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The British Union Flag History

Updated on September 22, 2014
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Why is the Union Jack the Flag of the UK?

To most people who live in the United Kingdom the colors red, white and blue can mean only one thing - the Union jack flag.

But do you know the Union flag history and how the UK came to have a flag with those three distinct colours?

In recent years, due largely to the London Olympics and Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee, the Union jack has seen a resurgence in popularity, and can be found pictured on merchandise all over the world.

Read on to find out not only why the flag has those colours, but how many times the flag was changed, what geographical area the UK covers, and which country was controversially omitted from the flag.


What Is The UK?

Photo Credit: By Maximilian Dörrbecker (Chumwa) via Wikimedia Commons

Before we look at the flag of the United Kingdom, the Union jack, I would like to clarify what the UK is.

If you ask most non-British people what the UK is they will probably answer "England"

If you ask someone from the UK what the UK is you could get a whole variety of answers:

"It's here!"

"Britain"

"It's England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland"

"It's England, Scotland and Wales"

So, what exactly is the UK?

The UK, to give it its official title is the "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland".

The United Kingdom does not however include Guernsey, Jersey or the Isle of Man, which are Crown Dependencies.

The collective term for someone from the United Kingdom is British, although if you ask someone what nationality they are they would usually reply "English", "Scottish", "Welsh" or "Irish".

Confused?

Good, because even people from the UK get confused over the different names.

Tell me about yourself.....

Where were you born?

See results

If you answered the UK then please answer this question also....

If you were born in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (or Jersey, Guernsey or the Isle of Man), how do you describe yourself?

See results

What Is The Union Jack?

What is the Union Jack?

The Union jack, Union flag, Royal Union flag, British flag, or UK flag is an iconic symbol that most people will recognise all over the world.

It's correct name is actually the Union flag, but to British people it is the Union jack.

It has been said that it can only truly be called the Union jack when flown on the bow of a warship, but this is not true, and it can be called by either name.

Now we have the question of its name sorted out, do you know how the flag actually came into being?

Why Jack?

Why do you think the term jack is used in Union jack?

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First Incarnation

The First Union Flag

Many years ago England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland were separate countries who were governed by separate rulers.

England had its own flag, the red and white flag of St George, and Scotland had its own flag, the blue and white St Andrew's flag.

In 1603, James VI of Scotland also became James 1 of England and Ireland's thrones, but although he was king of all three countries they remained separate states.

In 1707 the Act of Union joined England and Scotland together "United into One Kingdom by the Name of Great Britain" and they combined their two flags to create a flag known as The King's Colours or the "Union jack".

There was much discussion about which flag was to get the prominent position, and despite there originally being two flags, with Scotland having their colors more prominently displayed on the flag that was flown on Scottish war ships, eventually the version that resembles today's flag gained dominance.

Second Incarnation

The Second Union Flag

The second Union flag, which is the one still in use today, dates from 1 January 1801.

The Act of Union in 1800 merged the Kingdom of Great Britain (England and Scotland) with the Kingdom of Ireland.

The name given to the new union was the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

The red cross of Saint Patrick was added to the Union jack of England and Scotland to form the new Union flag.

Where is the Welsh flag?

Did you wonder why Wales isn't represented on the British flag?

Firstly, Wales was already a principality under English rule before 1606, and as such it was not eligible to be included in the new flag.

Secondly, the flag that Wales uses today with the dragon at its center is a relatively modern design, and was not granted formal recognition until the 1950s.

In recent years there has been a lot of debate and support for the Welsh flag to be included on the Union Jack, but it remains to be seen whether this will ever happen.

Pictured to the right is just one design for what a Union Jack that includes elements of the Welsh Flag might look like.

Can you tell if the flag is upside down or not?

The Union Jack Has A Right And Wrong Way To Be Hung

You may or may not know that the Union jack is not symmetrical, and has a right and wrong way to be flown?

Even British people would probably struggle to identify a correctly or incorrectly hoisted Union flag.



To the right is a flag hung the right way and a flag hung the wrong way.

Do you know which is the correct one?

Look at the two flags above

Which one is hung correctly?

See results

Which other countries use the Union Jack?

Many countries that used to be a part of the British Empire have retained an element of the Union Jack in their post colonial flag.

Flags that contain the Union Jack are also used by areas that come under British rule today, such as the Falkland Islands.

Below are the flags that incorporate the Union Jack into the design.

Could you have named them all?

Do You Recognise This Flag?

Do you recognise this flag?

Would it look more familiar if you replaced the Union Jack with stars?

Yes, this is the Grand Union flag, that dates back to 1776 and is credited with being the first national flag of what is now the United States of America.

Did you learn something new about the British union flag history?

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    • TonyPayne profile image

      Tony Payne 4 years ago from Southampton, UK

      I always get confused over the flag, it's direction and origins. Excellent information, and I will link to this from my lens on being Proud To Be British.

    • pkmcruk profile image

      pkmcr 4 years ago from Cheshire UK

      Interesting page and glad you pointed out the inaccuracy of the belief about our flag only been called the Union Jack when flown from a ship. It's over a 100 years since Parliament made an official statement about it being referred to as the Union Flag or Union Jack and it's strange that the misunderstanding persists.

    • SheilaMilne profile image

      SheilaMilne 4 years ago from Kent, UK

      Good to see the Union Jack flying!

    • LisaDH profile image

      LisaDH 4 years ago

      Very interesting! I had no idea that the Union Jack isn't symmetrical, but when you put the images side by side, it's obvious that there's only one right way to hang it.