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The flag of the United Kingdom, the 'Union Flag' - also known as the 'Union Jack' - is perhaps along with the 'Stars and Stripes', the most recognisable on Earth. The reasons are very apparent. Throughout most of the past thousand years the four 'countries' of England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland have been at the centre of world events. And throughout the 19th century and for part of the 20th century, the nation of the United Kingdom dominated the planet - at times with as much as one fifth of the world's landmass under British control. This small country has variously owned or governed, or fought wars with most other major nations on Earth, and consequently the Union Flag has not only flown in all corners of the world, it is still today to be found represented in the flags of former colonies such as Australia and New Zealand, and many Caribbean and Pacific nations, as well as the American State flag of Hawaii.
So where does this famous flag come from? And how does it relate to the four home 'countries' - England, Wales, Scotland and N.Ireland - which today make up the United Kingdom? And will the Union Flag remain forever, or are its days numbered? These are the questions I aim to answer in this review of the history of the Union Flag.
Union Flag or Union Jack ?
First, the question of the name. The flag of the United Kingdom is popularly known as the Union Jack. But is this right? Many have conjectured that the term 'Union Jack' should only be employed when the flag is flown from a pole called a 'jack staff' to be found on the bows of ships - in other words the flag is only a 'Union Jack' when it is hoisted at sea by the Royal Navy. On land it is the 'Union Flag'.
However the origin of the term 'jack' is not clear. Although it has been used to refer to any flag flown from a ship as a signalling device, many other derivations of 'jack' have also been postulated. Some claim it may be an abbreviation of the 'jack'et worn by the King's soldiers, or 'Jacobus', the Latinised version of James I, the King who first unified England and Scotland with a flag.
James I in fact referred to the 'British Flag' and the terms 'Union Flag' and 'Union Jack' only gained prominence later. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, national flags were traditionally flown only on ships and so the term 'Union Jack' naturally became identified with a maritime flag. But the distinction was not entirely clear. Early in the 20th century, the Admiralty declared that either 'Union Flag' or 'Union Jack' could be used, and this was approved in Parliament in 1908. Therefore, it is perfectly acceptable to describe the flag - on sea or on land - by its popular designation as the Union Jack.
The Four Nations of The Flag
The United Kingdom is exactly what it says it is - a union of four 'countries' under one monarch (and one central government). But the development of those four 'countries' has not been straightforward and the relationship between the four remains in a constant state of flux. The four 'nations' of the union are England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and although there is a tendency in the rest of the world to bracket everybody in the UK as English, that is wrong. England may have always been the dominant partner both in terms of population size and international power, but the distinctions are quite important. (To call a Scot or a Welshman 'English' is worse than calling a man from the Southern States of America a 'Yankee').
So far, I have referred to the four 'nations' or 'countries' of the union in quotation marks - whether they are genuine nations depends on one's definition of these terms. From here on, I will lose the quotation marks. Certainly the people of England, Wales and Scotland think of their lands as historic nations or countries in their own right, even if today they are not officially recognised as such with fully independent governments of their own.
The origins of the four nations dates back at least 1500 years, and arguably to Roman times, and will be described in the following two sections. These sections are important as they indicate how the four nations of the United Kingdom developed, and why they came together under one flag, but they do not relate directly to the appearance of the flag itself. I've kept them as brief as possible, but if you wish, skip these two sections and go straight to 'The Flag Of England'.
The United Kingdom
Much confusion in other countries exists over the terminology of England, Great Britain and the United Kingdom. As the nation currently exists, the correct designation is 'The United Kingdom', or to be even more exact, 'The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland'.
- 'England' is merely one of four countries within the United Kingdom
- 'Great Britain' is the island land mass which incorporates the three old countries of England, Wales and Scotland.
- 'The United Kingdom' refers to the unification of Great Britain with the northern part of the island of Ireland into one nation.
