History of the flag
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."
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
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.
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
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-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 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.
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
of the flag
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
of the flag
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+++).
and status of the flag
Afloat though, the Union Flag
has been reserved by the government for specific, military purposes.
It is the jack of the Royal Navy and the flag of rank for an admiral
of the fleet. These are the reasons why it is illegal for a civilian
ship to fly it.
The "Union Jack"
is actually a Royal Flag, used as a national flag by permission of
HM the Queen and on the advice of HM's Ministers (i.e., the government
told us to use it in a parliamentary answer). It is perfectly acceptable
to call it the "Union Jack" - in fact that is the term used
by the Government Minister who stated that it should be used as the
national flag. Of course a parliamentary answer isn't the same as
a law or statutory instrument, so legally the UK does not have a singular
national flag, but practically it does. Of course to make up for this
we have more official national flags (of a non singular nature) than
the rest of the world put together. At the last count we had exceeded
The Union Jack has never been made an official civil flag by any legal process, but it has been authoritatively stated, on more than one occasion, that on land it may be used as though it were a civil flag. It is also used by the army so I would think that it should be (ooo/xxx)
Some extracts from Public Record Office documents.
"It was the view of the
King in Council 5th November 1800 that the Flag of Union could be
flown on land only from His Majesty's forts and castles, and from
His Majesty's ships at sea. It is the national official flag."
In 1917 the Governor of the
Windward Islands wrote to the Colonial Office that, "Residents
of St.Vincent are reluctant to fly the Union Jack because it might
have the appearance of discourtesy to the Administrator who is required
by Colonial Regulations to fly the Union Jack on Government House."
The question was again raised
in parliament, and on 27th June 1933 the Home Secretary, Sir John
Gilmour, announced in the House of Commons that, "The Union Flag
is the National Flag and may properly be flown on land by any of His
Much of the confusion in the
colonies was caused by the fact that the governor flew a Union Jack
with the badge of the colony on it when afloat, but a plain Union
Jack when on land. The obvious solution was for the governor to fly
the Union Jack with the colony badge whether he was on land or afloat,
thus making it clear that the plain Union Jack was not the flag of
the governor and could thus be flown by any British subject. In 1941
answers to a circular asking governors for their opinion on this matter
revealed differing practices. The Governor of Ceylon wrote that the
Union Jack was often flown in Hong Kong and Ceylon but not in Straits
Settlements, adding that at the Silver Jubilee of George V (1935)
a large British shipping firm had applied for permission to fly the
Union Jack believing the flag to be the privilege of the governor.