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United Kingdom: history of the British ensigns

Last modified: 2003-07-05 by rob raeside
Keywords: united kingdom | union jack | civil ensign | naval ensign | red ensign | white ensign | blue ensign |
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The Red Ensign:

[UK civil ensign] by Graham Bartram

The White Ensign:

[UK naval ensign] by Vincent Morley

The Blue Ensign:

[UK naval reserve ensign] by Graham Bartram

See also:

History of British ensigns

Based on descriptions in Wilson's Flags at Sea

[possible Elizabethan ensign] by Phil Nelson

Does anyone know anything about an English jack from about the time of Elizabeth I showing the St George's Cross with four blue stripes (two above and two below the cross) passing behind the vertical arms of the cross?
Jonathan Dixon, 10 November 1999

[possible Elizabethan ensign]    [possible Elizabethan ensign] by Phil Nelson

[possible Elizabethan ensign] by Phil Nelson

Wilson's Flags at Sea (1986) has a black and white image on page 15 and states on page 14:

"By the end of the (16th) century striped ensigns were common on European ships and those of English ships were often distinguished by a cross of St. George in a canton or overall. To judge from the scattered evidence of illustrations, the colors of ensigns varied from ship to ship: although red and white (the colors of the cross of St. George) and green and white (the Tudors' livery colors) were used, there seems sometimes to have been no significance in the colors chosen."
Although no blue stripes are mentioned they may be implied by 'varied'; furthermore in old flag charts the colors blue and green were often confused with each others.
Jarig Bakker, 10 November 1999

Before then English merchantmen had often flown the Union, and before 1606 the plain Cross of St. George. However, there is an older English flag with a canton - the Tudor naval ensign, which was alternating green and white horizontal stripes (the livery colours of the Tudor family) with St. George in a square canton. I don't recall if there was a set number of stripes - I suspect not, but nine rings a bell. There is a reproduction of this flag displayed on the upper floor of the Victory Gallery of the Royal Naval Museum in Portsmouth along with a number of other flags from the Royal Navy's history.
Roy Stilling, 8 February 1996

Stern Ensigns were, according to Perrin, a rather late entrant on the English naval scene and he gives a date of around 1574. Prior to this a simple Cross of St George would be flown, or perhaps the Royal Arms in addition to a great number of streamers and other banners.

As far as the introduction of plain ensigns is concerned: Prior to c1625 English Royal Naval Ensigns were striped in various colours (green and white, red, white and blue, gold, white, and blue etc.,) with a white canton and red Cross of St George (or occasionally with a Cross of St George overall). Merchant ensigns were either striped with a St George canton (that of the Honourable East India Company is a survival from that age) or a simple cross of St George on a white field - if that is, a stern ensign was carried at all, since a masthead flag of St George was the older form of recognition. The exact date of introduction of the red ensign is slightly uncertain, however, it is known that the recommendation was made in 1625 and that the striped ensigns had become obsolete by 1630 (for warships). The white and blue ensigns were introduced for all naval ships by an Order of the Navy Commissioners in 1653.
Christopher Southworth, 24 February 2003

Red Ensigns

1620-1707      1707-1800
[historic red ensign]      [historic red ensign]
by Phil Nelson      by Phil Nelson

William Crampton (1990) says on page 102 that when Charles I reserved the 1606 Union Flag for royal use in 1634,

English civil vessels at this time began to use the Red Ensign: a red flag with the cross of St. George on a white canton.

Blue Ensigns

1620-1702 1707-1800
[historic blue ensign]       [historic blue ensign]
by Phil Nelson by Phil Nelson

White Ensigns

1630-1702 1707-1800
[historic white ensign]       [historic white ensign]
by Phil Nelson by Phil Nelson
Alternative white ensign (for use in home waters), 1707-1720

[historic white ensign]

Flags of the blue, red and white squadrons

[admiral of the blue squadron] by Phil Nelson

[admiral of the red squadron] by Phil Nelson

[admiral of the white squadron] by Phil Nelson

These are the command flags of the admirals in charge of the various divisions (or later of a particular grade within a given rank) were. The exception to this was the white, which carried a red cross (thus becoming the flag of St George) from around 1702. The order of seniority was changed in 1653 from red, blue and white to red, white and blue (which it still is). The white ensign also had a plain fly originally, but (for tactical reasons) a wide red cross (one-third of flag width) was added overall in 1702, and this was amended to its modern dimensions in 1707.

