, or is there only one regimental colour per regiment?
David Prothero, 26 February 2003

Each battalion has a pair of colo(u)rs. In the line regiments--i.e., not regiments of guards--which battalion the "regimental" colour belonged to was formerly indicated by a union jack canton added to the same field (2nd battalion), and a small pile wavy issuing from the lower fly corner of the canton (in different colors for 3rd and succeeding battalions). The 1st battalion of any regiment carried the basic regimental colour without a union jack in the upper hoist. I believe that, in principle, the system now is for the battalion number to be inscribed in Roman numerals in the upper hoist, but in practice there are almost no color-bearing regiments in the British Army that have more than one battalion.

The US Army system is similar--the regiment itself has a plain field with the regimental coat of arms on the breast of an American eagle, while each battalion's "regimental" color has the battalion number as an Arabic numeral, surrounded by an ornate embroidered frame, in the upper hoist.
Joe McMillan, 26 February 2003

I think that should be two colours per battalion should it not Colin, although most (if not all) British regiments nowadays are single battalion regiments? However, some did carry three colours during the 18th Century, and one (the 5th Regiment of Foot or Northumberland Fusiliers) continued to do so until 1833. Interestingly enough, those regiments who were present at the Battle of Assaye - Wellington's Indian campaign - (the 74th and 78th Highlands certainly but also others) were granted the right to carry a third special colour in 1802, and the privilege of carrying these in general use on parade was only withdrawn in 1830, when they were to be reserved for special occasions.

The date upon which the number of colours were reduced to two per battalion appears to be unknown. It is however, certain that a stand of 10 colours was not unusual during the 1640's (the King's Royal Regiment of Foot Guards lost eleven out of thirteen at the Battle of Edgehill during the English Civil War), and on the evidence of the Blenheim tapestries we may reasonably infer that this number had been considerably reduced (if not actually to only two) by the early 18th Century (the War of the Spanish Succession)?

By the way if anybody is interested, a lot of the above is from a fascinating little book (which has been mentioned before) "The Flags of The World, Their History, Blazons and Associations", F. Edward Hulme, London c1900.
Christopher Southworth, 26 October 2004

Two colours per battalion it is, and yes, most ordinary infantry regiments are single battalion these days. As for the Guards, the Grenadier Guards have an extra 'Royal Standard' [sic], the Coldstream Guards have two 'State Colours', and the Scots Guards one 'State Colour'. The Irish and Welsh regiments do not have any extra. Company colours are simply small marker flags.
    As for the extra colours - the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, the descendants of the 5th Foot, still carry an extra flag, the 'Drummer's Colour'. The Princess of Wales's Own Regiment also have a third colour inherited from the Queen's (Royal West Surrey Regiment). The Assaye regiments (74th, 78th), and the 76th Foot, were given all the extra colours at the request of the Hon. East India Company - the granting of colours or additional colours was a common reward for gallant regiments with the HEIC at the time. The two that Chris mentions do not carry the extra colours any more, but the Duke of Wellington's Regiment (the old 76th) still does.
    The restriction normally placed upon these extra colours is they cannot be carried at the head of the regiment with the regulation pair (although I've seen photos of the Duke's colours on parade in the 1960s). The other Assaye regiment was the 19th Light Dragoons, which received a honorary guidon. But the modern regiment (the Light Dragoons) does not carry one. On the subject of names, the King's / Queen's Colour was called the Royal Colour between 1844 and 1892.

