Union Jack

The Union Jack,[note 1][2][3] or Union Flag, is the national flag of the United Kingdom. The flag also has official status in Canada, by parliamentary resolution, where it is known as the Royal Union Flag.[4] Additionally, it is used as an official flag in some of the smaller British overseas territories. The Union Flag also appears in the canton (upper flagstaff-side quarter) of the flags of several nations and territories that are former British possessions or dominions, as well as the state flag of Hawaii.

Union Jack
NameUnion Jack or Union Flag
In Canada, Royal Union Flag
UseNational flag
DesignCross of Saint Andrew counterchanged with the Cross of Saint Patrick, over all the Cross of Saint George.

The claim that the term Union Jack properly refers only to naval usage has been disputed, following historical investigations by the Flag Institute in 2013.[5][6][note 2]

The origins of the earlier flag of Great Britain date back to 1606. James VI of Scotland had inherited the English and Irish thrones in 1603 as James I, thereby uniting the crowns of England, Scotland, and Ireland in a personal union, although the three kingdoms remained separate states. On 12 April 1606, a new flag to represent this regal union between England and Scotland was specified in a royal decree, according to which the flag of England (a red cross on a white background, known as St George's Cross), and the flag of Scotland (a white saltire on a blue background, known as the Saltire or St Andrew's Cross), would be joined together, forming the flag of England and Scotland for maritime purposes. King James also began to refer to a "Kingdom of Great Britaine", although the union remained a personal one.

The present design of the Union Flag dates from a Royal proclamation following the union of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801.[8] The flag combines aspects of three older national flags: the red cross of St George for the Kingdom of England, the white saltire of St Andrew for Scotland (which two were united in the first Union Flag), and the red saltire of St Patrick to represent Ireland.

Notably, the home country of Wales is not represented separately in the Union Flag, as the flag was designed after the invasion of Wales in 1282. Hence Wales as a home country has no representation on the flag. The Flag of Wales incorporates the red dragon.


The terms Union Jack and Union Flag are both used historically for describing the national flag of the United Kingdom. Whether the term Union Jack applies only when used as a jack flag on a ship is a matter of debate.[9]

According to the Parliament of the United Kingdom:[10][11] "Until the early 17th century England and Scotland were two entirely independent kingdoms. This changed dramatically in 1603 on the death of Elizabeth I of England. Because the Queen died unmarried and childless, the English crown passed to the next available heir, her cousin James VI, King of Scotland. England and Scotland now shared the same monarch under what was known as a union of the crowns."

In 1606, James VI gave orders for a British flag to be created which bore the combined crosses of St George and of St Andrew. The result was the Union Jack.

According to the Flag Institute, a membership-run vexillological charity,[12] "the national flag of the United Kingdom, the Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories is the Union Flag, which may also be called the Union Jack."[13] The institute also notes:

it is often stated that the Union Flag should only be described as the Union Jack when flown in the bows of a warship, but this is a relatively recent idea. From early in its life the Admiralty itself frequently referred to the flag as the Union Jack, whatever its use, and in 1902 an Admiralty circular announced that Their Lordships had decided that either name could be used officially. In 1908, a government minister stated, in response to a parliamentary question, that "the Union Jack should be regarded as the National flag".[9][14]

Notwithstanding Their Lordships' circular of 1902, by 1913 the Admiralty described the "Union Flag" and added in a foot note that 'A Jack is a Flag to be flown only on the "Jack" Staff'.[15]

However, the authoritative A Complete Guide to Heraldry published in 1909 by Arthur Charles Fox-Davies uses the term "Union Jack".[16]

The term "Union Flag" is used in King Charles I's 1634 proclamation:

... none of Our Subjects, of any of Our Nations and Kingdoms shall from henceforth presume to carry the Union Flag in the Main top, or other part of any of their Ships (that is) St Georges cross and St Andrew's Cross joined together upon pain of Our high displeasure, but that the same Union Flag be still reserved as an ornament proper for Our own Ships and Ships in our immediate Service and Pay, and none other."[17]

Proclamation appointing the Flag, as well for Our Navy Royal as for the Ships of Our Subjects of South and North Britain  5 May 1634

and in King George III's proclamation of 1 January 1801 concerning the arms and flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland:

And that the Union Flag shall be Azure, the Crosses Saltires of St. Andrew and St. Patrick Quarterly per Saltire, counterchanged Argent and Gules; the latter fimbriated of the Second, surmounted by the Cross of St. George of the Third, fimbriated as the Saltire : ...[18]

A Proclamation Declaring His Majesty's Pleasure concerning the Royal Style and Titles appertaining to the Imperial Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and its Dependencies, and also the Ensigns, Armorial Flags, and Banners thereof"

When the first flag representing Britain was introduced on the proclamation of King James I in 1606,[19] it became known simply as the "British flag" or the "flag of Britain". The royal proclamation gave no distinctive name to the new flag. The word "jack" was in use before 1600 to describe the maritime bow flag.[9] By 1627 a small Union Jack was commonly flown in this position. One theory goes that for some years it would have been called just the "Jack", or "Jack flag", or the "King's Jack", but by 1674, while formally referred to as "His Majesty's Jack", it was commonly called the "Union Jack", and this was officially acknowledged.[8]

Amongst the proclamations issued by King George III at the time of the Union of 1801 was a proclamation concerning flags at sea, which repeatedly referred to "Ensigns, Flags, Jacks, and Pendants" and forbade merchant vessels from wearing "Our Jack, commonly called the Union Jack" nor any pendants or colours used by the King's ships.[20] Reinforcing the distinction the King's proclamation of the same day concerning the arms and flag of the United Kingdom (not colours at sea) called the new flag "the Union Flag".[21]

