Last modified: 2010-01-22 by rob raeside
Keywords: united kingdom | union jack | saltire | jack | cross: saint george | cross: saint andrew | cross: saint patrick |
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image by Clay Moss, 16 December 2006
Flag adopted 1 January 1801.
The UK flag consists of three elements: the cross of St. George (red on
white) for England, the cross of St. Andrew (white
diagonal on blue) for Scotland, and the so-called
cross of St. Patrick (red diagonal on white) for
Ireland. The original Union Jack/Union Flag adopted in 1606 was symmetrical: the
red cross of St. George outlined in white overlaid on top of a St. Andrew's
flag, which was blue with a white X.
In 1801, an Act of Union which made Ireland a co-equal member of the United Kingdom made it necessary to add a symbol for Ireland to the flag, but without obliterating any of the existing symbols. If the St. Patrick's cross had been centered on the diagonal stripes, then St. Andrew's cross would have been relegated to an inferior position, basically serving only as a border for St. Patrick's. But Scotland was the senior of the two kingdoms, so this was unsatisfactory. The solution was to divide the diagonal stripes diagonally, so that the red St. Patrick's cross would take up only half of each stripe, and so that half devoted to St. Andrew would take the place of honor. Thus, in the two hoist quarters, the white St. Andrew's cross occupies the upper position, and in the two fly quarters, the red St. Patrick's cross occupies the upper position.
There is a right way up for the Union Jack, but it is not flown upside down
as a signal of a ship in distress. That is only done with ensigns, in which the
Union emblem occupies only the upper hoist quarter of the flag. When a British
(or American) ensign is flown "union down," it is obviously distinguishable from
one flown in the normal fashion. An upside-down Union Jack is not sufficiently
different from a right side-up Union Jack to be useful as a signal of anything
except that the person hoisting it wasn't paying attention.
Joe McMillan, 24 March 2006
As originally designed (and approved prior to introduction) the flag had red
and white saltires of even width (counterchanged at the central point as Joe
explained) with a white fimbriation added to the red. The present design where
the white fimbriation is actually taken from the red making the saltire of St
Patrick narrower than that of St Andrew was an Admiralty variant - dating
originally from the shortly after the introduction in 1801 - which has become
established as the official design (except for military colours which have even
Christopher Southworth, 24 March 2006
If the St Patrick's Cross was centred on the St Andrew's Cross, then it would
look like Andrew was just a fimbriation for Patrick. In reality, they are equal,
and so you will note that the thin white stripe next to the St Patrick's Cross
is a fimbriation, whereas the Saint Andrew's Cross of course needs no
fimbriation. Why the anticlockwise attitude of St Patrick vis-à-vis St Andrew?
Because The St Andrew's Cross, representing Scotland, the older member of the
United Kingdom, comes before Saint Patrick for Ireland, a younger addition. And
so the Saint Andrew's Cross is first when we start in the canton and move
Robert M. J. Czernkowski, 20 November 1995
When it was decided that the flags of England and Scotland should be joined,
"the plan adopted was not simply to unite or join the two flags, but was an
attempt to more than unite; the intention was to amalgamate and interlace or
combine the two so as to produce an appearance of complete union." The Union
Jack by Emanuel Green, Archaeological Journal December 1891). Impalement and
quartering would each have resulted in a flag where one or other of the
constituent flags was in the superior position; next to the hoist, or in the
upper canton. Combining the two flags avoided this, and heraldically could be
done in one of two ways. The alternative to
the chosen method results in a white saltire fimbriated blue over the flag of St
George, with additional fimbriation of white where the blue fimbriation crosses
the red cross. The selected method was judged to be the better alternative. It
was not an attempt to place the English cross in a superior position. The Scottish variant
is not heraldically correct since it is based on a blue flag, which is not the
flag of either country.
