Vexilla Regis prodeunt. V. H. C. Fortunatus. [Passiontide.] This "world-famous hymn," as Dr. Neale calls it, has been ascribed to Theodulph of Orleans, to Sedulius, &c. But it is found in all the manuscripts of the works of Fortunatus, as well as in all the printed editions, and there is no ground whatever for questioning his authorship. In further annotation it will be most convenient to treat (1) of its Text, then (2) of its Origin and some of the allusions contained in it, and lastly (3) of the variations in its Use.
i. Text, MSS., &c. The first the full original text from Professor F. Leo's edition of Fortunatus's Opera poetica, Berlin, 1881, p. 34, where it is given as No. 6 in Bk. ii., entitled " Hymn in honour of the Holy Cross," and in 8 stanzas. This text Leo prints from a St. Petersburg manuscript of the 8th century, a Laudun manuscript of the 8th or 9th century, a Vatican manuscript of the 9th century, and others. It agrees with the original readings of a 9th century manuscript of Fortunatus, now in the British Museum.
ii. Origin and Allusions. To appreciate this hymn we must bear in mind the circumstances under which it was written. The details are of more than usual interest, as a short summary will show:—
Fonunatus was then living at Polctiers, where his friend, Queen Rhadegund, founded a nunnery. Before the consecration of the nunnery church she desired to present certain relics to it, and among these she obtained from the Emperor Justin n. a fragment of the so-called True Cross, from which circumstance the nunnery received its name of the Holy Cross. This relic was sent in the first instance to Tours, and was left in charge of the Bishop, in order that he might convey it to Poictiers. (See the Historia Francorum, by Gregory of Tours [d. 594], Bk. ix., Chapter 40.) In the Abbe E. Briand's Sainte Radegonde, Poictiers, 1887, pp. 128-130, its journey to Poictiers is thus described: "Escorted by a numerous body of clergy and of the faithful holding lighted torches, the Bishop started in the midst of liturgical chants, which ceased not to resound in honour of the hallowed wood of the Redemption. A league from Poictiers the pious cortege found the delegates of Rhadegund, Fortunatus at their head, rejoicing in the honour which had fallen to them; some carrying censers with perfumed incense, others torches of white wax. The meeting took place at Migne, at the place where, twelve centuries and a half later, the cross appeared in the air. It was on this occasion that the hymn 'Vexilla Regis' was heard for the first time, the chant of triumph composed by Fortunatus to salute the arrival of the True Cross.... It was the 19th November, 669."
The hymn was thus primarily a Processional hymn, written for use at the solemn reception of a relic of the Holy Cross. Inspired by the occasion the poet composed this poem of the Crucified King, one of the grandest hymns of the Latin church, in which in glowing accents he invites us to contemplate the mystery of love accomplished on the Cross. The occasion thus gives the key to his choice of subject, and to most of the allusions throughout the hymn. Fortunatus evidently had in his mind, especially in st. v., the old legends of the Tree of the Cross, and designedly used in i. line 4, the word "patibulum," which means properly a cross, formed thus Y or thus ψ; the latter form representing the stem of the tree, with the branches on which, as on a balance, the ransom of the world was weighed (st. vi.).
iii. Use. As already stated the first use was as a processional hymn in honour of the Holy Cross. Its subsequent uses include the following:—
The Sarum use was at Vespers on Passion Sunday, and daily up to Maunday Thursday. In the Paris Breviary of 1736 it was assigned to Vespers from Monday in Passion Week up to Maunday Thursday. In the present Roman Breviary it is used at Vespers on the Saturday before Passion Sunday, and up to Maunday Thursday, and also on the Festival of the Invention of the Cross (May 3); and in the present Roman Missal it is appointed to be sung on the morning of Good Friday, after the ceremony of the Adoration of the Cross, and during the time that the acolytes are censing the reserved sacrament (kept since Maunday Thursday in a side chapel, in the so-called Holy Grave), previous to its being solemnly placed on the High Altar.
[Rev. James Mearns, M.A.]
The translations into English of the Vexilla Regis include:—
1. A Broad the Regal Banners flie. This fine rendering is in The Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary in English, &c, 1687 (Brit. Mus.) an account of which is given in the Churchman's Shilling Magazine for July, 1876. Hymn No. 169 in Thring's Collection, 1882, is taken from this translation, the text being slightly altered. It is based on the translation of 1585 noted below, and is by far the best rendering of the Vexilla Regis in common use.
2. The royal banner is unfurled. By J. Chandler, in his Hymns of the Primitive Church, 1837, p. 74, in 5 st. of 4 1., and again in his Hymns of the Church, mostly Primitive, 1841, No. 42. It is given in a limited number of hymnals only.
3. Now onward move the standards of our King. By W. J. Copeland, in his Hymns for the Week, fc, 1848, p. 79, in 7 stanzas of 4 lines. Its use is limited.
4. Forth flames the standard of our King. By Bishop J. Williams, in his Ancient Hymns, 1845, p. 61. This is repeated in a limited number of collections, including Schaff’s Christ in Song, 1869, and others.