The size and power of the Royal Navy internationally at the time could also explain why the flag was named the "Union Jack"; considering the navy was so widely utilised and renowned by the United Kingdom and colonies, it is possible that the term jack occurred because of its regular use on all British ships using the jack staff (a flag pole attached to the bow of a ship). The term Union Jack possibly dates from Queen Anne's time (r. 1702–14), but its origin is uncertain. It may come from the 'jack-et' of the English or Scottish soldiers, or from the name of James I who originated the first union in 1603. Even if the term "Union Jack" does derive from the jack flag, after three centuries, it is now sanctioned by use and has appeared in official use, confirmed as the national flag by Parliament and remains the popular term.[22]

Winston Churchill was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1940 to 1945 and he referred to the flag of the United Kingdom as the Union Jack. In March 1899 Churchill wrote to his mother from India about her plans to produce a new trans-Atlantic magazine, to be called The Anglo-Saxon Review. The drawing at the end of this letter was deliberately mischievous, teasing her for going down-market, and in the accompanying letter he wrote, "Your title 'The Anglo Saxon' with its motto 'Blood is thicker than water' only needs the Union Jack & the Star Spangled Banner crossed on the cover to be suited to one of Harmsworth’s [a leading British newspaper owner] cheap Imperialist productions."[23]

More recently, Reed's Nautical Almanac (1990 edition) unambiguously stated: "The Union Flag, frequently but incorrectly referred to as the Union Jack, ..." and later: "8. The Jack – A small flag worn on a jackstaff on the stem of Naval Vessels. The Royal Navy wears the Union Flag ... This is the only occasion when it correct to describe the flag as the Union Jack".[24] However, this assertion does not appear in any Reed's Nautical Almanac since 1993. In the 2016 Reed's Nautical Almanac, the only entry where this might appear, section 5.21, covering Flag Etiquette, does not include this statement. Within the Almanac, neither the Union Flag or the Union Jack are included pictorially or mentioned by name.

For comparison with another anglophone country with a large navy: the Jack of the United States specifically refers to the flag flown from the jackstaff of a warship, auxiliary or other U.S. governmental entity.[25]


The current flag's design has been in use since 1801. Its original blazon, as decreed by George III of the United Kingdom on 1 January 1801, reads:

"the Union flag shall be azure, the crosses-saltires of St. Andrew and St. Patrick quartered per saltire counter changed argent and gules; the latter fimbriated of the second [viz., argent]; surmounted by the cross of St. George of the third [viz., gules], fimbriated as the saltire [viz., argent]."[26]


The Union Jack is normally twice as long as it is tall, a ratio of 1:2. In the United Kingdom, land flags are normally a ratio of 3:5; the Union Jack can also be made in this shape, but is 1:2 for most purposes. In 2008, MP Andrew Rosindell proposed a Ten Minute Rule bill to standardise the design of the flag at 3:5, but the bill did not proceed past the first reading.[27]

Flags that have the Union Jack in the canton should always be 1:2 to preserve the square fly area.

The three component crosses that make up the Union Flag are sized as follows:

  • The red St George's Cross width is 15 of the flag's height with a 115 flag height fimbriation
  • The white diagonal St Andrew's Cross width is 630 of the flag's height, visible on either side of the St Patrick's Cross in diagonals of 330 and 130 of the flag's height, respectively.
  • The red diagonal St Patrick's Cross width is 115 of the flag's height. It is offset by 330 of the flag's height in anti-clockwise direction. According to the official blazon of 1801, the white diagonal St Andrew's Cross is in fact counterchanged with the red diagonal of St Patrick's Cross. In this interpretation, the width of both saltires is 115 of the flag's height, with fimbriations of 130 of the flag's height on either side of the red saltire.

The crosses and fimbriations retain their thickness relative to the flag's height whether they are shown with a ratio of 3:5 or 1:2.

The Admiralty in 1864 settled all official flags at proportions of 1:2, but the relative widths of the crosses remained unspecified, with the above conventions becoming standardised in the 20th century.[28] In the 19th century, the Union flag was defined by the same blazon but could vary in its geometrical proportions.[29]


The colour specifications for the colours Union Jack (royal) blue, Union Flag red and white are:[22]

Scheme Blue[30] Red[31] White
Pantone (paper) 280 C 186 C Safe
HEX #012169 #C8102E #FFFFFF
MoD 8711D 8711 8711J
NSN 8305.99.130.4580 8305.99.130.4584 8305.99.130.4585
RGB 1, 33, 105 200, 16, 46 255, 255, 255

All HEX, CMYK and RGB specifications for the Pantone colours are taken from the official Pantone website on the webpages of the corresponding colours. Although the colour schemes are official, not all of the colours are completely congruent. This is due to different specifications for different types of media (for example, screen and print).


Hoist on the left
Hoist on the right
Correct way to fly the flag
Hoist on the left
Hoist on the right
Incorrect way to fly the flag

The flag does not have reflection symmetry due to the slight pinwheeling of the St Patrick's and St Andrew's crosses, technically the counterchange of saltires. Thus, there is a right side up. The original specification of the Union Flag in the Royal Proclamation of 1 January 1801 did not contain a drawn pattern or express which way the saltires should lie; they were simply "counterchanged" and the red saltire fimbriated. Nevertheless, a convention was soon established which accords most closely with the description.

When statically displayed, the hoist is on the observer's left. To fly the flag correctly, the white of St Andrew is above the red of St Patrick in the upper hoist canton (the quarter at the top nearest to the flag-pole). This is expressed by the phrases wide white top and broad side up.

