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United Kingdom: ensigns

Last modified: 2020-05-23 by rob raeside
Keywords: united kingdom | union jack | civil ensign | naval ensign | naval reserve ensign | red ensign | white ensign | blue ensign | yellow ensign |
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The Red Ensign:

[UK civil ensign] image by Martin Grieve, 10 July 2007

The White Ensign:

[UK naval ensign] image by Martin Grieve, 10 July 2007

The Blue Ensign:

[UK naval reserve ensign] image by Clay Moss, 1 March 2008

See also:

Priority of British Ensigns

The seniority of the Ensigns was set in 1653 and was not altered by the Order in Council of 1864, as first Red, second White and third Blue.
Christopher Southworth, 22 April 2004

The modern order of precedence is white ensign, blue ensign, red ensign. As to whether a defaced or undefaced blue or red ensign is higher in precedence is a bit strange. An undefaced blue ensign is normally considered more "elite" than a defaced blue ensign (they are harder to come by), but a defaced red ensign is more "elite" than an undefaced one (similarly harder to get)!
So the full order is white ensign, undefaced blue ensign, defaced blue ensign, defaced red ensign, undefaced red ensign. It's British - you just knew it was going to be odd :-)
Graham Bartram, 23 April 2004

I am afraid that I must disagree with Graham over this. I understand and can appreciate your point, but as far as I can see the Red Ensign remains the senior and legal Ensign regardless of any change to its tactical usage. With respect (and leaving aside for the moment the status of the White Ensign), I would suggest that the existence (or non-existence) of a Warrant from the Ministry of Defence hardly qualifies a flag for seniority. Perhaps we are confusing exclusivity with seniority here? The Red Ensign remains the only Ensign which is established by Act of Parliament [the Merchant Shipping (Colours) Act of 1889] - "the senior and legal ensign" - and pending another such Act the White and Blue remain variations of it regardless of their use.
Christopher Southworth, 23 April 2004

The new guide to British flag protocol is published in the form of "British Flags and Emblems", written by yours truly! It includes the order of precedence of British flags and has been scrutinized by the Palace (including Prince Philip who caught several errors), the College of Arms, the Lord Lyon and the Admiralty! They all agreed the order.
Graham Bartram, 23 April 2004

The Red Ensign has historic seniority, but that I think is not relevant to its current precedence. The squadronal system was abolished.
David Prothero, 23 April 2004

I agree with Graham's seniority list. A clinching argument I think, is that at sea both the blue and red ensigns will be dipped in salute to the white when merchant vessels and RFA's meet up with a passing warship flying the white ensign.
Andre Burgers, 23 April 2004

On the subject of the 'Priority of British Ensigns', there is clearly confusion between 'seniority' and 'exclusivity'. The Red Ensign remains the first and principal ensign. Furthermore, the last comment [Andries Burgers, 23 April 2004] overlooks the fact that those same merchant Red and RFA Blue Ensigns would NOT be dipped to the White Ensign worn by a yacht of the Royal Yacht Squadron. Merchantmen dip their ensigns to warships, not to the White Ensign. If it suits the authorities to decide to use the Red, Blue or any other Ensign in warships in the future then we can be quite sure that merchantmen and RFAs will salute them, whatever ensign is so authorised.

One might more logically argue that it is the Commissioning Pendant that it being recognised by the salute, since the RYS yacht has a burgee and is not saluted while wearing the same White Ensign.
E & M Morgan-Busher, 13 October 2008

A document entitled "Naval Flags and Ensigns - A Note by the Naval Staff Directorate" states:
'The Red Ensign of Her Majesty's Fleet (undefaced) is authorised as the proper national colours for British ships which are not entitled by Warrant or any other legal authority to wear other national colours. The authority for the status of the Red Ensign is Section 2 of Merchant Shipping Act 1995. Section 1 of the same Act provides the authoritative definition of 'British ship'; unregistered vessels and craft (e.g. small motor boats, dinghies and canal craft) fall within the definition. It remains the senior British Ensign, and should not be regarded as in any respect inferior to special ensigns of privileged Yacht Clubs.'

This certainly contradicts statements made concerning the purported priority of the British ensigns (and special ensigns). I cannot now find this document online, so perhaps it has been 'suppressed'?

