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United Kingdom - History of the Flag: Part 1

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

Last modified: 2014-03-03 by rob raeside
Keywords: united kingdom | union jack | kings colours | great union |
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Modern Flag (adopted 1801)

[Flag of the United Kingdom] 1:2 | image by Clay Moss, 16 December 2006
Flag adopted 1 January 1801.


See also:


History of the flag: 1606-1801

[Union flag of 1606] by Edward Mooney

When King James VI of Scotland ascended to the English throne, thereby becoming James I of England, the national flags of England and Scotland on land continued to be, respectively, the red St George's cross and the white St Andrew's cross. Confusion arose, however, as to what flag would be appropriate at sea. On 12 April 1606 a proclamation was issued:

"All our subjects in this our isle and kingdom of Great Britain and the members thereof, shall bear in their main top the red cross commonly called St George's Cross and the white cross commonly called St. Andrew's Cross joined together according to a form made by our heralds and sent to our Admiral to be published to our said subjects."
This is the first known reference to the Union Flag. Although the original design referred to has been lost, it is presumed that it was the flag which, with the addition of the St Patrick's cross, forms the basic design of the British Union Flag today. It is also interesting to note that the new flag was not universally popular nor accepted. The English were not overly pleased at the obscuring of the white field of the St George's flag. The Scots, with more justification, were upset at the fact that the red cross was laid over the white. The Scots proposed a number of alternative designs. These included:
  • The St George's flag with the St Andrew's flag in the canton
  • The St George's flag with a St Andrew's flag in each quarter. In this bizarre design the white cross of the St Andrew's flag does not extend to the corners of the flag.
  • The St George's flag with a St Andrew's flag in the centre

Scottish variant

None of these are very convincing designs and none were ever used. The Scots did, however, use an ingenious design in which the white cross of the St Andrew's flag was brought forward to overlay the red cross. This flag even seems to have achieved some limited official sanction. When the king visited Dumfries in 1618 he was hailed as the king under whose banner "the whyte and reid croces are so proportionablie interlaced." The word interlaced is held to be significant as it implies the use of the 'Scottish' version of the Union Flag:

[A Scottish proposal] image by Stuart A. Notholt, 4 May 1996

As late as 1693, Slezer, Captain of Artillery and Surveyor-General of Stores and Magazines in Scotland, produced an engraving on Edinburgh Castle in which the 'Scottish' version is shown: again, an implication of actual use. Source: Paul Harris (ed.), Story of Scotland's Flag, Lang Syne Publishers Ltd, 1992. Available from the Flag Research Center.
Stuart A. Notholt
, 4 May 1996

The design of the Union Flag that preceded the current version was established by a royal proclamation of 12 April 1606. However it was for use only at sea in civil and military ships of both Scotland and England. In 1634 its use was restricted to the king's ships. The flag went out of use in 1649 when England became a commonwealth but was restored for use in the king's ships after the restoration in 1660. The flag became 'the ensign armorial of the United Kingdom of Great Britain' as one of the provisions of the Act of Union in 1707, when the kingdoms of England and Scotland were united.
David Prothero
, 2 July 1998

[A Scottish proposal] image by Tomislav Todorovic, 16 May 2013

According to Hulme, "The Flags of the World" (1896), p. 46: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Flags_of_the_World there was another proposal, with white Scottish saltire, fimbriated blue, placed over the red English cross on white field. In Hulme's opinion, this variant was probably rejected because "here we get false heraldry, the blue in contact with the red, and in any case a rather weak-looking arrangement".
Image source: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Flags_of_the_World/Plate_9

Note that the legend for this illustration is erroneous: "Scotch suggestion for Union Flag, 1801.", as is the legend for the variant which was used: "Suggested Form[s] for second Union Jack."
Tomislav Todorovic, 16 May 2013


Early designs for a Union Jack

[Union flag proposal, 1604] [Union flag proposal, 1604] by Ivan Sache
 

[Union flag proposal, 1604]

 

