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United Kingdom

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

Last modified: 2003-04-26 by rob raeside
Keywords: united kingdom | union jack | saltire | jack | cross: saint george | cross: saint andrew | cross: saint patrick | royal fleet auxiliary |
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[Flag of the United Kingdom] 1:2 |
by António Martins
Flag adopted 1 January 1801.

See also:

Flags of the Armed Services and Civilian Ensigns

Flags of Government offices, branches and other organisations

Historical flags:

Colonial flags:

Present colonies and overseas territories:

Design of the flag

According to Barraclough's Flags of the World, it's not clear whether the white fimbriation should be taken from the blue background or from the crosses. In the first case the red is wider than in the second case.

Mark Sensen, 25 September 1995

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-ŕ-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 downwards.

Robert M. J. Czernkowski, 20 November 1995

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 fimbrations 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.

3:5 variant of the Union Jack

[Army version, 3:5] by Graham Bartram

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

Square variant of the Union Jack

[square variant] 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 approved.
Zeljko 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.

[Royal Fleet Auxiliary] 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 Admiralty."

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

Name of the flag

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

See also:

Colour of the flag

According to my old stand-by, Colours of the Fleet, the blue was darkened in 1869 when the Admiralty standardised the naval Union Flag at 1:2, with a narrower St Patrick's saltire. No explanation is given for the dark blue, but I'd speculate that the Admiralty chose the darkest possible shade of blue so that the colour would not fade away before the flag needed replacing.

David Prothero, 23 March 1998

If you look at Perrin's British Flags you will see that the original 1606/1707 flag had a pale blue field while the 1801 flag has a darker blue field. One of the reasons is probably that the flag is defined as having an "azure" field and in recent British heraldic tradition this has been interpreted as a mid to dark blue. In our modern Pantone-regulated world we differentiate between many different shades of colour, but hundreds of years ago we didn't. I think there is something in David's idea that a darker blue was chosen so that the flags had to be replaced for fading less often.

Graham Bartram, 23 March 1998

Naval flags were changed in 1908 when the Admiralty decided that the blue in Union Flags and Ensigns should be the same shade of blue as that selected by King Edward VII for the Royal Standard. This was known as pattern 74 'Royal Blue', and replaced pattern 63 "Dark Blue". Pattern 63 was still used for signal flags and for the flags of countries such as Russia and Norway. The other two shades in use were: Pattern 61 'Azure'; Cuba and Ecuador were given as examples, and Pattern 61A 'Intermediate' which was a bright blue for Italy and Sweden. Source: Public Records Office ADM 116/1072.

David Prothero, 25 August 1998

The colours specified in BR20 Flags of All Nations, the British government's flag book, are Pantone 186 for red and Pantone 280 for the blue.

Graham Bartram, 1 December 1999

These Pantone colours (186 for the red and 280 for blue) are the official ones for the Union Flag and all UK derivatives. I know they are quite dark, but then so are the Union Flags that follow the official specification. The red also has quite a large blue component and even has some black. The CMYK values are C0 M91 Y76 K6. The dark blue is C100 M72 Y0 K18.5

Graham Bartram, 19 December 1999

After an intense discussion enlightened mainly by Graham Bartram, we sort of decided that the best browser-safe approximates for the union jack colors are RGB:204-0-0 for red and RGB:0-0-102 for blue (plus RGB:255-255-255 for white, of course!), that is our FOTW equivalences for dark red (R+) and very very dark blue (B+++).
António Martins, 24 January 2001

Disposal of the flag

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.
[ADM 1/8567/245]

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 1/10456]

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]

David Prothero, 2 February 2002