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United Kingdom - History of the Flag

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

Last modified: 2003-04-26 by rob raeside
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Modern Flag (adopted 1801)

[Flag of the United Kingdom] 1:2 |
by Graham Bartram
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] by Stuart A. Notholt

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

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.
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

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

Flags on Merchant Ships

According to Whitney Smith's book on flags, merchant ships from 1606-1634 flew the Union Jack (minus the cross of St Patrick of course) on the foremast and the flag of England (Cross of St George) on the jack staff. He gives four possible positions for flags, going from fore to aft on the ship they are: jack staff, foremast, mainmast, ensign staff.

  • Before 1606 they flew the flag of England from both the foremast and the jack staff.
  • From 1634-1707 they flew the flag of England from the jack staff and a version of the Red Ensign (with the cross of St. George in the canton instead of the entire Union Jack) from the ensign staff.
  • From 1707-1801 they flew the flag of England from the jack staff and the Red Ensign from the ensign staff.
  • From 1801 onward they flew the Union Jack with a white border from the foremast and the Red Ensign from the ensign staff.

Nathan Augustine, 23 August 1995

Perrin (1922), p.132, quoted the 1808 edition of the 'Regulations and Instructions relating to His Majesty's Service at Sea' which confirmed the continuing use of the St George's Cross as a jack by the merchant marine. It is speculation as to whether they actually did so at this late date, however, :

Wilson (1986), p.34, said that 'This flag (a Union Jack with a white border) was introduced in 1823 as a signal for a pilot in Marryat's Code of Signals for the Merchant Service and later came to be worn as a jack'. He went on to say 'that it is still a legally permitted jack for merchant ships' - which, of course, it is.

Christopher Southworth, 15 March 2003

Evolution of the use of the Union Jack as the national flag of the United Kingdom

It was noted that Edward VII tried to make the British Royal Standard more personal by restricting its use.  How did he try to restrict it?

Nathan Lamm, 28 March 2003

During the reign of Queen Victoria, the Royal Standard was considered to be the Standard of the United Kingdom, and not the Standard of the Sovereign. It was used by members of the Royal Family; flown at certain military parades; displayed on fortresses and official buildings in the United Kingdom, and at Government House in the colonies, on the Sovereign's Birthday and on the days of Coronation and Accession; and flown on government buildings when the sovereign was passing in State. It was also flown by private individuals and organisations who thought that it was an appropriate way of displaying their loyalty to the crown.

When the Prince of Wales became King Edward VII he tried to introduce a Royal Standard differenced with an oval shield in the centre carrying his cypher and crown on a purple ground. It was to have been for his exclusive and personal use alone, with misuse guarded against by the Trade Mark Act of 1883. However the Board of Trade, who were responsible for trade marks, wrote that changes to the Royal Standard were not within their competence. The Law Officers thought that since the Arms and Standard had been created by the Act of Union with Ireland, any alteration to the Royal Standard would probably require an Act of Parliament. This was thought to be unfeasible, and the proposal was abandoned.

As an alternative, measures were taken to restrict the use of the Royal Standard. The Home Office noted that the King was aware that legally no one could be prevented from flying the Royal Standard, but he wanted it to be discouraged.

In 1906 the Admiralty and War Office issued Circulars that the Royal Standard was not to be displayed on fortresses and official buildings on King's Birthday, etc., but only when the sovereign, was present in person. To avoid contentious legislation, restrictions on the use of the Royal Standard by private individuals were promulgated by Circulars to Police Forces.

In the course of 1907 instructions were issued by various government departments cancelling existing orders, and directing that the Royal Standard was to be flown on government buildings only when HM was within the building.

Home Office and Scottish Office Circulars stated that the Royal Standard could not properly be used without HM permission, and that persons should be asked to discontinue its use, and the Secretary of State informed of any refusal. It was acknowledged that the instructions could not be enforced, but it was hoped that the restrictions on its use could be achieved by appealing to the people's sense of good taste.

In 1908 it was reported that action (unspecified) was taken against persons or bodies reported for flying the Royal Standard. In a letter to 'The Times', the Earl of Crewe wrote that the belief that the Royal Standard could be flown anywhere, by anybody, was incorrect.

