April 12, 2006

Beginnings of the Union Flag

Today marks the 400th aniversary of the decree issued by King James I of England and VI of Scotland that united the Cross of St George (red on a white background) and that of St Andrew (diagonal white on a blue background) in the first version of the Union Flag.

The Cross Saltire of St Patrick (diagonal red cross on a white background) was added after the Act of Union and the Union Flag as we know it now was first flown on January 1, 1801.

Why no Welsh Dragon? Simple really. Wales, a Principality, had, by 1606, been a part of England for several centuries.

One thing that has always puzzled me is how do people know when the Union Flag (or Union Jack) is flown upside down, which a sign of distress. As far as I can make out after careful scrutiny it is completely symetrical. It seems, that I had better go on scrutinizing it a bit more. According to the Buckingham Palace press office:

“The Union Flag is flown correctly when the cross of St Andrew is above that of St Patrick at the hoist (as the earlier of the two to be placed on the flag, the cross of St Andrew is entitled to the higher position) and below it at the fly; in other words, at the end next to the pole the broad white stripe goes on top.”

Why is it sometimes called the Union Flag and sometimes the Union Jack? On the whole, we accept that it is the Flag on land and Jack on the seas. But there seems to be some doubt as to the origin of the words Union Jack.

“The term Union Jack possibly dates from Queen Anne's time (reigned 1702-14), but its origin is uncertain. It may come from the 'jack-et' of the English or Scottish soldiers; or from the name of James I who originated the first union in 1603, in either its Latin or French form Jacobus or Jacques; or, as 'jack' once meant small, the name may be derived from a royal proclamation issued by Charles II that the Union Flag should be flown only by ships of the Royal Navy as a jack, a small flag at the bowsprit.”

The British are not, on the whole, a flag-flying nation, having not felt the need for it in the past. Indeed, one of the most telling episodes in Kipling’s “Stalky and Co” is that describing a visit to the school by a politician who talks much of the flag and even produces one from his breast pocket. The boys, staunch patriots every one, feel besmirched by his flag-waving.

There are times when flags are in order. One of those was the Queen’s Golden Jubilee celebrations in the Mall, that was a sea of flags: Union Flags, English flags, Scottish and Welsh flags, Canadian, Australian and various African flags, even one solitary and very stylish Isle of Man flag.

After 7/7 I noticed that the Union Flag was flown more frequently than is usual, it being controlled by carefully laid down rules. In time of trouble, the flag was being used as a symbol of defiance.

Cross-posted from EUReferendum

Posted by Helen Szamuely at April 12, 2006 05:50 AM

Last Night of the Proms - flags in or out of order?

Posted by: kl at April 12, 2006 07:49 AM

Walter McDougall, in Freedom Just Around the Corner, discusses some of the reasons why the flag became such a central symbol in the US -- much of it has to do with the need, after the revolution, to replace the symbolic role of the Crown in everyday life. The Masonic Order also filled some of the symbolic functions previously provided by the royal symbolism -- the US Capitol cornerstone was laid amid elaborate Masonic ceremony. Many of the rules and rituals about handling and flying the US flag were adapted from rules for handling Masonic ceremonial objects. More emphasis on the flag also arose in the 1880-1914 period when people began to be conscious of the need to actively assimilate new immigrants into the American political culture. Much of it was designed to send the message to immigrants "it's your flag, too." At first some Americans thought this effort was forced and artificial, as some Brits would feel about a similar effort today. But it worked. Perhaps it would be useful for Brits to study this period these days.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at April 12, 2006 08:47 AM

Any flag is in order at the Last Night of the Proms, as long as it is not the EU one. There have been various attempts to hand those ghastly little blue objects out to people in the queues but the response has not been overenthusiastic. In 2001 there were lots of American flags. Last Night, for those who do not live in London, is usually around the middle of September.

Posted by: Helen at April 12, 2006 09:36 AM

There is a problem in comparing the Union Flag and the American flag at the end of the nineteenth century, when it was still a relatively young country with a relatively new flag (that kept changing - those stars going up to 50 eventually). When they have had something for 200 or 400 years (depending on which flag you look at) people feel insulted at suggestions that they should start waving it.

But it is interesting what you say about having to substitute some new symbol for the crown. A similar process took place under Elizabeth (the real author of all the best Shakespeare plays - you don't think it was a man, do you?). The Queen and symbolism around her was used as a subsitute for the symbols of the Catholic Church.

The EU is trying very hard to create its own symbols to replace the national ones but it is not working because there is no genuine popularly felt need for any of them.

Posted by: Helen at April 12, 2006 09:41 AM

A Union Jack cannot be upside down unless it is flying from a staff. It is rotationally symmetrical. As soon as you run it up the flagpole it becomes, in combination with the pole, asymmetrical - the top broad white stripe is either next to the pole (correct) or not (upside down). Interestingly, because the pattern goes *through* the cloth, this is true whichever side you look at it from. Union Jacks in isolation are always printed as if the flagpole is on the left. If you print one on a non-oriented flat surface like a roof or the deck of a warship you have to decide on a preferred up and down direction otherwise it becomes ambiguous again.

Yours patriotically...

Posted by: Graham Asher at April 12, 2006 10:34 AM

Is it true that Isle of Man flags have to be double-sided because the running legs have be going in the same direction on either side?

Posted by: Peter at April 12, 2006 10:44 PM



Posted by: bcxbgcbc at March 30, 2007 04:56 AM
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