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Royal Navy Ensign

Initially the Ensign was a flag with the Cross of St George or the Cross of St Andrew in the canton to denote the ship was from England or Scotland. Later, by Royal Proclamation in 1606 at the time of the accession of James 1, these crosses were combined to form a Union Flag for use at sea; this was to be flown at the maintop although the individual crosses could still be flown from the foretop to indicate whether they came from England or Scotland. It was not until 1707 that the flag was confirmed for use on land as well as at sea and not until 1801 that the Cross of St Patrick was added to form the Union Flag.

After 1660 the Royal Navy had used Red, White or Blue Ensigns at sea to identify their tactical divisions. As far back as the days before the Dutch Wars - about 400 years ago - when the fleet was assembled for war it used to be organized in three squadrons : Centre, Van and Rear. As the ships were numerous and very much alike in appearance it was found useful to distinguish them by different ensigns. Thus the Centre, under the Admiral of the Fleet, flew the Red Ensign, the Van the White, and the Rear the Blue. In each squadron the Van was under a Vice- Admiral, the Rear under a Rear-Admiral. The flags of these admirals were of the colour of the respective ensigns, except that the Admiral of the Fleet flew the Union Flag, or Jack. There were thus nine grades of admirals in the fleet.

Quite early in the eighteenth century, about the time when the need for colored squadrons had disappeared, these flag officers were, curiously enough, given substantive rank as such. That meant that when a Captain was promoted to flag rank he first became " Rear Admiral of the Blue," then "of the White," finally " of the Red"; the next step was "Vice-Admiral of the Blue" and so on. This plan remained in force until 1864, long after the navy was split up into many separate fleets and squadrons.

In 1805, by which time the main fleet had ceased to be commanded by the Admiral of the Fleet, the separate rank of "Admiral of the Red" was created, presumably for the sake of symmetry. Retired flag officers used in those days to be spoken of as "Admirals of the Yellow." The yellow flag was the international symbol for quarantine.

In 1864 an important change was made : the White Ensign became the sole flag of the navy, which up to then had used three different ones. With the introduction of the White Ensign the nine classes of admirals were reduced to the present three, all flying the white flag with the St George's Cross.

The seniority of the Ensigns was set in 1653 and was not altered by the Order in Council of 1864, as first Red, second White and third Blue. The modern order of precedence is white ensign, blue ensign, red ensign. In 1864 the squadron system was abandoned and the entire Royal Navy adopted the White Ensign, meanwhile the Merchant Navy was allocated the Red Ensign, and the Blue Ensign was reserved for non-military government ships. During the years since then a large number of special ensigns have been created for many organisations (including yacht clubs and government departments) whose badges have been placed onto a blue or red ensign to create a new and distinctive flag.

The White Ensign became the sole ensign of the Royal Navy in 1864. The Red Ensign was the obvious choice of ensign for the Royal Navy as it was the ensign of the senior squadron. However merchant ships had always used the Red Ensign, and it would not have been practical to change that. As of 1864 the White Ensign was next in seniority.

In 1627 the English Fleet (as it was then) was divided into three squadrons, the Red, Blue and White, in that order or seniority, and each had an English ensign in the appropriate colour with St George's Cross in the top corner. By 1653 the order of seniority had been changed to Red, White and Blue and in 1702 a large red cross was placed on the White Ensign to differentiate it from the French ensign, which at the time was plain white. In 1707, following the political union of England and Scotland, the three ensigns came to bear the Union Flag in the top corner as they do this day. In 1801 the additional red diagonal of St Patrick's Cross was added to the Union Flag and the three ensigns then took their modern form.

Nelson was the Vice Admiral of the White Squadron, so Trafalgar was fought under the White Ensign in 1805 rather than the Red or Blue one. Though the White Ensign is for the exclusive use of the Royal Navy, for the 200th Anniversary of Trafalgar the First Sea Lord (head of the RN) actually asked everyone to fly White Ensigns. The White Ensign remains the premier British maritime flag and is worn by all Her Majesty's ships. Several other nations have developed their own versions of the White Ensign including Australia, India, Jamaica and Nigeria.

The Red Ensign in one form or another has been commonly used by British Merchantmen since about 1700. The Red Ensign now used by merchant ships was introduced at the same time as the White Ensign in 1864 and, in addition to the British Merchant Service, it is the only ensign that can be worn by all other ships and vessels belonging to H.M. subjects. British yachts were classed as merchant vessels in the Merchant Shipping Act of 1894 and may wear the Red Ensign whether registered or not. In its original form the Red Ensign came into use as the Civil Ensign of England c1650 (having been previously adopted by the English Royal Navy in 1625), and received official sanction as such in a Royal Proclamation of 18 September 1674. The red ensign is in informally, even affectionately, named the "red duster". There does not seem to be any agreement on how the expression arose.

As an inducement to join the force it was decided that ships commanded by Royal Naval Reserve [R.N.R.] Lieutenants and partly manned by R.N.R. men were to be privileged to fly the Blue Ensign. The Blue Ensign with horizontal yellow anchor is the government ensign used by departments not authorized a distinctive badge, i.e. it is the 'default' government ensign. With two yellow waves added under the anchor, it is the ensign of the Royal Maritime Auxiliary Service. With a vertical yellow anchor it is the ensign of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service. Ships captained and officered by RNR Officers can apply for an undefaced Blue Ensign.

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