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United Kingdom: history of the British ensigns

Last modified: 2006-06-17 by rob raeside
Keywords: united kingdom | union jack | civil ensign | naval ensign | red ensign | white ensign | blue ensign |
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The Red Ensign:

[UK civil ensign] by Martin Grieve

The White Ensign:

[UK naval ensign] by Martin Grieve

The Blue Ensign:

[UK naval reserve ensign] by Clay Moss

See also:

History of British ensigns

A fleet of four English squadrons and one Dutch squadron were sent to Cadiz in 1596. Lord High Admiral, Howard of Effingham, was Joint Admiral of the Fleet, and led one squadron. Robert, Earl of Essex, was the other Joint Admiral, and led the second squadron. Lord Thomas Howard, Vice-Admiral, led the third squadron. Sir Walter Raleigh, Rear-Admiral, led the fourth squadron. Each squadron then had its own Vice-Admiral and Rear-Admiral.

Two flags (shown by Perrin, 1922) were flown by the following admirals:

[possible Elizabethan ensign] by Martin Grieve

St George canton and striped field:

  • Sir Robert Southwell, Vice-Admiral in Howard of Effingham's squadron, at the foremast of Lyon.
  • Alexander Clifford, Rear-Admiral in Effingham's squadron, at the mizzen of Dreadnought.
  • Lord Thomas Howard, Fleet Vice-Admiral, at the mainmast of Merhonour, plus St George at the foremast.
  • Sir Robert Dudley, Vice-Admiral in Thomas Howard's squadron, at the foremast of Nonpareil.
  • Rear-Admiral in Thomas Howard's squadron, at the mizzen of Crane(?)

[possible Elizabethan ensign] by Martin Grieve

Blue barred St George:

  • Sir Francis Vere, Vice-Admiral in the Earl of Essex's squadron, at the foremast of Rainbow.
  • Sir John Wingfeild, Rear-Admiral in Essex's squadron, at the mizzen of Vanguard.

[possible Elizabethan ensign] by Martin Grieve    [possible Elizabethan ensign] by Christopher Southworth

From Sir William Slyngsby's "Relation of my Lord of Essex voyage to Cales", a manuscript in the Duke of Northumberland's collection reproduced in Navy Records Society's Naval Miscellany volume 1; edited by Sir Julian Corbett, 1902.
David Prothero, 6 May 2004

The stripes in question are a greenish-blue. However the intended colour must be blue as exactly the same colour is used in the fleur-de-lis quarters of the royal
standard. Perrin's account of the flags used on the expedition differs from the Naval Miscellany that he is quoting, in two respects. The last sentence of the penultimate paragraph on page 88 of "British Flags" reads; "The Vice- and Rear-Admirals of his squadron flew at the fore the St George barred with blue horizontally." I think that the words "and mizzen respectively" have been omitted after the word "fore". In middle of the same paragraph, the flags of the Vice- and Rear-Admirals of the Lord High Admiral's squadron are described as: "..., a flag with striped field (red white and blue in seven horizontal stripes) and the St George in the canton." The stripe which is described as "red" is not the same colour as the cross of St George in the canton. It is brown. Perhaps the heraldic stain tawny ?

The Editor of the Naval Miscellany, Sir Julian Corbett wrote, "The tinctures of the squadronal flags of 1596 as here represented are difficult to account for. The green and white are of course the ordinary Tudor colours. But the tincture of the first two squadrons bear no relation, as might have been expected, to those of the arms of Essex or Howard, or to those of any of the Queen's standards."

To summarise the admiral's flags used in the 1596 Cadiz expedition. The four English squadrons had the usual three ranks of admiral, vice-admiral and rear-admiral, but the full admiral of each squadron was also a fleet admiral; two were Joint Fleet Admirals, one was a Fleet Vice-Admiral and one was a Fleet Rear-Admiral.

