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United Kingdom

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

Last modified: 2006-08-19 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 | image 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:

Other flags:

Colonial flags:

Present colonies and overseas territories:

Design of the flag

The UK flag consists of three elements: the cross of St. George (red on white) for England, the cross of St. Andrew (white diagonal on blue) for Scotland, and the so-called cross of St. Patrick (red diagonal on white) for Ireland. The original Union Jack/Union Flag adopted in 1606 was symmetrical: the red cross of St. George outlined in white overlaid on top of a St. Andrew's flag, which was blue with a white X.

In 1801, an Act of Union which made Ireland a co-equal member of the United Kingdom made it necessary to add a symbol for Ireland to the flag, but without obliterating any of the existing symbols. If the St. Patrick's cross had been centered on the diagonal stripes, then St. Andrew's cross would have been relegated to an inferior position, basically serving only as a border for St. Patrick's. But Scotland was the senior of the two kingdoms, so this was unsatisfactory. The solution was to divide the diagonal stripes diagonally, so that the red St. Patrick's cross would take up only half of each stripe, and so that half devoted to St. Andrew would take the place of honor. Thus, in the two hoist quarters, the white St. Andrew's cross occupies the upper position, and in the two fly quarters, the red St. Patrick's cross occupies the upper position.

There is a right way up for the Union Jack, but it is not flown upside down as a signal of a ship in distress. That is only done with ensigns, in which the Union emblem occupies only the upper hoist quarter of the flag. When a British (or American) ensign is flown "union down," it is obviously distinguishable from one flown in the normal fashion. An upside-down Union Jack is not sufficiently different from a right side-up Union Jack to be useful as a signal of anything except that the person hoisting it wasn't paying attention.
Joe McMillan, 24 March 2006

As originally designed (and approved prior to introduction) the flag had red and white saltires of even width (counterchanged at the central point as Joe explained) with a white fimbriation added to the red. The present design where the white fimbriation is actually taken from the red making the saltire of St Patrick narrower than that of St Andrew was an Admiralty variant - dating originally from the shortly after the introduction in 1801 - which has become established as the official design (except for military colours which have even saltires).
Christopher Southworth, 24 March 2006

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

When it was decided that the flags of England and Scotland should be joined, "the plan adopted was not simply to unite or join the two flags, but was an attempt to more than unite; the intention was to amalgamate and interlace or combine the two so as to produce an appearance of complete union." The Union Jack by Emanuel Green, Archaeological Journal December 1891). Impalement and quartering would each have resulted in a flag where one or other of the constituent flags was in the superior position; next to the hoist, or in the upper canton. Combining the two flags avoided this, and heraldically could be done in one of two ways. The alternative to the chosen method results in a white saltire fimbriated blue over the flag of St George, with additional fimbriation of white where the blue fimbriation crosses the red cross. The selected method was judged to be the better alternative. It was not an attempt to place the English cross in a superior position. The Scottish variant is not heraldically correct since it is based on a blue flag, which is not the flag of either country.
David Prothero, 9 July 2006

The 1606 pattern of UJ was the flags of England and Scotland "conjoined" which is a heraldic term meaning (in essence) combined to make a unified whole, and heraldically speaking the fact that the Cross of St George was placed "overall" (or over all) does not imply any precedence but was if nothing else, necessary to comply with "the rule of tincture". In the 1801 pattern of UJ, as originally designed, the saltires of St Andrew and St Patrick were of even width, and were "counter-changed" so as to give them (as nearly as possible) equal importance, however, as the older symbol (and an established national flag) the St Andrew was placed uppermost in the first quarter thus quite rightly giving it the "position of honour" and precedence.
Christopher Southworth, 12 July 2006

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 fimbriations 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.