Concerning salutes, it is surely not the White Ensign itself that is saluted, but rather Her/His Majesty's Ship wearing it (i.e. in recognition of the vessel's status). When a British (or any other) merchantman dips to the 'Stars and Stripes' worn as an ensign, she does so in salute to a commissioned ship of the United States Navy; no salute is rendered to the same flag when carried by a United States Naval Service (= Royal Fleet Auxiliary) ship or an American merchantman.
Ted MB, 14 October 2008

Dimensions of British Ensigns

It is thought that British naval flags attained a ratio of 1:2 through carelessness. 17th century English naval ensigns were made from material that was about eleven inches wide. It was stipulated that the length of a flag should be eighteen times the number of widths of material used to make the flag. The ratio at that time was therefore 11:18. Over the years, for reasons that I have never seen explained, the width of the material used to make flags was reduced, but no corresponding adjustment was made to the stipulated length. The length of the flags thus increased relative to their width. By about 1840 the width of the material had been reduced to nine inches, giving a ratio of 8 : 18. Standard sizes were now introduced, in which the length was twice the width.
David Prothero, 6 February 2006

Not quite if you don't mind me saying so David. According to Pepys writing in the last half of the 17th Century "It is in general to be noted that the bewper (bunting) from which colours are made being 22 inches (approx 56 cm) in breadth and half of that breadth or 11 inches in ordinary discourse by the name of a breadth being wrought into colours, every such breadth is allowed half a yard (18 inches or approx 46cm) for its fly".
If the flag sizes given for 1742 may be cited as evidence the 'breadth' had decreased to 10 inches by that date, and a surviving 20 foot x 40 foot White Ensign of 1787 (not counting an Establishment of 1822) seems to indicate that the breadth had reduced yet again to its modern width of 9 inches by the later 18th Century?
Christopher Southworth, 6 February 2006

International influence of British ensigns

Unless otherwise stated (a) the relevant national flag appears in the canton, and (b) the term 'white ensign' means a flag with a red St. George's cross.

Antigua: Civil ensign; possibly defunct
Standard British red ensign
Australia: War ensign, State ensign, Civil ensign
War ensign: British Union flag in canton; white field with blue southern cross and seven-pointed Australian star.
State Ensign, Civil Ensign: As above, but with white stars on a red field.
Bahamas: Civil Ensign
Civil Ensign: Red field with white cross.
War Ensign: White ensign
Bangladesh: Civil ensign
Red ensign
Belize: War ensign,State ensign,Civil ensign probably defunct
War ensign, State ensign: British union flag in canton on blue field with state arms on a white disc.
Civil ensign: Standard British red ensign
Brunei Darussalam: War ensign
White field with blue cross
Burma: 1948-1974 flags (Myanmar)
Red ensign, using Burmese 6-star arrangement in canton.
Fiji Islands: Civil ensign,State ensign,War ensign; current status unknown
Fiji uses the British red, blue and white ensigns (the latter without the St George's cross) as its civil, state and war ensigns respectively, with the addition of the state shield.
Ghana: Civil ensign,War ensign
Red and white ensigns
India: War ensign,Civil ensign,State ensign
War ensign,Civil ensign: White and red ensigns respectively.
Civil ensign: Blue field with yellow anchor, on its side
Jamaica: War ensign
White ensign
Jordan: War ensign
White ensign, without cross but with a black anchor emblem
Kenya: Civil ensign
Plain white field on which there is a red anchor
Republic of Korea: War ensign
National flag in canton modified with addition of crossed black anchors behind 'yin/yang' symbol instead of the four black 'kwae' marks. On a blue field. British influenced design?
Malaysia: War ensign, Royal flag
War ensign has plain white field with blue anchor design.
Royal flag has plain red field.
Mauritius: State ensign, Civil ensign
Red and blue ensigns, defaced with addition of state arms, the former in a white disc.
Myanmar: 1948-1974 flags (Burma)
Red ensign, using Burmese 6-star arrangement in canton.
New Zealand: Civil ensign, War ensign, State ensign
Red, white and blue ensigns respectively, defaced with addition of white, red and red-with-white-outlined stars of the southern cross. The State ensign is the same as the national flag on land. The white ensign does not have a St. George's cross.
Nigeria: War ensign
White ensign
Pakistan: Civil ensign,State ensign
Red ensign used for both purposes. The war ensign is a variant of the national flag, but with different proportions
Saint Kitts and Nevis: Civil ensign, probably defunct
British red ensign
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines: Civil ensign, State ensign, War ensign probably defunct since introduction of new national flag in 1979
The colonial blue ensign, defaced with a modified version of the state arms on a disc was official for all purposes at sea.
Samoa: Civil ensign, State ensign
Blue canton on which there is a representation of the southern cross on white. Red field. Used for official purposes at sea (Is the national flag on land as well).
Singapore: State ensign, War ensign
Blue and white ensigns respectively, the white ensign being minus the St. George's cross. The canton is the stars on red background from the top hoist of the national flag on land - a sort of canton of a canton? Both flags are defaced with the addition of a red and white 8-pointed star design
Solomon Islands: Civil ensign, State ensign, War ensign
Red, blue and white ensigns respectively. A 'pure' adoption of the British pattern.
South Africa: War ensign, presumably defunct or superseded since introduction of new national flag
White ensign, with green cross instead of red,
Trinidad and Tobago: War ensign
White ensign
Tuvalu: Civil ensign,State ensign; presumably defunct since introduction of new national flag
The State ensign and Civil ensign were the same as the (old) national flag, itself a derivative of the blue ensign.
United Kingdom: Civil ensign,State ensign,War ensign
The three ensigns were originally the flags of the three squadrons of the Royal Navy. This system was reformed in c1830, with only the white ensign being retained for the Royal Navy.

