Union Jack

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Flag Ratio: 1:2
Flag Ratio: 1:2

The Union Jack or Union Flag is the flag most commonly associated with the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and was also used throughout the former British Empire. It retains an official or semi-official status in many Commonwealth Realms including being an official flag of Canada. The current design (which is used as the national Flag of the United Kingdom) dates from the Union of Ireland and Great Britain in 1801.

Note that the jack flown by ships of the United States Navy is also referred to as the "Union Jack", but is a different flag.


Terminology: "Union Jack" or "Union Flag"?

The issue of whether it is acceptable to use the term "Union Jack" is one that causes considerable controversy. Although it is often asserted that "Union Jack" should only be used for the flag when it is flown as a jack (a small flag flown at the bow of a ship), it is not universally accepted that the "Jack" of "Union Jack" is a reference to such a jack flag; other explanations have been put forward (see [1]). The term possibly dates from the early 1700s, but its origin is uncertain. Even if the term "Union Jack" does derive from the jack flag (as perhaps seems most likely), after three centuries, it is now sanctioned by usage, has appeared in official usage and remains the popular term. The term "Union Flag", on the other hand, is more politically correct and this is the term preferred in official documents by vexillologists and the BBC (whose linguistic usage generally carries some weight as an unofficial standard of 'correctness').


The Union Jack before 1801

When James VI of Scotland inherited as James I of England in 1603, the crowns of the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland were united in him, although each remained independent states.

On April 12, 1606, a new flag to represent this personal union between England and Scotland was specified in a royal decree, according to which the flag of England (a red cross with a white background, known as St George's flag) and the flag of Scotland (a white saltire with a blue background, known as the Saltire or St Andrew's cross) would be "joyned togeether according to the forme made by our heralds, and sent by Us to our Admerall to be published to our Subjects." The original sketches which accompanied this specification are lost. This royal flag was at first only for use at sea on civil and military ships of both Scotland and England. In 1634, its use was restricted to the monarch's ships. Land forces continued to use their respective national banners.

After the Acts of Union 1707, the flag gained a regularized status, as "the ensign armorial of the (United) Kingdom of Great Britain", the newly created state. It was then adopted by land forces as well.

Various shades of blue have been used in the Saltire over the years. The ground of the current Union Jack is a deep "navy" blue (Pantone 280), while the currently accepted Saltire uses a lighter "royal" blue (Pantone 300), following the Scottish Parliament's recommendation of 2003.

Wales had no explicit recognition in the flag because Wales had been annexed by Edward I of England in 1282, and since the Acts of Union 1536-1543 was considered to be a part of the Kingdom of England. (The present-day Flag of Wales and St David's Cross are both 20th century inventions, the former based on a Royal badge and the latter on the arms of the Diocese of Saint David's.) The Kingdom of Ireland, which had existed as a personal union with England since 1541, was also not represented in the original Union Jack.

The pre-1801 Union Jack is also shown in the canton of the Grand Union Jack (also known as the Congress flag, The First Navy Ensign, The Cambridge Flag, and The Continental Colors), the first widely-used Flag of the United States.

Since 1801

The current Union Jack dates from January 1, 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. The new design added the red saltire cross attributed to St Patrick for Ireland. This saltire is overlaid on the saltire of St Andrew. The red cross is thought to have come from the heraldic device of the Fitzgerald family who were sent by Henry II of England to aid Anglo-Norman rule in Ireland and has rarely been used as an emblem of Ireland by the Irish: a harp, a Celtic cross, a shamrock, or (since 1922) an Irish tricolour have been more common. However, the exact origin of the flag is unknown, with evidence of saltires being present on ancient Irish coins and maps. The St Patrick's saltire flag has been used in more recent times for St Patrick's Day in Northern Ireland, by various organisations wishing to avoid the sectarianism that may be implied by the use of either the tricolour or symbols of Unionism.

The current flag is blazoned Azure, the Crosses Saltire 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.

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. The two shown here include St George's cross with St Andrew's cross in the canton, and another version where the two crosses are side-by-side. Also, some Scots were upset that the Scottish flag was underneath the English flag in the version finally adopted, and preferred a version where the Scottish cross was on top.


The Union Jack is a royal flag, rather than a national flag. In fact, no law has ever been passed making it a national flag, but it has become one through usage. Its first 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". A more categorical statement was made by the Home Secretary in 1933, when he stated that "the Union Jack is the National Flag". Civilian use is permitted, but stricter guidelines apply for use on naval vessels where the flag may not be used as a jack by merchant ships (see below).

The Court of the Lord Lyon, which has criminal 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."

