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Last Updated: Monday, 10 April 2006, 11:18 GMT 12:18 UK
Union recognition
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Magazine

Four-hundred years old this week, the union jack is one of the world's oldest national flags... if you overlook the fact it's only meant to be flown at sea, the proportions are wrong and no one can agree on its name.

Its striking red, white and blue design harks back to a time when Britannia ruled the waves, but the history of the union jack is as tangled as all the mothballed bunting it decorates.

It is a story about custom over clarity, assumption over assertion, anomaly instead of consistency.

In the words of union jack historian Malcolm Farrow, "a mish-mash - but what do you expect from the British constitution?"

Even its real name has been known to pitch grown men into heated argument, 400 years after the flag's creation.

For the record, the BBC website disregards the term "union flag" because of its "great potential for confusion", preferring union jack (in lower case).

What the union jack might have looked like - six designs

The union jack as we know it today dates back to 1801, when Ireland joined Great Britain in a single kingdom. But the original flag, which was set out by royal proclamation on 12 April 1606, was subtly different, lacking the diagonal red lines - the so-called St Patrick's cross.

The flag was the result of the union of the English and Scottish monarchies in 1603, under James I (as he was in England) or James VI (as he was in Scotland).

Several designs for a new flag were drawn up in the wake of this union (see panel, above), juxtaposing the St George's cross and the St Andrew's saltire, but none quite hit the mark for James.

Instead he plumped for a simple merging effect - with the English emblem overlaying the Scottish one - mistake number one in the eyes of many Scotsmen, who couldn't understand why their flag should sit beneath not on top.

Aggrieved Scottish sailors re-drew the nascent flag their way, and stuck with it for some years.

From the outset, the union jack had been a maritime flag - to be flown by naval and civilian vessels. Its use on land had never been considered.

Royals have it

"The concept of a national flag as we know it today, to be flown from a building or a back garden, just didn't exist then, just as nations didn't really exist. It was kingdoms," says Graham Bartram, chief vexillologist, or flag expert, at the Flag Institute.

VE Day
By VE Day the union jack had become a flag of celebration
Which touches on another ambiguity, says Mr Bartram - "since England and Scotland were still separate countries at the time, James had created a flag for a country that didn't yet exist".

The union jack was a royal flag, says Mr Bartram, and, in theory at least, remains so today.

Back in the 17th Century, wily seamen were using the flag to avoid paying harbour duties - a privilege restricted to naval ships at the time. So James' successor, Charles I, ordered it be restricted to His Majesty's ships "upon pain of Our high displeasure".

Those restrictions remain, and today it is a criminal offence to fly the union jack from a boat.

The origins of the "jack" in union jack could derive from its maritime associations - a jack is a national flag flown by warships - but other theories are that it comes from the "jack-et" worn by soldiers or from the Latin or French form of James: Jacobus or Jacques.

Whatever the real explanation, the debate about what to call the flag when it is flown on land - union jack or union flag - rumbles on.

Abolished & restored

Being a royal flag, the union jack was abolished by Oliver Cromwell in 1649, before being restored along with the monarchy, 11 years later. And so it stayed.

Last Night of the Proms
Original proportions set down by Samuel Pepys (secretary to the Admiralty), in 1687
Roughly translated as 1:1.6
But changes in thread size have effectively made it 1:2
The sky blue of St Andrew has mutated into navy blue
In 1801 a red diagonal cross was added to represent union with Ireland and after a bit of design adjustment by the Navy it gradually, says Mr Farrow, came to be used as a land flag.

"By the 1800s, Britain was building an Empire and so it needed a flag to plant to say 'this country's ours, it belongs to the UK'."

A further boost to the union jack's fortunes came with growing need for national celebration - Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee, parties for troops returning from World War I and such like.

But even by 1918, the union jack had some way to go to being THE national flag, says Mr Farrow.

"All sorts of flags were being used at the time - red ensigns and white ensigns [both naval flags] and even the royal standard."

And while today, there's no question that the union jack is the national flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, it's got there by default rather than political will.

Sort of enshrined

No act of Parliament enshrines it as such - most countries have flag acts that set out, to the last detail, rules about their national flags. The best authority is cited in two spoken answers in Parliament - one from 1908, the other in 1933.

"There's nothing straightforward about the history. It has been adopted as our national flag without any national authority," says Mr Farrow. "Neither you or I can fly it from a boat, whereas every other country in the world, the first thing a citizen can do is fly their national flag at sea.

"And while there are many rules that govern its use at sea, there's nothing, not a jot, to say how the flag should be used on land - its proportions, its colours, when it can be flown, where it can be flown."

