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The Journey from Maritime Flag to National Flag
A Timeline for the Union Flag/Jack


King James VI of Scotland became, additionally, King James I of England.  At this time ensigns (a flag flown at the stern of a ship) were commonly flown by ships of war, but not by merchant ships.  Most merchant ships flew a flag from a top or masthead.


A Proclamation declaring what Flags South and North Britains shall bear at Sea.

"Whereas some difference has arisen between our Subjects of South and North Britain, Travelling by Sea, about the bearing of their flags, for the avoiding of all such contentions hereafter, We have with the advice of our Council ordered That from henceforth all our subjects of this Isle and Kingdom of Great Britain and the Members thereof shall bear in their maintop the Red Cross, commonly called St George's Cross, and the White Cross, commonly called St Andrew's Cross, joined together, accord­ing to a form made by our Heralds and sent by Us to our Admiral to be published to our said Subjects. And in their foretop Our Subjects of South Britain shall wear the Red Cross only as they were wont, and our Subjects of North Britain in their Foretop the White Cross only as they were accustomed. Wherefore We will and command all our Subjects to be conformable and obedient to this Our Order, and that from henceforth they do not use to bear their flags in any other Sort, as they will answer the contrary at their Peril."

Saint George's Cross

Union Flag

Saint Andrew's Cross

"Given at our Palace of Westminster the 12th day of April in the 4th year of our Reign of Great Britain France and Ireland Annoq Domini 1606.

 At first the new flag was called the "Britain" or "British" flag, a name that persisted until at least 1639, but after 1625 it was also being called the "Union". At this time, in maritime parlance, "flag" did not have the very broad and general meaning that it has to-day.  It was the specific name of a colour flown from a masthead or top, and the new flag came to be called the Union Flag.


By this time a Union Flag at a masthead was being used on ships of war as the distinguishing flag of an admiral.


In 1634 use of the Union Flag was restricted to ships in the service and pay of the King.

"A Proclamation appointing the Flags, as well for our Navie Royall as for the Ships of our Subjects of South and North Britaine."

"Wee taking into Our Royall consideration that it is meete for the Honour of Our owne Ships in Our Navie Royall and of such other Ships as are or shall be employed in Our immediate Service, that the same bee by their Flags distinguished from the ships of any other of Our Subjects, doe hereby straitly prohibite and forbid that none of Our Subjects, of any of Our Nations and Kingdomes, shall from hencefoorth presume to carry the Union Flagge in the Maine toppe, or other part of any of their Ships (that is) S. Georges Crosse and S. Andrews Crosse joyned together upon paine of Our high displeasure, but that the same Union Flagge bee still reserved as an ornament proper for Our owne Ships and Ships in Our immediate Service and Pay, and none other.”

Saint George's Cross

Union Flag

Saint Andrew's Cross

"And likewise Our further will and pleasure is, that all the other Ships of Our Subjects of England or South Britaine bearing flags shall from hencefoorth carry the Red‑Crosse, commonly called S. George his Crosse, as of olde time hath beene used; And also that all the other ships of Our Subjects of Scotland or North Britaine shall from hencefoorth carry the White Crosse commonly called S. Andrews Crosse, Whereby the severall Shipping may thereby bee distinguished and We thereby the better discerne the number and goodnesse of the same. Wherefore Wee will and straitly command all Our Subjects foorthwith to bee conformable and obedient to this Our Order, as they will answer the contrary at their perills."

"Given at Our Court at Greenwich this fifth day of May in the tenth yeere of Our Reigne of England Scotland France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith &c."

At about the same time it became usual for the King's ships to hoist a small version of the Union Flag in their bows.  The word 'jack' was applied to things smaller than the normal size, and the small 'Union flag' in the bow, became the 'Union jack-flag', which was shortened to 'Union Jack'.  Later the term was used even when the flag was being put to other uses, and 'Union Jack', or 'the King's Jack' became the usual name for the flag.  During the latter part of the 19th century it was argued that the flag should be called the Union Jack, only when it was being used as a jack, and that at all other times it should be called the Union Flag.  This is a perfectly reasonable argument, but the term 'Union Jack' had been used so widely and for so long that it is generally considered that the terms 'Union Jack' and 'Union Flag' are completely interchangeable.