The first drawn pattern for the flag was in a parallel proclamation on 1 January 1801, concerning civil naval ensigns, which drawing shows the red ensign (also to be used as a red jack by privateers). As it appears in the London Gazette, the broad stripe is where expected for three of the four quarters, but the upper left quarter shows the broad stripe below.[20]

It is often stated that a flag upside down is a form of distress signal or even a deliberate insult. In the case of the Union Flag, the difference is subtle and is easily missed by the uninformed. It is often displayed upside down inadvertently—even on commercially-made hand waving flags.

On 3 February 2009, the BBC reported that the flag had been inadvertently flown upside-down by the UK government at the signing of a trade agreement with Chinese premier Wen Jiabao. The error had been spotted by readers of the BBC news website who had contacted the BBC after seeing a photograph of the event.[32]


In 1603, James VI of Scotland inherited the English and Irish thrones (as James I), thereby uniting the crowns of England, Scotland and Ireland (which remained separate states) in a personal union.[22] On 12 April 1606, a new flag to represent this regal union between England and Scotland was specified in a royal decree, according to which the flag of England (a red cross on a white background, known as St George's Cross), and the flag of Scotland (a white saltire on a blue background, known as the saltire or St Andrew's Cross), would be joined together,[8] forming the flag of Great Britain and first union flag:

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.[33]

Great Britain
NameThe King's Colours or Great Union Flag
UseNational flag
Adopted1606–1707 (ships at sea), 1707–1801 (England and Scotland)
DesignThe Cross of St George over the Cross of St Andrew

This royal flag was, at first, to be used only at sea on civil and military ships of both England and Scotland, whereas land forces continued to use their respective national banners.[34] In 1634, King Charles I restricted its use to the royal ships.[17] After the Acts of Union 1707, the flag gained a regularised status as "the ensign armorial of the Kingdom of Great Britain", the newly created state. It was then adopted by land forces as well, although the blue field used on land-based versions more closely resembled that of the blue of the flag of Scotland.

Various shades of blue have been used in the saltire over the years. The ground of the current Union Flag is a deep "navy" blue (Pantone 280), which can be traced to the colour used for the Blue Ensign of the Royal Navy's historic "Blue Squadron". (Dark shades of colour were used on maritime flags on the basis of durability.) In 2003 a committee of the Scottish Parliament recommended that the flag of Scotland use a lighter "royal" blue, (Pantone 300). (The Office of the Lord Lyon does not detail specific shades of colour for use in heraldry.)

A thin white stripe, or fimbriation, separates the red cross from the blue field, in accordance with heraldry's rule of tincture where colours (like red and blue) must be separated from each other by metals (like white, i.e. argent or silver). The blazon for the old union flag, to be compared with the current flag, is azure, the cross saltire of St Andrew argent surmounted by the Cross of St George gules, fimbriated of the second.

Wales had no explicit recognition in the Union Jack as it had been a part of the Kingdom of England since being annexed by Edward I of England in 1282 and its full integration by the Laws in Wales Acts 1535–1542, and was therefore represented by the flag of England.[34]

The Kingdom of Ireland, which had existed as a personal union with England since 1541, was likewise unrepresented in the original versions of the Union Jack.[34] However, the flag of the Protectorate from 1658 to 1660 was inescutcheoned with the arms of Ireland. These were removed at the Restoration, because Charles II disliked them.[35]

The original flag appears in the canton of the Commissioners' Ensign of the Northern Lighthouse Board. This is the only contemporary official representation of the pre-1801 Union Jack in the United Kingdom[36] and can be seen flying from their George Street headquarters in Edinburgh.

This version of the Union Jack is also shown in the canton of the Grand Union Flag (also known as the Congress Flag, the First Navy Ensign, the Cambridge Flag and the Continental Colours), the first widely used flag of the United States, slowly phased out after 1777.

Lord Howe's action, or the Glorious First of June, painted in 1795, shows a Union flying from HMS Queen Charlotte on the "Glorious First of June" 1794. The actual flag, preserved in the National Maritime Museum, is a cruder approximation of the proper specifications; this was common in 18th and early 19th century flags.[37][38]

The flag is also flown beside Customs House in Loftus Street, Sydney, to mark the approximate location at which Captain Phillip first raised the Union Jack, and claimed New South Wales in 1788. On the plaque it is referred to as the "Jack of Queen Anne".

The British Army's flag is the Union Jack, but in 1938, a "British Army Non-Ceremonial Flag" was devised, featuring a lion on crossed blades with the St Edward's Crown on a red background. This is not the equivalent of the ensigns of the other armed services, but is used at recruiting and military or sporting events, when the army needs to be identified but the reverence and ceremony due to the regimental flags and the Union Jack would be inappropriate.

Other proposed versions

Various other designs for a common flag were drawn up following the union of the two Crowns in 1603, but were rarely, if ever, used.[39] One version showed St George's cross with St Andrew's cross in the canton, and another version placed the two crosses side by side. A painted wooden ceiling boss from Linlithgow Palace, dated to about 1617, depicts the Scottish royal unicorn holding a flag where a blue Saltire surmounts the red cross of St. George.