  • The flag of the Fleet Admirals was St George; at the fore for the Vice-, and at the mizzen for the Rear-. One Joint Admiral had St George at the main, while the other had St George at the fore. To balance the latter inferior position, this admiral, who was also Lord High Admiral, flew the royal standard at the main.
  • The Vice- and Rear-Admirals of the first squadron had, at the fore and mizzen respectively, a flag with a St George canton, and horizontal stripes of tawny, white and blue shown here.
  • The Vice- and Rear-Admirals of the second squadron had, at the fore and mizzen respectively, St George barred blue shown here.
  • The Vice- and Rear-Admirals of the third squadron had, at the fore and mizzen respectively, a flag with a St George canton and horizontal stripes of green and white, shown here. This flag was also flown at the main by the Squadron Admiral who as Fleet Vice-Admiral had St George at the fore.
  • The Vice- and Rear-Admirals of the fourth squadron had, at the fore and mizzen respectively, a white flag. A white flag was also flown by the Squadron Admiral, who as Fleet Rear-Admiral had St George at the mizzen.
David Prothero, 12 June 2004

The Discovery Channel carried a documentary account of the life and adventures of Sir Francis Drake. It showed his vessel The Golden Hind sailing up the west coast of South America and capturing several Spanish treasure ships off the coast of Peru. The flag flown on the Golden Hind consisted of four broad green vertical stripes separated by three broad white ones. In the canton was what looked like an English flag, but the arms of the St George's Cross were much broader than one commonly seas. Is there any info regarding this flag?
Ron Lahav, 26 December 2004

I have never come across an ensign of the period with vertical stripes (although references are scant) but it would appear that the actual design was very much a matter of personal choice? Green and white were, of course, the Tudor livery colours and very popular in flags up to the Stuart accession, and what information we have suggests that the canton of St George was (with the odd exception) almost universal until 1707. The width of the arms of the St George varied considerably, so no significance need be attached to their size. As a matter of personal opinion only, I would have been inclined to have made the stripes horizontal, but given the 16th Century's freedom of design there is no real reason why such a flag should not be used? Indeed, I would not be at all surprised if someone came up with an exact reference.
Christopher Southworth, 27 December 2004

In earlier times, a stern ensign was apparently something of a a luxury - a special occasion flag - with what evidence we have listing only one per ship (together with an ensign staff to fly it from), and there was certainly no regulation or convention extant with regard to the colour, number or disposition of the stripes. As examples, one source I have gives the naval ensign of c1623 as having 15 horizontal stripes alternately blue, white and yellow with a Cross of St George in the canton, whereas the flag of the Honorable East India Company (which may or may not date from the end of Queen Elizabeth's reign) is often shown with thirteen - we have visual evidence that the striped ensign was in use by HIEC ships in the 1660's, but no way of knowing whether the ensign ("auncient") listed in an inventory of 1601 was of this type?
Christopher Southworth, 22 May 2006

Based on descriptions in Wilson's Flags at Sea

[possible Elizabethan ensign]    [possible Elizabethan ensign] by Phil Nelson

[possible Elizabethan ensign] by Phil Nelson

Wilson's Flags at Sea (1986) has a black and white image on page 15 and states on page 14:

"By the end of the (16th) century striped ensigns were common on European ships and those of English ships were often distinguished by a cross of St. George in a canton or overall. To judge from the scattered evidence of illustrations, the colors of ensigns varied from ship to ship: although red and white (the colors of the cross of St. George) and green and white (the Tudors' livery colors) were used, there seems sometimes to have been no significance in the colors chosen."
Although no blue stripes are mentioned they may be implied by 'varied'; furthermore in old flag charts the colors blue and green were often confused with each others.
Jarig Bakker, 10 November 1999

Before then English merchantmen had often flown the Union, and before 1606 the plain Cross of St. George. However, there is an older English flag with a canton - the Tudor naval ensign, which was alternating green and white horizontal stripes (the livery colours of the Tudor family) with St. George in a square canton. I don't recall if there was a set number of stripes - I suspect not, but nine rings a bell. There is a reproduction of this flag displayed on the upper floor of the Victory Gallery of the Royal Naval Museum in Portsmouth along with a number of other flags from the Royal Navy's history.
Roy Stilling, 8 February 1996

Stern Ensigns were, according to Perrin, a rather late entrant on the English naval scene and he gives a date of around 1574. Prior to this a simple Cross of St George would be flown, or perhaps the Royal Arms in addition to a great number of streamers and other banners.

