For a small set of islands of the Northwest coast of Europe, with a total landmass not much greater than that of Utah, the peoples of the United Kingdom have had a profound impact on the history of the modern world. In the 19th century it was said that the sun never set on the British Empire, as its reach spread vastly overseas with conquests and colonies spanning the globe. It would not be a stretch to say then that during this time the flag of the United Kingdom, the Union Jack, was the most recognizable flag in the world.
The Union Jack, though, has its own history, and has undergone a series of evolutions that mirror the history and evolution – often contentious, always fascinating – of the nation(s) it represents.
Although the influence of the Empire, now a Commonwealth of Nations, has lessened over time, the Union Jack is still known and flown around the world. In fact, not only is it the flag of the United Kingdom, but its image is also used as part of other flags around the globe, from other national and territorial flags (Australia, New Zealand, Bermuda, etc.), to Canadian provinces (British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario), and even towns in the United States (Taunton, Massachusetts and Baton Rouge, Louisiana).
The Cross of St. George
This simple design, a red cross on a white background, would have an intensely complex impact around the world. Initially used to identify the Knights Templar, and hearkening to the Second Crusade, the Cross of St. George symbolized what it was to be a warrior and a knight.
St. George himself has a vast array of lore associated with him. Whether your tastes run to last minute rescues on the battlefield, or defeating dragons and liberating maidens, there’s something to inspire you – or at least capture your imagination.
England adopted this symbol informally as a way for English soldiers to identify each other upon the field of battle. Within a hundred years, St. George was adopted as England’s patron saint, and the red-on-white design was firmly entrenched in English culture.
Queen Elizabeth I Passes the Crown: Scotland Joins
Though arguably a cunning leader and undoubtedly inspiring, Queen Elizabeth I left a tangled problem after her death in 1603: no heir. Instead, the crown passed to her cousin, King James VI of Scotland. This was at first just a personal connection, not necessarily a political one (much like having the same math teacher, but at different times of day). But, by 1606, James VI, now King James I of England, consolidated his rule and ordered a combined flag to be commissioned. In it, the red-on-white Cross of St. George would be counterposed on top of the blue-and-white saltire (that’s heraldic speak for “x-shaped cross”) of Scotland’s St. Andrew. The Great Union Flag, as it was called in the beginning, would fly unchanged for 200 years until its next major evolution.
There is some irregularity as to when the name “Union Jack” became standardized, and what actually constituted a Union Jack. Part of the problem stems from the fact that a nautical bow flag is known as a “jack.” It was known for some time rather formally as “His Majesty’s Jack,” but, by 1674, the name had stuck quite firmly. What is known is that the name stems from a small pun: Jack being a shortened form of Jacobus (Latin for James), and therefore referencing His Majesty King James I forevermore in the banner.
An Alternate Union: The Scots Weigh In
Some controversy did arise when the first Union Flag was adopted. The Scots were not pleased to be joined with the English; they were also not particularly happy that the Cross of St. George got slapped over top of their Cross of St. Andrew.
After all, both countries were united under a Scottish king. Why should the English get precedence? In this light, an alternative flag was proposed, with the Scots’ white Saltire Cross overlaying the red of St. George. Though never officially used, it remains an interesting footnote in the history of things that could have happened, and was occasionally spotted flying in unofficial capacity over private Scottish vessels.
The Cross of St. Patrick and Ireland
In 1801 Ireland was fused politically to England and Scotland to become the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. St. Patrick’s red-on-white saltire would be added to the overall design. This addition made it possible to now fly the Union Jack upside down, but the difference is so subtle that it often slips by in some official capacities. This is the Union Jack so very familiar to us all, and the one associated with so much daring, exploration, military conquest, and colonization.
King George III ushered this flag upon the global stage during his time upon the throne. During his lengthy reign, the Union Jack would mark the British as they engaged in military conquests and conflicts. This was also the flag and the king that the United States of America would eventually rebel against and secede from during the American Revolutionary War.
While being less warlike than in previous centuries, the presentation of the Union Jack has become a common theme in popular culture. From the mid-1960s the British Invasion of music would bring the Beatles, the Who, the Rolling Stones, and the Union Jack into just about every home in America. Today, the Union Jack might be one of the most popular designs to be incorporated into products, from t-shirts and jackets, to household linens and beachwear.
A Last Note
Even though the United Kingdom is a very modern country now, its flag (and all other flags) are still described in ancient heraldic convention. It’s practically a language in and of itself. So, with the clues that blue=azure, white=argent, and red=gules, the official description of the Union Jack goes as follows:
‘Blazoned: Azure, the Crosses Satire of St. Andrew and St. Patrick, quarterly per Saltire, counterchanged Argent and Gules, the latter fimbriated of the second, surmounted by the Cross of St. George of the third, fimbriated as the Saltire.’
Pretty peculiar sounding, isn’t it? But much like the British Empire itself, the flag and its description encapsulate a much larger concept, and one that continues to impact the modern world.