NETFLIX’S new Robert the Bruce epic, Outlaw King, shows Edward I (played by Stephen Dillane of Game of Thrones) responding to Bruce’s (Chris Pine) coronation in 1306 by “raising the dragon”, a black flag with a red dragon whose use meant that no mercy was to be shown to Bruce or his supporters. This dramatic episode may seem like an invention of Hollywood, but England’s medieval kings did indeed have a dragon banner. New research undertaken at the University of St Andrews has begun to reveal the history behind this medieval war banner.

The first description of an English dragon banner was in 1244, when Henry III ordered his goldsmith, Edward Fitz Odo, to make a banner of a dragon in red fabric embroidered with gold. The dragon’s tongue was to burn with flames and to look as if it was always moving and its eyes were to be made of sapphires. It was to be kept in the church of Westminster Abbey.

Another description of the flag, from 1245, says that it had a head made of gold. The design was based on that of the Anglo-Saxon dragon banner. Rather than being a piece of fabric attached to a pole, like a normal flag, the dragon banner was instead shaped much like a windsock. The metal head of the dragon was mounted to a pole and when the head’s open mouth was aimed towards the wind, the red fabric attached to it would inflate and writhe.

Just such a banner can be seen on the Bayeux Tapestry, carried by an Anglo-Saxon standing beside Harold Godwinson as he is hit in the eye with an arrow. The Anglo-Saxons had used these banners since at least the eighth century, where it was used by the king of Wessex in a battle against the king of Mercia in 752. The dragon was used by the Saxons again in 1016, this time against King Cnut and, of course, at Hastings in 1066, as shown on the Bayeux Tapestry.

England’s new Norman kings seem to have rejected the dragon banner, perhaps afraid of its links to the Anglo-Saxons who they now ruled. In fact, the first use of the banner after the Norman conquest was not by an English king, but by a Scottish one, David I. In January 1138, David invaded Northumberland, which the Scottish kings had claimed since the reign of Malcolm III (r. 1058-93).

As well as to gain land, David was also acting in support of his niece Matilda’s claim to the English throne. Matilda’s father, Henry I, had made his lords swear to accept her as queen after him but when Henry died most of the nobles chose his nephew, Stephen. Civil war broke out and David sided with Matilda. After raiding Durham and winning a battle at Craven in Yorkshire in June, David fought an English army at Northallerton on the 22nd August.

This was called the Battle of the Standard, named for the pole mounted on a cart and decorated with religious flags around which the English fought. But David I had his own banner “which, formed in the shape of a dragon, was easy to recognise”. That it was “formed” and in the “shape” of a dragon, rather than just “bearing” or “showing” a dragon suggests that this banner was modelled on the windsock-like Anglo-Saxon dragon banner. David’s use of the banner was no coincidence.

Through his mother, Queen Margaret, David was heir to the Anglo-Saxon kings which the Normans had overthrown. Using the Saxons’ dragon banner in his invasion of England was a clear statement of his own claims to the English throne. David lost the battle but did succeed in gaining Northumberland for his son, Henry, in 1139. No other Scottish king is known to have used the dragon banner.

It is not until the reign of Richard the Lionheart that we have evidence of this tradition being revived by an English king. Richard used the flag on the Third Crusade when fighting Saladin at Arsuf in 1191. King John used it against his rebellious barons in 1216 and Henry III raised the banner against the Welsh in 1245 and in 1257 and his own baronial rebels, led by Simon de Montfort, at the Battle of Lewes in 1264.

The dragon did not return to Scotland until 1306. In February that year, as depicted in Outlaw King, Robert the Bruce killed John Comyn, lord of Badenoch and his rival for the Scottish throne, at Greyfriars in Dumfries and then was crowned at Scone the following month. John Barbour’s epic poem about Robert’s life, The Brus, claims that Edward summoned Aymer de Valence, earl of Pembroke, and ordered him to “Scotland ga, and byrn and slay and rais dragoun”, to go to Scotland and burn and kill and raise the dragon banner.

English records bear out the truth of Barbour’s account, showing that de Valence was ordered to take no prisoners. Only later was the earl allowed to accept the surrenders of lesser allies of Bruce, but not those of any who had played a part in the killing of John Comyn. The last use of the medieval English dragon banner was during the Hundred Years War when Edward III raised it at the Battle of Crécy in 1346.

FOR the Anglo-Saxons and for David I, the dragon banner seems to have simply represented the king of England, who traditionally stood between the dragon and the standard. For Richard the Lionheart and his successors, it was a declaration of guerre mortelle, mortal war, warfare where both soldiers and civilians lost all privileges. The dragon banner of Henry III was described as “foretelling a sentence of death”.

In 1257, its use “threatened the general extermination of Wales”. Like the Oriflamme, the banner of the French kings, its unfurling meant that no mercy would be shown. The legitimate targets of medieval mortal war were infidels and rebels, and from Richard I onwards, the dragon was used only used against such enemies – Richard against the Muslim Saracens, John against rebel barons, Henry III against rebel barons and the Welsh he saw as rebels, Edward I against the Scots he claimed to be ruler of, and Edward III against the French, whose throne he claimed.

If the banner did mean no mercy, then England’s kings sometimes regretted it. Edward I was angered by his son’s violence to Scottish non-combatants. After the Battle of Crécy, Edward III berated some of his Cornish and Welsh soldiers for killing several wounded men-at-arms, depriving him of the ransom money they could bring. Other rulers clearly used it only for show. Henry III’s 1245 Welsh campaign ended with a peace treaty and he quickly withdrew his 1257 expedition.

The dragon banner seems to have fallen out of use by the late 14th century, perhaps because the adoption of St George as England’s patron saint clashed with glorifying a dragon in this way. Its last recorded use was against the Covenanters in the 17th century. William Watts, an English priest, recalled seeing a dragon banner in 1639 when serving as chaplain to Thomas Howard, earl of Arundel, who led Charles I’s failed invasion of Scotland that year.

Rory MacLellan is working towards a PhD in medieval history at the University of St Andrews