Scottish Union Flag

In objecting to the design of Union Flag adopted in 1606, whereby the cross of Saint George surmounted that of Saint Andrew, a group of Scots took up the matter with John Erskine, 19th Earl of Mar, and were encouraged by him to send a letter of complaint to James VI, via the Privy Council of Scotland, which stated that the flag's design "will breid some heit and miscontentment betwix your Majesties subjectis, and it is to be feirit that some inconvenientis sail fall oute betwix thame, for our seyfaring men cannot be inducit to resave that flage as it is set down".[40] Although documents accompanying this complaint which contained drafts for alternative designs have been lost, evidence exists, at least on paper, of an unofficial Scottish variant, whereby the Scottish cross was uppermost. There is reason to think that cloth flags of this design were employed during the 17th century for unofficial use on Scottish vessels at sea.[41][42][43] This flag's design is also described in the 1704 edition of The Present State of the Universe by John Beaumont, which contains as an appendix The Ensigns, Colours or Flags of the Ships at Sea: Belonging to The several Princes and States in the World.[44]

On land, evidence confirming the use of this flag appears in the depiction of Edinburgh Castle by John Slezer, in his series of engravings entitled Theatrum Scotiae, c. 1693. Appearing in later editions of Theatrum Scotiae, the North East View of Edinburgh Castle engraving depicts the Scotch (to use the appropriate adjective of that period) version of the Union Flag flying from the Palace block of the Castle.[46] On the North Prospect of the City of Edenburgh engraving, the flag is indistinct.[47]

On 17 April 1707, just two weeks prior to the Acts of Union coming into effect, and with Sir Henry St George, Garter King of Arms, having presented several designs of flag to Queen Anne and her Privy Council for consideration, the flag for the soon to be unified Kingdom of Great Britain was chosen. At the suggestion of the Scots representatives, the designs for consideration included that version of Union Jack showing the Cross of Saint Andrew uppermost; identified as being the "Scotts union flagg as said to be used by the Scotts".[48] However, the Queen and her Council approved Sir Henry's original effort, numbered "one".[48]

A manuscript compiled in 1785 by William Fox and in possession of the Flag Research Center includes a full plate showing "the scoth [sic] union" flag. This could imply that there was still some use of a Scottish variant before the addition of the cross of St Patrick to the Union Flag in 1801.[43]

Since 1801

The current and second Union Jack dates from 1 January 1801 with the Act of Union 1800, which merged the Kingdom of Ireland and the Kingdom of Great Britain to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The new design added a red saltire, the cross of Saint Patrick, for Ireland. This is counterchanged with the saltire of St Andrew, such that the white always follows the red clockwise. The arrangement has introduced a requirement to display the flag "the right way up"; see specifications for flag use, below. As with the red cross, so too the red saltire is separated by a white fimbriation from the blue field.[22] This fimbriation is repeated for symmetry on the white portion of the saltire, which thereby appears wider than the red portion. The fimbriation of the cross of St George separates its red from the red of the saltire.

Apart from the Union Jack, Saint Patrick's cross has seldom been used to represent Ireland, and with little popular recognition or enthusiasm; it is usually considered to derive from the arms of the powerful FitzGerald family rather than any association with the saint.[49]

Flag speculation after Irish independence

When the Anglo-Irish Treaty was concluded on 6 December 1921 and the creation of the new Irish Free State was an imminent prospect, the question arose as to whether the cross of Saint Patrick should remain in the Union Jack. The New York Times reported that on 22 January 1922:

At the College of Arms it was stated that certain modifications were under consideration and that if any action were taken it would be done by the King in Council. No parliamentary action would be necessary. Heraldry experts say that alterations in arms are very expensive. Some years ago there was a demand from Irish quarters that the blue ground of the golden harp on the royal standard should be changed to green. It was then estimated that the alteration would cost at least £2,000,000. To remove all reference to Ireland from the present Union Jack and Royal Arms would be vastly more expensive.[50]

There was some speculation on the matter in British dominions also, with one New Zealand paper reporting that:

...the removal of the cross of St. Patrick Cross after 120 years will transform the appearance of the flag. It will certainly become a flag under which great victories were won in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but to most minds the sentimental loss will be great. Probably it will be found that the deletion is not absolutely necessary. Other possible changes include the abolition of the title of the United Kingdom, and the removal of the harp from the Royal Standard and the Coat of Arms, and the substitution of the Ulster emblem.[51]

However, the fact that it was likely that Northern Ireland would choose not to remain part of the Irish Free State after its foundation and remain in the United Kingdom, gave better grounds for keeping the cross of St. Patrick in the Union Jack. In this regard, Sir James Craig, the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland remarked in December 1921 that he and his government were "glad to think that our decision [to remain part of United Kingdom] will obviate the necessity of mutilating the Union Jack."[52] Though remaining within the United Kingdom, the new government of Northern Ireland dispensed with the St Patrick's Saltire in favour of a new flag derived from the coat-of-arm of the Burkes, Earls of Ulster, and quite similar to England's St George's Cross.

Ultimately, when the British home secretary was asked on 7 December 1922 (the day after the Irish Free State was established) whether the Garter King of Arms was "to issue any Regulations with reference to the national flag consequent to the passing of the Irish Free State Constitution Act", the response was no and the flag has never been changed.[53]

A Dáil question in 1961 mooted raising the removal of the cross of St Patrick with the British government; Frank Aiken, the Irish minister for external affairs, declined to "waste time on heraldic disputations".[54]

Campaigns for a new Union Flag

In 2003, a private individual started a campaign – dubbed "reflag" or "Union Black" – to interpret the Union Flag in a racial context, and introduce black stripes in it. The proposal was universally met with opposition and was denounced by MSP Phil Gallie as "ridiculous tokenism [that] would do nothing to stamp out racism".[55] The campaign is now defunct.