As far as the introduction of plain ensigns is concerned: Prior to c1625 English Royal Naval Ensigns were striped in various colours (green and white, red, white and blue, gold, white, and blue etc.,) with a white canton and red Cross of St George (or occasionally with a Cross of St George overall). Merchant ensigns were either striped with a St George canton (that of the Honourable East India Company is a survival from that age) or a simple cross of St George on a white field - if, that is, a stern ensign was carried at all, since a masthead flag of St George was the older form of recognition. The exact date of introduction of the red ensign is slightly uncertain, however, it is known that the recommendation was made in 1625 and that the striped ensigns had become obsolete by 1630 (for warships). The white and blue ensigns were introduced for all naval ships by an Order of the Navy Commissioners in 1653.
Christopher Southworth, 24 February 2003

See also:

Red Ensigns

1620-1707      1707-1800
[historic red ensign]      [historic red ensign]
by Phil Nelson      by Phil Nelson

William Crampton (1990) says on page 102 that when Charles I reserved the 1606 Union Flag for royal use in 1634,

English civil vessels at this time began to use the Red Ensign: a red flag with the cross of St. George on a white canton.

Blue Ensigns

1620-1702 1707-1800
[historic blue ensign]       [historic blue ensign]
by Phil Nelson by Phil Nelson

White Ensigns

1630-1702 1707-1800
[historic white ensign]       [historic white ensign]
by Phil Nelson by Phil Nelson
Alternative white ensign (for use in home waters), 1707-1720

[historic white ensign]

Flags of the blue, red and white squadrons

[admiral of the blue squadron] by Phil Nelson

[admiral of the red squadron] by Phil Nelson

[admiral of the white squadron] by Phil Nelson

These are the command flags of the admirals in charge of the various divisions (or later of a particular grade within a given rank) were. The exception to this was the white, which carried a red cross (thus becoming the flag of St George) from around 1702. The order of seniority was changed in 1653 from red, blue and white to red, white and blue (which it still is). The white ensign also had a plain fly originally, but (for tactical reasons) a wide red cross (one-third of flag width) was added overall in 1702, and this was amended to its modern dimensions in 1707.

The system of grading admirals by colour ceased in 1864, and all admirals thereafter flew a Cross of St George as a command flag. The general addition of red balls to indicate rank came in later - the use of boat flags in other words - because of the introduction of mastless ironclads.
Chris Southworth, 25 February 2003

In origin there were three naval squadrons, of the Red, White and Blue, and they took these colours from those of the Union Jack. The division was made in the 1680s, if I remember correctly. Because the Red Ensigns of England and Scotland had already been established as merchant flags a Red Ensign with the Union in the canton became the merchant flag of Great Britain upon Union in 1707. This led to potential confusion - was that ship a merchantman or a member of the red squadron?

In 1864 it was decided to end this anomaly. Henceforth the White Ensign was reserved to the Royal Navy, the Blue Ensign undefaced to the Royal Naval Reserve and defaced with the appropriate departmental or territorial badge to government service, and the Red Ensign to the 'merchant navy' (as the term is in Britain).

Now, as colonies became dominions they began to acquire navies. These all wore the White Ensign, but wore their appropriate territorial Blue ensign as a jack. The only geographical usage of the Red White and Blue that I know of, and which might be the source of this idea, was in the masthead pennant. Before 1864 this was St. George's Cross in them hoist and a fly of the Squadronal colour. After 1864 the home Royal Navy used the white pennant and colonial naval units used the blue. The red pennant was used briefly by the Royal Indian Marine between 1921 and 1928.