A Brief History of the Four Nations
Part One - The Separation Of England From The Celtic Nations
Prior to the Roman invasion of 43 AD, there was no nation here - merely a geographical landmass which was inhabited by many independent tribes speaking several distinct languages. The term 'Celts' was only used for the first time to describe these ancient tribes a few hundred years ago - there was no common origin - but today for simplicity's sake we can refer to all the people of the British Isles at this time as Celtic. Roman conquest did not greatly change this tribal structure, and did not extend far into the region which we now call Scotland. But Roman culture did have many other profound influences. Under Roman rule, the entire island became known as 'Britannia', later to be shortened to Britain, and towards the end of Roman rule, many of the tribes in Southern and Eastern Britain began to coalesce into larger kingdoms. The arrival of Germanic tribes - the Angles and the Saxons - in the 5th century, significantly changed the picture as they brought their own culture to the island. But the most important factor from the perspective of this page, was that the influence of the Anglo Saxons was largely limited to the area which we now call England, and thus a distinction slowly began to develop between Anglo-Saxon England and the ancient 'Celtic' tribes who still dominated the regions of Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Gradual unification of tribes throughout England continued, and in 927 AD, one tribal leader, Athelstan, became recognised as the first true King of all England.
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A Brief History of the Four Nations
Part Two - Gradual Unification Into A United Kingdom
In 1066, the last successful invasion of Britain took place. The Norman King William ('William the Conqueror') invaded from Northern France. After the Battle of Hastings, Anglo-Saxon England fell quickly to Norman rule, and the new regime followed this up with a gradual encroachment into the Celtic lands of Wales to the west. But the region of Wales, characterised by decentralised kingdoms, thick forests and mountains, was a tough nut to crack. It was only through the establishment of Norman castle strongholds, that Norman-English noblemen would gradually gain ground. By 1284, in the reign of King Edward I, Wales had been largely subdued, though powerful rebellions continued sporadically for two more centuries. In 1485, Henry Tudor became the first of a new dynasty of monarchs, and this new king who became Henry VII, was himself largely of Welsh ancestry, with a paternal Welsh grandfather. Thus the new Tudor Dynasty was of both English and Welsh blood. Under Henry's son - Henry VIII - full unification of the two countries was finally achieved in 1543, under the combined banner of 'England'.
The region to the north of England had remained comparatively free of interference throughout the periods of Roman, Anglo-Saxon and early Norman rule. The indigenous tribes known as the Picts, and other Scottish tribes originally of Irish ancestry, had gradually united after a period of many centuries and by the 11th century the entire region became more or less one nation - albeit a nation in turmoil (the majority of Scottish Kings at this time ended their lives in battle or in family murder). English King Edward I's empire building ambitions which had already largely subjugated Wales, now led to major conflict between England and Scotland in the late 13th century. The region, however, remained independent. Then, in 1503 the daughter of Henry VII married King James IV of Scotland, and this union which linked the royal families of the two countries later led to Scottish claims on the English throne when Elizabeth I - the Virgin Queen - died in 1603 without any direct successor in place. James VI of Scotland became King James I of England, Wales and Scotland. Although one sovereign now ruled over both England and Scotland, they remained as politically separate states with separate parliaments and laws for 100 years, and it was not till 1707 that a formal Act of Union was signed and Scotland was fully integrated into a 'Kingdom of Great Britain' with England and Wales. Even though discontent remained, and the right of succession to the throne led to rebellion in the 18th century, the defeat of 'Bonnie' Prince Charlie's uprising in 1745-46 finally ended all violent Scottish opposition to the union.
The island of Ireland was largely untouched by the Romans and then the Anglo-Saxons, though Viking raiders were a major threat in the 10th century. Ireland was - like all the other regions - the site of many small kingdoms, and it had never been fully unified, though some later kings ruled over large areas of the island. Rebellious challenges to their rule were common, and in the Middle Ages, the Norman barons began to take advantage of this, helping some Irish leaders in return for land. Gradually, English control over much of Ireland developed, though the level of interest in Ireland displayed by medieval English kings fluctuated greatly over a period of nearly 300 years. Then, in 1543 under King Henry VIII, the decree which united England and Wales also laid claim to all of Ireland. However, many issues complicated the picture. These included Henry's breach with the Catholic church (still the majority faith in Ireland), Oliver Cromwell's crushing of revolt and confiscation of Catholic land in 1649, and a war over succession to the British throne in 1690 between Catholic James II and eventual victor, Protestant William III. These issues only served to aggravate tensions between Irish Catholics and Great Britain, and between Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants. The result was two and a half centuries of varying levels of administration from London. Then in 1800 an Act of Union was signed, the 'United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland' was founded, and between 1801 and 1921, the whole of Ireland was governed from London.