The lack of any Welsh symbol or colours in the flag is due to Wales already being part of the Kingdom of England when the flag of Great Britain was created in 1606. Since there is no Welsh element in the Union Jack, Wrexham's Labour MP Ian Lucas proposed on 26 November 2007 in a House of Commons debate that the Union Flag be combined with the Welsh flag to reflect Wales' status within the UK, and that the red dragon be added to the Union Flag's red, white, and blue pattern.[56] He said the Union Jack currently only represented the other three UK nations, and Minister for Culture, Creative Industries and Tourism Margaret Hodge conceded that Lucas had raised a valid point for debate. She said, "the Government is keen to make the Union Flag a positive symbol of Britishness reflecting the diversity of our country today and encouraging people to take pride in our flag." This development sparked design contests with entries from all over the world; some of the entries incorporated red dragons and even anime characters and leeks.[57][58]

In the run-up to the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, various non-official suggestions were made for how the flag could be redesigned without the St Andrew's Cross in the event that Scotland left the Union. However, as Scotland voted against independence the issue did not arise.[59][60]


Since the UK referendum on membership of the European Union which resulted in a vote to leave, the Union Flag became a symbol of euroscepticism in Italy in August 2016 as hundreds of local businesses along the Italian riviera hoisted the flags as a protest against the implementation of the Services in the Internal Market Directive 2006.[61]

Hong Kong

The flag has been used as symbol of freedom in Hong Kong, where it is used alongside the British Hong Kong flag as a symbol of freedom in demonstrations that oppose China's authority, including the 2019 Hong Kong anti-extradition bill protests.[62][63][64]


The Union Jack is used as a jack by commissioned warships and submarines of the Royal Navy, and by commissioned army and Royal Air Force vessels. When at anchor or alongside, it is flown from the jackstaff at the bow of the ship. When a ship is underway, the Union Jack is only flown from the jackstaff when the ship is dressed for a special occasion, such as the Queen's official birthday.

The Union Jack is worn at the masthead of a ship to indicate the presence of the Sovereign or an Admiral of the Fleet.[65] The Union Flag may also be flown from the yardarm to indicate that a court-martial is in progress, though these are now normally held at shore establishments.

No law has been passed making the Union Jack the national flag of the United Kingdom: it has become one through precedent. Its first recorded recognition as a national flag came in 1908, when it was stated in Parliament that "the Union Jack should be regarded as the National flag".[66] A more categorical statement was made by Home Secretary Sir John Gilmour, in 1933 when he stated that "the Union Flag is the national flag and may properly be flown by any British subject on land."[67]

Civilian use is permitted on land, but use of the unmodified flag at sea is restricted to military vessels. Unauthorised use of the flag in the 17th century to avoid paying harbour duties – a privilege restricted to naval ships – caused James's successor, Charles I, to order that use of the flag on naval vessels be restricted to His Majesty's ships "upon pain of Our high displeasure." It remains a criminal offence under the Merchant Shipping Act 1995[68] to display the Union Flag (other than the "pilot jack" – see below) from a British ship. Naval ships will fly the white ensign, merchant and private boats can fly the red ensign, others with special permission such as naval yacht clubs can fly the blue ensign. All of the coloured ensigns contain the union flag as part of the design.

The Court of the Lord Lyon, which has legal jurisdiction in heraldic matters in Scotland, confirms that the Union Jack "is the correct flag for all citizens and corporate bodies of the United Kingdom to fly to demonstrate their loyalty and their nationality."[69]

On 5 February 2008, Conservative MP Andrew Rosindell introduced the 'Union Flag Bill' as a private member's bill under the 10 Minute Rule in the House of Commons. The Bill sought to formalise the position of the Union Flag as the national flag of the UK in law, to remove legal obstacles to its regular display and to officially recognise the name 'Union Jack' as having equal status with 'Union Flag'. However the Bill did not receive its second reading by the end of that parliamentary session.[70]

Australia and New Zealand

In Australia, the current national flag gradually replaced the Union Flag. When it formally created the national flag in the Flags Act 1953, section 8 of that Act specified that "this Act does not affect the right or privilege of a person to fly the Union Jack." The Union Jack continued to be used for a period thereafter as a national flag.[71] The current national flag of New Zealand was given official standing under the New Zealand Ensign Act in 1902, but similarly to Australia the Union Jack continued to be used in some contexts as a national flag.[72]


The predecessor of the Union Jack, the flag of Great Britain, came into use in what is now Canada at the time of the Scottish settlement of Nova Scotia in 1621.[73] The Union Jack served as the formal flag for the various colonies of British North America, and remained as the formal flag of Canada after confederation.[73] The Union Flag remained as Canada's official flag until 1965, although from 1871 to 1965, the Canadian Red Ensign was also used informally as a "flag of Canada". However, the Canadian Red Ensign was never formally authorized as a national flag of Canada.[73]

In 1964, Lester B. Pearson introduced plans to replace the Union Flag with a new national flag, spurring the Great Canadian Flag Debate.[73] The new maple leaf flag was approved by the Parliament of Canada on 17 December 1964.[73] However, in the following day on 18 December, the Canadian parliament passed another resolution that designated the Union Flag as the Royal Union Flag, and authorized its official use as the symbol of the country's membership in the Commonwealth of Nations, and its allegiance to the Crown.[74] The move was a concession given to conservatives, who preferred to use the Canadian Red Ensign. On 15 February 1965, the maple leaf flag formally replaced the Union Flag as the flag of Canada following an official proclamation by Elizabeth II;[73] with the Royal Union Flag made an official ceremonial flag.[74]

The directive states the federal government may formally use the Royal Union Flag alongside the flag of Canada at federal government buildings, federally-operated airports and military bases, and at the masthead of Her Majesty's Canadian ships within Canadian waters on Commonwealth Day, Victoria Day (the monarch's official birthday in Canada), the 11 December (the anniversary of the enactment of the Statute of Westminster 1931), or when otherwise instructed to do so by the National Defence Headquarters.[74] The Royal Union Flag may also be formally flown alongside the flag of Canada at federal locations in Canada in relation to ceremonies, anniversaries, and other events relating to the Canadian Armed Forces, or other forces in the Commonwealth.[74] Formal usage of the Royal Union Flag on federal property is permitted only when two or more flag poles are present, to ensure the flag of Canada is not removed.[74][75]

The Union Flag was also the formal flag for the Dominion of Newfoundland, a separate dominion of the British Empire from 1907 to 1949. Newfoundland retained the use of the Union Flag as the official flag of the province after it joined Canadian confederation in 1949. In 1980, the flag of Newfoundland was adopted as the new provincial flag, with the design for the new flag of Newfoundland being derived from the Union Flag.