David Prothero, 9 July 2006
The 1606 pattern of UJ was the flags of England and Scotland "conjoined"
which is a heraldic term meaning (in essence) combined to make a unified whole,
and heraldically speaking the fact that the Cross of St George was placed
"overall" (or over all) does not imply any precedence but was if nothing else,
necessary to comply with "the rule of tincture". In the 1801 pattern of UJ, as
originally designed, the saltires of St Andrew and St Patrick were of even
width, and were "counter-changed" so as to give them (as nearly as possible)
equal importance, however, as the older symbol (and an established national
flag) the St Andrew was placed uppermost in the first quarter thus quite rightly
giving it the "position of honour" and precedence.
Christopher Southworth, 12 July 2006
The official specification is based on 1/30ths of the width (or height) of the flag. The St George's Cross is 6/30ths (1/5th) of the width, the fimbriations to it are 2/30ths (1/15th) of the width. The St Andrew's Cross is a total of 6/30ths (1/5th) of the width, measured perpendicularly to the diagonal. This is made up, in the top hoist corner, top to bottom, of 3/30ths white, 2/30ths red, 1/30th white. These dimensions apply regardless of the length of the flag. An accurate drawing of the flag can be found at this page, or on our page here.
My sources tell me that the proportions of Royal Navy flags were set at 1:2
for ensigns and jacks, and 2:3 for command flags " early in Queen Victoria's
reign". Can anyone supply me with the actual date? The general consensus of
opinion (backed by the measurements of the one surviving ensign I am aware of)
seems to be that this was a confirmation of a situation which had been extant
since the last quarter of the 18th Century?
Christopher Southworth, 18 April 2003
My impression is that there was no particular date. I think it happened as a
matter of practical convenience when, probably about the middle of the 19th
century, or a little earlier, the dimensions of naval flags stopped being
expressed in 'breadths x yards', and changed to 'feet x feet'. 1 : 2 just
happened to be the ratio that, at the time, most nearly expressed the relative
size of a breadth to half a yard, and was adopted without any specific
instruction. The Admiralty Flag Book of 1889 is not precise: "The practice has
been, in regard to the dimensions of flags generally, to make the length twice
the breadth at the head. The following appear to be exceptions to this rule.
Admiral, length is one and a half times breadth."
David Prothero, 18 April 2003
|image by Graham Bartram||image by Martin Grieve, 6 April 2008|
However, the army's version of the flag is not 1:2 but 3:5, so the two values of 25 along the bottom edge would be 20. In this case the diagonals of the St Patrick's cross are not quadrilaterals and are cut off as shown above. This is not a mistake - it is simply a result of the geometry. Both the 1:2 and 3:5 versions are official (although the government uses 1:2) and their specifications are given in BR20 Flags of All Nations, the British government's flag book.
There are other versions of the Union Flag: Queen's Colours are usually
almost square and have very narrow fimbrations, with the red and white parts of
the diagonal being of equal width; Queen's harbourmaster has a central Union
Flag which is longer than 1:2; jacks for ships carrying blue ensigns are square
and have a square Union Flag in the canton, etc.
Graham Bartram, 1 and 7 December 1999
The origin of the St. Patrick's cross introduced
into the Union Jack in 1801 is a bit of a mystery. It appears that until
the St. Patrick's cross was added to the Union Jack, there was no acknowledged
St. Patrick's cross flag, certainly not one that was acknowledged in any form as
a national flag for Ireland.
Mike Oettle, 15 December 2001
Note that a 3:5 British union jack is not just a regular 1:2 jack one
squeezed to different ratio, as the vertical red and white “stripes” (cross
arms) must keep the same width as the horizontal’s height.
António Martins-Tuválkin, 3 April 2008
|images by Martin Grieve|
The Union Jack is to be seen quite often at a ratio of 2:3, and of course
appeared in this form on the 1928-1994 South African
national flag. I received construction details from Christopher Southworth.
Martin Grieve, 16 December 2003
It seems that 2:3 were the proportions of the official Union Jacks flown in
South Africa 1929 to 1957. In a letter to the First Lord of the Admiralty, dated
13 March 1929, Mr. A.A. Somerville wrote that he had it on good authority that
the South African Government was ordering Union Jacks of 2:3 so that they would
be of the same size and proportions as the Union Flag of South Africa, and asked
if there were regulations concerning the proportions of the Union Jack. The
reply was that, "it is believed at the Admiralty that there is no statutory
authority beyond custom for the proportions in vogue for the Union Jack."