Variations of the Union Jack used for different purposes during the inter regnum.

Lord Protector

Naval Ensign



Union Jack re-instated


Use of flags similar in appearance to the Union Jack resulted in the following proclamation.

"Whereas by ancient usage no merchant's ship ought to bear the Jack, which is for distinction appointed for his Majesty's ships; nevertheless his Majesty is informed that divers of his Majesty's subjects have of late pre­sumed to wear his Majesty's Jack on board their ships employed in mer­chants' affairs, and thinking to evade the Punishment due for the same, bear Jacks in shape and mixture of colours so little different from those of his Majesty as not to be without difficulty distinguisht therefrom, which practice is found attended with manifold Inconveniences; for prevention whereof for the future his Majesty hath thought fit, with the advice of his Privy Council, by this his Royal Proclamation, strictly to charge and command all his subjects whatsoever, that from henceforth they do not presume to wear his Majesty's Jack (commonly called The Union jack) in any of their ships or vessels, without particular warrant for their so doing from his Majesty, or the Lord High Admiral of England, or the Commissioners for executing the office of Lord High Admiral for the time being; and his Majesty doth hereby further command all his loving sub­jects, that without such warrant as aforesaid, they presume not to wear on board their ships or vessels, any Jacks made in imitation of his Majesty's, or any other flags, Jacks, or Ensigns whatsoever, than those usually here­tofore worn on merchants' ships, viz., the Flag and Jack White, with a Red Cross (commonly called Saint George's Cross) passing right through the same; and the Ensign Red, with a like Cross in a Canton White, at the upper corner thereof next to the staff,”

Saint George's Cross

Merchant's Flag

"And his Majesty doth hereby require the principal officers and Com­missioners of his navy, Governors of his Forts and Castles, the Officers of his Customs and Commanders or officers of any of his Majesty's ships, upon their meeting with, or otherwise observing any merchants' ships or vessels of his Majesty's subjects wearing such a flag, jack, or ensign, con­trary hereunto, whether at Sea or in Port, not only to cause such flag, jack or ensign to be forthwith seized, but to return the names of the said ships and vessels, together with the names of their respective masters, unto the Lord High Admiral, Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, or the judge of the High Court of Admiralty for the time being, to the end the Persons offending may be duly punished for the same.”

"And his Majesty doth hereby command and enjoyn the Judge and Judges of the High Court of Admiralty for the time being, that at the several Sessions to be hereafter held by his Majesty's Commission of Oyer and Terminer for the Admiralty, they give in charge, that strict enquiry be made of all offences in the premises, and that they cause all offenders therein to be duly punished.  And all Vice Admirals and Judges of Vice Admiralties, are also to do the same, and to attend the due observation hereof, within the several Ports and Places of their respective Precincts.”

"Given at our Court at Whitehall the Eighteenth Day of September 1674, in the Six and Twen­tieth Year of our Reign.  By his Majesty's Command."

Reasons why merchant ships and private yachts flew the Union Jack were noted by Samuel Pepys, Secretary to the Admiralty, at the Navy Board on the 20th of September 1686.

"Memorandum. That the temptations to this Liberty (besides the pride of it) are;

1st. That in Holland they are freed by it from taking a Pilot.

2dly. As to France they are by the Jack excused from paying the Duty of 50 Sous by Tun paid by every Mercht Man coming into a French Port.

3dly. All our Merchant Men lower their Topsails below Gravesend to any ship or vessel carrying the King's Jack, be it but a Victualling Hoy."


Earliest evidence that the Union Jack was being flown from the King's castles and forts.  A drawing of 1685 shows a Union Jack flying from an Irish fort.  A ship off the coast has a plain ensign with a St George's canton.


The Union Jack replaced the cross of St George in the canton of flags flown in ships employed by government departments.

"Such Ships and Vessels as shall be employed for Their Majesties' Service by the Principal Officers and Commissioners of Their Majesties' Navy, the Principal Officers of T.M. Ordnance, the Commissioners for Victualling T.M. Navy, the Commissioners for T.M. Customs, and the Commissioners for Transportation for T.M. Services, relating particularly to those Offices shall wear a Red jack with the Union Jack in a Canton at the upper corner thereof next the staff, as aforesaid, and in the other part of the said Jack shall be described the Seal used in the respective Offices aforesaid by which the said ships and vessels shall be employed."


