British Flags

In March 1603 Elizabeth I of England died without an heir, leaving the succession to the Crown open. Elizabeth’s Ministers chose to ignore Henry VIII’s will which would have made his younger sister Princess Mary’s great-grandson, Edward Seymour – Lord Beauchamp, King, and instead invited James VI of Scotland to accept the Crown of England.

The two countries remained independent under a single Monarch, James VI and I, who called his new realm the Kingdom of Great Britain (after the name of the main island of the British Isles on which lie England, Scotland and Wales).

In 1606, following some altercations over flags between English and Scottish ships, 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 has been lost. Several designs are known to have been considered including quartering the flags of England and Scotland (as the Royal Standard is quartered) and putting the two side-by-side, but the chosen design was:

Union Flag in 1606

Some Scots vessels used an unofficial version where the St. Andrews’s cross went 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 the period suggest that the fimbration was quite wide. The shade of blue started as a sky blue, but gradually became darker over the centuries. The modern Scottish Saltire retains a lighter blue background than the Union Flag (Pantone® 300 for the Saltire versus Pantone 280 for the Union).

In 1634, after some disputes concerning saluting ships in the Channel, Charles I partially repealed his father’s proclamation:

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. They have their own Jack (a white bordered Union Jack) and the courtesy flag is an appropriately coloured ensign (red for civil vessels, blue for government vessels, and white for naval vessels).

The execution of Charles I on the 30th 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 chose a new design. This was to be the first of several design used until the restoration of Charles II in May 1660 restored the pre-1649 flags.

The Act of Union in 1707

In 1707, Queen Anne completed the task that James had started – a complete union of England and Scotland. 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 saw fit. Queen Anne decided to keep the existing design.

The Act of Union in 1801

Up until 1801 Ireland had been a separate kingdom. In 1800 an Act of Union was passed to create the new United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, to come into effect on the 1st January 1801. The College of Arms designed a new flag with the Cross of St. Patrick counter-changed with the Cross of St. Andrew. The inclusion of St. Patrick’s cross is of interest as St. Patrick was not martyred and therefore did not have a cross. The red saltire on white was the emblem of the powerful Irish Fitzgerald family and was a convenient symbol for Ireland:

Union Flag in 1801

Over the years the shape of the flag has gradually changed to its current naval proportions of one to two. This was caused by a steady decrease in the width of the cloth used to make the flags. The specifications were in the form of so many widths high by so many yards long. This meant that as the width of cloth reduced the flag apparently became longer and longer:

1:2 Union Flag

The independence in 1921 of the southern part of Ireland as the Irish Free State (now the Republic of Ireland) did not result in any change to the Union Flag, although this was discussed at the time.

A Restoration of Shape

In 2008 the Flag Institute started a campaign to have the 3:5 version of the flag used for all official (and unofficial) purposes. This was not a new idea. It was in 1687 that Samuel Pepys, when Secretary of the Admiralty, declared that flags (and he was referring to flags at sea) should be in proportion 11:18. It is no accident that this is very close indeed to the Golden Ratio (1:1.618034). This was restated in 1938 by Garter King of Arms when he declared that flags on land should be in proportion 3:5 (3:5 is very close to 11:18). The Flag Institute wished only to re-style the flag in its original proportions. During the year discussions took place with (inter alia) 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†. The reversion of the national flag to the proportions 3:5 also has the obvious benefit of making the it the same shape as the flags of the constituent nations and counties of the United Kingdom. The British Army always retained the 3:5 version. A Union Flag Bill was sponsored by Andrew Rosindell MP and presented to parliament.

† The All Party Parliamentary Flags & Heraldry Committee (APPFHC), under the chairmanship of Andrew Rosindell MP, was inaugurated on 5 February 2008. The Group contains MPs and Peers from all parties whose common theme is an interest in our nation’s flags and emblems.


Graham Bartram FFI, Chief Vexillologist of The Flag Institute