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United Kingdom

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

Last modified: 2014-04-01 by rob raeside
Keywords: united kingdom | union jack | saltire | jack | cross: saint george | cross: saint andrew | cross: saint patrick |
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[Flag of the United Kingdom] 1:2 | image by Clay Moss, 16 December 2006
Flag adopted 1 January 1801.


See also:

Flags of the Armed Services and Civilian Ensigns

Flags of Government offices and branches

Flags of other organizations

Historical flags:

Other flags:

Colonial flags:

United Kingdom 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

See also: UK flag - variant flag dimensions


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

The following is quoted from the article on the flag's name in "Flags of the World" Edited by E.M.C Barraclough C.B.E., R.N. and W.G. Crampton M.ED., London: Frederick Warne (Publishers) Ltd., 1978, p.24:

The original Union Flag was introduced in 1606 as a maritime flag, and in 1634 a Royal Proclamation laid down that the Union Flag was reserved for His Majesty's Ships of War and forbid merchant ships to wear it..........

It is quite clear that the name Union Jack was the name given to the distinguishing flag of His Majesty's Ships, and that it is proper to call this flag a Union Jack when flying in a ship, but this flag which was formerly purely maritime is now used as the National flag of Britain and some consider that it is incorrect to call it a Union Jack when it is not flying in a ship and that when flying ashore it should be called the Union Flag.

Strictly this view may be correct, and there would be no doubt as to its correctness if the flag used were the 1900 War Office pattern, but this is not so, and the flag that is seen in Britain flying from the Houses of Parliament and other public buildings is the pattern adopted by the Royal Navy.

Furthermore, it has been called the Union Jack in modern times in Parliament and so by common usage it is considered that it IS CORRECT to call this flag, which is to all intents the National flag of the United Kingdom, the UNION JACK . It would also appear that the 1900 War Office version should not be called the Union Jack; in fact it is generally known as the 'Great Union Flag'.
David Procter, 20 October 2013

See also:


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]

The directive was changed in 1943 after torpedo coupling screws had been sent to the United States wrapped in parts of an American flag. Following a complaint from the American Embassy, Stores Duties Instructions were amended. "In future all national flags are to be destroyed and not used as 'bundling (bunting old)'". [ADM 1/12955]
David Prothero, 2 February 2002


UK Flag Registry

From http://www.flaginstitute.org/index.php?location=10:

UK Flag Registry is maintained and managed by the Flag Institute as the national registry of United Kingdom flags. This is to ensure there is a definitive record of those which exist both nationally and regionally. There is of course no UK Flag Act, under the authority of which such flags might have been endorsed, and it therefore falls to the Flag Institute to maintain the formal record.
     National flags for the constituent countries of the UK are well established, even if not declared in law to be national flags, whilst the range of county and regional flags continues to expand as can be seen by the dates of authorisation given for the more recent ones listed. There is no other formal national listing of these flags.
     As new county or regional flags are created they will be added to the list once they have satisfied the strict criteria laid down. If a flag in common use is not listed here please contact the Chief Vexillologist. To find out more about the criteria for registration please see the section on Registry criteria.
Christopher Southworth, 31 July 2008

Regional flags currently listed in the registry are indicated in the pages indexing the flags of the home countries: Scotland, England, Wales.