[National Archives (PRO) ADM 1/8968]
David Prothero, 7 April 2008
See also: British ensign, ratio 3:5
image by António Martins
The square jack is rather mysterious topic, about which most sources that I
have consulted are rather silent. If I understand rightly the
Flaggenbuch, this square jack would in theory exist for any blue ensign
Željko Heimer, 27 February 2002
As you wrote, theoretically there was a square jack for most Blue Ensigns,
but in practice only a few were taken into use. Many departments operated only
launches or small vessels that did not need a jack.
An Admiralty Memo in 1922 noted that the Red Jack was introduced in 1694 to prevent the use of the Union Jack. This was changed to a Blue Jack in 1864. Of 66 Royal Fleet Auxiliary Oilers and Petrol Carriers only two carried jacks. It would cost 110 pounds sterling to supply the rest with three jacks each, and cost an estimated 20 pounds per annum thereafter.
Admiralty Fleet Order 2189/22 of 1922 included the instruction that Royal Fleet Auxiliaries, Yard Craft and other vessels employed in the service of the Admiralty, and not commissioned as ships of war, were to fly the Blue Ensign defaced by the Admiralty badge (at that time a horizontal anchor), and on ceremonial occasions a jack defaced by the Admiralty badge. Two flags, one yard by one yard (91 cm x 91 cm), for use as jacks would be allowed each RFA attached to the Fleet Fuelling Service and Store Carrying Service. No jacks would be issued to vessels not accompanying the fleet.
image by António Martins
In 1974 the badge for RFAs was changed to a vertical anchor and the Blue Ensign
with a horizontal anchor became the Government Service Ensign.
The only other defaced square jacks that I know of were; Hong Kong Naval Volunteer Force, Hong Kong 1924 badge, Straits Settlements Naval Volunteer Force, Straits Settlements badge, Royal Malayan Navy, Singapore badge, Royal East African Navy, REAN badge, Nigerian Naval Force, Nigeria badge.
David Prothero, 12 May 2002
In my limited experience of such documents, an Admiralty Warrant granting the
right to fly a defaced blue ensign also specifically mentioned an accompanying
defaced blue jack, and this is repeated in those more recently issued by the
Ministry of Defence. A typical example is Jersey where the Admiralty Warrant of
2 March 1907 states that (in addition to the ensign) '...the said vessel (in
this case the steam tug 'Duke of Normandy') shall be permitted to wear a small
blue flag with a Union described in the canton at the upper corner next to the
staff, as a jack, with the badge of Jersey in the fly thereof'. This right is
repeated in the MoD Warrants granted on 15 June 1967 and in August 1997. Such
jacks are, properly speaking and by convention square, and as such carry a
square Union in the canton. On the other hand, as far as I can find out the
right to use them is rarely, if ever, exercised (at least nowadays).
Christopher Southworth, 14 January 2003
It is possible that the reference to a jack in the Admiralty Warrant for the
Blue Ensign is peculiar to Jersey, and was included only
because a jack was specifically requested in addition to the ensign. The warrant
for Jersey was unusual in that it could not be issued under the provisions of
the Order in Council 9 July 1864 which abolished Squadron Colours, since the
States of Jersey were not a Public Department, nor under the Colonial Naval
Defence Act of 1865, since Jersey was not a colony. It was therefore issued as a
special case under Sec.73(i) of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894; "any other ship
or boat for the time being allowed to wear any other national colour (other than
the Red Ensign) in pursuance of a warrant from His Majesty or from the
David Prothero, 15 January 2003
Yes the three warrants I referred to previously were all for
Jersey, and upon checking I find that I have only one
other (I thought I had two more). This is a copy of the MoD Warrant granting the
right to fly a defaced blue ensign to Guernsey. It is
undated (but was sent with an accompanying letter of 3 July 2000) and also
confers the right to fly a defaced blue jack.
