Sir John Gell’s Colour History

4th Captain’s Colour,

Sir John Gell’s Regiment of Infantry, 1646 (c).


Sir John Gell was High Sheriff of Derbyshire when he was commissioned as Colonel to raise a Parliamentarian regiment during the English Civil War (1642-1651). His regiment took part in several engagements including the sieges of Chester and Lichfield and the battle of Hopton Heath.

Gell became disaffected with the political direction taken by the Parliamentary regime after the king’s surrender in 1646. A further cause of disillusionment was Parliament’s reluctance to compensate him for losses he incurred in fighting the war. In 1646 his regiment was disbanded and he was relieved of all appointments. Gell moved to London where he made contact with Royalist agents but in 1650 he was found guilty of knowing of a royalist plot and not revealing it to the authorities. Imprisoned in the Tower of London, Gell was released in 1653 on grounds of ill health. He was pardoned by King Charles II at the Restoration in 1660 and given an appointment at court.

This foot colour is the best provenanced of the three in the museum, having been in the keeping of the descendents of Sir John Gell in Newnham in Northamptonshire it can be connected with some certainty to Gell’s regiment from the Civil War. It was framed and kept behind glass where Andrew Polkey examined it for his research into the war in Derbyshire and Stephen Ede Borrett for his book ‘Ensignes of the Civil Wars’. Andrew’s comments formed the larger part of a description in ECW Flags and Colours by Les Prince and Stuart Peachey. In 1994 it was purchased by the National Army Museum and passed into their collection. Recently it was taken for conservation work to the Museum’s workshops in Woolwich. It has now been returned to the stores in Stevenage where I was allowed to view and photograph it. I had read the piece in Les’ and Stephen’s books, but because the previous inspections upon which the descriptions were based were limited I wanted to look at it for myself.

The museum entry says:

“4TH Captain’s colour. Gell’s Regiment of Infantry, C.1650. Double sided silk colour with a gold silk ground and five blue stars inset, running diagonally from the lower right corner of St. George’s Cross at the top left to the lower right corner (as viewed). The pole sleeve is lined with linen fabric.”

The width of the colour is 1990mm. It is 1915mm tall at the pole sleeve and 1870mm at the fly. The body of the flag is cut from three sections of yellow silk hand-stitched together with run and fell seams. The upper portion above the horizontal seam is 800mm wide and the lower section 1050mm. The upper section is made in two pieces joined with a hem that runs vertically from the lower right hand corner of the canton to the mid point.

The silk on the St George’s canton, (especially the white quarters) has degraded over the years but it’s still possible to see how it went together. It’s obvious now, (though it wasn’t when framed) that the vertical of the St George’s cross isn’t one complete strip as the top and lower arms don’t quite line up.

I think that I’ve now worked out the sequence of construction. The canton was made up as a complete section first, (all the seams being run and fell to protect the cut edges of the silk); the two vertical red pieces were separately sewn to two flanking cream squares. Then these two sections were sewn to the horizontal red stripe to complete the cross. The finished canton was then fixed to the yellow section below it and this piece was sewn to the yellow top left hand quarter of the colour. The top and bottom halves were then joined by sewing together with another run and fell seam. In this way, all the seams are straight and there were no tricky corners to sew round. The entire flag was then hemmed on three sides with what looks like a thin cord inset within the hem to give it more body

Following this, in a diagonal line from the corner of the canton were sewn a row of five blue stars. This denotes that the colour is the flag of a fourth (or possibly fifth) captain’s company. This also may explain why the flag has survived. Quite often any junior colours like this one wouldn’t have been used if the regiment was under strength. The stars are made of blue silk sewn onto one side of the flag. Star shaped holes were then cut into the ground of the flag on the opposite side and the rough edges were whipped over to stop them fraying.

The pole sleeve was the made from the same yellow silk as the flag, lined with plain weave linen and attached to the colour. It’s 50mm wide at the widest point, and could take a pole roughly 3cm in diameter. The colour also had a matching silk cord with tassels attached. It has been associated with the flag for a long time so may be safely attributed, but it wasn’t available for me to view

The colour has been stabilized by the museum and covered with a fine net to prevent any further degradation of the silk. Some fine dust was removed with a fine sable brush and this brightened it up generally. The white silk, (and to a lesser extent the red) in the St George canton has degraded badly but this has been enclosed in conservation net and the whole colour now fixed to a padded board for future display. As I understand it is to be displayed at the Chelsea Museum in rotation with another flag a blue and white pile wavy foot colour, also possibly from the civil war. At the time of writing it is now on display in a case in the Civil War section.

More reading, (though with less accurate descriptions of this colour) can be found in:

English Civil War Flags and Colours by Les Prince & Stuart Peachey 1991

Ensignes of the English Civil War by Stephen Ede-Borrett 1997

*This Article is here by kind permission of Ian Dicker.*