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:
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.
(This 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)
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)
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.
The Scots were 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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
and a red hand within a star. 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 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. They also use the old Government of Northern Ireland's flag which has the English Cross of St. George, a
As explained above, the broader diagonal white stripe should be at the top left hand side of the flag nearest the flagpole. 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.
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.
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.
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.