South Africa

The Union Jack was introduced into South Africa in 1795, and except for the period 1803-06, it was an official flag until 1957.

When the Union of South Africa was established in 1910, the Union Jack was treated as its official flag.

The continued use of the Union Jack as national flag became an issue in the 1920s, when the government proposed to introduce a National Flag of the Union. A compromise was reached in which both flags were flown on official buildings. The Union Nationality and Flags Act 1927 provided that the flags of the Union were (a) the Union Jack, to denote the association with the other members of the British Commonwealth of Nations, and (b) the new National Flag. The Union Jack was to be flown alongside the National Flag at the Houses of Parliament, from the principal government buildings in the capitals, at Union ports, on government offices abroad, and at such other places as the government might determine.[76][77] This dual arrangement was effective from 31 May 1928.

Instructions issued in 1931 confirmed the places where both flags were to be flown. In addition to those already mentioned, they were the Union Buildings (Pretoria), the head offices of the four provincial administrations, the supreme courts, certain magistrates' courts, customs houses, and three buildings in Durban (the general post office, the railway station, and the local military district headquarters).[78][77]

Under these arrangements, the Union Jack was subordinate to the National Flag. As the two flags had to be the same size, it meant that the Union Jack was made in the ratio 2:3 rather than the usual 1:2.[78][77]

The flying of the Union Jack alongside the National Flag ended on 6 April 1957.[79]

Other ratios

War flag variant
Proportions: 3:5

Although the most common ratio is 1:2, other ratios exist. The Royal Navy's flag code book, BR20 Flags of All Nations, states that both 1:2 and 3:5 versions are official.[80] The 3:5 version is most commonly used by the British Army and is sometimes known as the War flag. In this version the innermost points of the lower left and upper right diagonals of the St Patrick's cross are cut off or truncated.

The Queen's Harbour Master's flag, like the Pilot Jack, is a 1:2 flag that contains a white-bordered Union Flag that is longer than 1:2. The jacks of ships flying variants of the Blue Ensign are square and have a square Union Flag in the canton.[80] The Queen's Colours of Army regiments are 36 by 43 inches (910 mm × 1,090 mm); on them, the bars of the cross and saltire are of equal width; so are their respective fimbriations, which are very narrow.[81]

As stated above, the Union Jacks flown alongside the National Flag in South Africa between 1928 and 1957 were 2:3 flags.

Use in other flags

Other nations and regions

The Union Flag was found in the canton (upper flagstaff-side quarter) of the flags of many colonies of Britain, while the field (background) of their flags was the colour of the naval ensign flown by the particular Royal Navy squadron that patrolled that region of the world. Nations and colonies that have used the Union Flag at some stage have included Aden, Basutoland (now Lesotho), Barbados, Borneo, Canada, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Cyprus, Dominica, British East Africa (Kenya Colony), Gambia, Gold Coast (Ghana), Grenada, Guiana, Hong Kong, Jamaica, Labuan (Malaysia), Lagos, Malta, Mauritius, Nigeria, Palestine, Penang (Malaysia), Rhodesia, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Somaliland, South Africa, Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, Pre-partitioned India (present-day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar), Tanganyika, Trinidad and Tobago, Uganda, the United States, and Weihaiwei. As former British Empire nations were granted independence, these and other versions of the Union Flag were decommissioned. The most recent decommissioning of the Union Flag came on 1 July 1997, when the former Dependent Territory of Hong Kong was handed over to the People's Republic of China.

All administrative regions and territories of the United Kingdom fly the Union Jack in some form, with the exception of Gibraltar (other than the government ensign). The Crown Dependencies are legally not part of the United Kingdom, and the Union Jack is not an official flag there. Outside the UK, the Union Jack is usually part of a special ensign in which it is placed in the upper left hand corner of a blue field, with a signifying crest in the bottom right.

Four former British colonies in Oceania which are now independent countries incorporate the Union Jack as part of their national flags: Australia, New Zealand and Tuvalu, which have retained the monarchy; and Fiji, which abolished the monarchy in 1987.

In former British colonies, the Union Jack was used semi-interchangeably with territorial flags for significant parts of their early history. This was the case in Canada until the introduction of the Maple Leaf Flag in 1965, but it is still used in the flags of a number of Canadian provinces such as British Columbia, Manitoba, and Ontario. Newfoundland and Labrador uses a modified version of the Union Flag, once the flag of the province.

Along with the national flag, many other Australian flags retain the use of the Union Jack, including the Royal Australian Navy Ensign (also known as the Australian White Ensign), the Royal Australian Air Force Ensign, the Australian Red Ensign (for use by merchant and private vessels), and the Australian Civil Aviation Ensign. The flags of all six Australian States retain the Union Jack in the canton, as do some regional flags such as the Upper and Lower Murray River Flags. The Vice-Regal flags of the State Governors also use the Union Jack. While the Flags Act 1953 states that Australians still have the “right or privilege” to fly the Union Jack after the introduction of the Australian National Flag, usage of the Union Jack by itself is unusual.

The Basque Country's flag, the Ikurriña, is also loosely based on the Union Jack, reflecting the significant commercial ties between Bilbao and Britain at the time the Ikurriña was designed in 1894. The Miskito people sometimes use a similar flag that also incorporates the Union Jack in its canton, due to long periods of contact in the Mosquito Coast.