Of course the Admiralty and subsequent MoD Warrants under discussion were issued by virtue of the various Merchant Shipping Acts (the current wording is, it would appear, almost identical to that of the original), as, I presume, were those of the fleet auxiliary (since it forms part of the Merchant Marine)? What we need to know, and what I await information from the MoD on (if it ever arrives), is whether the granting of a defaced blue jack is general for Warrants issued to Government authorities, or, if the two cases in my possession are unique? According to the Admiralty librarian, sight of any Admiralty Warrants would require a visit to the Public Record Office.
The appearance of such a jack in the Flaggenbuch - considering the lengths gone to in ensuring the accuracy of that publication - seems to confirm that the practice had (at least in 1939 if not now) some sort of official sanction?
Christopher Southworth, 17 January 2003
The situation is probably much as it was in 1947 when Sir Gerald Wollaston,
Norry and Ulster King of Arms, wrote to the U.S. of S. at the War Office.
"Flags flown at sea under the direction of the Admiralty are of the relative proportions of 2x1. This excessive length compared with the depth is unsuitable for heraldic flags (eg. the Royal Standard) in which the charges have to be distorted to fill the space, or in which (when this is not possible) they leave large spaces on either side unfilled; both resulting in bad heraldic design. The heraldic banner is properly a square flag, but for a flag flying in the wind from a flag pole some increase in length over the depth is admittedly desirable. These facts have long been recognised by the heraldic authorities. When, in 1938, the Earl Marshal, who is the controlling authority over heraldry and flags flown on land (which are mainly heraldic), laid down the flag proper to be flown on churches in the Provinces of Canterbury and York, opportunity was taken to state that flags on land should be of the approximate dimensions of 5x3 instead of 2x1. This was actually promulgated by me, as then Garter King of Arms and principal heraldic officer under the Earl Marshal, with his approval in a letter to the press; but as it had at the time principally reference to church flags it may not have had the advertisment which brought it to the notice of all people. However that may be, such knowledge does in fact spread, and when the Home Office, in 1943, desired to establish flags for the National Fire Service and and the Civil Defence Service, they agreed that, following the ruling of 1938, they should be made of the dimensions of 5x3. So, more recently, your office has, through the Central Ordnance Depot, altered the dimensions of Army flags, and the Air Ministry has adopted the same dimensions. While therefore the difference in size from flags flown at sea may not yet be universally known and accepted, and while it is neither possible nor desirable, to compel universal acceptance, I think it may be said that the dimensions of 5x3 for flags flown on land are officially accepted, and from this, no doubt, general acceptance will in due course follow. Anything which would tend to ensure this would be to the good.David Prothero, 24 November 2005
As to the last paragraph of the letter from the Commonwealth of Australia, I would say that the Blue Ensign is primarily a flag to be flown at sea, and that all such flags come under the jurisdiction of the Admiralty and should of course conform to Admiralty dimensions. So far as it (with varying charges) may be flown partly at sea and partly on land - if that be the case - it may be inconvenient to have two sizes. There is nothing compulsory about the Earl Marshal's ruling, which is intended as a guidance to those concerned."
It may be worth making clear that
situation is no longer exactly the same as regards the
Australian flag, as it has since then been explicitly defined as 1:2 in the
Jonathan Dixon, 26 November 2005
The following is quoted from the article on the flag's name at the website of the Flag Institute, by Cdr Bruce Nicolls OBE RN (Ret'd):
The first use of the name 'Union' appears in 1625. There are various theories as [to] how it became known as the 'Union Jack', but most of the evidence points to the name being derived from the use of the word 'jack' as a diminutive. This word was in use before 1600 to describe a small flag flown from the small mast mounted on the bowsprit, and by 1627 it appears that a small version of the Union flag was commonly flown in this position. For some years it was called just 'the Jack', or 'Jack flag', or 'the King's Jack', but by 1674, while formally referred to as 'His Majesty's Jack', it was commonly called the Union Jack, and this was officially acknowledged.
In the 18th century the small mast on the bowsprit was replaced by staysails on the stays between the bowsprit and the foremast. By this time the Ensign had become the principal naval distinguishing flag, so it became the practice to fly the Union Jack only in harbour, on a specially rigged staff in the bows of the ships, the jackstaff. It should thus be noted that the jack flag had existed for over a hundred and fifty years before the jack staff came into being, and its name was related to its size rather than to the position in which it was flown.