The system of grading admirals by colour ceased in 1864, and all admirals thereafter flew a Cross of St George as a command flag. The general addition of red balls to indicate rank came in later - the use of boat flags in other words - because of the introduction of mastless ironclads.
Chris Southworth, 25 February 2003

In origin there were three naval squadrons, of the Red, White and Blue, and they took these colours from those of the Union Jack. The division was made in the 1680s, if I remember correctly. Because the Red Ensigns of England and Scotland had already been established as merchant flags a Red Ensign with the Union in the canton became the merchant flag of Great Britain upon Union in 1707. This led to potential confusion - was that ship a merchantman or a member of the red squadron?

In 1864 it was decided to end this anomaly. Henceforth the White Ensign was reserved to the Royal Navy, the Blue Ensign undefaced to the Royal Naval Reserve and defaced with the appropriate departmental or territorial badge to government service, and the Red Ensign to the 'merchant navy' (as the term is in Britain).

Now, as colonies became dominions they began to acquire navies. These all wore the White Ensign, but wore their appropriate territorial Blue ensign as a jack. The only geographical usage of the Red White and Blue that I know of, and which might be the source of this idea, was in the masthead pennant. Before 1864 this was St. George's Cross in them hoist and a fly of the Squadronal colour. After 1864 the home Royal Navy used the white pennant and colonial naval units used the blue. The red pennant was used briefly by the Royal Indian Marine between 1921 and 1928.

Source: H. Gresham Carr Flags of the World, 1961, pp 121-8.
Roy Stilling, 6 July 1996

About 1837, according to Colours of the Fleet, naval flags were made-up in regulated sizes, but whilst the length was specified in inches, the breadth was not specified because a breadth was a breadth - it being the width of the standard fabric from which the flags were made. In 1687, Samuel Pepys, Secretary of the Admiralty, and remembered for his diaries, directed that flags should be half a yard (eighteen inches) long for each breadth, which at that time was 11 inches, giving a ratio of 11:18. Early in the eighteenth century the width of the material, as manufactured, was reduced to ten inches, but the length was not adjusted, so the proportion changed to 10:18 (5:9). Then about 1837, the width was changed to 9 inches, again with no alteration to the length, resulting in a ratio of 9:18 (1:2). How to get a badly proportioned flag without even trying!
David Prothero, 3 April 1997

Which British ensign (red, white or blue) would have been used by the Royal Navy in the Caribbean towards the end of the 18th century?
William E. Hitchins, 2 May 2000

Any or all. It would depend on the flag officer in command. British flag officers up until 1864 were commissioned as admiral, vice admiral, or rear admiral of the red, white, or blue squadrons. A captain promoted to flag rank became a rear admiral of the blue, then moved up to rear admiral of the white, rear admiral of the red, vice admiral of the blue, vice admiral of the white, vice admiral of the red, and so on. If you can find out (from contemporary Navy Lists) what color admiral was commander in chief in the West Indies at the time, you'll know what color ensign the ships under his command flew - at least normally.

It's complicated by the facts that:

  • Any vessels under direct Admiralty orders (i.e., not under the C-in-C's command) would have flown the red ensign.
  • (I'm not absolutely sure of this one but I think that:) Subordinate flag officers, if there were any, would convey the color of their rank to the ensigns of ships under their command.
  • A flag officer in command could direct that vessels under his command fly a different ensign to avoid confusion in combat - for example, a vice admiral of the blue might direct his ships to fly white ensigns (as Nelson did) to avoid confusion with the French Tricolor.
    Joe McMillan, 7 May 2000

    Change in the White Ensign

    Nathan Lamm asked, "How was the white altered? I hadn't thought the large cross was added that early [1702]."

    According to Perrin (1922), the change in white command flags was contemporary with the change in the white ensign of February 1702. At first admirals of the white squadron were instructed to fly the Union as a command flag, however, by orders issued on 6 May 1702 this was amended to a white flag "with a large St George's Cross". (On the evidence of paintings) the cross had narrowed by 1710, and so it has remained to this day (becoming the command flag of a full admiral c1870 with the increasing demise of the sailing navy - confirmed in 1898).
    Christopher Southworth, 29 June 2003