Union Flag: History

Learn more about the 400-year history of the national flag of the United Kingdom: the Union Flag (or Union Jack).

The Stuart Crown, 1603-1714

In March 1603 Queen Elizabeth I of England died without an heir, leaving the succession open. By the will of King Henry VIII, the Crown should have gone to Edward Seymour, Lord Beauchamp – the great-grandson of Henry’s younger sister Princess Mary. However, Elizabeth’s ministers chose to ignore Seymour’s claim and instead invited King James VI of Scotland to take the throne. England and Scotland remained independent countries under the rule of a single monarch, James VI and I, who named his new realm the Kingdom of Great Britain (after the main island of the British Isles on which lie England, Scotland and Wales).

Following altercations over flags between English and Scottish ships, in 1606 James VI and I issued the following proclamation:

A Proclamation declaring what Flags South and North Britains shall bear at Sea

Whereas some difference has arisen between our Subjects of South and North Britain, Travelling by Sea, about the bearing of their flags, for avoiding of all such contentions hereafter, We have with the advice of our Council ordered That from henceforth all our subjects of the Isle and Kingdom of Great Britain and the Members thereof shall bear in their maintop 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 by Us to our Admiral to be published to our said Subjects. And in their foretop Our Subjects of South Britain shall wear the Red Cross only as they were wont, and our Subjects of North Britain in their Foretop the White Cross only as they were accustomed. Wherefore We will and command all our Subjects to be conformable and obedient to this Our Order, and that from henceforth they do not use to bear their flags in any other Sort, as they will answer the contrary at their Peril.

Given at our Palace of Westminster the 12th. day of April in the 4th. year of our Reign of Great Britain France and Ireland Anno Domini 1606.

The exact design that accompanied this proclamation has been lost. Several designs are known to have been considered, including quartering the flags of England and Scotland (in the manner of the Royal Standard), and placing the flags side-by-side. However, the chosen design was:

Union Flag in 1606

Some Scots vessels used an unofficial version in which the St Andrew’s cross was laid over the St George’s cross. The width of the white line (or fimbration) around the St George’s cross has also been a matter of debate. Actual flags from that period suggest that the fimbration was quite wide. The shade of the field started as a sky blue but gradually became darker over the centuries. The modern Scottish Saltire retains a lighter blue field (Pantone® 300 ) than the Union Flag (Pantone® 280).

After disputes over the saluting of ships in the English Channel, in 1634 King Charles I issued a further proclamation, partially repealing that of his father:

A Proclamation appointing the Flags, as well for our Navy Royal as for the Ships of our Subjects of South and North Britain

We taking into Our Royal consideration that it is meet for the Honour of Our own Ships in Our Navy Royal and of such other Ships as are or shall be employed in Our immediate Service, that the same be by their Flags distinguished from the ships of any other of Our Subjects, do hereby strictly prohibit and forbid that none of Our Subjects, of any of Our Nations and Kingdoms, shall from henceforth presume to carry the Union Flag in the Main top, or other part of any of their Ships (that is) S. Georges Cross and S. Andrews Cross joined together upon pain of Our high displeasure, but that the same Union Flag be still reserved as an ornament proper for Our own Ships and Ships in Our immediate Service and Pay, and none other.

And likewise Our further will and pleasure is, that all the other Ships of Our Subjects of England or South Britain bearing flags shall from henceforth carry the Red-Cross, commonly called S. George his Cross, as of old time hath been used; And also that all other ships of Our Subjects of Scotland or North Britain shall henceforth carry the White Cross commonly called S. Andrews Cross, Whereby the several Shipping may thereby be distinguished and We thereby the better discern the number and goodness of the same. Wherefore We will and straitly command all Our Subjects forthwith to be conformable and obedient to this Our Order, as they will answer the contrary at their perils.

Given at Our Court at Greenwich this fifth day of May in the tenth year of our Reign of England Scotland France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith &c.

To this day civilian vessels are not permitted to use the Union Jack, and instead have their own jack (a white bordered Union Jack). The courtesy flag is an appropriately coloured ensign (red for civilian vessels, blue for government vessels, and white for naval vessels).

The execution of Charles I on 30 January 1649 brought an end to the union of England and Scotland. The Union Flag no longer made sense, so the English Parliament ordered the Admiralty to choose a new design – the first of several designs used until the restoration of King Charles II in May 1660 saw the return of the pre-1649 flags.

The Act of Union, 1707

The Act of Union of 1707 completed the process initiated by the reign of James VI and I, uniting the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland in one Kingdom. The first article of the Treaty of Union stated that the flag would be the crosses of St George and St Andrew conjoined in such a manner as the Queen [Anne] saw fit. Queen Anne decided to keep the existing design.

The Act of Union, 1801

Until 1801 Ireland had remained a separate kingdom under the British monarch. In 1800 an Act of Union was passed, creating the new United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, with effect from 1 January 1801. The College of Arms designed a new flag including a red saltire on white, counter-changed with the cross of St Andrew. The saltire (subsequently known as the cross of St Patrick) was chosen by the College to symbolise Ireland. It was derived from the insignia of the Order of St Patrick, founded in 1783, and also from the arms of the powerful Fitzgerald family, longstanding allies of British rule. In fact, St Patrick was not a martyr and therefore not entitled to a cross:

Union Flag in 1801

During the course of the nineteenth century, the Union Flag achieved its current (naval) proportions of one to two. This was caused by a steady reduction in the width of the flag’s constituent cloth strips, which decreased in size between the seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries from c.11 inches (28cm) to 8 inches (23cm). As the Royal Navy traditionally specified its flags in terms of widths of height by yards of length, official flags had thus become longer and narrower – forcing unsightly distortions in the design.

1:2 Union Flag

In 1921 southern Ireland achieved its independence as the Irish Free State (now the Republic of Ireland). Although discussed at this time, no change to the Union Flag ensued.

A Restoration of Shape

In 2008 the Flag Institute launched a campaign to reinstate the original 3:5 version of the Union Flag for all official (and unofficial) purposes. This was not a new idea. In 1687 Samuel Pepys, then Secretary to the Admiralty, had declared that flags at sea should be in the proportion of 11:18 – very close indeed to 3:5 (and to the Golden Ratio of 1:1.618034). In 1938, this principle was reiterated by Garter King of Arms, who stated that flags on land should be in the proportion of 3:5. The Flag Institute thus sought only to return the Union Flag to its original proportions, with the obvious benefit of making it identical in shape to the flags of the constituent nations and counties of the United Kingdom, as well as those of the British Army (which has always retained the 3:5 version). Discussions took place during 2008 with (among others) the College of Arms, the Lord Lyon King of Arms, the Department for Culture Media and Sport, and the All Party Parliamentary Flags & Heraldry Committee†. A Union Flag Bill, sponsored by Andrew Rosindell MP, was presented to Parliament in February 2008 but failed to survive past its first reading.

† The All Party Parliamentary Flags & Heraldry Committee, under the chairmanship of Andrew Rosindell MP, was inaugurated on 5 February 2008. The group contains MPs and peers from all parties who share a common interest in the UK’s flags and emblems.

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Graham Bartram FFI, Chief Vexillologist, Flag Institute