[Union flag proposal, 1604] by Ivan Sache

 

[Union flag proposal, 1604]

 

[Union flag proposal, 1604] by Ivan Sache

The June edition of "BBC History" magazine has a short piece marking the four hundredth anniversary of the Union of the Crowns in 1603 when James VI of Scotland became James I of England. This included a photograph of a series of designs for a Union Flag, here redrawn by Ivan Sache. The caption to the article said: "Cross countries: designs for a Union flag, kept in the National Library of Scotland, c 1604 by an unknown artist; the Note of Preference is signed by the Earl of Nottingham" [this note was attached to the fifth design, per pale Cross of St. George, Cross of St. Andrew.]

André Coutanche, 25 May 2003

As a matter of interest, the 'impaled' design was actually used (from c1643) as a jack by Royalist ships in the English Civil War. Another design not shown had a quarterly arrangement - Cross of St George first and fourth, Cross of St Andrew second and third - and this is known to have been used as a jack on at least one occasion (1623).

Christopher Southworth, 25 May 2003


Adoption of the 1801 flag

[Union flag of 1606] by David Prothero

A drawing of the Union Flag that was sent to the Office of Stores for the Navy Board, on 15 November 1800 was marked, 'Union Flag from 1st January 1801 (c)', but the fimbriation had been made by reducing the width of the red diagonal. The drawing, as reproduced in the Mariner's Mirror (Journal of the Society for Nautical Research), is shown here.

It was found among a collection of drawings and letters from the office that organised flags for the Navy. The collection of correspondence was closed in 1837 and apparently retained in the Secretary of the Admiralty's Office until 1949, when it was handed to the Admiralty Library. It is unlikely that it was ever seen by William G. Perrin. Commander Hilary P. Mead R.N. described it in two articles in the Mariner's Mirror, April 1951 and February 1952. He commented that the drawing, "differed somewhat from that in Perrin's plate IV." I wonder if the change was made by accident or design?

"Admiralty Office, 15 November 1800.
Gentlemen,
A Report from the Lords of the Committee of the whole Council, dated 4th instant etc., etc. [details of decision to issue a Royal Proclamation]

That the Committee were further of opinion that the Union Flag should be altered according to the Draught thereof marked (C) in which the Cross of St George is conjoined with the Crosses of St Andrew and St Patrick:

And that the Standard be the Arms of the United Kingdom according to the Draught marked (B);

And that on and after the First Day of January next ensuing the said Flags and Banners should be hoisted and displayed on all His Majesty's Forts and Castles within the United Kingdom, and the Islands of Guernsey, Jersey, Alderney, Sark, and Man, and also on board all His Majesty's Ships of War, then lying in any of the Ports or Harbours of the said United Kingdom, or of the Islands aforesaid, and on board His Majesty's Ships employed on Foreign Service, as soon after the said First Day of January next as His Majesty's Proclamation or Order in Council shall be received by the Commanders of His Majesty's Ships employed on Foreign Service; We herewith transmit to you a Printed Copy of His Majesty's Order in Council of the 5th instant approving the Report of the Lords of the Committee afore-mentioned, and do hereby desire and direct you to cause such Flags and Standards as may be necessary to be prepared conformably to the said Draughts for the use of His Majesty's Ships of War at Home and on Foreign Stations, and to be supplied with them accordingly, with all the dispatch that may be.

You are also to cause the Colours described in the said Order in Council to be hoisted in all the Dock Yards of the Kingdom upon the 1st Day of January next, and to supply the necessary Colours for the use of the Naval Hospitals at Home, and the Naval Yards and Hospitals abroad, in the manner directed by the said Order in Council;
We are Your affectionate Friends,
Arden, J.Gambier, W.Young. Navy Board."

Note by John David Rolt, chief clerk in the Office for Stores, the Navy Board. Memorandum ( to C ). "The Ensign is Red, White and Blue according to the Colours of the Admiral's Flag, who bears it, with this Union Jack in a Canton in the Upper or Chief Dexter corner, and next the staff." Mead notes; "The Union Flag is from 24 to 18 breadths and is allowed to Flag Ships only. The Jack is the same in all respects except in sizes, which are from 10 breadths downwards.

