Union Flag

also known as the

Union Jack

Union flag

First, this flag is NOT the flag of Britain, neither is it the flag of England. It is the British monarch's emblem, used as the national flag the United Kingdom (UK).

So what is the UK, and why is England sometimes called Britain?

United Kingom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

For most of the world, 'England', 'Britain' and the 'United Kingdom' are synonymous. But for those living there, the distinction is important. And the distinction is quite clear: The country of England is part of a large island called Great Britain (or Britain). There are two other countries in Britain: Scotland in the north and Wales in the west. England covers the south and east - about 3/5 of the island.

Britain is part of the UK along with Northern Ireland. The official name of the UK is the 'United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland' and its subjects can carry a British passport.

And this complicated naming helps to explain why the flag design is so complicated.

A bit of history

The Union Flag, or Union Jack, is the national flag of the United Kingdom and is so called because it embodies the emblems of the three countries united under one Sovereign - the kingdoms of England and Wales, of Scotland and of Ireland (although since 1921, only Northern Ireland has been part of the UK).

The flag consists of three heraldic crosses:

  1. St George's Cross

    In 1194, England's King Richard I decided on a red St. George's Cross as the flag for England. Later, in the 1270's, St. George became the patron saint of England.

    Like the "Confederate" Southern Cross in the USA, the George Cross has been hijacked by white supremacists. For a different political reason, it's also the basis of the Orange Cross (see below) by some people in Northern Ireland.

    It might upset some English far rightists to learn that St George himself wasn't English and probably never set foot in England. His parents were Greek (or possibly Italian) and he grew up in Israel. His entry into British culture was through a sort of Lebanese immigration and St George is also venerated by Muslims.

    Regrettably for lads and ladettes; any claim that the St George Cross somehow 'belongs' to England is tenuous at best.

    The George Cross is also the basis of the flag of Georgia; the Channel Islands of Alderney, Guernsey and Herm; the Square Mile City of London; Sitges near Barcelona; Montreal; and Sardinia. (See other flags with crosses)

  2. St Andrew's Cross

    Scotland is represented by the white saltire on a blue background, a symbol for Scotland since King Angus in the 9th century. It is called the St. Andrew's Cross.

    (This is also the flag of the Saint Andrew and Providence Islands - San Andrés y Providencia - northwest of Colombia, once the settlement of English Puritans, and the flag of Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain, albeit a slightly darker shade of blue. See other flags with crosses)

    Union Flag, 1606
    Union Flag, 1606

    In 1606, when King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England, an additional flag was made combining the white cross of St. Andrew, with the red cross of St. George. The blue ground was darkened to match the shade of red and this united flag was called the Union Flag. A white border was added to the red cross to show the red and white colours of the English flag. The St. George's flag was retained for England and the St. Andrew's flag was retained for Scotland.

    Scottish version
    Scottish version

    The Scots were understandably upset to see the English red cross laid over their white cross, so they proposed a design where the white cross overlaid the red cross. Nice try, but the official version prevailed.

    Welsh flag
    Welsh flag

    The Welsh emblem Y Ddraig Goch (red dragon) doesn't appear on the Union Flag because in 1606, when the flag was created, the Principality of Wales had already been united with England. Wales was conquered by England in the 13th century; it wasn't a merger.

  3. St Patrick's Cross

    1 January 1801 was the start of the 'Act of Union of Ireland with England (and Wales) and Scotland'. Following this, King George III added the symbol of the patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick, a diagonal red cross on a white ground.

    (A similar flag is used by Alabama, USA, and the Chilean city of Valdivia. In the 19th century the Valdivian governor was an Irishman - and one of the main industries of Valdivia is beer - but these are about the only links Valdivia has with Ireland. The Valdivian Cross is believed to be copied from the Spanish Cross of Burgundy. The flag of Jersey, Channel Islands, also has a red saltire. See other flags with crosses)

    Correct orientation

    However, there was a slight technical problem. If St. Patrick's Cross was centred on the flag, it would obscure the white St. Andrew's Cross. To avoid this, the St. Patrick's cross was made thinner. It was also offset slightly, so that when we 'read' the flag clockwise, the St. Andrew's Cross of Scotland, the older member of the Union, is ahead of the St. Patrick's Cross of Ireland.

    Union Flag, 1606
    Union flag, 1606

    Ulster Flag
    Ulster's civic flag

    Red Hand Flag
    Red Hand flag

    The Union Flag of 1606 is still used by some loyalist groups in Ulster, who prefer not to see the St. Patrick's cross on the flag.