But by the late 19th century, a movement to achieve a degree of home rule for Ireland had begun, initially by peaceful means but later attracting much more violent elements. Eventually tentative agreement was reached on a timeline to Irish home rule within the United Kingdom, though this would not extend to six counties in the Northern Province of Ulster where Protestants loyal to the Union with Great Britain were dominant. Thus, in 1921, two parliaments were set up with differing levels of self-government - one in southern Dublin, and one in northern Belfast. But the decision served only to polarise opinion further between those who wanted an independent, United Ireland, and those who accepted a partition between North and South, and continued union with Britain. Civil war resulted. Eventully full independence was granted to the South in 1948 and this became the Republic of Ireland. The six Northern counties remained within the Union - and still do today - as the majority of the inhabitants wished. (This was the source of ongoing terrorist activity in the late 20th century as violent factions within the Catholic Northern Irish minority - notably the IRA - continued their fight for a United Ireland).
The Flag of England
The origins of England's national flag can be dated to the Crusades against Muslim occupation of the Holy Land. Initially the Pope had decreed that the English crusaders should wear a white cross on a red background, whilst French knights would wear a red cross on a white background. However, after the First Crusade, the English knights pressed for this to be reversed. The English had been impressed by myths relating to St George and they wanted the right to carry the red cross emblem of St George. (George was a Roman soldier who had been executed and martyred by the Emperor for refusing to renounce his faith in Christianity). By 1188, agreement was reached between Henry II of England and Philip II of France that the red cross on a white background would in future be worn by English crusaders. The emblem was used (although not to the exclusion of other designs) by English armies in various conflicts over the next few hundred years, and in 1350, King Edward III made George the Patron Saint of England. However, it was only in the 16th century under the Tudor monarchs that the red Cross of St George became officially adopted as the flag of England.
The Flag of Wales
The symbol of a red dragon has long been associated with Wales, but the precise origins of this are shrouded in mystery and myth. Most prevalent in folklore however, is the story of a great battle between a resident red dragon which lived in the hills of Wales, and an interloping white dragon. When the two dragons fought, it was to the death. At first the white dragon had the upper hand but it was the red dragon which eventually rose up and destroyed his adversary. The myth was symbolic; it is believed the white dragon represented invading Saxon armies during the Dark Ages, and the myth told how the red dragon, representing the Celtic people, would recover from the oppression and rise up to defeat the invaders. How exactly the emblem developed is not clear, but it is known that during these times a red dragon was the chosen emblem of Cadwaladr, King of Gwynedd. The emblem persisted, and in the 14th century the Welsh rebel Owain Glyndawr carried a red dragon banner in his battles against the English. Later, the flag as we now know it of green and white overlaid with a red dragon was carried by Henry Tudor when he defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Henry had combined the dragon with his Tudor family livery of green and white, and his victory under the flag marked the beginning of the Tudor dynasty. Under his son, Henry VIII, the Cross of St George was established as England's National Flag, and because at this time Wales had already become fully united with the English nation, the Red Cross was also taken to represent both. The Red Dragon however remained a potent emblem for the Welsh throughout the next 400 years, and in 1959 Wales was finally officially recognised as a separate entity to England with the installation of the Red Dragon as the national flag.
The Flag of Scotland
The flag of Scotland is a white saltire (a heraldic name for a diagonal cross) on a dark blue background, and it is the result of combining the symbol of the patron saint of Scotland with the story of a legendary battle between the Scots and a force of Anglo-Saxons. Saint Andrew, one of the disciples of Jesus, had been martyred by crucification in the 1st century AD, and it is said that he elected to die on an 'X' shaped cross because he felt unworthy to be martyred on the same '†' shaped cross as Jesus - hence the saltire design. It was also claimed that relics of the saint had been carried to Scotland in later centuries, and so Andrew became a revered saint in the country. Then, in 832 AD Angus II led an army of Scottish tribes into battle against an invading army of Anglo Saxons. Angus was outnumbered but he prayed for help, and the next day the clouds formed the pattern of a white cross - the Saltire of St Andrew - against the blue sky. It was taken as an omen, and the Scottish army duly triumphed. Whatever the truth, St Andrew became the Patron Saint of Scotland and the legend of his cross against a blue background was later installed as the national flag of Scotland. The precise date seems unclear, but certainly the design as an emblem, if not as a flag, seems to have been in place by 1286.
