|Union Flag, Union Jack, British flag, UK flag|
|Adopted||1 January 1801|
|Design||A white-fimbriated symmetric red cross on a blue field with a white-fimbriated counterchanged saltire of red and white.|
|Alternative 3:5 ratio|
|Design||A red field with the Union Flag in the canton. See Red Ensign.|
|Design||A blue field with the Union Flag in the canton. See Blue Ensign.|
|Design||A symmetric red cross on a white field with the Union Flag in the canton. See White Ensign.|
|Royal Air Force Ensign|
|Use||Air force ensign|
|Design||A field of air force blue with the Union Flag in the canton and the RAF roundel in the middle of the fly.|
The design of the Union Jack dates back to the Act of Union 1801, which united the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland (previously in personal union) to create the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The flag consists of the red cross of Saint George (patron saint of England, which also represents Wales), edged in white, superimposed on the saltire of St Patrick (patron saint of Ireland), also edged in white, which are superimposed on the saltire of Saint Andrew (patron saint of Scotland). Wales is not represented in the Union Flag by Wales's patron saint, Saint David, because the flag was designed whilst Wales was part of the Kingdom of England.
The earlier flag of Great Britain was established in 1606 by a proclamation of King James VI and I of Scotland and England. The new flag of the United Kingdom was officially created by an Order in Council of 1801, with its blazon reading as follows:
The Union Flag shall be azure, the Crosses saltire of Saint Andrew and Saint Patrick quarterly per saltire, counter-changed, argent and gules, the latter fimbriated of the second, surmounted by the Cross of Saint George of the third fimbriated as the saltire.
Flying the flag
The Union Flag can be flown by any individual or organisation in Great Britain on any day of their choice. Legal regulations restrict the use of the Union Flag on government buildings in Northern Ireland. Long-standing restrictions on UK government use of the flag elsewhere were abolished in July 2007.
While the flag appears symmetric, the white lines above and below the diagonal red are different widths. On the side closer to the flagpole (or on the left when depicted on paper), the white lines above the diagonals are wider; on the side farther from the flagpole (or on the right when depicted on paper), the converse is true. Thus, no change will be apparent when rotating the flag 180 degrees, but if mirrored the flag will be upside-down.
Placing the flag upside down is considered lèse majesté and is offensive to some. However, it can be flown upside down as a distress signal. While this is rare, it was used by groups under siege during the Boer War and during campaigns in India in the late 18th century.
St Patrick's saltire
Because of the relative positions of the saltires of St Patrick and St Andrew, the UK flag is not symmetrical. The red saltire of St Patrick is offset such that it does not relegate the white saltire of St Andrew to a mere border. St Andrew's saltire has the higher position at the hoist side with St Patrick's saltire in the higher position on the opposite side.
- from the announcement of the death of the Sovereign (an exception is made for Proclamation Day – the day the new Sovereign is proclaimed, when the Flag is flown at full mast from 11 am to sunset)
- the day of the funeral of a member of the British royal family
- the funeral of a foreign Head of State
- the funeral of a former British Prime Minister
The Sovereign sometimes declares other days when the Union Flag is to fly at half-mast. Half-mast means the flag is flown two-thirds of the way up the flagpole with at least the height of the flag between the top of the flag and the top of the flagpole.
Flying from public buildings
Until July 2007, the Union Flag was only flown on UK government buildings on a limited number of special days each year. The choice of days was managed by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). Government buildings are those used by civil servants, the Crown, or the armed forces. They were not applicable to private citizens, corporations, or local authorities.
On 3 July 2007, the Justice Secretary Jack Straw laid a green paper before Parliament entitled The Governance of Britain. Alongside a range of proposed changes to the constitutional arrangements of the UK was a specific announcement that there would be consultation on whether the rules on flag-flying on UK government buildings should be relaxed.
Two days later, Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced that with immediate effect the Union Flag would fly from the flag pole above the front entrance of 10 Downing Street on every day of the year. The intention was to increase feelings of British national identity. Other UK government departments were asked to follow this lead, and all government buildings in Whitehall did so.
James Purnell, Culture Secretary from June 2007 to January 2008 in Brown's administration, subsequently concurred with the abolition of the restrictions – pending consultation on longer term arrangements.
The flag days directed by the DCMS include birthdays of members of the Royal Family, the wedding anniversary of the Monarch, Commonwealth Day, Accession Day, Coronation Day, The King's Official Birthday, Remembrance Sunday and (in the Greater London area) on the days of the State Opening and prorogation of Parliament.
Since 2023, the relevant days have been:
- 9 January: the birthday of The Princess of Wales
- 20 January: the birthday of The Duchess of Edinburgh
- 19 February: the birthday of The Duke of York
- Second Sunday in March: Commonwealth Day
- 10 March: the birthday of The Duke of Edinburgh
- 9 April: the anniversary of the wedding of The King and The Queen.
- 6 May: the anniversary of The King's and The Queen's 2023 coronation.
