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The British Flag

A flag is a piece of pliable material, attached at one end so as to move freely in the wind, serving as a sign or a decoration. This word is now common to the nations of northwestern Europe, but it does not appear to have come into use in this particular meaning until the sixteenth century, and the etymology of it is obscure. There are a number of similar onomatopoeic words suggestive of the sound of something flapping in the wind. Its first appearance is as a specific term denoting a rectangular piece of material attached by one vertical edge, flown at the masthead of a ship, as a symbol of nationality or leadership. It was not until towards the end of the seventeenth century that the word began to take on the more general meaning it now has.

The British national flag was invented for the use of the mercantile marine, though it was very soon appropriated by the Royal Navy for its sole use. It is very improbable that further research will enable the gap left by the unfortunate destruction of the early 17th century records to be filled, so that the story of the Union Flag may be taken as being substantially complete.

  • By the restriction of the royal arms to flags of banner form the name "standard," when qualified by the adjective "royal" (but only in this connection), became transferred to the royal banner of arms, not only in popular speech which makes no account of such technical niceties, but also in official usage from Tudor times to this day.
  • Streamer. A long and relatively narrow flag flown at sea from the masthead, top or yardarm, often reaching down to the water. The earlier name of the modern "pendant." The term is also applied to any ribbon-like flag or decoration.
  • Pennon. Originally a small pointed flag worn at the lance-head by knights; but the word was used at sea in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries to denote a short streamer.
  • Pennoncel. A small pennon.
  • Pennant (in modern official language written "pendant," but pronounced "pennant"). A synonym for "streamer," a name which it has gradually replaced.
  • Geton, gytton, guidon. A small swallow-tailed flag.
  • Ensign (corruptly written "ancient" during the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries). This word was borrowed from the land service in the sixteenth century to denote the striped flag then introduced on the poop of ships. In explaining the meaning of this word in the Army, on student remarked: "We Englishmen do call them (Ensigns) of late Colours, by reason of the variety of colours they be made of, whereby they be the better noted and known to the companie."
  • Colours. Originally applied to an ensign; afterwards extended to mean the flags commonly flown by a ship. At the end of the seventeenth century a "suit of colours" included ensign, jack and pendant.
  • Jack. A small flag flown on the bowsprit.

In 1603, the year of Queen Elizabeth I's death, England and Scotland existed as completely separate nations, each with their own monarch and parliament. Elizabeth, being a spinster and therefore childless, expressed a deathbed wish that her cousin, King James VI of Scotland, be named as her successor to the English throne. Thus, the Scottish monarch was projected into the unique position of ruling two nations simultaneously. He ruled Scotland as King James VI and England as King James I.

The English national flag at this period consisted of a simple red cross fully imposed upon a plain white field, this being the emblem of St. George, England's patron saint. The Scottish national flag consisted of a diagonal, or X-shaped, white cross, fully imposed upon a medium blue field. This was the emblem of St. Andrew, Scotland's patron saint. In the spring of 1606, to symbolize the monarchical unification of the two nations under himself, James created a banner to this end, by fully superimposing the English red cross (with a narrow white border to represent its normal white field) upon the Scottish flag. This became known as the Union Flag, and it was the forerunner of the present flag of Great Britain.

In the decree of issuance of the new flag, James stipulated that all ships of both English and Scottish registry were to fly this flag from atop their mainmasts. The Cross of St. George was to be flown from the foremasts of the English ships, while the Cross of St. Andrew was to be flown form the foremasts of the Scottish ships. As the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery were of English registry and did not embark upon their historic voyage until December of 1606, it logically follows that on this voyage their flags conformed to the royal decree of the preceding spring.

The Union Flag, created by James in 1606, continued in use as a purely symbolic banner until 1707. Then, during the reign of Queen Anne, the parliaments of England and Scotland were united to form the new nation of Great Britain, and Anne officially adopted the 101 year old banner as the national flag of the newly created nation. In 1801, when Ireland became a part of Great Britain, the Union Flag was redesigned to include the Cross of St. Patrick (red, diagonal), the patron saint of Ireland. It is in this form that the British flag exists today.

The Union Flag could be stripped of its distinctive blue if Scotland voted for independence. If Scotland was to become independent, the flag of the Union Jack might change. Symbolically this would signify the dissolution of a partnership that all three nations had for over 200 years. More practically, this change could impact the other British colonies and former British colonies that embody the current Union Jack in their flags to this day. Countries like Australia, New Zealand, the British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands might have to alter their flags.

But in 1922, after the partition of Ireland, the flag stayed the same. After 1922, when that flag was no longer relevant, the Union Flag remained the same. If the Scottish decide to part ways, the same may happen, as the curett flag is so iconic and recognisable,and there are no obvious alternatives with equal impact.

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Page last modified: 25-06-2016 20:58:04 ZULU