When were the number of colours reduced to two per battalion? It was definitely two from 1747. One colour per company (and therefore ten or twelve per regiment) certainly was the 17th century practice. By the early 18th century, this might have been reduced to carrying two or three in the field and leaving the rest at home, but there were no regulations in this period, so it was down to custom, rather than rules. The different practice in the Guards, where the Queen's Colour is crimson, is a continuation of the 17th century practice, where the colonel's colour was a plain colour, and the other companies had more and more devices on them to indicate their junior status.
Ian Sumner, 27 October 2004

A 2-inch fringe was added in 1868, at the same time the size was reduced to its current form. This applies to all King's/Queen's and Regimental Colour in the Commonwealth.
Todd Mills
, 22 July 2003

In the Guards Division, the Queen's Colours have a crimson background, whereas in most of the rest of the British Army, they are based on a Union Flag design (sometimes the Union Flag is known as the Great Union). Additionally, the Coldstream Guards have two State Colours, as well as Queen's Colours, Regimental Colours (and Company Colours).
Colin Dobson, 26 October 2004

Historical colours

[Major's colour of the 1st Foot Guards, 1705]       [Major's colour of the 1st Foot Guards, 1707]  images by Tom Gregg

In the early 18th century infantry colours still somewhat followed a pattern prevalent in the English Civil War and earlier. A regiment would typically deploy in three wings under the command of its three senior officers, the colonel, lieutenant colonel and major. The captains of the ten companies (four with the colonel and three each with the other field officers) also had their own flags. The colonel's colour was usually a plain flag in the facing colour of the regiment's uniform. After the 1660 restoration of the monarchy, colonels grew in power and influence to the point that they owned their regiments, and tended to put personal symbols on their flags. All the other officers added a small St George's cross in the canton. By 1707 this cross had been transformed into the whole flag, leaving only the colonel's flag in the facing colour. The various officers were distinguished as follows:

  • Lieutenant colonel: cross alone.
  • Major: cross with a flame, called heraldically a 'pile wavy'.
  • Captains: in descending order seniority, a cross with some other device like a ball, star, lozenge, etc. (e.g. first captain has one ball, second captain has two balls, etc.).
A chronicler at the coronation of James II in 1685 made a note of the colours of the 1st Guards which actually consisted of two battalions or 20 companies. The colonel's was plain crimson; lieutenant colonel's was a St George's Cross with imperial crown in gold in the center; major's was same as the lieutenant colonel's with the pile wavy emanating from the corner. The captains' device was the king's cypher and crown. The first captain had one of these in the centre of the cross; the last captain had twenty of them sprinkled on the flag. Between 1660 and 1712, the captains' devices in the guards regiments were gradually replaced by company badges, each company having a royal grant of some special badge, ending the repetition of multiple captains' devices.

In 1707, the St George's Cross was joined by the St Andrew's Cross, and at the same time the captains' colours were eliminated, leaving only three ensigns for the three field officers (one plain flag, and two Union flags). In 1747 this system was completely reversed and replaced by what pretty much prevails to this day: two colours per battalion, the first being the king's colour (Union flag), and the second being the regimental colour in the facing colour with a Union in the canton. Regiments with red or white facings carried a St George's Cross with the Union in the canton, and black facings were represented by a St George's Cross on a black field. Also in 1747, colonels were prohibited from putting personal devices on their colours.

To this day the guards regiments have pretty much failed to comply with the 1707 and 1747 reforms, and continue some semblance of the protocol of the 17th century. Every company continued to carry its own colour until they were finally abolished in 1838, but from about 1747 guards battalions carried only two of the colours in battle. These two colours are called the opposite of what the rest of the army calls them: the Union flag is the regimental colour, and a crimson flag is the king's/queen's colour. Until recently most of the guards regiments had three battalions. The 1st battalion had a plain crimson flag, 2nd battalion was distinguished with a Union in the canton (17th-century lieutenant-colonel style), and 3rd battalion was distinguished with a Union and a pile wavy (17th-century major style).

With the abolition of company colours in 1838 a system of company badge rotation on the remaining two colours was established. Battalion colours are renewed approximately every ten years, and all the battalions of the regiment receive a new stand at the same time. A hypothetical scenario: if in 1900 the 1st to 3rd battalions carried on their colours the 11th to 13th company badges respectively, then in 1910 these would be replaced by the 14th company for 1st battalion, 15th company for 2nd battalion, and 16th company for 3rd battalion. The five guards regiments now consist of one battalion each, which presumably will drag out the company badge rotation for a much longer time.