- A Saturday in June: The King's Official Birthday
- 21 June: the birthday of The Prince of Wales
- 17 July: the birthday of The Queen
- 15 August: the birthday of The Princess Royal
- 8 September: the anniversary of The King's accession in 2022
- Second Sunday in November: Remembrance Sunday
- 14 November: The King's birthday
In addition, the flag should be flown in the following areas on the specified days:
- Wales, 1 March: Saint David's Day
- Northern Ireland, 17 March: Saint Patrick's Day
- England, 23 April: Saint George's Day
- Scotland, 30 November: Saint Andrew's Day
- Greater London: the opening or proroguing of Parliament
Some non-central government bodies still continue to follow the flag days.
In Scotland, the Scottish Government has decreed that the Flag of Scotland ("the Saltire") will fly on all its buildings every day from 8 am until sunset, but there is no specific policy on flying the Union Flag and as such it is sometimes flown alongside the Saltire and sometimes omitted. An exception is made for "national days". On these days, the Saltire shall be lowered and replaced with the Union Flag. These are the same as the flag days noted above with the exception of:
- 3 September: Merchant Navy Day
In November 2007 the then culture minister Margaret Hodge said she would consider a redesign of the Union Flag to incorporate the Welsh dragon, during a debate in the House of Commons on the frequency with which the flag flies above public buildings. The issue was initially raised by Ian Lucas, another Labour MP, who complained that the flag introduced in 1606 following the accession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne as James I assumed the Welsh population as English under the bracket of England and Wales (represented by the cross of St George) which he then combined with the saltire of St Andrew which represented the union of England and Scotland. This principle continued in 1801 when the St Patrick cross was incorporated following the Union with Ireland Act 1800. Lucas claimed the identity of Wales had been suppressed ever since the Laws in Wales Acts 1535–1542. In the debate, Albert Owen MP said that "we in Wales do not feel part of the union flag because the dragon or the cross of St David is not on it." Conservative MP Stewart Jackson described the comments as "eccentric".
In Northern Ireland, the Union Flag is flown from buildings of the Northern Ireland Office as decreed by Regulations published in 2000. The Regulations were amended in 2002 to remove the requirement to fly the flag on the birthdays of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon who both died that year. The current flag days are now the same as the United Kingdom government days noted above with the exception of the Queen Camilla's birthday, which was only added to the UK flag days after her wedding to King Charles in 2005, and has not yet been extended to Northern Ireland.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland is the only body in the United Kingdom that is not permitted to fly the Union Flag, and is only permitted to fly its service flag or the Royal Standard in the event of a visit by the Sovereign.
As of 2013, numerous proposals were made about how the Union Flag might be altered to create a flag for the union of England, Wales and Northern Ireland after possible Scottish independence. The College of Arms stated that there would be no need to change the flag in those circumstances, and the existing flag could continue to be used if desired. Regarding the removal of Scottish heraldic features from the Union Flag, the Court of the Lord Lyon stated in 2012 that "[that] would be speculation at this stage, and we could only cross that bridge if we came to it."
- Commonwealth's flags
- Historical flags of the British Empire and the overseas territories
- List of United Kingdom flags – a list of flags used within the United Kingdom, the Crown Dependencies and the British overseas territories.
- List of English flags – a list of flags used within England
- List of Northern Irish flags – a list of flags used within Northern Ireland
- List of Scottish flags – a list of flags used within Scotland
- List of Welsh flags – a list of flags used within Wales
- List of Irish flags – a list of flags used within the Republic of Ireland
- National colours of the United Kingdom
- Protectorate Jack
According to the Flag Institute: "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" In 1902, an Admiralty Circular announced that Their Lordships had decided that either name could be used officially. Such use was given Parliamentary approval in 1908 when it was stated that "the Union Jack should be regarded as the National flag". Notwithstanding Their Lordships' circular of 1902, by 1913, the Admiralty described the "Union Flag" and added in a footnote that 'A Jack is a Flag to be flown only on the "Jack" Staff'.
The etymology of "Jack" in the context of flagstaffs reaches back to Middle German. The suffix -kin was used in Middle Dutch and Middle German as a diminutive. Examples occur in both Chaucer and Langland though the form is unknown in Old English. John is a common male forename (going back to the Bible), appearing in Dutch as Jan. Both languages use it as a generic form for a man in general. The two were combined in the Middle Dutch Janke, whence Middle French Jakke and Middle English Jack. Jack came to be used to identify all manner of particularly small objects or small versions of larger ones. The OED has definition 21 "Something insignificant, or smaller than the normal size" and gives examples from 1530 to 2014 of this usage. Further examples in the compounds section at 2b illustrate this. The original maritime flag use of jack was "A ship's flag of a smaller size than the ensign, used at sea as a signal, or as an identifying device". The Jack was flown in the bows or from the head of the spritsail mast to indicate the vessel's nationality: "You are alsoe for this present service to keepe in yor Jack at yor Boultspritt end and yor Pendant and yor Ordinance" The Union Flag when instantiated as a small jack became known as the "Union Jack" and this later term transferred to more general usage of the Union Flag.Also later a short flagpole was placed in the bows of a ship to fly the jack, this became known as the jackstaff.