David Prothero, 2 February 2003

The Admiralty version of the Union Flag, shown above, is, in fact, a corruption of the herald's original intention. In the Admiralty version (still of course in use today) fimbriation to the saltire of St Patrick is created by taking it from the saltire itself instead of from the field, whereas, according to the original design the saltires of St Andrew and St Patrick should be of equal width with a fimbriation added. The colour illustration (preserved in the Privy Council papers) and blazon supplied by Sir Isaac Heard (Garter King-at-Arms) was - in accordance with Article One of the Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland - approved by the King in an Order in Council of 5 November 1800. The Act of Union was then proclaimed in London Gazette No. 15324 dated 1 January 1801, with the blazon (accompanied by a monochrome drawing) reading as follows: "...that the Union Flag shall be azure, the Crosses Saltires of St Andrew and St Patrick Quarterly per Saltire, counterchanged Argent and Gules; the latter fimbriated of the Second surmounted by the Cross of St George of the Third, fimbriated as the Saltire".

Which brings me to the Great Union of 1900. In preparing a design for the War Office the College of Heralds returned to the original blazon and correctly made the saltires of even width with a fimbriation added, however, whilst it is obvious from the 18th Century illustration that the phrase "fimbriated as the saltire" was intended to mean 'fimbriated in the same colour as the saltire', the late-Victorian heralds wrongly interpreted this as meaning of 'the same *width and* colour'.
Christopher Southworth, 28 May 2006

I checked some documents that might have had information about the introduction of the new Union Jack in 1801.

The Captains Logs from ten RN ships in commission on 1 January 1801, selected at random, produced three references to the occasion. Blanche in Portsmouth "hoisted the (something, possibly 'union') colour", Phoebe in Cork "fired salute of 21 guns to celebrate union between Great Britain and Ireland" and Agincourt at Spithead did the same, though a day later on 2nd of January.

The notice that announced the Red Ensign was headed;

"Caution to Masters of Merchant Vessels Against Wearing Unlawful Colours. By the King a Proclamation, First Day of January 1801."

It included a small drawing of the Red Ensign in black and white with the colours indicated by words. The width of the diagonal stripes was in proportions 1-2-3, arranged with the wider white stripe uppermost not only in the first and third quarters, but also in the second and fourth quarters.

David Prothero, 6 February 2003

The introduction of the present Union Jack appears to have been more complicated than the usual accounts suggest. It obviously depended upon the Union actually taking place, and this required the assent of both British and Irish parliaments, but in December 1799 the Bill was rejected by the Irish parliament. It was re-introduced in the New Year and finally passed its Third Reading on 7 June 1800. I do not know if the corresponding Bill had already been passed by the British parliament, or whether it was done shortly afterwards. It received the Royal Assent on 2 July 1800, (40 Geo. III c. 67).

The article in the Act relating to the flag stated; "That it be the first Article of the Union of the Kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland, .... that the ensigns, armorial flags and banners thereof shall be such as His Majesty, by his royal Proclamation under the Great Seal of the United Kingdom, shall be pleased to appoint."

However it appears that the flag had already been designed, and some examples made. On the following day, 3 July, the Duke of Portland, Home Secretary, wrote to Viscount Castlereagh, Chief Irish Secretary ending, "... and, as to the new Union Flag, that, though ready, was not hoisted, because we found out that we have no right to use it until the first of next year, when the Union takes place." http://www.actofunion.ac.uk/castlereaghindex.php?volume=3 Documents 352/353.

Perhaps it had been intended that the Union should take place on the first day of the new century ? The Order in Council of 5th November 1800 seems to have been a formality.