    But rather than use Ulster's civic flag, they also use the old Government of Northern Ireland's flag which has the English Cross of St. George, a crown and a red hand within a star. This is commonly known as the Red Hand flag

    In admiration and respect of King William of Orange, they sometimes change the colour and refer to this flag as the Orange Cross as a contrast to the red saltire of the 'Irish' St. Patrick's Cross.

The formation of the Union Flag came about as the result of the progressive merging of the inhabitants of the British Isles under one king.

Name of the flag

The term Union Jack possibly dates from Queen Anne's reign (1702-14) but its origin is uncertain. It may come from:

  • the 'jacket' of the English or Scottish soldiers
  • or from the name of James I who originated the first union in 1603, in either its Latin or French form Jacobus or Jacques
  • or, because jack once meant 'small', a royal proclamation issued by Charles II said the Union Flag should be flown only by ships of the Royal Navy as a jack - a small flag at the bowsprit.

In 1902 the British government decided that either of the names Union Flag or Union Jack could be used officially.

Use and misuse of the flag

Correct orientation
Correct orientation
Incorrect orientation
Incorrect orientation

As explained above, the red diagonal St. Patrick's cross is offset slightly onto the white St. Andrew's cross, so that when we 'read' the flag clockwise, the St. Andrew's Cross is ahead of the St. Patrick's Cross. To fly the flag with the anti-clockwise reading is a signal indicating 'distress'. It is also lese Majeste (an offence against the 'dignity of the sovereign'), and is theoretically still a crime in the UK.

...or so we are led to believe. Since an underlying axiom of democracy is that nothing is sacred, prosecution for just flying a reversed flag is unlikely to succeed. Having said that, there have been some pretty queer cases in the British courts through the years.

Mini with reverse flag
Help! I've got a Mini!

As for the distress signal; in the early naval days a reversed flag was hoisted as a secret danger signal known only to the British. Battle ships would use it to warn of danger while foreign fleets wouldn't realise that a tip-off was being made.

But now that the information is all over the internet for enemy navies to read, the signal is no longer used. And don't bother remembering this if your car gets stuck in a snowdrift - the emergency services probably wouldn't recognise anything so subtle.

Nevertheless, it's all useful stuff for cub scouts to learn.

Photo by Johnny Frodsham/@johnnyf14
(Click image to enlarge)


A bizarre version was spotted atop Manchester's Central Library in November 2013. This was a mistake by the manufacturers and also by the workmen who hoisted the flag ready for Remembrance Sunday, one day before Armistice Day.

The fabric had inadvertently been cut in the wrong place, giving the impression that the diagonal cross had exploded. The city council issued an apology and quickly replaced the flag, which is no doubt cherished by a local collector. You might see it on ebay one day.

(What name should it have? "Flag Union the of Kingdom United"?)

As explained, the flag is theoretically the property of the monarch. For this reason, the laws governing its use are a bit unusual and tend to be 'Commands by the Sovereign', rather than laws passed by the government. It is generally taken for granted that His/Her Majesty's subjects may fly the flag in the UK without any special permission.

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Some British companies cleverly get around restrictions

Under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, flags are defined as 'advertisements' and their display is controlled by the Town and Country Planning (Control of Advertisements) Regulations 1992. However, under Schedule 2 of the Regulations, national flags are exempt provided each flag is flown from a single vertical flagstaff and neither the flag nor the flagstaff display any advertisement additional to the design of the flag.

So no real problem flying the flag on land, but at sea there are severe restrictions, since the flag has been reserved by the government for military purposes.

Other nations and regions using the Union Flag

The Union Flag design is incorporated into the flags of many other nations and regions, including:

  • Anguilla
  • Ascension Island
  • Australia
  • Bermuda
  • British Antarctic Territory
  • British Columbia
  • British Indian Ocean Territory
  • British Virgin Islands
  • Cayman Islands
  • Cook Islands
  • Falkland Islands
  • Fiji. 
  • Hawaii
  • Manitoba
  • Montserrat
  • Newfoundland and Labrador
  • New South Wales
  • New Zealand. 
  • Niue
  • Ontario
  • Pitcairn Islands
  • Queensland
  • Saint Helena
  • South Australia
  • South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands
  • Tasmania
  • Tristan da Cunha
  • Turks & Caicos Islands
  • Tuvalu
  • Victoria
  • Western Australia

The Fijian government plan to change the flag's design, sans Union Flag, and officially raise it on 7 September 2016, Constitution Day.

New Zealand referendums in 2015 and 2016 will decide whether a new flag design will include the Union Flag


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