In theory it's a free for all. But, says Mr Farrow, the lack of explicit information has stymied the flying of the union jack rather than helped it.

"It's one of the oldest national flags in the world but a lot of people don't really feel comfortable about being able to fly it."

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

You state in your article that "........Ireland joined Great Britain in a single kingdom." The truth is that Ireland was forced into a union with Great Britain in 1801 against the wishes of the vast majority of its people. It is misleading to state that Ireland joined the union, as if it was a decision made by the people of Ireland.
John Buckley, Reading, UK

The background of the union jack is blue, like St Andrew's saltire! St George's cross is red! How did the aggrieved Scottish sailors re-drew the nascent flag their way, if both cross and background are white?
Craig, Blackburn, Lancs

As a scot I could never support a union flag. The only flag that could be recognised in Scotland is the St. Andrew cross. The union flag is a sign of English dominance.
David McInnes, West Calder Scotland

Why have Wales never had any input to the union jack (flag)? Is it only England Ireland & Scotland in this United Kingdom! Surely the powers that be should look to either design a flag that caters for all in the UK or, as appears to be the trend, devolve to individual countries flags only. For the record I like the Union Jack but us Welsh do have a bit of a complex on these matters. p.s. God save the queen is for the UK to sing not just the English :)
Ray Howells, Colwyn Bay, Wales

I only fly the union jack once a year to celebrate my Britishness. 4th July.
Richard Boyd, Fall River, Massachusetts, USA

It's the union flag you halfwits! This is yet another fine example of dumbing down of the BBC. Get your research correct! Just because the majority are ignorant of the true name does not mean you should perpetuate mistake to avoid "confusing" their small minds. If your going to take a stand on the name at least come down on the side of fact. Its only a jack at sea, like another flag can become a jack.
James Hughes, Southampton, UK

I have always understood the flag to be the flag of the unions of 1606 and 1801, and that the 'union flag' was called the 'Union Jack' only when it was used at sea, the national identifying flag of a nation being a 'jack' flown from the 'jackstaff on the prow of a boat/ship.
Gordon Bolton, Bedlington, Northumberland

If the "union jack" is one of the oldest flags in the world is the cross of St George not an even older national flag?
Gary Clarke, St Albans

"A lot of people don't really feel comfortable about being able to fly it". That's because few people know which way up it goes or why it goes that way.

Looking at the early designs for the union jack, they look more like games of Noughts and Crosses than early prototypes!
Graeme, Dundee, Scotland

It is a union jack when flown from the jackstay of a maritime vessels. When it is flown on dry land it is a union flag. Why does the BBC website insist on perpetuating erroneous information?
ron sprocket, lincolnshire, U.K

I don't wish to sound nationalist, but I can't readily accept the Union Jack as a national flag until there is some representation of Wales on there. Yes we are just a Principality, and our union with England was signed and sealed long before James I/VI ascended the throne, but if Scotland and Northern Ireland can have their stripes, why can't we have a symbol there? No wonder that, when we go abroad, people assume all British citizens are English!
Kate, Bangor

England, Scotland, Ireland. So where precisely does Wales fit in to this?
Kai, Cardiff

Never knew you couldn't fly the union jack from a civilian boat - has anybody actually been prosecuted for doing so?
J, Portsmouth

The union flag is also the basis of other national flags, including the US. Australia and New Zealand have modifed versions of the blue ensign, the US originally had a modified version of the red ensign (until it replaced the crosses with stars), and Canada had a modidfied version of the red ensign until after the second world war. Unfortunately for many Americans today, when they pledge "allegiance to the flag" they often forget their flag is only a symbol for their republic, and should never be an object of worship or a focus for misplaced "patriotism". Britons should be careful never to forget either.
vig, UK

It's NOT the Union JACK! PLEASE get your terminology about our National Flag correct! the ONLY time it should be called the Union JACK is when it is flown on the JACK mast of a ship. Otherwise it is the Union FLAG.
Gordon Burgess-Parker, Leek Staffs

I understand there are strict rules on how it should be folded, is this right?
A Daw, Basildon, Essex

The Union flag is flown from a jackstaff onboard HM Ships and therefore is known as the Union Jack
Tony, Plymouth

i am generally indifferent to the furore that can surround the flying of the flag. The who, why, when and where don't normally bother me with one notable exception. When fans of the English national team, whether it be football, cricket, rugby or tiddly-winks, fly the union flag instead of the flag of St. George it REALLY winds me up!
Richard Bean, Sheffield

While I appreciate its history and wish our national flag were able to be more often and openly flown, I don't actually like it. I think it's messy, ugly and over-complicated. I'd love to see a properly-run competition to come up with a suitable replacement for the modern era.
John, Nottingham, UK