It is often stated that the Union Flag should only be described as the Union Jack when flown in the bows of a warship, but this is a relatively recent idea. From early in its life the Admiralty itself frequently referred to the flag as the Union Jack, whatever its use, and in 1902 an Admiralty Circular announced that Their Lordships had decided that either name could be used officially. Such use was given parliamentary approval in 1908 when it was stated that "the Union Jack should be regarded as the National flag".
Graham Bartram, 29 May 1999
It is noticeable that in official correspondence and publications the term
'Union Jack' was used much more frequently than 'Union Flag' until the late
1880's when 'Union Jack' is often printed but has a hand-written amendment
crossing out 'Jack' and inserting 'Flag'. This was probably instigated by a
recommendation of the Committee for Revising the General Signal Book in 1887.
David Prothero, 1 December 1999
A directive about the disposal of flags in the Royal Navy was issued on 26
Feb 1914 as Stores Duties Instructions, article 447. Royal Standards, British or
foreign, the standards of all members of the Royal Family, flags (silk or
bunting) personal to other distinguished personages, on being condemned for
further use in HM Service, were not to be used for decorative purposes, nor to
be sold out of the Service as old flags, but were to be torn up into small
pieces and disposed of as rags.
Similar ruling for condemned foreign ensigns. [ADM 1/8369/56]
Flags that had been flown in action were not destroyed. War Order 2886 of 30 August 1919, incorporated into October Monthly Orders, directed that personal naval flags including the commanding officer's pennant could be retained. Ensigns should be framed and kept on board whilst the ship was in service, and then transferred to a museum or other suitable place.
Ships could present a Battle Ensign to a town with which it was associated. In 1949 Admiral Sir W. Tennant offered the Union Jack, that had been flown as a Battle Ensign by HMS Nottingham at the Battle of Jutland (1916), to Nottingham Cathedral, noting that, "At Jutland we all flew very large Union Jacks from each masthead." [ADM 1/21533]
The main Battle Ensign flown by HMS Exeter at the Battle of the River Plate
remained in the possession of the commanding officer, and then passed to the
Maritime Museum, while the second Battle Ensign went to the City of Exeter. [ADM
Some warships were presented with sets of silk flags for use on ceremonial occasions, and an effort was usually made to find a home for them when the ship was scrapped. The battleship HMS Malaya which was paid for by the Council of the Federated States of Malaya had a set of silk flags presented by the European Ladies of the Federated States; a 30 foot White Ensign, a 15 foot Union Jack, a 15 foot Malayan Jack, and two miniature Malayan Jacks for the ship's chapel. They were to be flown whenever HM the King visited the ship, and on 31st May, the anniversary of the Battle of Jutland. The Malayan jack was flown at the foremasthead. [ADM 1/8692/250]
The directive was changed in 1943 after torpedo
coupling screws had been sent to the United States wrapped in parts of an
American flag. Following a complaint from the American Embassy, Stores Duties
Instructions were amended. "In future all national flags are to be destroyed and
not used as 'bundling (bunting old)'". [ADM 1/12955]
David Prothero, 2 February 2002
UK Flag Registry is maintained and managed by the Flag Institute as the national registry of United
Kingdom flags. This is to ensure there is a definitive record of those which
exist both nationally and regionally. There is of course no UK Flag Act, under
the authority of which such flags might have been endorsed, and it therefore
falls to the Flag Institute to maintain the formal record.
National flags for the constituent countries of the UK are well established, even if not declared in law to be national flags, whilst the range of county and regional flags continues to expand as can be seen by the dates of authorisation given for the more recent ones listed. There is no other formal national listing of these flags.
As new county or regional flags are created they will be added to the list once they have satisfied the strict criteria laid down. If a flag in common use is not listed here please contact the Chief Vexillologist. To find out more about the criteria for registration please see the section on Registry criteria.
Christopher Southworth, 31 July 2008
Regional flags currently listed in the registry are indicated in the pages indexing the flags of the home countries: Scotland, England, Wales.