The Flag of Northern Ireland
Henry VIII had declared himself King of Ireland in the 16th century and so - like Wales - Ireland had become officially represented in the Union Flag by the Cross of St George. There had never been a fully united Ireland previously so there had never been an 'Irish Flag' as such. However - unlike Wales - civil unrest remained prevalent over much of Ireland, and so following the Act of Union in 1800, it was felt expedient to officially represent the island in the national flag. But how to do so? As the Patron Saint of Ireland, it seemed natural to use the Cross of St Patrick, but even this was not an emblem of any historic relevance. Unlike all the flags of the other patron saints, the St Patrick's Saltire, a red diagonal cross on a white background, had not been widely flown prior to the 19th century and was of dubious origin. However, it had been used as the badge of the Order of St Patrick from 1783, and so this was the flag - without overwhelming support - which was added to the Union Jack after 1800.
In 1948, most of Ireland became an independent nation under the Irish Tricolor Flag, but six counties in the Northern Irish Province of Ulster were to remain within the United Kingdom, represented as before in the Union Jack by the St Patrick Saltire. However, the saltire was the flag of the Patron Saint of All Ireland (including the southern republic), so a new official regional flag was also introduced specifically for the Northern counties to fly. This new flag - the Ulster Banner - combined the Flag of the Province of Ulster with the Cross of St George, and it held sway from 1953 until 1973, but lacked universal support. Both this flag and the St Patrick Saltire are still used informally at sporting events and on other occasions. There is however, no consensus on a Northern Ireland flag today, because this has never been a nation in any form. Today, the majority favour flying the Union Jack to demonstrate their loyalty to the union with Great Britain, whilst the republican minority would still like to join with Southern Ireland under the Irish Tricolor. A very tiny minority wish for an independent Nation of Northern Ireland.
The History Of the Flag Prior to 1606
Despite the title of this section, there is effectively no history of the Union Jack prior to 1606, except in so far as the explanation for the absence of Welsh influence in the flag as we know it today, dates from the Middle Ages. Wales was annexed to England in the 13th century, and so by the time the forerunner of today's Union Jack came into existence, Wales was no longer considered a separate nation. It was effectively already combined with England under the banner of the Cross of St George.
In recent times, Welsh self-identity has regained some of its medieval strength and one suspects that if the Union Jack was to be redesigned today, a place for clear Welsh representation would have to be found on the flag. Nonetheless what actually happened is history, and Wales played no further part in the development of the Union Jack as it exists today.
The History of the Flag from 1606 to 1801
In 1603, Elizabeth I died. Without any direct heir, James VI of Scotland - the son of Elizabeth's cousin Mary Queen of Scots - ascended to the throne as James I of England. This meant that England and Scotland were finally united under the same ruler. It was decided to commemorate this with the commissioning of a new flag in which the St George's Cross of England (and also Wales) would be united with the St Andrews Cross of Scotland. The flag was introduced on 12th April 1606 and was called by various names including the 'King's Jack'. It could however, also be described as the first Union Jack of Great Britain.
It should be mentioned that the final design was only one of many which were considered. Most options simply involved placing the English and Scottish crosses side by side, or superimposing one in the centre of the other.
The History of the Flag from 1801 to the Present Day
Although Ireland had been included under England's Cross of St George in the 16th Century, and in the King's Jack of 1606, it was felt that a much clearer representation was required following the official Act of Union in 1800. And so a new addition to the Union Jack was made - the red diagonal saltire of St Patrick. This led to the flag as we know it today being flown for the first time.