T.F. Mills, 2 February 1999

Since there are no known surviving colours of English line regiments, either as actual flags or as drawings, from the reign of Queen Anne, it is impossible to state that with any degree of certainty what they were like. Some colours are known from William III's reign, largely from French captures. Where there are sufficient numbers from a single regiment, it would seem that the captains' colours were identical - St George with a regimental device. But only two regiments are involved, the 3rd and the 12th Foot, so it is difficult to generalise. The system of one device for the 1st captain, two for the 2nd captain etc., only just predates the Civil War. It was probably in use during the Bishops' War (1639-40) but not during the 16th century. That system had fallen out of use in the guards regiments by 1700 (with the use of company badges), and in line regiments by the reign of William III.

Ian Sumner, 3 February 1999

Regimental Colours of the 9th Foot, 1757

[9th Foot regimental colour, 1757] image by T.F. Mills

Regimental Colours of the 9th Foot, 1772

[9th Foot regimental colour, 1772] image by T.F. Mills

Regimental Colours of the 9th Foot, 1807

[9th Foot regimental colour, 1807] image by T.F. Mills

I am sending a drawing of the 9th Foot regimental colour which was presented c. 1757. This is based on an almost identical illustration in John Mollo's Uniforms of the American Revolution and the central device is identical to a black and white one in Dino Lemonifides's British Infantry Colours shown as an example of the rococo style (i.e. lopsided and asymmetrical wreath) prevalent in the 1760s. This colour is erroneously portrayed as current during the 1770s, but in fact it was replaced before the American revolution (1772) by another with a different style wreath, for which I also send a drawing. This is illustrated in Terence Wise's Military Flags of the World in Colour. This style would appear to be an intermediate phase between the asymmetrical rococo and the 1780s symmetrical-style wreath enclosing the regimental number on a shield. For good measure I am also sending the regimental colour of the 9th Foot c. 1807 since it also appears in the Lemonofides book. This includes the regiment's new badge of the figure of Britannia, and yet another style of wreath.

T.F. Mills 6 February 1999

The 5th Regiment of Foot had a Regimental Colours in gosling green. The Union Flag was in the canton with a Roman numeral "V" in the centre. The three other corners had a crowned rose. The central device on the Colour was St George in white armour on a brown horse lancing a green dragon. This device may have been surrounded by a baroque style Union Wreath.

T.F. Mills, 2 April 2001

The British Regimental flag from the of the 9th infantry regiment during the American Revolution is supposedly still in existence at Sandhurst yet I have found 3 very different illustrations of it:

  1. Yellow field with a canton consisting of a British Grand Union. Centered in the field is a tight round wreath of thistle and rose encircling black Roman numerals IX. Also, there are black Roman numerals in the middle of the St. George's cross in the of the Grand Union of the canton.
  2. Yellow field with a canton consisting of a British Grand Union. Centered in the field is a loose free form round wreath of thistle and rose encircling a red pillow with Roman numerals IX in gold on it. There are no Roman numerals in the middle of the St. George's cross of the Grand Union.
  3. Yellow field with a canton consisting of a British Grand Union. Centered in the field is an open lyre shaped wreath of thistle and rose encircling the Roman numerals IX in gold. Also, with this design is an accompanying first color of a large Grand union with the same wreath and gold Roman numerals in the center of the St. George's cross.

I know from the warrants of this period that all Roman numerals are supposed to be either painted or embroidered in gold. However, since the field is yellow, I can see why they used black to make the numbers show up better. Also, concerning the first color in example 3, the warrant states that all colors are to have the wreath and Roman numerals but this is the only example I have seen where the Grand Union has the wreath. All other examples simply have the Roman numerals. So, for a flag that supposedly is still extant, there is a bewildering variety of representations! What does the example at Sandhurst actually look like?
Fred Sura, 4 April 2003

For the flags of the 9th Foot:

  1. this sounds like the 1757 stand. The number from the 1749 stand was cut out and resewn onto the new regimental colour.
  2. this sounds like the stand issued in 1772, taken on the Saratoga campaign, where they were concealed from capture and brought home. They were not retired until 1798, when they were 'nothing but rags so that no device or number could be seen on them.' This stand was the last to have 'IX' in the centre; the new stand bore a badge of Britannia.
  3. by elimination, this must be the 1749 stand. Most of these are known only by a series of paintings done for the Adjutant-general. The wreath certainly appears on the King's Colour in the paintings. However, the wreaths in the paintings are more or less circular, and not 'lyre-shaped', so I couldn't be 100% certain.