Whether the Union Jack is an "official national flag" depends upon ones interpretation of the phrase. It is the official royal flag of a monarchy, and thus the kingdom's national flag, but its use by private individuals or bodies has been sanctioned by parliamentary statements, not by legislation.
    22 October 1902. Mr Balfour, First Lord of the Treasury. The questions which have been raised as to the proper use of flags have received careful consideration by the Government, but they are unable to adopt the course of action suggested. Nor does it appear desirable to undertake the legislation that would be necessary in order to regulate the general use by civilians, or any class of civilians, of any particular flag on land. It is a matter which is best left, as hitherto, to the guidance of custom and good taste.
[By way of further explanation, the First Lord of the Treasury is one of the other offices of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom - and in fact is written on his letterbox at his office at 10 Downing Street, London. This would indicate the high level at which this matter was being deliberated at that time.
Source: Web site of the British Prime Minister, http://www.10downingstreet.gov.uk, consulted 12 June 2006.
Colin Dobson, 12 June 2006]
    9 May 1912. Colonel M'Calmont. To ask Prime Minister whether the Union Jack is the emblem of the nation rather than the sovereign, and if this is so, in the event of the Government of Ireland Bill becoming law, will it be competent for the Irish Parliament to eliminate the cross of St Patrick from the national flag. Mr. Asquith. The Union Jack was established by Royal Proclamation under the Act of Union and is as much a matter of prerogative as the Royal Standard.
David Prothero, 13 June 2005

What is the correct Flag to be flown on land by Civilians?
    This answer was based upon a Minute by Garter, King of Arms:
"There is no Flag in existence answering to this general description. Civilians generally are not authorised to fly or display any Flag. Peers and gentlemen entitled to bear Arms have a right to fly from their Castles or residences a banner of their Arms. The Royal Standard appertains to the Sovereign alone. The Union Flag of the United Kingdom is used by authority throughout the Army and Navy, and the State Departments, usually with some modification or addition by way of distinction. The Union Flag, being the National Flag, appertains to the Nation as a whole, and cannot be considered as specially distinctive of individuals, or groups of individuals. The common practice on occasions of national rejoicing of displaying the Royal Standard and the Union Flag indiscriminately with other Flags must be regarded as an attempt to express loyalty by means of decoration. As to Public Buildings, Schools, etc - State Buildings should fly the Union Flag. Schools etc., should fly the Flag displaying their proper Arms. Municipal Buildings should fly a banner of the Arms of the particular Corporate body. The issue of a Royal Warrant touching this matter would, in my opinion, be inexpedient.
Sir Arthur W. Woods."
David Prothero, 12 June 2006

   A 1902 Home Office Minute on the question:
There appears to be no such thing as a "correct" flag for use by civilians on land. It seems that any one who has a coat of arms may display them on a flag, and the Union Flag has been used without restraint. A warrant under the Act of Union can be and has been issued fixing the ensigns, ceremonial flags and banners of the United Kingdom, but this warrant does not relate to such flags as private people may fly. The Union flag has been used indiscriminately for a very long period. There is no power by law to interfere with the use on land of any flag even the King's Standard. Any such warrant as proposed would therefore be accompanied by no means of enforcing it. There seems no reason why the state should intervene as to flying flags on land, (except as regards the King's Standard). To attempt to enforce any rule would bring the state into conflict with Trades Unions, the Royal Order of Ancient Buffaloes, the Foresters, and for all we know the processions of the Roman Catholics and Ritualists (etc). In fact it is impossible to say where it would end. To lay it down that all schools should use, say the Union Jack, would at once provoke a number of schools in Ireland to display a green flag with a harp, or a sunburst, the Socialists to display red banners. Is the state then to interfere and compel them all to use the Union Jack only ? Such an attempt would I think raise a veritable hornet's nest. The true answer is I think, that "there is no 'correct flag' for use on land except the Royal Standard by the King, and possibly coats of arms by those who possess them. There is no power at law to enforce the use of any flag. The use of flags on land has been regulated only by custom and good taste."
David Prothero, 12 June 2006

History of the flag continued

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