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D - 1: Unpaid Royalties

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

Your Majesty, I regret to inform you that from my books it looks like you didn’t pay for the last 247 years”. With these words, the mayor of Genoa, plans to launch a lawsuit to recoup the royalties the United Kingdom has apparently not paid for the last 247 years. What is this dispute all about? It is about the cross of St Georges - the flag for both Genoa and England.

Model of a Genovese galley with the Cross of St George


English sport fans waving the Cross of St George

The dispute has its roots in the year 1190 when England and the City of London adopted St George’s flag for their ships entering the Mediterranean to benefit from the protection of the Genovese fleet. The English King paid an annual tribute to the Doge of Genoa for this privilege. It was a good one hundred years after Genoa had destroyed the Fatimid Fleet in Mahdia and was with Venice the dominant power in the Mediterranean. English ships were bringing pilgrims and knight to the Holy Land and of course the valuable tin from Cornwall.

Saint George as a crusader in Palestine

The origin of the flag of St George is shrouded in mystery. It is said that the saint appeared during battles and turned the tide in favor of the Christian Knights – but also that the flag was the result of an agreement between Henry II of England and Philip II of France during the third crusade whereby the English would wear the red cross and the French the white to identify themselves. More likely is the explanation that the flag is a genuine Genovese invention. White was the imperial color which could only be used by direct subjects to the Holy Roman Emperor. Stitching a red cross on top of imperial white made perfect sense. Red was the most expensive color at the time. Roman Senators wore red – and their “successors”, the Catholic cardinals, still do. Be it as it may, we still have to wait for a definite answer.

Using a cross to identify yourself in battle is also the origin of the Swiss flag, one of the very few square flags in the world. The Swiss were not rich when they rebelled against the Habsburg and defeated them in battle. They had to use bedlinen to stitch white crosses on their jackets. The choice of the white cross resulted from necessity not some noble decision. On a few medieval paintings, the white cross is clearly visible on the Swiss infantry. In the 15th century, the battle cross became our national symbol. The red background is no accident either. It refers to the holy cause the Swiss were fighting for – red was and is the color of the Church. Since 1814 it is formally our national flag.

Battle of Sempach in 1386 – the Swiss warriors with the white cross are in the center

In a further turn, the Swiss flag became the flag of the Red Cross in 1859, symbolizing impartial humanitarian aid during times of war. When the movement needed a symbol, it reversed the colors and the Red Cross flag was born. All the founder of the Red Cross were Swiss Citizens and it is today still a requirement for a Red Cross Assembly member, the highest body of the Red Cross, to be a Swiss citizen.

The flag of the Red Cross during one of our missions on the Nile in South Sudan

Whether the Genovese mayor will ever get paid for his claim will be an interesting story to follow. Wonder in which court he will sue the Queen of England.

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