As can be seen, the new Union Jack of 1801 lacks the symmetry of the 1606 Great Britain flag. Specifically the new red Cross of St Patrick is offset within the white Saltire of St Andrew - a curious pattern which is significant. To simply centre the Irish Saltire in the middle of the Scottish Saltire would have made the white Cross of St Andrew look as if it was merely a border to the red Cross of St Patrick. Instead, it was decided to reduce the St Patrick cross in width and off-set it, to emphasise the importance of St Andrew's Saltire. The broader part of the St Andrews Cross was also given the upper, more prestigious position on the side of the flag nearest the pole. This was deliberate, as St Andrew's Saltire represented the older nation and was a national flag in its own right, unlike the St Patrick Saltire.
One other difference is notable when comparing this flag to its predecessor. The blue background is much darker, a change which was introduced gradually for reasons which are not clear but which were probably due to the durability of the darker dye. Paler blues had a tendency to fade too quickly. The change to a darker blue had certainly taken place by the late 19th century. (Subsequently the darker blue in the Union Jack has also influenced Scotland's own national flag, and frequently the blue background of the St Andrew's Saltire is now much darker than in the original flag).
The Possible Future Of The Union Jack - A Variety Of Designs
Will the Union Jack Always Remain the Same?
The Union Jack has existed more or less in its current form for 200 years. But will it always remain so? A flag which represents, or has represented, these four proud nations over several centuries has to be an exercise in compromise. Many have questioned the makeup of the flag and hundreds of other designs have at various times been considered officially or informally.
Any change will be most dependent on the status of the three nations in union with England.
Ironically, despite the troubles of the late 20th century, the contribution of Northern Ireland to the flag is maybe the least likely to undergo significant change. Historically, the region has never been an independent nation and the majority of the people in the north have a passion to remain in the Union. There is no likelihood of this changing in the foreseeable future. At present, the Union Jack is the only official Flag of Northern Ireland, but if the region desires its own flag in addition to this, then the St Patrick's Saltire is the best option as this is identified with a saint more than a country, so maybe unites the different communities more than any other flag would do.
Wales and Scotland have very different issues despite some devolution of local powers to these countries in recent years (rather in the way that states in America have local authority on many issues). A small minority of 10-15% in Wales have expressed a desire for full independence, and whilst that is very unlikely to become a majority in the near future, the absence of any visible recognition in the national flag is a source of mild grievance. Some have pressed for a Welsh contribution to the flag either in the colours of the Patron Saint, or more probably in the form of the Red Dragon.
In Scotland a very strong desire for full independence has remained a goal of a significant minority which may one day become a majority. Many opinion polls in the past have shown support for independence varying between 30% and 40%. The most recent official ballot was on 18th September 2014. This referendum saw a surge in Scottish nationalist support to 45%. However, the majority vote was still in favour of remaining within the United Kingdom. If ever a majority for independence does occur, then surely Scottish blue will have to disappear from the Union Jack. But what colour would replace it? One possibility would be to replace it with green - a colour much associated with Ireland (both north and south). Green is also prominent in the Welsh flag with Welsh nationalist associations. Other options include black or yellow (the colours of St David's Cross).
Included here are a few of the very many possible suggestions for a Union Jack with or without Scotland, and with or without representation for Wales (They include three designs of my own!) This is, at present, really just a speculative exercise, and perhaps a fun exercise for me. But for others, the issue of the flag and representation within the flag has always been and will remain in the future, a matter of very great pride and concern.
However, it does seem likely that for the foreseeable future the Union Jack will indeed stay just as it is. Although there is always the possibility of a successful campaign for independence in Scotland in the future, there appear at present to be no coordinated plans to change this most iconic symbol of British history and its influence for good or bad, both on the world scale and on the local scale in these islands off the northwest coast of Europe.
Please feel free to quote limited text from this article on condition that an active link back to this page is included
- United Kingdom
- British flags - The Flag Institute
- List of British flags - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
- BBC - History: British History in-depth
- Flag of England - Wikipedia
- English Flag
- Laws in Wales Acts 1535–1542 - Wikipedia
- BBC Wales - History
- History of Welsh Flags
- Data Wales : The Welsh Flag and other Welsh symbols.
- Saint Andrew - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
- Flag of Scotland - By Scotland Channel
- St Patrick's Flag
- BBC NEWS - Union recognition
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2012 Greensleeves Hubs