The Union Jack was used by the United States in its first flag, the Grand Union Flag. This flag was of a similar design to the one used by the British East India Company. Hawaii, a state of the United States but located in the central Pacific, incorporates the Union Jack in its state flag. According to one story, the King of Hawaii asked the British mariner, George Vancouver, during a stop in Lahaina, what the piece of cloth flying from his ship was. Vancouver replied that it represented his king's authority. The Hawaiian king then adopted and flew the flag as a symbol of his own royal authority not recognising its national derivation. Hawaii's flag represents the only current use of the Union Jack in any American state flag.

Also in the United States, the Union Flag of 1606 is incorporated into the flag of Baton Rouge, the capital city of Louisiana. Baton Rouge was a British colony from the time of the Seven Years' War until the end of the American Revolutionary War, when it was captured by Spanish forces. Symbols from the colonial powers France and Spain are also incorporated into the Baton Rouge flag. Taunton, Massachusetts, used a flag with the old style Union Flag. Likewise, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, has been known to fly a flag containing the King's Colours since 1973.[82]

The Union Jack also appeared on both the 1910–1928 and 1928–1994 flags of South Africa. The 1910–1928 flag was a red ensign with the Union coat of arms in the fly. The 1928–1994 flag, based on the Prinsenvlag and commonly known as the oranje-blanje-blou (orange-white-blue), contained the Union Jack as part of a central motif at par with the flags of the two Boer republics of the Orange Free State and Transvaal. To keep any one of the three flags from having precedence, the Union Jack is spread horizontally from the Orange Free State flag towards the hoist; closest to the hoist, it is in the superior position but since it is reversed it does not precede the other flags.

The flag of the Municipal Council of Shanghai International Settlement in 1869 contained multiple flags to symbolize the countries have participated in the creation and management of this enclave in the Chinese city of Shanghai. The Union Jack was contained as part of top left hand shield close to the flags of the United States and France, there was also contained the flag of Prussia, but it was removed around 1917.

The flag of the Chilean city of Coquimbo features the Union Jack, owing to its historical commercial links to Britain.


The Union Flag can be found in the canton of several of the ensigns flown by vessels and aircraft of the United Kingdom and its overseas territories. These are used in cases where it is illegal to fly the Union Flag, such as at sea from a ship other than a British warship. Normal practice for British ships is to fly the White ensign (Royal Navy), the Red ensign (Merchant and private boats) or the Blue ensign (government departments and public corporations). Similar ensigns are used by other countries (such as New Zealand and Australia) with the Union Flag in the canton. Other Commonwealth countries (such as India and Jamaica) may follow similar ensign etiquette as the UK, replacing the Union Flag with their own national flag.

Pilot or Civil Jack

The flag in a white border occasionally seen on merchant ships was sometimes referred to as the Pilot Jack. It can be traced back to 1823 when it was created as a signal flag, never intended as a civil jack. A book issued to British consuls in 1855 states that the white bordered Union Flag is to be hoisted for a pilot. Although there was some ambiguity regarding the legality of it being flown for any other purpose on civilian vessels, its use as an ensign or jack was established well in advance of the 1864 Act that designated the Red Ensign for merchant shipping. In 1970, the white-bordered Union Flag ceased to be the signal for a pilot, but references to it as national colours were not removed from the current Merchant Shipping Act and it was legally interpreted as a flag that could be flown on a merchant ship, as a jack if desired. This status was confirmed to an extent by the Merchant Shipping (Registration, etc.) Act 1993 and the consolidating Merchant Shipping Act 1995 which, in Section 4, Subsection 1, prohibits the use of any distinctive national colours or those used or resembling flags or pendants on Her Majesty's Ships, "except the Red Ensign, the Union flag (commonly known as the Union Jack) with a white border", and some other exceptions permitted elsewhere in the Acts. However, Section 2 regards the "British flag", and states that "The flag which every British ship is entitled to fly is the Red Ensign (without any defacement or modification) and, subject to (a warrant from Her Majesty or from the Secretary of State, or an Order of Council from her Majesty regarding a defaced Red Ensign), no other colours."[83] Many civil vessels continue to fly the white bordered Union Flag without official opposition, making it the de facto Civil Jack.


The Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) was one of a few non-government institutions using the Union Jack in part of the flag. HBC rival North West Company had a similar flag as well. The HBC jack is no longer in use and replaced with a corporate flag featuring the company's coat of arms.

The Union Jack is the third quarter of the 1939 coat of arms of Alabama, which also used in the flag of the governor of Alabama, representing British sovereignty over the state prior to 1783. The version used is the modern flag, whereas the 1707 flag would have been used in colonial Alabama.

In the former International Settlement of Kulangsu the Kulangsu Municipal Police had a badge contained multiple flags, including the Union Flag. Then the badge is incoporated in their police flag.[84][85]

Flag days

In July 2007, the British prime minister at the time, Gordon Brown, unveiled plans to have the Union Flag flown more often from government buildings.[86] While consultation on new guidelines is under way, the decision to fly the flag may be made by each government department.

Previously the flag was generally only flown on public buildings on days marking the birthdays of members of the Royal Family, the wedding anniversary of the monarch, Commonwealth Day, Accession Day, Coronation Day, the Queen's Official Birthday, Remembrance Sunday, and on the days of the State Opening and prorogation of Parliament. The Union Flag is flown at half mast from the announcement of the death of the Sovereign (save for Proclamation Day), or upon command of the Sovereign.[87]

The current flag days where the Union Flag should be flown from government buildings throughout the UK are:

In addition, the Union Flag should be flown in the following areas on specified days:

On 30 November, (St Andrew's Day), the Union Flag can be flown in Scotland only where a building has more than one flagpole—on this day the Saltire will not be lowered to make way for the Union Flag if there is only one flagpole.[89] This difference arose after Members of the Scottish Parliament complained that Scotland was the only country in the world that could not fly its national flag on its national day. However, on 23 April, St George's Day, it is the Union Flag of the United Kingdom that is flown over United Kingdom's government offices in England.[90]

Non-government organisations may fly the Union Flag whenever they choose.