- "The Union Jack or The Union Flag?". The Flag Institute. 20 June 2014. Archived from the original on 13 June 2013. Retrieved 3 December 2015.
- The Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty (1911) , Manual of Seamanship, vol. I, London: HMSO, p. 20
- "-kin". Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
- "John". Oxford English Dictionary.
- "Jack". Oxford English Dictionary.
- "Jack". Oxford English Dictionary.
- 1633 quotation cited in "Jack". Oxford English Dictionary.
- "Union flag". Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.) "Compare slightly later Union Jack"
- "jackstaff". Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
- The Flag Institute Archived 10 September 2022 at the Wayback Machine It says "The proportions of the flag are 30 units wide by 50 units long", or in other words; the flag proportions are 3:5.
- United Kingdom, flag of the Archived 17 May 2013 at the Wayback Machine, for flag ratio see flag caption
- A.C. Fox-Davies, The Art of Heraldry: An Encyclopædia of Armory (1904, reprinted 1986, ISBN 0-906223-34-2), p. 399: "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"|James VI and I|Orders in Council; Official creation of the Union Flag – 1606."
- Max Cryer, Curious English Words and Phrases: The Truth Behind the Expressions We Use (2012), p. 395: "When Britain's official flag settled down in 1801, its exact design and colouring were meticulously written out by Order of Council which described it as 'the Union Flag'... The correct formal wording of the Order of Council, 1801, was..." &c.
- "Union Flag: Specification". The Flag Institute. Archived from the original on 7 August 2021. Retrieved 7 August 2021.
- Department for Culture, Media and Sport: Flag Flying Archived 5 February 2007 at the Wayback Machine
- The Governance of Britain Archived 1 December 2007 at the Wayback Machine, for flying the Union Flag, see pp. 57–58
- Matthew Tempest and agencies Paisley to stand down as MEP Archived 2 February 2017 at the Wayback Machine, The Guardian, 19 January 2004. "After receiving almost 30% of the overall Northern Ireland vote in the 1979 European election, Ian Paisley became the first MEP to speak in the parliament when he protested that the Union Flag was flying upside down."
- Defence Secretary apologises for flag blunder BBC News, 13 November 1997
- FAQ Archived 16 October 2008 at the Wayback Machine Department for Culture, Media and Sport
- FAQ: What is half mast? Archived 16 October 2008 at the Wayback Machine Department for Culture, Media and Sport
- Morning Press Briefing Archived 9 August 2007 at the Wayback Machine by Prime Minister's Spokesman, 6 July 2007
- Union flag already flying all year round The Daily Telegraph 7 July 2007
- Brown lifts ban on national flag Archived 6 February 2009 at the Wayback Machine BBC News, 6 July 2007
- Brown flies flag for Britain Archived 8 June 2008 at the Wayback Machine The Guardian 6 July 2007
- "Union Jack will fly over No 10 permanently 'to show values'". The Times 6 July 2007
- "Gordon orders Whitehall to fly the flag in boost for Britishness" Archived 19 August 2009 at the Wayback Machine Evening Standard 6 July 2007
- Dates for flying the Union Flag on UK government buildings in 2020. Archived 23 September 2020 at the Wayback Machine Gov.uk. Published 27 February 2013. Updated 22 January 2020. Retrieved 29 September 2020.
- "Royal and ceremonial" Archived 15 October 2008 at the Wayback Machine Scottish Government
- Wintour, Patrick (28 November 2007). "Minister proposes a redesign for the union flag" Archived 1 December 2016 at the Wayback Machine, The Guardian
- Cleland, Gary (27 November 2007). "Union Jack should include Welsh flag, says MP" Archived 31 January 2018 at the Wayback Machine, Daily Telegraph
- "The Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000". Opsi.gov.uk. Archived from the original on 9 December 2009. Retrieved 14 June 2010.
- "The Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) 2002". Opsi.gov.uk. Archived from the original on 9 December 2009. Retrieved 14 June 2010.
- "Police Emblems and Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2002". Opsi.gov.uk. Archived from the original on 9 December 2009. Retrieved 14 June 2010.
- Sam Judah (4 December 2013). "What would the union jack look like if the Scottish bit was removed?". BBC News. Archived from the original on 27 August 2018. Retrieved 21 July 2018.
- "Union Flag: What happens if Scotland wins independence?". ITV News. 27 November 2013. Archived from the original on 16 May 2020. Retrieved 4 December 2013.
- "Would the blue have to be taken out of Union flag if Scotland became independent?". Daily Record. 7 June 2012. Archived from the original on 22 February 2014. Retrieved 4 December 2013.