How the Union Flag has evolved

When I wrote about coronations a few weeks ago, I didn’t mention flags. But for the 2023 coronation, they were everywhere, weren’t they? Strings of bunting featuring the Union Jack (or Union Flag, if you prefer). So I thought I might blog about the origins and evolution of the flag we all recognise and take for granted.

Many, perhaps most, national flags are fairly simple, perhaps just three coloured stripes, like the French and German ones. The Union Jack is much more complicated, as is the flag of the USA. That’s another flag that has evolved and may continue to do so, like the differences in our languages. Dame Isadora has blogged about that, more than once 😉

Amercian and English spoken

Two Nations divided by a common language  Rawf8

The Union Jack is the flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, to use the full title. And so the flag should represent the constituent parts. But does it? Where is Wales, for example?

In the beginning, there were other flags

You probably recognise these: the white saltire on blue of Scotland; the red cross on white of England.

Put them together and you have the Union Jack?

Er, no. Not exactly. There’s rather more to it, because not everything happened at once. The Union Jack evolved over time.

The Union of the Crowns, 1603

James I of England and VI of Scotland

James VI and I

When Elizabeth I died in 1603, her successor as King of England was James VI, King of Scots. He became James I of England (while remaining also James VI). So the crowns of the two countries were united, but the nations were not. They remained separate, with separate laws and parliaments. James liked to think of his kingdoms as one entity, Great Britain, but in fact they weren’t that at all.

For the purposes of the King’s ships, however, a flag was needed and James had one created, usually called the King’s Colours. It was used at sea from 1606. This flag  looks rather like the current Union Jack but, if you look closely, you’ll see that it’s not the same.Flag of Great Britain commonly called the King's Colours

It is, essentially, 4 stripes of white (diagonal, horizontal, vertical) on a blue ground, with a red cross superimposed. The vertical and horizontal white (argent) stripes were added because the laws of heraldry don’t allow blue and red to sit against each other. The blue was darkened because the lighter blue of the Scottish Saltire faded too much when used at sea. (The Navy has always been practical.)

The flag represented Scotland and England. Wales didn’t get a look in, and still doesn’t, as far as the Union Jack is concerned (though there have been suggestions that a dragon should be added in the centre).

King James’s Order in Council about flags

I’m pasting in James’s 1606 Order in Council, because it’s a great read and also because it includes references to North Britain and South Britain which the king favoured as terminology for the parts of Great Britain, rather than Scotland and England. The term “South Britain” never gained any traction in England—can’t think why, can you? “North Britain” was used slightly more but eventually died out completely.

By the King: Whereas, some differences hath arisen between Our subjects of South and North Britaine travelling by Seas, about the bearing of their Flagges: For the avoiding of all contentions hereafter. We have, with the advice of our Council, ordered: That from henceforth all our Subjects of this Isle and Kingdome of Great Britaine, and all our members thereof, shall beare in their main-toppe the Red Crosse, commonly called St. George’s Crosse, and the White Crosse, commonly called St. Andrew’s Crosse, joyned together according to the forme made by our heralds, and sent by Us to our Admerall to be published to our Subjects: and in their fore-toppe our Subjects of South Britaine shall weare the Red Crosse onely as they were wont, and our Subjects of North Britaine in their fore-toppe the White Crosse onely as they were accustomed.

The replica of the 17th century Godspeed is flying the King’s Colours and the flag of “South Britain” as per the King’s orders.

The Union of the Parliaments, 1707

Articles of Union between England and Scotland 1707

1707 Union of England and Scotland

In 1707, the Scottish Parliament agreed to union with the Parliament in Westminster.

The Scottish people were not consulted and were almost all against the union. But the elite of Scotland were in favour, partly as a result of bribery. Robert Burns described the process as “We’re bought and sold for English Gold.”