Stuart Notholt, 9 February 1996

Perhaps the US, influenced by the Red Ensign even though the color is not used, and Israel (among others?), which uses its national flag in a canton, could be considered part of this list too.
Nathan Lamm
, 14 August 2002

The practice of placing colonial badges on red ensigns for private was somewhat common globally. The evidence lies in all of the unofficial red ensigns floating around out there. Although the practise was illegal, British authorities were not going to penalize colonial residents for showing colonial patriotism or for clarifying where they were from via their particular red ensign.
Clay Moss, 4 November 2006

Classification of British Ensigns

I suggest that British Colonial Ensigns can be classified under eight headings.

  1. Authorised ensigns, as illustrated in the Admiralty Flag Book.
  2. Authorised ensigns, as illustrated in amendments to the Colonial Office Flag Book of 1932. eg. Kenya and Uganda Railways and Harbour Administration.
  3. Ensigns authorised by the Colonial Office but possibly never illustrated in an official publication. eg. Gilbert & Ellice Customs.
  4. Unauthorised ensigns used by official departments. Made in the belief, held by some officials, that any department of a colonial government was entitled to make-up its own ensign. There are about seventeen identified in official records. eg. Ceylon Police.
  5. Unauthorised unofficial ensigns. Actual examples made for use, in ignorance or disregard of the regulations. eg. Hong Kong Red Ensign.
  6. Unauthorised unofficial ensigns. Actual examples probably made as souvenirs or for street decoration, rather than for use as ensigns.
  7. Unauthorised ensigns of which there are only photographs.
  8. Drawings of unauthorised ensigns that the illustrator thought existed. Usually Red Ensigns drawn in the misconception that every defaced Blue Ensign had a corresponding defaced Red Ensign.

David Prothero, 27 June 2005

Blue Ensigns (defaced or otherwise) are generally Warranted by the Minister of Defence who must naturally have some influence thereafter as to their appearance, whereas Red Ensigns (for use as a civil rather than a yacht ensign) are mostly established by Royal Order in Council which, together with an integral, illustrated schedule, is then presented to Parliament in accordance with the Merchant Shipping Act.
Christopher Southworth, 16 April 2010

Application of the Merchant Shipping Act

Any ship registered in a British port, which includes ports in Overseas Territories and Dependencies, is subject to the Merchant Shipping Act. Certain sections of the Act describe the flag that should be flown, which is the Red Ensign "without any defacement or modification whatsoever". The warrant or order in council is a legal document which exempts certain defined ships from this requirement and indicates the authorised defacement. For example, this is the text of the Admiralty Warrant for the Cyprus Red Ensign.