I can appreciate your concerns for confusion between the Jack/flag issue. However, surely your remit involves education and the article should begin explaining that "Union Jack" is frequently misused.
Will Titterton, London

The flag is called the union flag and only the union jack when flown from the jack mast of a yacht. Now red enigns are flown from the small jack mast at the stern of a yacht, or a blue ensign if the sailor is or has served in the British armed forces.
Gerry McLoughlin, Summerseat, Lancashire

More of a question than a comment. The article makes no reference to the Act of the Union that as I understand it created Great Britain as a country (?), under the reign of William and Mary (the so called Glorious Revolution). Does this have nothing to do with the union jack or the the use of the word union? (as in Act of the Union)
Matt Winn, Swindon

The whole area of flags is interesting, we were looking into getting flapoles at the school I was then chair of governors of. But we didnt, apparently it is not considered appropriate to fly a flag between sundown and sunrise, and they have to be washed regularly as a dirty flag is seen as disrespectful. As is a torn flag. So we scrapped the idea of the flagpoles, and I phoned the town hall and told them they needed a new Union Jack as the one they flew was dirty and torn! It was changed within a week, fasted I have seen anything acted on yet!
Liz Parkinson, Stockport

I come from a naval family and had always been told that the flag that we now associate with the national flag of the United Kingdom was the 'Union Flag', and only referred to as the 'Union Jack', when it was flown from the Jack staff on a warship. The two terms were never meant to be inter-changeable.
Ian Proctor, London

It is clear that we should feel uncomfortable about flying it - it harks back to imperialist expansionist days which we should be ashamed of. Plus Wales is not represented on it, so it is not a flag I recognise. Why not incorporate the Cross of St David and put some black in the union jack?!?
Adam, Swansea, Wales

I fly the union flag from my desk at work. Living in North America where they take every opportunity to show their flags, I feel it is only fitting that I keep a little bit of England with me.
Kevin, Niagara Falls, Canada

National flag? Not mine. I don't feel "British" and never will. My National Flag is the St Andrews Cross and always will be. Narrow minded nationalist? No - just proud of my own country and ashamed of Britain when I see English football thugs fly the Union Flag as if it only represented England.
Brian McCaig, Paisley, Scotland

The union flag is the "butcher's apron" - many have suffered under its barbaric expanionist symbol and should not be overlooked.
mark clarke, norwich england

Isn't it about time we got a new one!
chris beckingham, Sheffield

In the west of Scotland, the Union flag is almost a sectarian symbol and is strongly associated with Unionism, so the most common place to see it flown is at Orange halls. Scots of Irish extraction won't have anything to do with it, and neither would anyone who supports Scottish independence. The Saltire is far more popular here, and does not have the sectarian overtones of the Union jack.
Ian MacLaren, Glasgow

The Act of Union in 1801 also encompassed Wales as well as Ireland although there is no actual representation of Wales on the Flag. Also having spent a number of years in the Royal Navy, the Flag is known as the Union Flag, and the "Jack" is the name for the pole at the front end of the ship (Forecastle) which it is raised on. he white ensign is always raised at the rear of RN ships.
Peter Mellows, Port Talbot / West Glamorgan/ South Wales

Who really cares about the (Union Jack)it certainly means nothing to me I would rather see the Scottish Saltire fly on all public buildings as would most Welshmen,Irishmen like to see their national flag.English people should also be proud of their Identity and fly the George cross instead of hijacking the union flag as their own.
David A Barrie, Dundee

Regardless of its right name or true dimensions, may it always be a symbol of a country which many people are proud of. No matter where they live in the world.
Susan Chambers, Oshawa, Ontario, Canada (ex UK)

...And it's about time that the flags got separated again. I have no feelings of warmth towards the Union Flag as thoughout the world it remains synonymous with "England" - a brush with which I would rather not be tarred !
Ewen McPherson, Glasgow, Scotland

I still think that it is a shame that we do not fly our flag more from buildings, gardens etc rather than corporate banners or when there is sport being played. Flags unite people and countries for all kinds of reasons; maybe we should do more to be proud of the union flag rather than knocking it all the time.
Andrew, London

Although the BBC website sees fit to avoid confusion by avoiding the term "union flag" it doesn't do such a great job of bringing clarity to its visual represention of the flag. The flag draped over the bulldog is an abominable representaion. Sort it out.
Chris Ellis, Bristol

