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Union Jack? Union Flag?

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For me, the topic of this post dates back to the early days of the summer when I merrily hung the flag of the United Kingdom (the Union Flag), and the English flag (the St. George’s Cross), out in the moments before the England-Germany game of the 2010 World Cup.   Thirty-two minutes and two German goals later I was sprinting back out to take them down.  In all seriousness, I did leave the flags up for the remainder of the England-Germany game in support of ‘our boys.’  In fact the flags flew proudly for a while after the game until my St. George’s Cross met a tragic end when one of my cows decided it looked particularly tasty and snacked on part of it.  Please note that I did not fly the flags during the U.S.-England game!

So, what is the purpose of this post, you may ask?  During the time that my flags were flying I was frequently greeted with some common inaccuracies surrounding the UK and English flags.  I was asked why I had a Swiss flag flying at the end of the drive, and my Union flag was frequently referred to as the Union Jack.  I thought that I could use this as an opportunity to delve into a little history and clarify these issues.

The Union Flag is the national flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (commonly referred to as the UK), which is the collective name of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.

Union Flag
Union Flag and National Flags

The Union Flag is comprised of the heraldic crosses of the Patron Saints of England, Scotland and Ireland combined together as a symbol of unity under one Sovereign.   It dates back to 1606 when the flags of England and Scotland were first combined under James I of England.   After the ‘Commonwealth’ period in the mid-late 1600’s the Union Flag was revived and received a more ‘official status’ in 1706 under Article 1 of the Union with Scotland Act, which provided:

… the two Kingdoms of England and Scotland shall … for ever after be united into one Kingdom by the name of Great Britain … the Ensigns Armorial … be such as Her Majesty shall appoint and the Crosses of St. George and St. Andrew be conjoyned in such manner as Her Majesty shall think fit and used in all Flags Banners Standards and Ensigns both at Sea and Land.

The Union Flag in its current form has been flown since 1801 after the Union of Great Britain (England, Wales, and Scotland) with Ireland.  The St. Patrick’s cross, included to represent Ireland, remains part of the flag even though only Northern Ireland has been part of the UK since 1921.

The Welsh flag (a rather impressive looking red dragon ) was not incorporated into the Union flag as at the time the first Union flag was created in 1606, Wales had already been united with England.

The Union Flag is commonly referred to as the Union Jack, a term that is technically incorrect, but frequently used, even on UK government websites.  There are several theories as to the origin of the term Union Jack, with the most common being that it came from the use of the flag on board the jack-staff of naval vessels.  I was always told that the flag should only be referred to as the Union Jack when flown on board such a ship and as the Union Flag at all other times, but the frequent use of the term on the UK government pages makes me think that this technicality may no longer be as formally observed as it perhaps once was.

Titles relating to this topic may be found in the Library of Congress’ online catalog.  “Flags” as a subject keyword yields more than 700 hits.  Typing in “Flags–Great Britain” or “Flags–Great Britain–History” narrows the search.  The legally minded might try “Flags–Law and legislation,” and the very thorough could go for a general keyword search under “Vexillology.”

Comments (5)

  1. I am quite hopeful that in the near future the flag will be redesigned to eliminate the cross of St. Patrick when the entire island of Ireland is reunited!

    Interesting piece although I would think the Welsh would’ve wanted some representation on the flag

  2. The Welsh flag does have a very impressive red dragon!

  3. Nice article.
    The point Re Wales and it’s lack of representation in the Union Flag. I believe that the Union of Great Britain only involves two countries – Scotland and England. Wales is in fact a Princeipality and not a country as such. (Don’t say that to a Welshman though 😉
    A note to Sarah, the majority of people that live in Northern Ireland would prefer the cross of St Patrick to remain in the Union Flag.

  4. Regardless of definitions of the word ‘jack’, this does not mean ‘Union Jack’ is incorrect as an alternative name for the Union Flag, since Hansard for the House of Lords Debates, 14 July 1908, vol 192, cc579-80, records the Earl of Crewe, on behalf of His Majesty’s government, stating the following:
    “I think it may fairly be stated, in reply to the noble Earl, that the Union Jack should be regarded as the National flag, and it undoubtedly may be flown on land by all His Majesty’s subjects.”

    Language evolves all the time, and if the British government has officially permitted the use of the term ‘Union Jack’ to refer to a national flag for over a century, it’s hard to see how it can be considered incorrect. The use of this term does not invalidate the traditional definition of ‘jack’ by itself.

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