The First Union Flag
- 12th April 1606 -
On the death of the last Tudor monarch, Elizabeth I, the nearest relative was James VI of Scotland. He was the great, great grandson of Henry VII through the marriage of Henry’s daughter, Margaret Tudor, to James IV of Scotland. Although Scotland and England were independent sovereign states with their own judiciaries, laws and parliaments they were both ruled by James in a personal union. It was not until the Act of Union in 1707 that they became politically joined.
A new flag was commissioned by James that was to be used only on Royal forts and castles. It was to combine the red cross on a white background of St. George with the white saltire cross on a blue background of St. Andrew. St George had become the patron saint of England under Edward III although earlier references can be found going back to the Normans. St Andrew had been the patron saint from 1320 after the Declaration of Arbroath. This stated that, “Scotland shall never surrender to the English as long as 100 Scots remain alive,” and came hard on the heels of the defeat of Edward II by Robert Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.
On 12th April 1606 the new flag was used for the first time and it looked like this.
Neither the English nor the Scots were happy. The English for their part were upset that the background was blue not white and the Scots were piqued because the cross of St. George was superimposed over the saltire of St. Andrew. The Scots re-designed it for a Royal visit:
The flag was known in the first instance as the British flag and then by various names including the Union flag by 1625 and also the King’s flag. James I’s proclamation of 1634 clearly refers to it as the Union Flag and said:
.. 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."
During the Commonwealth of 1649-1660 Oliver Cromwell placed a harp in the centre of the flag to show his power over the Irish and it looked like this:
The harp was removed on the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 and by 1674 it was known as the King’s Jack.
In 1800 the Acts of Union joined England, Scotland and Ireland. This came into force on January 1st 1801 and as such the Union Flag was re-designed. The red cross saltire of St. Patrick was fitted in to unite all three Kingdoms. St Patrick, a Christian missionary in Ireland in the 5th Century, has been the patron saint of Ireland since the 7th Century. Medieval tradition credits him with being the first Bishop of Armagh and a founder of the Romano-Christian Church in Ireland. The three individual flags are shown below.
These were combined into the second Union Flag of 1801 and is as below:
The Welsh dragon does not appear at all in any flag because when the first Union Flag was designed in 1606 Wales was already united with England and was no longer a separate principality.
George III’s proclamation in 1801 referred to the Union Flag and stated:
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.
The term ‘Union Jack’ as a popular name for the flag in all its guises possibly dates from the time of Queen Anne (1702-14) but its origin is uncertain. The word ’Jack’ was used before 1600 to refer to a seagoing bow flag. However it might have come from the fact that is was then worn on the jackets of soldiers or possibly from the nickname of James I. The favourite theory is that it was used on boats of the Royal Navy and was flown as a ‘jack’ – a small flag on the bowsprit at the front of the vessel. The idea that it is only called a “Union Jack’ officially when used on a boat is a more modern notion.
The future of the flag is uncertain. New Zealand voted recently (March 2016) to retain their flag with the Union Jack and four stars. Many Commonwealth countries still use the flag today including Australia, Fiji, the Cook Islands, Tuvalu and Bermuda. If Scotland were to vote to leave the union then the Scottish saltire would have to be removed. Some of the designs, if that were the case, are shown below.
The flag will keep evolving and it will symbolise different things to different people. It is still flown by commissioned vessels of the Royal Navy or Air Force and when at anchor is still flown from the jack staff. When the ship is underway it is flown from the same mast and for a special occasion such as the Queen’s birthday. The Union Flag has never been proclaimed the official flag of the United Kingdom but has become so through precedent. However in 1908 it was stated in Parliament that “The Union Jack should be recognised as our national flag.”