The flag couldn't be any more ridiculous these days. It has always been negative with regards Welsh representation, and with the majority of Ireland free from British rule for over 80 years, it should have been replaced long ago. Throw in the British national anthem and its anti-Scots lyrics and it only leaves the English that don't have much of a problem with it. As such, it will no doubt be all over Germany this summer. Mind you, blue is the most dominant colour in the flag, and that only came from one place!
Krys Kujawa, Linwood, Scotland

You didn't mention that if it is flown upside down it means SOS!! Other countries frequently, presumably inadvertently, do this Hilary
Hilary Brian, Canterbury, Kent England

I had always understood that a 'Jack' was a small flag inserted in the top left hand corner of another flag. So the red and white ensigns and the flags of Australia and New Zealand have a union Jack i.e. a small union flag in the top left hand corner. The BBC has a duty to research properly and promote the correct terminology.
Brian Benson, Manchester, England

I have noticed that there is certainly a lack of national pride in this country, and lack of knowledge/respect/rules regarding the flag may have had an impact - the Americans have very much more respect and national pride relating to their flag, it's the subject of the national anthem (Star Spangled Banner) and even has an special official technique for being folded up. It's interesting, the history of the union jack. Why doesn't it hold capital letters? And what do the Welsh think about it? Admittedly a red dragon would be somewhat difficult to integrate into it... :p
Liz, London

Isn't this just so gloriously British and to be celebrated - if only to drive the eurocrats nuts !!
roger bardsley, Chandlers Ford, Hants

It's a clumsy design and it seems like a messy legal situation - but better that than the over-sacred patriotism-as-religion rules that 'protect' the Stars and Stripes.
Jason Mills, Accrington, UK

The reason a lot of people don't feel comfortable about flying the union jack is because once you do, you are branded a racist. It's time national pride was restored.
Darren Mallinson, Yeovil, Somerset

Was the "roughly translated as 1:1.6" a deliberate use of the golden ratio phi?
Dan Lockton, Datchet, Bucks

Often seen flying upside down! Was this a distress signal?
john, Leicester, England

I'm no Welsh nationalist - I'd rather not have the Welsh Assembly - but as in your article, where does Wales fit into this? Wales isn't mentioned in your article and frankly, if you live here, you'd often feel we weren't a part of the UK! So, why is Wales not represented in the Union Jack? It's just a point of principle - I'm fairly happy with the flag but if we're debating its worth and design, we should be in there too - somewhere?
Linda Joseph, Cwmbran, Gwent

It may be the 'national flag' at the moment, but somehow I doubt it will be used much in 20 or even 20 years time. Being Welsh I naturally dislike the lack of Welsh representation, and feel ambivilence towards it at best due to the connotations of 'empire and glory days'. Having spent lots of time in England I see that St George is being flown more and more, and this in time will be the end of the jack, as it it replaced it the hearts of the English. You rarely see it flown in Wales, outside of the Civil Buildings.
David James, Cardiff

Deliberate irony, or just a lazy error? The main picture accompanying this story (bulldog wearing flag) has a "wrong" flag on its back. Nice.
Lucy Jones, Manchester

Another oddity regarding the union jack - in 1793 Captain George Vancouver from Great Britain presented the Union Jack to the conquering king Kamehameha I, who was then uniting the islands into a single state; the Union Jack flew unofficially as the flag of Hawaii until 1816. The current flag incorpoates the nuion jack with eight stripes representing the eight hawaiian islands.
John Brookes, St Albans

If the Union Jack represents the four Home Countries, why is not the Welsh Flag, i.e. the dragon, given some form of representation. It would look quite attractive in the centre.
Vaughan Williams, Bridgend, Wales, UK

The union flag is not flown by Royal Naval ships when at sea (unless carrying the monarch). It is only flown when alongside in harbour. When at sea RN ships fly only the White Ensign.
The Dyce, Rosyth, Fife, Scotland

Graham Bartram, who is quoted in the above article, answers some of the points raised by readers:

The Scottish version of the first Union Flag had a blue background, a red St George's Cross with a white edge and the white saltire over it, so the arms of the red cross didn't join in the centre.

Wales isn't represented because when the flag was designed Wales was considered a principality of England after Henry VIII's act of union between England and Wales. Constitutionally it still is considered part of England, hence the assembly rather than a parliament. (I don't agree with this, as far as I'm concerned the UK is made up of four countries, but that is the current legal situation.)

England's and Scotland's flags are indeed amongst the oldest in the world. It's difficult to get exact dates for either but they date back to at least the 13th and 15th centuries respectively. Legend has Scotland's flag going back to the 9th century.

It's the American flag that has complex folding rules - the Union Flag has no such rules, in fact we just roll the flag up into a cylinder as that is how we tend to store flags.

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