By the time that George V succeeded Edward VII in 1910, it had become generally accepted that the Royal Standard of the United Kingdom was the sovereign's personal banner.

Public Record Office : ADM 1/8765/311; HO 45/10287/109071;
HO 45/10316/126525; HO 144/602/B22911; HO 144/7048;
MEPO 2/1070; WO 32/16192; WO 32/14,700; WORK 21/6/9.
David Prothero, 30 March 2003

-Was the restriction on use of the Royal Standard what prompted the widespread use of the UJ, or was that a result of Jubilee celebrations a few years earlier?
Nathan Lamm, 30 March 2003

It is hard to judge what impact the restriction had.  The Union Jack replaced the Royal Standard in the relatively few places/occasions where the latter was no longer permitted.  The publicity, if there was much, may have raised the profile of flags, and encouraged the idea that the Union Jack could be used by the general population, as well as being an emblem of the state.
David Prothero, 6 April 2003

-Why would an act of Parliament be required to alter it, when it had been altered in Victoria's time (removing Hanover, etc.) and before (elector to king, etc.), but after the Act of Union?
Nathan Lamm, 30 March 2003

To the best of my knowledge an alteration to the Royal Standard would not need an Act of Parliament.
Christopher Southworth, 30 March 2003

Such things are done through the Earl Marshal, I believe.
Anton Sherwood, 31 March 2003

It was only a legal opinion, not definitely established, that an Act of Parliament would be required.  Before 1801, I assume, the royal arms and standard were the concern of no-one but the Monarch, the Court, and the College of Arms.  This changed when the alterations to the flag and arms in 1801 were instituted by an Article in the Act of Parliament that created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.  The changes that modified, and then removed the Hanoverian escutcheon, were, following the advice of HM's Privy Council, declared by Royal Proclamation.  The perceived problem with Edward VII's proposal was, not that it would have changed the standard, but that it would have created a new standard, along side, and derived from, the existing standard.
David Prothero, 6 April 2003

I wrote when this first came up "that it was one for the lawyers amongst us" and let say at once that I am not qualified to offer a legal opinion. But does the possible requirement for an Act of Parliament not depend upon whether the 1801 Act of Union was formally repealed upon the creation of the Irish Free State in 1921?  If it was not, then the power (to select the symbols of the Union) granted to the Monarch under Article One of that Act is surely still operative?
Christopher Southworth, 6 April 2003

-What artistic changes have been made to the harp over the years?
Nathan Lamm
, 30 March 2003

There have been two versions of the harp in recent times; the winged female, and the Gaelic.  Heraldically, either is acceptable, since the blazon calls for a harp, and anything which looks like a harp is correct, as long as it is gold, with silver strings.  In 1954 the Queen approved a design of the Royal Standard with a Gaelic harp.  At the time, it was thought by some, that this had then become the definitive pattern.  However in 1957, when the Ministry of Works asked Garter King of Arms for the design that should be used for the standards that they supplied to the Royal Households, a drawing of a standard with a winged female harp was sent.   During this period a question arose about the Standards of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and Princess Margaret.   If the Royal Standard had a Gaelic harp, did these two other standards have to have the same harp ?  Garter ruled that it was entirely the choice of the owner of the standard.  In general the Gaelic harp tends to be used on shields, as the shape is a better fit, but the winged female harp always(?) appears on the Royal Standards.
David Prothero, 6 April 2003

-If a banner is defined as being "Quarterly X and Y," if X or Y change on their own and thus the banner changes, is there an appropriate act? For example, say Scotland decided, on its own (assuming it had that power) to remove the border of its banner. Would the UK's banner change, and if so, how?
Nathan Lamm, 30 March 2003

The Royal Standard is no more nor less than a banner of arms, and would (I assume) normally change automatically when the arms change. Past changes in the Royal Standard have generally (but not exclusively) signaled either, a change in the personal circumstances of the monarch (such as the various Hanoverian alterations and change to the present design), or of the monarch's aspirations (such as when the fleur-de-lis were dropped).
Christopher Southworth, 30 March 2003