A special Union Jack, defaced with a white escutcheon, was introduced for any ships commissioned by Governors of the North American Colonies by the Committee of the Whole Council.

"Whereas great inconveniences do happen by Merchant Ships and other Vessels in the Plantations wearing the Colours born by our Ships of War under pretence of Commissions granted to them by the Governors of the said Plantations, and that by trading under those Colours, not only amongst our own Subjects, but also those of other Princes and States, and Com­mitting divers Irregularities, they do very much dishonour our Service --- For prevention whereof you are to oblige the Commanders of all such Ships, to which you shall grant Commissions, to wear no other  jack than according to the Sample here described, that is to say, such as is worn by our Ships of War, with the distinction of a white Escutchion in the middle thereof and that the said mark of distinction may extend itself to one half of the depth of the Jack and one third of the Fly thereof."

A Union Flag for
the North American Colonies

Although this special version of the Union Flag for use by the Royal Governors of the American Colonies was approved, it is unclear if this flag ever saw any actual use.


The first article of the Treaty of Union between England and Scotland provided that the crosses of St George and St Andrew should be conjoined as the Queen thought fit.  After the consideration of various designs it was decided by Order in Council of 17 April "that the Union Flag should continue as at present".  By a later Proclamation of 28 July the Union Jack replaced the cross of St George in the canton of ensigns

18th Century

During the course of the 18th century fore and aft headsails replaced the square spritsails at the bow, and the sprit topmast, on which the jack had been hoisted, was replaced by a flagstaff on the bow sprit.  This flagstaff obstructed the jib when headsails were set and it became normal to fly a jack only when in harbour.  When steam replaced sail this problem disappeared, but the tradition has persisted and jacks are not flown when ships are under way, except on certain ceremonial occasions.


The Act of 1800 united Great Britain and Ireland with effect 1 January 1801, and by the first of the Articles of Union the Ensigns, Armorial Flags and Banners were to be such as the king by Royal Proclamation under the Great Seal of the said United Kingdom should appoint.

"Admiralty Office, 15 November 1800.


A Report from the Lords of the Committee of the whole Council, dated 4th instant, having been read at the Council Board on the Day following, in the Presence of the King's Most Excellent Majesty, wherein the Lords of the Council declared as their opinion, if His Majesty should so think fit, that His Royal proclamation to be issued on the First Day of January next under the Great Seal of the United Kingdom, appoint and declare that [details of the King's Royal Style and Title]

"That the Committee were further of opinion that the Union Flag should be altered according to the Draught thereof marked (C) in which the Cross of St George is conjoined with the Crosses of St Andrew and St Patrick:

"And that the Standard be the Arms of the United Kingdom according to the Draught marked (B);

Union Jack/Flag

"And that on and after the First Day of January next ensuing the said Flags and Banners should be hoisted and displayed on all His Majesty's Forts and Castles within the United Kingdom, and the Islands of Guernsey, Jersey, Alderney, Sark, and Man, and also on board all His Majesty's Ships of War, then lying in any of the Ports or Harbours of the said United Kingdom, or of the Islands aforesaid, and on board His Majesty's Ships employed on Foreign Service, as soon after the said First Day of January next as His Majesty's Proclamation or Order in Council shall be received by the Commanders of His Majesty's Ships employed on Foreign Service; We herewith transmit to you a Printed Copy of His Majesty's Order in Council of the 5th instant approving the Report of the Lords of the Committee afore-mentioned, and do hereby desire and direct you to cause such Flags and Standards as may be necessary to be prepared conformably to the said Draughts for the use of His Majesty's Ships of War at Home and on Foreign Stations, and to be supplied with them accordingly, with all the dispatch that may be.”{

“You are also to cause the Colours decribed in the said Order in Council to be hoisted in all the Dock Yards of the Kingdom upon the 1st Day of January next, and to supply the necessary Colours for the use of the Naval Hospitals at Home, and the Naval Yards and Hospitals abroad, in the manner directed by the said Order in Council;

We are Your affectionate Friends,  Arden,  J.Gambier,  W.Young.   Navy Board."


The Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland flew a plain Union Jack from his ship's masthead when crossing the Irish Sea.  The Admiralty objected to this as the Union Jack flown in this position was the distinguishing flag of an Admiral of the Fleet.  A special Union Jack defaced in the centre by a gold harp on a blue shield was introduced for the Lord-Lieutenant.

Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland


Defaced Union Jacks for use at sea were introduced for government officials whose flag ashore was the Union Jack.  "The Union Jack having been established by your Majesty's Regulations for the Naval Service as the Distinguishing Flag to be borne by the Admiral of the Fleet, and whereas great inconvenience has at times been experienced by the Union Jack having been carried in boats and other vessels by Governors of Colonies, Military Authorities, Diplomatic Officers and Consular Agents when embarked ...."  The solution was the creation of Union Jacks with different badges in the centre of the flag for specified officials.  In total, over the years, there have been 145 different defaced Union Jacks, of which 23 are still in use.

Governor of
Northern Ireland

of India


The earliest official reference to the Union Jack as the national flag is in Queen's Army Regulations 1873.  Section 3. Honours and Salutes.  "The following is a list of stations at which the national flag (Union Jack) is authorised to be hoisted on anniversaries only, or when specially required for saluting purposes."


The Times newspaper editorial of 18 September referred to a letter from Vicar of St Michael's Church, Folkstone published in the 7 June edition.  The Vicar had spent £10 buying a Royal Standard thinking that he would be able to fly it from the church tower as usual.  When he asked Lord Knollys, Edward VII's private secretary, if an exception might be made, he was told that "the Royal Standard can only be hoisted at the Coronation.  You can always fly the Union Jack."

Royal Standard

Union Jack

Red Ensign

After noting that some people thought that the Red Ensign was the national flag, the editorial pointed out that the Union Jack was a common feature, the only common feature, of all ensigns whether Red, White or Blue, worn by British ships at sea.  Display of the Union Jack was the international mark of all three, and the colour of the fly was in effect only a municipal distinction.

October 4, 1902.  Extract from Memorandum written by Major-General Sir Arthur Ellis, Lord Chamberlain's Department.

"The case of the Union Jack is different.  This flag, properly called the Union Flag was fixed by Order in Council in 1800, the year of the Union of the crowns of England and Ireland.  This Order was made in pursuance of the Act of Union (1800), which enables the King by Order in Council, to appoint the ensigns armorial flags and banners of the United Kingdom.  The flag was formed by a union of the sea flags of England, Ireland and Scotland.  The Order in Council however does not say when and by whom the Union Flag is to be used, nor is the use thereof in any way regulated.  At sea, as has been said, the use of the Union Flag has been regulated by Admiralty orders, but on land there has been no prohibition of its use, and it has always been treated by general consent as the national flag and used indicriminately everywhere."


In answer to a question in the House of Lords on 14th July, the Earl of Crewe replied that "the Union Jack should be regarded as the national flag, and it undoubtedly may be flown on land by all His Majesty’s subjects”


In reply to a parliamentary question on Tuesday 27 June as to whether private citizens were prevented from flying the Union Flag, the Home Secretary (Sir J Gilmour) said  "No Sir, the Union Flag is the national flag and may properly be flown by any British subject on land"


In colonies the Union Jack was flown on Government House from sunrise to sunset when the governor was in residence. This lead to a widespread but incorrect belief that the Union Jack was the Governor's personal flag, and could not be flown by anyone else.  "In certain territories the Union Flag is seldom if ever flown by members of the general public.  The Union Flag is perceived as the Governors' flag, as they rarely embark and use the defaced Union Flag."

The regulations were changed.  The defaced Union Jack became a Governor's flag on land so that general use of the plain Union Jack could be encouraged.  "Otherwise bases in the West Indies leased to the United States (in exchange for forty destroyers) would be a sea of Stars and Stripes with no Union Jacks in sight."

- My thanks to David Prothero for all his expert help, research, and advise on this page -

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