The flag of the United Kingdom, commonly known as the Union Jack or Union Flag, is arguably one of the most recognizable flags in the world. And while the first Union Flag appeared in 1603, its roots go back far into the Middle Ages, making it one of the world’s most historic flags.
To understand the design of the Union Flag, you must first understand the early banners of England and Scotland.
The flag of England is a simple St. George’s Cross, a symbol that has represented several sovereign states and groups since the 11th century, including the Republic of Genoa and the Knights Templar during the Crusades. The adoption of the cross as an English symbol was a gradual process. It is widely believed that English vessels began flying the Cross in the late 1100s to gain protection of the Geneose fleet in the Mediterranean sea. However, there is little documented evidence to support this theory. The Cross increased in popularity under the rule of Edward I, whose soldiers used it as a distinguishing mark. By 1552, St. George replaced all others as the patron saint of England and his cross swept the nation.
The flag of Scotland is known as St. Andrew’s Cross and is a blue field defaced by a white, x-shaped cross known as a saltire. It is said that St. Andrew was martyred on a saltire. As a symbol, St. Andrew’s Cross began showing up in Scottish seals as early as 1180 and were used as distinguishing military marks by 1385. Its first definitive use on a flag was recorded in the Register of Scottish Arms, circa 1542.
Fast-forward to 1603 when England’s Queen Elizabeth I passed away without an heir to the thrown. King James IV of Scotland, Elizabeth’s first cousin twice removed, was seen as the most suitable heir. He inherited the thrones of England and Ireland, uniting the pair with Scotland under one rule. The armies of each country continued to use their respective flags since they were united under personal rule – when two countries share the same monarch but their laws are separate. However, there was confusion as to which flag their naval ships should fly as they were technically property of the King. In 1606, a solution was reached by ingeniously combining the flags of England and Scotland to form the Flag of Great Britain, or the first Union Flag.
The Union Flag was restricted to only naval use during its first 101 years in existence since England and Scotland were still separate countries. It wasn’t until the Acts of Union 1707 when England and Scotland joined together as the state of Great Britain that the flag became the official banner of military and government on land.
The current version of the Union Flag was created by the Acts of Union 1800 that united Great Britain and Ireland. The red saltire of St. Patrick, Ireland’s patron saint, was added on January 1, 1801, reflecting the addition of Ireland in a “United Kingdom.” Though Ireland would gain independence in 1921, the St. Patrick’s Cross remained to represent Northern Ireland, which separated from Ireland to remain a part of the United Kingdom.
Despite being a famous flag on its own, the Union Flag may be just as famous for being a part of other flags. Great Britain’s colonial flags were modified naval ensigns that featured a Union Flag in the canton and the colony’s seal on the field. Since Great Britain had the largest empire to ever exist, over 100 flags have featured a Union Flag. Despite the fall of the British Empire, 17 national and protectorate flags feature the Union Flag, including Australia, New Zealand, Cayman Islands, and Tuvalu. Even the American state of Hawaii honors its past as a former British colony with a Union Flag on its own flag.
Flag vs Jack
You may have noticed that I used the term Union Flag opposed to the much more popular Union Jack. I chose to do so because, first and foremost, it made more sense with the way I wrote this article. But there is a much bigger debate behind these two terms. Those who have read our primer on nautical flags know that jacks are flags flown from the bow (front) of the ship and the Union Flag was Great Britain’s jack. This has caused a debate on whether it is appropriate to call the flag the “Union Jack” when it is flown on land. While some nations have jacks that are different than their national flags, such as the United States, there is less of a need to distinguish between the Union Flag and Union Jack since they are the same flag. The United Kingdom’s Navy also weighed in on the matter in a 1902 Admiralty Circular that states that “Union Jack” can be used on land or at sea.