"Whereas we deem it expedient that vessels registered under the Cyprus Registration of Ships Law 1922, and belonging to British Subjects or to Bodies Corporate established under or subject to the law of the Island of Cyprus, and having in the Island of Cyprus the primary Place of Business, and also boats forming part of the equipment of such Vessels shall be permitted to wear the Red Ensign of His Majesty's Fleet with the badge of the Island of Cyprus on the fly thereof. We do therefore by virtue of the Power and Authority vested in us hereby, Warrant and Authorise the Red Ensign of His Majesty's Fleet and the badge of the Island of Cyprus in the fly to be used on board the Vessels hereinbefore specified. 25 August 1922."
That is a document that covered any number of ships, but other exemptions were for named ships. During WWII Danish merchant ships operating out of Britain had to be placed on the British Register and were therefore required to fly the Red Ensign. Later it was agreed that providing the Master and crew of a Danish ship were all Danish nationals it could fly the Danish flag whilst remaining on the British Register. Certificates of Exemption were issued individually to those Masters whose ships met the requirement.

The arrangement for those yacht clubs whose members are privileged to fly a defaced Red Ensign are different.
David Prothero
, 14 August 2000

The "Yellow Ensign"

I know that at the time of Trafalgar there were 3 squadrons of the Royal Navy who had admirals of the red, blue and white. In Bernard Cornwells book 'Sharpe's Trafalgar' there are admirals of the yellow mentioned who don't have ships. Did yellow ensigns exist?
T.M. Cox, 11 September 2002

No, nor did yellow admiral's flags. "Admiral of the yellow" or "yellow admiral" was a colloquial, somewhat sarcastic term for a flag officer without a flag. In the Royal Navy of the early 19th century, promotion beyond the rank of captain was purely by seniority. If you lived long enough, you made rear admiral regardless of merit or performance. Now suppose the time came when a certain Captain Smith was next in line for promotion, but Captain Brown, next junior to him on the list, was better qualified or had better political connections or whatever. The Admiralty really wants to promote Brown, but it cannot jump him ahead of Smith. It promotes them both, but assigns Brown to a command as a rear admiral of the blue and leaves Smith sitting on the beach without an assignment--nowhere to hoist his admiral's flag. Technically, Smith has become a "rear admiral without distinction of squadron."

But everyone knew that admirals were all of a particular color--blue, white, or red. So people began referring to officers like Smith as "admirals of the yellow" as a kind of grim joke, or at least it was grim to Smith and other "yellow admirals."

The prospect of being "yellowed" looms large in the fortunes of Captain Jack Aubrey in the later volumes of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels. Since the last book is entitled "Blue at the Mizzen," it is not giving away the ending to say that Aubrey avoids this fate worse than death.
Joe McMillan
, 12 September 2002

'Yellow Admiral' was a term used in Britain to denote a post-captain promoted to rear admiral on retirement but without serving in that rank. They were promoted to flag rank and placed on the retired list on the following day, so that they did nor automatically swell the rear-admirals' list. The term was in use between 1815 and 1864.
Source: The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea (1976)
Jarig Bakker
, 12 September 2002

Although in a Royal Navy context the 'yellow ensign' is mythical, there are two similar flags in use within the Commonwealth. The associated state of Niue's national flag of 1975 and the Victorian Governor's flag of 1984 can both be described as yellow ensigns. In Niue's Merchant Shipping (Registration of Foreign Vessels) Act 2012, at section 39 (1) the Niue National Flag is prescribed as the proper national colours for ships registered under the Act, so since 2012 it is clearly a maritime ensign. The Victorian Governor's yellow flag was introduced during the term of Governor Sir Brian Murray. Interestingly, Sir Brian was a retired Rear Admiral.
Jeff Thomson, 19 January 2018

I would note that there's a reason for exactly yellow:
In Signal-book for the Ships of War, 1799, different "pennants" are used to distinguish the different squadrons:
1 - Red, First or Centre Squadron
2 - White with red stripe, Second or Van Squadron
3 - Blue, Third of Rear Squadron

Additionally, the final entry in that table is:
8 - Yellow, Transports or Ships under Convoy
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 25 February 2018