My sources tell me that the proportions of Royal Navy flags were set at 1:2 for ensigns and jacks, and 2:3 for command flags " early in Queen Victoria's reign". Can anyone supply me with the actual date? The general consensus of opinion (backed by the measurements of the one surviving ensign I am aware of) seems to be that this was a confirmation of a situation which had been extant since the last quarter of the 18th Century?
Christopher Southworth, 18 April 2003

My impression is that there was no particular date. I think it happened as a matter of practical convenience when, probably about the middle of the 19th century, or a little earlier, the dimensions of naval flags stopped being expressed in 'breadths x yards', and changed to 'feet x feet'. 1 : 2 just happened to be the ratio that, at the time, most nearly expressed the relative size of a breadth to half a yard, and was adopted without any specific instruction. The Admiralty Flag Book of 1889 is not precise: "The practice has been, in regard to the dimensions of flags generally, to make the length twice the breadth at the head. The following appear to be exceptions to this rule. Admiral, length is one and a half times breadth."
David Prothero, 18 April 2003

3:5 variant of the Union Jack

[Army version, 3:5] image 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

2:3 variant of the Union Jack

[2:3 variant]     [2:3 variant] images by Martin Grieve

The Union Jack is to be seen quite often at a ratio of 2:3, and of course appeared in this form on the 1928-1994 South African national flag. I received construction details from Christopher Southworth.
Martin Grieve, 16 December 2003

Square variant of the Union Jack

[square variant] image 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] image 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

The situation is probably much as it was in 1947 when Sir Gerald Wollaston, Norry and Ulster King of Arms, wrote to the U.S. of S. at the War Office.

"Flags flown at sea under the direction of the Admiralty are of the relative proportions of 2x1. This excessive length compared with the depth is unsuitable for heraldic flags (eg. the Royal Standard) in which the charges have to be distorted to fill the space, or in which (when this is not possible) they leave large spaces on either side unfilled; both resulting in bad heraldic design. The heraldic banner is properly a square flag, but for a flag flying in the wind from a flag pole some increase in length over the depth is admittedly desirable. These facts have long been recognised by the heraldic authorities. When, in 1938, the Earl Marshal, who is the controlling authority over heraldry and flags flown on land (which are mainly heraldic), laid down the flag proper to be flown on churches in the Provinces of Canterbury and York, opportunity was taken to state that flags on land should be of the approximate dimensions of 5x3 instead of 2x1. This was actually promulgated by me, as then Garter King of Arms and principal heraldic officer under the Earl Marshal, with his approval in a letter to the press; but as it had at the time principally reference to church flags it may not have had the advertisment which brought it to the notice of all people. However that may be, such knowledge does in fact spread, and when the Home Office, in 1943, desired to establish flags for the National Fire Service and and the Civil Defence Service, they agreed that, following the ruling of 1938, they should be made of the dimensions of 5x3. So, more recently, your office has, through the Central Ordnance Depot, altered the dimensions of Army flags, and the Air Ministry has adopted the same dimensions. While therefore the difference in size from flags flown at sea may not yet be universally known and accepted, and while it is neither possible nor desirable, to compel universal acceptance, I think it may be said that the dimensions of 5x3 for flags flown on land are officially accepted, and from this, no doubt, general acceptance will in due course follow. Anything which would tend to ensure this would be to the good.

As to the last paragraph of the letter from the Commonwealth of Australia, I would say that the Blue Ensign is primarily a flag to be flown at sea, and that all such flags come under the jurisdiction of the Admiralty and should of course conform to Admiralty dimensions. So far as it (with varying charges) may be flown partly at sea and partly on land - if that be the case - it may be inconvenient to have two sizes. There is nothing compulsory about the Earl Marshal's ruling, which is intended as a guidance to those concerned."
David Prothero, 24 November 2005

It may be worth making clear that situation is no longer exactly the same as regards the Australian flag, as it has since then been explicitly defined as 1:2 in the Flags Act.
Jonathan Dixon, 26 November 2005

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 Pantone colours (186 for the red and 280 for blue) are the official ones for the Union Flag and all UK derivatives (Bartram 2004). 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

"Union Jacks" of other colours

Union Jacks are occasionally sighted in other combinations of colours.  The design is very distinctive and its use in other colour combinations has been adopted by some football (soccer) team supporters.  In particular black and white union jack flags are used by Newcastle United(?) fans.  Black and yellow might be used by supporters of Wolves (Wolverhampton Wanderers) of possibly Watford.
James Dignan, 15 April 2004

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