Usage and disposal

The Union Flag has no official status in the United Kingdom, and there are no national regulations concerning its use or prohibitions against flag desecration. In Northern Ireland, the Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000 provide for the flying of the flag on government buildings on certain occasions, when it is flown half mast, and how it is displayed with other flags.[91]

The Flags and Heraldry Committee, an all-party parliamentary group lobbying for official standards, cooperated with the Flag Institute in 2010 to publish a set of recommended guidelines for the flag's display and use as a symbol.[92]

There is no specific way in which the Union Flag should be folded as there is with the United States Flag. It is usually folded rectilinearly, with the hoist on the outside, to be easily reattached to the pole.[92][93]

Royal Navy Stores Duties Instructions, article 447, dated 26 February 1914, specified that flags condemned from further service use were to be torn up into small pieces and disposed of as rags (ADM 1/8369/56), not to be used for decoration or sold. The exception was flags that had flown in action: these could be framed and kept on board, or transferred to a "suitable place", such as a museum (ADM 1/8567/245).[22]

Other names

  • In the Chinese language, the flag has the nickname Rice-Character Flag (米字旗; Mandarin Pinyin: mǐzìqí, Cantonese Jyutping: mai5zi6kei4), since the pattern looks like the Chinese character for "rice" (米).[94]
  • The Butcher's Apron is a pejorative term for the flag, common among Irish republicans, citing the blood-streaked appearance of the flag and referring to atrocities committed in Ireland and other countries under British colonial rule.[95][96] In 2006, Sandra White, a Member of the Scottish Parliament, caused a furore when the term was used in a press release under her name. It was later blamed on the actions of a researcher, who resigned yet claimed that the comment had been approved by White.[97]

Search for the "Eureka Jack"

In 2013 the Australian Flag Society announced a worldwide quest and a A$10,000 reward for information leading to the discovery of the Union Jack which was reportedly hoisted beneath the Eureka flag at the Battle of the Eureka Stockade.[98]

As the de facto national flag of the United Kingdom, the Union Jack serves as an imperial, patriotic or nationalist symbol, and can also carry associations of militarism.[99]

Winston Churchill wrote about the use of the Union Jack as a symbol connected to British nationalism and imperialism. In March 1899 the young Churchill wrote to his mother from India about her plans to produce a new trans-Atlantic magazine, to be called The Anglo-Saxon Review. The drawing at the end of this letter was deliberately mischievous, teasing her for going down-market, and in the accompanying letter he wrote, 'Your title "The Anglo Saxon" with its motto "Blood is thicker than water" only needs the Union Jack & the Star Spangled Banner crossed on the cover to be suited to one of Harmsworth's [a leading British newspaper owner] cheap Imperialist productions.'[100]

The Union Flag has been a prominent symbol in the sphere of fashion since the British Invasion movement of the 1960s, in a similar manner to the American Stars and Stripes flag – compare Geri Halliwell's iconic Union Jack dress. A notable increase in popularity was seen in Cuba following the 2012 summer Olympics, with clothing, nail decoration, tattoos, and hairstyles in youths being observed featuring the pattern.[101]

Commonly the Union Flag is used on computer software and Internet pages as an icon representing a choice of the English language where a choice among multiple languages may be presented to the user. The flag has been embroidered on various Reebok equipment as a mark of the brand's British origin,[102] and the Reebok Union Jack has been referred to as a brand icon.[103] Many music artists have used the Union Jack, ranging from rock artists The Who, Sex Pistols, Freddie Mercury, Morrissey, Oasis, Iron Maiden, and Def Leppard, to the pop girl group the Spice Girls.

The Union Flag in use

Union Flag variants 1606–1801

Coat of arms of Ireland
17th c. (Ireland)

St George's Cross
16th c. (England and Wales)

St Andrew's Cross
16th c. (Scotland)

Flag of the

1649 (Commonwealth
of England

English Naval Jack
Royal Navy
1643 (England)

Scottish Union Flag
17th c. (Scotland)

Union Flag of 1606
1606 (Union of the Crowns)
1660 (Restoration)
1707 (Great Britain)

St Patrick's Cross
17th c. (Ireland)

Flag of the
Protectorate Jack
1658 (Commonwealth
of England

Union Flag of 1801
1801 (United Kingdom)

Union Flag in folk art

See also


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  2. Graham Bartram (born 1963), a British vexillologist who is, as of 2013, the secretary-general for congresses of the Fédération internationale des associations vexillologiques and the chief vexillologist of the Flag Institute, when interviewed on the BBC Broadcasting House programme on 13 October 2013, stated that either name was perfectly valid whatever the purpose. He stated that the theory that the flag should only be referred to as "Union Jack" when flown at sea was wrong.[7]


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Further reading

External images
The Cross of Saint Andrew. 26 September 2009. By cthonus Accessed 2009-12-30.
The Cross of Saint George. 11 June 2006. By Two Thumbs. Accessed 2009-12-30.
Scottish Union Flag. 2 June 2009. By boongiepam. Accessed 2009-12-16.
"English/British Union Flag". 29 March 2008. Archived from the original on 18 February 2010. By dr.nic. Accessed 2009-12-31.
The Cross of Saint Patrick. 17 March 2007. By tim ellis. Accessed 2009-12-30.
United Kingdom Union Flag. 15 July 2009. By leegibb13. Accessed 2009-12-16.
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