5. Forth comes the standard of the King: All hail, Thou Mystery ador'd. By E. Caswall, in his Lyra Catholica, 1849, p. 89, and his Hymns & Poems, 1873, p> 50, in 7 stanzas of 4 lines. It is given in several Roman Catholic hymnbooks for schools and missions.
6. Forth goes the standard of the King, The sign of signs, the radiant Cross. This tr. appeared as No. 36 in Stretton's Church Hymns, 1850, in 6 stanzas of 4 lines. It is a most successful rendering of the hymn
7. The King of Kings His banner rears. By R. Campbell, in his Hymns and Anthems, 1850, p. 65, in 6 stanzas of 4 lines.
8. See the royal banner streaming. By G. Rorison, in his Hymns and Anthems, 1851, No. 59, in 6 stanzas of 4 lines.
9. The royal banners forward go. By J. M. Neale, in his Mediaeval Hymns, 1851, p. 6, in 7 stanzas of 4 lines, and again in the Hymnal Noted, 1852, with the omission of st. vi. It is in common use both in its full and in several altered forms
10. The royal banner forward goes, The Cross's mystery shines to view. By J. A. Johnston in his English Hymnal, 1852. In the 1856 ed. he altered it to "See forward the King's banners go," and in the 1861 ed. to "Before us our King's banner goes."
11. The royal banner is unfurled. This, in the Cooke and Denton Hymnal, 1853, is a cento of which st. i. is from J. Chandler as above, and st. ii.-v. are from Stretton's Church Hymns, 1850, somewhat altered.
12. Forth goes the standard of our King, The sacred banner gleams on high. This rendering, which appeared in Chope's Hymnal, 1857, and again in other collections, is an arrangement made from older collections, the principal source being Stretton's Church Hymns, 1850, as above.
13. The King's bright banners forward go. This in Kennedy, 1863, No. 601, is J. A. Johnston's 1856 text as above, in a slightly altered form.
14. The royal banner is unfurled, And lo! the Cross is reared on high. This rendering in Morrell and How's Psalms & Hymns, 1864, in 4 stanzas of 4 lines, is an altered and abbreviated form of the text in Stretton's Church Hymns, 1850, as above, with a slight resemblance to Chope's text of 1857.
15. The Kingly banners onward stream. By R. C. Singleton, written in 1867, and published in his Anglican Hymn Book, 1868.
16. The King's bright banners forward go. By E. A. Dayman, in the Sarum Hymnal, 1868. The opening lines (1 and 2) are from Kennedy's 1863 text, hence the first line of st. ii., "With outstretched hands, transfixed and torn," must be noted.
Other translations are:—
1. The banners of the King come foorth, The misterie, &c. Primer (Antwerp), 1599.
2. Now forth the Kingly banners' goe. Primer (Mechlin), 1615.
3. Abroad the Regal Banners fly, Now shines the Crosses mystery. Primer (Antwerp), 1685.
4. Behold the Royal Ensigns fly, The Crosses shining Mystery. Primer (London?), 1706.
5. Abroad the royal Banners fly. A partial translation in the Evening Office, 1748.
6. Behold the Royal Ensigns fly, Bearing the Cross's Mystery. Evening Office, 1760.
7. Is this the standard of a King? J. Williams, 1839.
8. The great King's banner shines above. F. C. Husenbeth, 1841.
9. Mysterious sign of Royalty. W. Palmer, 1845.
10. See, see the royal banners fly. J. R. Beste, 1849.
11. The Royal Banner forward goes, The mystic Cross refulgent glows. J, D, Chambers, 1862 and 1857.
12. The banners of the King go forth Outshines the mystery of the Rood. W. J. Blew, 1852 and 1855.
13. The banners of the King appear, The mystery of the Cross shines clear. J. Keble, written in 1857, published in his (posthumous) Misc. Poems, 1869.
14. Behold the royal ensigns fly, which bear the Cross's mystery. By T. J. Potter in the Catholic Psalmist, 1858.
15. The Banner of the King goes forth, The Cross, the radiant mystery. Elizabeth Charles, 1858.
16. The Royal Banner floats on high. R. Massie, in Lyra Messianica, 1864.
17. The Kingly banners proudly fly. F. Trappes, 1865.
18. The King's bright banners onward bear. H. M. Macgill, in The Juvenile Missionary Magazine of the United Presbyterian Church, April, 1866, and his Songs of the Christian Creed and Life, 1876.
19. The banners of our King advance. J. Wallace, 1874.
20. Banners of our King are streaming. C. Kent, in 0. Shipley's Annus Sanctus, 1884.
21. The royal banners forward fly; The cross upon them cheers the sky. S. W. Duffleld, in his Latin HymnWriters, &c., 1889.
This extensive list of translations marks in a striking manner the strong hold this hymn has upon many men.
--Excerpts from John Julian, Dictionary of Hymnology (1907)