However it was brought about, the union did take place and James VI and I’s idea of a kingdom of Great Britain became a reality. Scotland would send MPs to Westminster from then on, though Scotland was to have only 45 MPs, whereas England and Wales had 513.

Ireland, also a kingdom in its own right under the then monarch, Queen Anne, didn’t figure in the 1707 Act of Union. Ireland had no representation at all in the Parliament at Westminster. It still had its own separate Parliament in 1707 though it was subordinate to Westminster. The Irish flag, St Patrick’s red saltire, was not part of the flag of Great Britain.

Naval Ensigns in Red, White and Blue

Back in the late 18th century, when there was a large and powerful British navy, there were 3 squadrons, labelled (would you believe?) Red, White and Blue. Each had their own admirals—you’ll often see references to the Admiral of the White, or Vice Admiral of the Blue etc in stories about the Napoleonic Wars—and they flew ensigns in those colours that are still recognisable today.


In the days of these ensigns (which use the King’s Colours in the top left quadrant), the Admiral of the Red was the Admiral of the Fleet (ie the most senior). The ensigns shown here were in use until 1801. Then they changed. Because of the Acts of Union of 1800.

Nowadays, the naval ensigns incorporate the Union Jack in the top left rather than the King’s Colours as shown above. Usage has changed, too. The Red/White/Blue squadrons were abolished in 1864. Since then, the White Ensign is flown by the Royal Navy and the Red Ensign by the merchant navy. The Blue Ensign is flown by merchant ships commanded by officers of the Royal Naval Reserve so it is not often seen.

The Acts of Union 1800

House of Commons in 1793

Pitt addresses House of Commons in 1793

On 1st January 1801, the Acts of Union came into force and Ireland was united with Great Britain. One hundred members from the Irish Parliament joined the Westminster Parliament. (What did the mere 45 MPs from Scotland think of being outweighed by those from Ireland? I do wonder about that…) The new Parliament of the United Kingdom met on 22nd January 1801.

This new United Kingdom was, of course, at war with France at the time. France had mounted an expedition to Ireland in 1796 to encourage rebellion against British rule but it failed. There was a second landing in 1798 which also failed. Britain wanted the union so that it could control Catholic Emancipation and avoid the risk that Ireland might become allied to France. But many in Ireland who had supported the union of Britain and Ireland were bitterly disappointed, because George III vetoed Catholic Emancipation. It did not take place until 1829.

The Union Jack as we know it

UK flag the Union Jack or Union Flag

The union with Ireland necessitated a revision of the King’s Colours. The red Irish saltire was added and the Union Jack became the version we know nowadays, though the actual step-by-step construction is quite complex, as shown below (with heraldic descriptions that can be quite bamboozling for those, like me, who don’t understand the terminology):

By Lobsterthermidor (talk) 17:43, 19 February 2022 (UTC) – Own work CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Not surprisingly, the flag-makers didn’t always get it right. Below is an image of a Union Jack flown on one of the ships in Nelson’s fleet at Trafalgar in 1805. (Nelson was Vice-Admiral of the White.) At Trafalgar, the new design had been in use for about 4 years. You can see the lines of stitching—it looks as if their red cloth wasn’t wide enough, doesn’t it?—and the fact the the Irish saltire is not properly placed. You can also see what could be bullet holes…

Zaricor Flag Collection

So, for those of us who set books in the period before 1801, the message is to ensure we get our flags right, and our country names, too. “North Britain” anyone? And if there are references to the Royal Navy, right up until 1864, there might even have been Red or White or Blue Ensigns and Admirals to remember as well.

It’s always the unknown unknowns that trip us up, isn’t it?

Joanna Maitland author


14 thoughts on “How the Union Flag has evolved

  1. Elizabeth Bailey

    Fascinating! I did not know all that. Complicated, but then we Brits love to make everything ten times more complex than needed. I dread to think what the story of the stars and stripes will prove to be. Look forward to that one, if you plan on doing it.

