The Origins of the Union Jack

In 1603, Queen Elizabeth I of England died childless. Shortly before her passing, one of her ministers, Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, secretly negotiated for King James VI of Scotland to succeed to the English throne. Upon hearing the news, the Scottish king did as many kings of Scotland had done over the centuries: assembled an army and prepared to march south across the border. However, this time the Scots weren’t greeted by an opposing English army; they were greeted by cheering crowds. It turns out the English people were thrilled that a solution had been found to the succession crisis that didn’t involve a bloody civil war.

Now possessing two crowns and reigning over two kingdoms, the new King James I of England decided to celebrate the new political union he had created with the adoption of a new flag:

Called the “Union Flag”, this design merged two existing flags into a single design: the Cross of St. Andrew and the Cross of St. George. These two flags, by this point, had centuries of history representing Scotland and England, respectively. But why?

St. Andrew’s Cross

Saint Andrew the Apostle was one of the first followers of Jesus, a fisherman by trade and the older brother of Saint Peter. He was among the Twelve Apostles that were closest to Jesus during His ministry. St. Andrew spent his later years preaching the Good News throughout eastern Europe, which is why he is a patron saint of Greece, Russia, and Romania. He was eventually captured and executed by Roman authorities in Greece. A popular legend has it that he was killed on an X-shaped cross, in order to honor  his final request to not die the same way Jesus had.

What does any of this have to do with Scotland? Well, in the 9th century, there was a king of the Picts, one of the Celtic tribes that were ancestors of the modern Scottish people, who saw a vision of St. Andrew before a battle and saw the clouds in the sky above the battlefield form an X-shape. When the Picts won, the king believed that it was because of St. Andrew’s blessing. Over the centuries, St. Andrew became patron saint of Scotland as well, the city of St Andrews was named after him, and the kingdom adopted a sky-blue flag with a white X-shaped cross in commemoration of the medieval battle.

St. George’s Cross

In contrast to the flag of Scotland, with its fairly straightforward origins, St. George’s Cross is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. There are many things about it that we simply don’t know, including whether or not the saint for whom it is named even existed at all.

If he was real, Saint George would have been a Roman soldier who converted to Christianity and was killed when he refused to renounce his faith. However, the most popular legend about the saint claims that he rescued a princess from being sacrificed to a fire-breathing dragon. Yes, really.

Yeah, I can see why scholars might doubt the historical accuracy of his story.

In any case, this legend was very popular in the Middle Ages, particularly among the Crusaders, who saw St. George as a chivalrous role model. His flag, a simple red cross on a white banner, showed up in many places during the medieval period, including in Italy, Germany, and, appropriately enough, the country of Georgia.

So, why did England adopt this flag? Well, that’s not entirely clear. We do know that during the Third Crusade, French knights wore a tunic with a red cross on a white background, and English ones wore a white cross on a red tunic. Perhaps at some point the two switched? Or, perhaps, King Richard the Lionheart of England was inspired by the red-cross-on-a-white-flag used by the sailors of Genoa, Italy. This latter hypothesis was widely popular in Victorian times, and many still believe it to be the most likely explanation. However, the fact of the matter is that we just don’t have any historical records supporting or disproving any of these theories.

What we do know is that St. George’s Cross was used by the English by about 1300 or so, but back then, it was just one of many flags that the English would have used, including royal banners and the flags of other popular saints. It wasn’t until 1552, as the Church of England was breaking away from the Roman Catholic Church, that it was decided to make St. George, who was the favorite saint of several English kings and the patron saint of the prestigious knightly Order of the Garter, the only patron saint of England and his flag the only flag of England.

Adding St. Patrick’s Saltire

Although King James united England and Scotland together, the two were still legally two separate countries with their own laws, militaries, currencies, and parliaments. It wasn’t until 1707 that a Scotland that had gone completely bankrupt as a result of failed colonial ambitions and become desperate for a bailout agreed to adopt the Acts of Union, formally merging with England to form the Kingdom of Great Britain. It was at this time that King James’s flag was formally adopted as the official flag of the new kingdom.

This brings me to Ireland. The Irish had been (unhappily) under English rule for centuries. Kings of England were initially given the title Lord of Ireland, but King Henry VIII decided to change this to King of Ireland. When King James VI of Scotland inherited the English throne, he technically was made king of three kingdoms: England, Scotland, and Ireland. When England and Scotland adopted the Acts of Union, Ireland was not included in the agreement and continued its odd existence as a country that was technically independent but in practice dominated by the larger neighboring island. Then, in 1798, an Irish rebellion backed by the French rose up. Though it was crushed, the event scared the British authorities into taking action to ensure Ireland could never break away. In 1801, Ireland was officially merged into the kingdom, creating the United Kingdom.

To celebrate this merger, the Union Flag was altered to add St. Patrick’s Saltire, representing Ireland. This is the flag that still serves as the flag of the UK today. But where did St. Patrick’s Saltire come from? Well, it was basically invented by the British and imposed on the Irish. In 1783, King George III created the Order of St. Patrick to reward pro-British loyalists in the Irish government, and the flag was created as the symbol of the Order. This flag fit the same “pattern” as the English and Scottish flags, so it was easy to design a new Union Flag that included it. It is the official flag of the Anglican Church of Ireland, and is still sometimes used in Northern Ireland, though many people in Ireland reject the flag due to its British origins.

Why is it called the Union Jack?

Let’s talk about ships at sea.

Beginning in the 17th century, ships began to develop a complex system of maritime flags to identify and communicate with each other from a long distance. As a result, a number of flag traditions began to arise. One of these was that ships would have two ways of identifying their country of origin. At sea, they would fly a very large flag from the stern, known as an “ensign”. In port, meanwhile, they would instead fly a smaller flag at the bow called a “jack”.

The British decided to use the Union Flag as their “jack” flag, and so it commonly came to be known as the “Union Jack”. Today, both terms are considered correct in the UK.

As for the ensign, well, three designs were chosen, for different purposes:

The White Ensign, showing the St. George’s Cross with a Union Jack in the corner, was chosen as the flag of the Royal Navy. The Blue Ensign, showing the Union Jack in the corner of a blue banner, is used by non-military ships of the British government, ships crewed by navy veterans, and ships that belong to certain yacht clubs. The Red Ensign, showing the Union Jack in the corner of a red banner, is used by all other civilian British ships.

As the British used their powerful fleet to expand across the world and build the largest empire in world history, many of the British colonies around the world adopted flags that were inspired by these three ensigns, usually a design based on the Red Ensign or Blue Ensign with some symbol of the specific colony slapped on. To this day, the national flags of Australia and New Zealand are in this style:

What about Wales?

The current United Kingdom is made up of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Yet Wales isn’t represented anywhere on the Union Jack. Why?

Well, there are two reasons. One is practical, the other historical. The practical reason is that the Welsh flag doesn’t fit the same pattern as the other flags:

However, the more important historical reason has to do with the status of Wales in the 17th century, when King James VI and I designed the flag. See, Wales was conquered by the English in the Middle Ages, and during the reign of King Henry VIII, the Laws in Wales Acts were passed that formally absorbed Wales into England. So, by the time that the Union Jack was designed, Wales legally didn’t exist anymore, and was just another part of England. Sorry, Wales.

I hope you all enjoyed this little look at the history of one of the world’s most iconic flags, Cat Flaggers! I’ve covered the stories behind national flags a few times, but I’m thinking of making this a regular series. Let me know if you want to see more blog posts like this!

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