Source: H. Gresham Carr Flags of the World, 1961, pp 121-8.
Roy Stilling, 6 July 1996

About 1837, according to Colours of the Fleet, naval flags were made-up in regulated sizes, but whilst the length was specified in inches, the breadth was not specified because a breadth was a breadth - it being the width of the standard fabric from which the flags were made. In 1687, Samuel Pepys, Secretary of the Admiralty, and remembered for his diaries, directed that flags should be half a yard (eighteen inches) long for each breadth, which at that time was 11 inches, giving a ratio of 11:18. Early in the eighteenth century the width of the material, as manufactured, was reduced to ten inches, but the length was not adjusted, so the proportion changed to 10:18 (5:9). Then about 1837, the width was changed to 9 inches, again with no alteration to the length, resulting in a ratio of 9:18 (1:2). How to get a badly proportioned flag without even trying!
David Prothero, 3 April 1997

Which British ensign (red, white or blue) would have been used by the Royal Navy in the Caribbean towards the end of the 18th century?
William E. Hitchins, 2 May 2000

Any or all. It would depend on the flag officer in command. British flag officers up until 1864 were commissioned as admiral, vice admiral, or rear admiral of the red, white, or blue squadrons. A captain promoted to flag rank became a rear admiral of the blue, then moved up to rear admiral of the white, rear admiral of the red, vice admiral of the blue, vice admiral of the white, vice admiral of the red, and so on. If you can find out (from contemporary Navy Lists) what color admiral was commander in chief in the West Indies at the time, you'll know what color ensign the ships under his command flew - at least normally.

It's complicated by the facts that:

  • Any vessels under direct Admiralty orders (i.e., not under the C-in-C's command) would have flown the red ensign.
  • (I'm not absolutely sure of this one but I think that:) Subordinate flag officers, if there were any, would convey the color of their rank to the ensigns of ships under their command.
  • A flag officer in command could direct that vessels under his command fly a different ensign to avoid confusion in combat - for example, a vice admiral of the blue might direct his ships to fly white ensigns (as Nelson did) to avoid confusion with the French Tricolor.
    Joe McMillan, 7 May 2000

    According to Siegel (1912) the distribution of the three colours over the squadrons seems to stem from an order by Lord Wimbledon in 1625. His source appears to be a book by Sir Julian S. Corbett, published as an e-book at He quotes from the Lord of Wimbledon, 3 October 1625:

    17. The whole fleet is to be divided into three squadrons: the admiral's squadron to wear red flags and red pennants on the main topmast-head; the vice-admiral's squadron to wear blue flags and blue pennants on the fore topmast-heads; the rear-admiral's squadron to wear white flags and white pennants on the mizen topmast-heads. [2]

    The note is:
    [2] This is the first known occasion of red, blue and white flags being used to distinguish squadrons, though the idea was apparently suggested in Elizabeth's time. See _Navy Records Society, Miscellany_, i. p. 30.
    Corbett writes about a change in the instructions, but being unfamiliar with the expedition and not having a paper copy to easily compare reference, I'm unable to determine whether it were these instructions being drawn up at see, which would suggest such flags were always on board, or whether these were written well in advance and would have allowed the acquiring new flags.
    Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 11 October 2005

    The Union Flag of 1606 could have theoretically led immediately to the adoption of red, white and blue pennants but apparently didn't, and there is no record of the Stuart red and gold being used on English ships? There are references in the 1620's to white pennants, whilst the first mention of red, white and blue pennants (of which I am aware) occurs in Boteler who wrote c1634, which suggests to me that the three pennants were introduced during the years following 1625 and the introduction of a red ensign (replacing the previous striped version) into the English Royal Navy?. They were certainly formally established by an Order of March 1653, with the common or tricolour pennant being introduced immediately following the restoration (from memory in 1662).

    Were the squadronal colours inspired by the Union? Perhaps they were, but I am more inclined to think that the introduction of blue along with the traditional English red and white was more co-incidental than deliberate.
    Christopher Southworth, 22 October 2005

    Change in the White Ensign

    Nathan Lamm asked, "How was the white altered? I hadn't thought the large cross was added that early [1702]."

    According to Perrin (1922), the change in white command flags was contemporary with the change in the white ensign of February 1702. At first admirals of the white squadron were instructed to fly the Union as a command flag, however, by orders issued on 6 May 1702 this was amended to a white flag "with a large St George's Cross". (On the evidence of paintings) the cross had narrowed by 1710, and so it has remained to this day (becoming the command flag of a full admiral c1870 with the increasing demise of the sailing navy - confirmed in 1898).
    Christopher Southworth, 29 June 2003