You are right about gold being used for the regimental number. I think the black numerals are either a mistake by the artist, or they are intended to represent tarnished gold wire, with a black appearance. There are several photos of the centres of the colours in S.M. Milne's 'Standards and Colour of the Army' (Leeds, the Author, 1891), plate XIII. In the text, he states that there are several stands of the regiment's colours in the chapel at Sandhurst.
Ian Sumner, 4 April 2003

78th Highlanders

The Regimental Colour of the 78th Highlanders Regiment of Foots would be almost identical to the first flag of the 9th Foot. The 78th was buff instead of yellow and had the number LXXVIII in the centre. The unit was raised by Simon Fraser in 1757 for service in the Seven Year's War. You can see a rather unclear photo of a replica of the 78th Colour at:
Todd Mills, 25 July 2000

The Death of Major Pierson by John Singleton Copley

At is a painting, The Death of Major Pierson by John Singleton Copley, showing a pre-1808 union jack and a yellow flag (image at
António Martins-Tuválkin, 6 January 2006

I think the colours are that of the 95th - that was Pierson's regiment, certainly. It was disbanded at the end of the war, and so it is not listed in any of the major sets of regulations, so I can't say what its facings were for sure. The 72nd may also have had yellow facings, but they were highlanders, and wore the kilt, which none of the colour party appear to be doing (there is an officer of the 72nd, however, lying wounded in the lower left hand corner). The other possibility is that the colours belong to one of the regiments of Jersey Militia. There is an article on the painting in volume 2 of the Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research.
Ian Sumner, 7 January 2006

A good overview over the various British regiments and their uniforms can be found at, e.g. in the case of the case of the 73rd regiment. The colours of the facings were used as the base colour of the
regiments colour.
Dirk Schonberger, 8 January 2005

Military Colours of a Welsh Unit

[Military Colours of a Welsh Unit]      [Military Colours of a Welsh Unit] images by Klaus-Michael Schneider, 11 November 2019

I spotted these in a restaurant in Carmarthen in 2014. And I believe they are images of real British military colours, no artwork. The top image probably shows a King's Colour of the Regiment, red with golden dragon and motto "CYMRU AM BYTH" (= Wales forever). The lower image shows one of nine older rounded pennants, probably referring to the same regiment. There were nine of those pennants, only different in the Welsh motto and in the arms at hoist. And there was also probably a newer regimental colour, having a yellow shield with a red lion in centre and a red number "V" in a yellow scroll beneath.
Klaus-Michael Schneider, 11 November 2019

The top image is a Queen's Colour of 1st Battalion, Welsh Guards, from the 1960-80 period. It contains Second World War battle honours, but not the 1982 Falkland Islands battle honour.

The lower image is the "Company Colour" of No. 9 Company, Welsh Guards. They are quite small, about 70 cm. long. Google search "Welsh Guards" "company colour", and I think you will find images for companies 1, 3, 8 and 9 (which are, I think, the remaining extant companies.)

Both of these images are official water-colour prints of the real flags.
T.F. Mills, 11 November 2019

[Military Colours of a Welsh Unit] image by Ian Sumner, 11 November 2019
[Click on image for larger version]

Here also is a plate depicting the standards of 1-4 Companies. The arms in the hoist are different for each company, and are those attributed to various Welsh kings and princes. The fly of each flag is the same, except for the company number in Roman numerals and motto.
Ian Sumner, 11 November 2019

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