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by Robert F. Huber

The Shallop Elizabeth Tilley flying the flag of St. GeorgeWhen the Howland Society’s shallop sailed from Plymouth to Maine in August 2003 the tiny ship was flying the flag of St. George — the flag created a furor in the early days of New England.

It wasn’t a pretty flag — a red cross emblazoned on a field of white — but it did belong to the king of England and was used by the Royal Navy. The trouble was that it had been given to the king by the Pope as a talisman of victory.

The trouble erupted on a cold October day in 1634. Captain William Trask was drilling his train-band in the fundamentals of military operations. Onlookers in Salem saw the men carrying the flag proudly.

John Endecott who had been the first governor of the settlement at Salem saw it and was horrified.

He believed that the red cross… “was a superstitious thing and a relic of antichrist.”

Roger Williams, the outspoken Plymouth preacher, supported Endecott’s contention that the flag “savored of popery” and was “a badge of superstition.”

John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, agreed that the cross in the banner “was the image of an idol, and the greatest idol in the church of Rome.”

Many others in Salem, Plymouth, Boston and other colonies echoed these sentiments, but it took bold action by a bold man to face the issue squarely.

John Endecott cut the offending cross from the flag with his sword.

The emperor Constantine started using the flag with the cross as a military emblem and was intended to ward off hostile forces. Church leaders felt the “superstitious belief” that the emblem had power to protect troops made its use “unacceptable.”

Some more moderate leaders such as Thomas Dudley and Thomas Hooker expressed the belief that the reformation “had succeeded in weaning people from the idolatrous use of such symbols and that the cross on the flag could be accepted as a national emblem.”

The men in power were worried, fearing the London authorities would consider Endecott’s action a slap in the king’s face. An investigation was begun and the results were turned over to the General Court. Endecott was “admonished” and banned from holding public office for a year. He was then jailed. But Endecott was no dumb bunny. He was released the same day after admitting his errors.

As for Roger Williams, the General Court ordered him to “depart out” of our jurisdiction with in six weeks.

This little tempest in a teapot had a happy ending.

Endecott was elected governor of Massachusetts Bay several times and died in office. And Roger Williams fled to Rhode Island and founded Providence. He too became a governor.

And more than 400 years afterward, when the Elizabeth Tilley sailed with her crew of Howland descendants the flag of St. George was flying proudly.