    1. Joanna Post author

      You’re right that we make stuff complicated (though not complicated enough to include Wales which got a raw deal, I reckon). I wasn’t planning to do the stars and stripes because I don’t know enough US history. But that flag is complicated too because the number of stars changes when new states join. There hasn’t been a new one in a while, so we’re used to 50 stars, but if Washington DC or Puerto Rico became states there would have to be added stars.

  2. Liz Fielding

    So many interesting facts about the flag – and the politics involved, Joanna. I was lucky enough to drive down the Mall this week and see all the flags, not just the Union, but all the Commonwealth nations on display. And the crown toppers on the the flagpoles. Not just history but heraldry, which is a story all its own.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Heraldry is fascinating, I agree, Liz, but oh the vocabulary… We don’t have colours, we have tinctures. And tinctures (like plain old red and blue colours) have to be separated by metal, hence argent (silver) round the cross of St George on the Union Jack. I didn’t know that bit of it until I started researching the blog.

  3. Sophie

    Good Heavens. Even after a couple of readings, I don’t think I could re-construct the Union Jack.

    I think I must always have blanked it as a complicated mess of multiplication and addition signs. One recognises it but that’s as far as it goes.

    Also, I’m very glad to know what the vice Admiral of the White means. Years of reading Patrick O’Brian never got me researching that, to my shame.

    1. Joanna Post author

      I knew about Admiral of the White etc, but I didn’t know how long it lasted until I researched this. I also didn’t know that the blue ensign still existed because I’ve never seen one. Apparently certain yacht clubs get to use the blue ensign as well.

  4. Louise Allen

    Fascinating stuff. The church at Burnham Thorpe, Nelson’s birthplace, still flies the Union flag as it was in his day. I spotted it on an historic building in eastern Canada too

    1. Joanna Post author

      To be fair to the flags, Louise, they did change to the one we know while Nelson was still alive. But if they’re honouring his birth, it would indeed be the King’s Colours version.

  5. lesley2cats

    Fascinating. Our little country is imbued with self importance, isn’t it? Although the same can be said of most countries, I suppose. And sadly, the Union Flag nowadays represents the far right activists, doesn’t it?

    1. Joanna Post author

      I thought the far right activists were more into the plain cross of St George, Lesley, but they may be using the Union Flag too. And yes, our country does have ideas way above its station, especially post-Brexit.

  6. Jan Jones

    I agree about poor neglected Wales. A dragon in the centre would be a lovely touch. Another thing that has always irritated me is how the red diagonals of St Patrick don’t line up exactly.

    I have seen Blue Ensigns, probably from my sailing days (now long gone)

    1. Joanna Post author

      I think the St Patrick diagonals don’t line up exactly because that was a deliberate decision to make Ireland less important than Scotland (even though Ireland had more than twice as many MPs). You’re ahead of me on the Blue Ensigns, Jan.

  7. Susan Allan

    Fascinating post and I do agree about Wales. A little dragon would be nice!

    As an Englishwoman who’s lived in Scotland for 49 years I am very aware of the importance of flags, in terms of identity, loyalty and nationhood. I found the descriptions of how the flag of the UJ has evolved – utterly fascinating.

    The Union Jack is seen around up here, but the vast majority of flag sightings in Scotland will be the Saltire. The resistance to the Union flag is not restricted to those seeking independence – but reflects the very strong feeling that the Unionist politicians care little about those other parts of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, in comparison with England. My father, a Scot, served in the Royal Navy during WW2 and was proud to be British but he was also equally conscious of his Scottish identity.

    I do think it a shame that the far right have taken on the mantle of St George to somehow justify their position. What’s great is that most of us are United by our humanity. Thanks for the post.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Many thanks, Susan. As a Scot (in exile) I can understand the prevalence of the saltire up there in “North Britain” and the feeling of neglect by London/England-centric politicians. I now live in the Midlands and we feel that here, too.

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