The "Union Jack", has been in usage in Canada dating back to the British settlement in Nova Scotia in 1621. At the close of the Great Flag Debate of 1964, which resulted in the adoption of, at the time to many, the unpopular Maple Leaf Flag as the Canadian national flag, the Parliament of Canada voted to keep the Royal Union Jack as an official flag of Canada and as the symbol of Canada's membership of the Commonwealth and her allegiance to the Crown. It is commonly flown alongside the Maple-Leaf Flag on Commonwealth Day and other royal occasions and anniversaries.

Use in other flags

Other nations and regions

 The Flag of Australia incorporates the Union Jack.
The Flag of Australia incorporates the Union Jack.

The Union Jack was found in the canton (top left-hand corner) of the flags of many colonies of the UK, 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.

All administrative regions and territories of the United Kingdom fly the Union Jack in some form. Outside the UK itself, it is usually part of a special ensign in which the Jack is placed in the upper left hand corner of a blue field, with a signifying crest in the bottom right.

Four countries currently incorporate the Union Jack as part of their own national flags: Australia, New Zealand, Tuvalu, and Fiji. In former British colonies, the Union Jack was used semi-interchangeably with territorial flags for significant parts of their early history. This was also 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 like British Columbia, Manitoba and Ontario. It is also shown in the canton of the Flag of Hawaii, for quite different reasons.

National and regional flags incorporating the Union Jack
Anguilla | Australia | Bermuda | British Columbia | British Indian Ocean Territory | British Virgin Islands | Canadian Red Ensign | Cayman Islands | Cook Islands | Falkland Islands | Fiji | Hawaii | Manitoba | New South Wales | New Zealand | Ontario | Pitcairn Islands | Queensland | Saint Helena | South Australia | Tasmania | Turks and Caicos Islands | Tuvalu | Victoria | Western Australia


The White Ensign of the Royal Navy.
Main article: British ensigns.

The Union Jack can be found in the canton of several of the ensigns flown by vessels and aircraft of the United Kingdom and its overseas territories.

Pilot Jack

The flag in a white border occasionally seen on merchant ships is 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 Jack 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 to merchant shipping. This practice was generally ignored by the authorities, partly because of fears that it would rise to demands that the merchant fleet be allowed to use the Union Jack, which the Admiralty, for its own arbitrary reasons, did not want to see. In 1970 the white-bordered Union Jack 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 by the Merchant Shipping (Registration, etc.) Act 1993 which 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 Jack with a white border, and some other exceptions permitted elsewhere in the Act.

Specifications for flag use

Correct way to fly the Union Jack.
Correct way to fly the Union Jack.
Incorrect (upside down) way.
Incorrect (upside down) way.

A careful examination of the flag shows that it does not have reflectional symmetry, but has a right side and a wrong side up. To fly the flag the correct way up, the broad portion of the white cross of St Andrew should be above the red band of St Patrick (and the thin white portion below) in the upper hoist canton (the corner at the top nearest to the flag-pole). This is expressed by the mnemonic: wide white top, and the phrase: broad side up. Traditionally, flying a flag upside down is understood as a distress signal; this distinction would be impossible in the case of the Union Jack without the slight pinwheeling of St. Patrick's cross. (Note that, as noted in the article on British ensigns, the main flags actually flown by British naval, commercial, and pleasure craft are more obviously asymmetrical than the Union Jack, making the distress signal far more visible at a distance.)

The normal dimensions of the flag are 1:2, except in the British Army where a 3:5 version is used. 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 ceremonial due to the regimental flags and the Union Jack would be inappropriate.

The colour specifications for the flag are [2]:

  • Union Jack (Royal) Blue - Pantone 280 - Web-Safe Hex #003399 - RGB 0-33-115 - CMYK - Ministry of Defence 8711D - NATO 8305.99.130.4580
  • Union Jack Red - Pantone 186 - Web-Safe Hex #CC0000 - RGB 198-16-24 - CMYK - Ministry of Defence 8711H - NATO 8305.99.130.4584
  • White - Pantone Safe - RGB 255-255-255 - Web-Safe Hex #FFFFFF CMYK - Ministry of Defence 8711J - NATO 8305.99.130.4585

Other names

  • In Canada the flag is officially called the Royal Union Flag.
  • In Ireland (mostly among Irish Nationalists) the flag is sometimes referred to pejoratively as "The Butcher's Apron".


  • The Kings and Queens of England and Scotland by Plantagenet Somerset Fry (Grove Press, 1990). Includes several proposed versions of the original Union Jack.

See also

External links

National flags
List of national flags | List of national coats of arms
Flags of the United Kingdom
UK Union Jack | Royal Standard
Home Nations England | Scotland | Northern Ireland (unofficial) | Wales
Ensigns Blue Ensign | Red Ensign | White Ensign | Royal Air Force
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