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THE HISTORY AND MEANING
OF THE UNION JACK OR UNION FLAG



The British Flag: a Symbol of Unity

The Union Jack is a transnational flag full of historical significance. It represents the union of different countries and the growth of a family of nations whose influence extends far beyond the British Isles. This far-reaching influence is still seen today in the incorporation of the Union Jack in other national flags such as that of Australia. The British flag is called the "Union Jack", an expression that needs to be explained.

The Union Jack is a fine expression of unity as well as diversity. The British flag incorporates the national symbols of three distinct countries, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. In fact its name "Union Jack" emphasises the very nature of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as a union of nations. The flag is also known by another name, this too, emphasising the idea of union: the "Union flag", perhaps a less common term but a little more precise. The countries comprising the British Isles are not inward-looking or isolated states with an insular mentality; together they constitute a powerful union that has spanned centuries. Recent devolution that gave Scotland its own Parliament and Wales its own Assembly has also emphasised the importance of individual national identities within the union without affecting the essential unity of Great Britain. On the contrary, it has strengthened it. Recognition of, and respect for national identities are an essential ingredients for effective union. The Union Jack symbolises all this: respect for individuality within a closely knit community.

The "Union Jack" or "Union Flag" is a composite design made up of three different national symbols:

 

st_georges's_cross st_andrew's_cross
St. George's Cross,
the flag of England
St. Andrew's Cross,
the flag of Scotland

st_patrick's_cross
St. Patrick's Cross,
the flag of Ireland

The cross represented in each flag is named after the patron saint of each country: St. George, patron saint of England, St. Andrew, patron saint of Scotland and St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland.

The image below renders the idea of the union of the three flags forming one unified, transnational Flag.

 

union_jack

 

No mention has been made of the Welsh flag. The Welsh dragon was not incorporated into the Union Flag because Wales had already been united to England when the first version of the Union Flag was designed in 1606. It is, however, in common use:

 

welsh dragon
The Welsh Dragon

 

THE HISTORY OF THE UNION JACK


The first step taken in the creation of the flag of Great Britain was on 12th April 1606. When King James VI of Scotland became king of England (King James I) it was decided that the union of the two realms under one king should be represented symbolically by a new flag. Originally It consisted in the red cross of England superimposed on the white cross of Scotland on the blue background of the Scottish flag as in this illustration:

 


gb-1606


Thus we have the first flag of the union called, in fact, the "Union Flag".

What was meant to be a symbol of unity actually became a symbol of international controversy. The English resented the fact that the white background of their cross had disappeared and that the new flag had the blue Scottish background. On the other hand the Scottish resented the fact that the English red cross was superimposed on the Scottish white cross!! The old adage says you cannot please everyone but this first version of the Union Flag seemed to please no-one!!

Apparently there was an unofficial "Scottish version" that attempted to rectify the sense of injustice that the Scottish felt at this innovatory flag. A distinct reference was made to this version when the King visited Dumfries in 1618. Here is what it looked like:

 

gb-altsc


The controversy was destined to last!! There is conflict in the best of families!!

However, the flag was usually restricted to use at sea until the two kingdoms of Scotland and England were united in 1707. It was most probably from this use at sea that it got the name "Jack" ("Union Jack"). It was usually flown at the bow end of the ship, from the jack staff.

An attempt was made to modify the flag under Oliver Cromwell. A harp was placed in the centre, representing Ireland. However, the original design was restored along with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.

The flag continued to be used in its original form until Jan. 1, 1801. At that time, with the union of Ireland and Great Britain, it became necessary to represent Ireland in the Union Flag and so the cross of St. Patrick was include thus creating the flag as we now have it. When the southern part of Ireland gained its independence in 1921 and became the Irish Free State no alteration was made to the Union Jack.

The name "Union Jack" became official when it was approved in Parliament in 1908. It was stated that "the Union Jack should be regarded as the National flag".

RJW

 

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