What’s in a name? – The ‘Union Flag’ or the ‘Union Jack’?

I was recently puzzling over a question whilst writing my next novel. Should I refer to the British flag as the ‘Union Jack’ or the ‘Union Flag’? Many people have different opinions on this so I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the history of the flag; after all, this is not just a symbol for the United Kingdom but for many other countries too*, an expression of the wide influence which Great Britain has had in the history and development of those countries.

So what is the history of the Union Jack?

The Union Jack actually incorporates the national flags of three countries – England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Its name even emphasises the fact that Great Britain is a union of nations, the full title of our country being ‘The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’. As I said earlier, the flag is also called the ‘Union Flag’, and this emphasises the way that the union of our countries can change over time but we still hold together. The fact that some powers have been devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in recognition of their different national identities and needs does not detract from the essential unity of Great Britain. (Although Scotland has held a referendum to see if the country supports independence so far the majority of that country wish to remain in the Union).

The flag itself is an intricate design marrying together three different national flags, each one representing the patron saint of that country:

St George’s cross, the flag of England
St Andrew’s cross, the flag of Scotland
St Patrick’s cross, the flag of Northern Ireland

So where is the flag of St David of Wales? you may ask. Well, the first Union Flag was designed in 1606, and as Wales had already been united with England for centuries by that time the flag of St George was used to represent both. The Welsh still do have their own flag though, a red dragon, and this can often be seen being waved at sporting events by proudly nationalistic Welsh people.

The Welsh dragon

When King James VI of Scotland inherited the English throne on the death of Queen Elizabeth I (see my article ‘A British Game Of Thrones’) it was decided to create a new flag to celebrate this union. The final design had a blue background with the red cross of St George superimposed over the white cross of St Andrew. This became known as the Union Flag.

Although James was king of both England and Scotland these were still two separate countries and so the new Union Flag was only flown at sea until England and Scotland were finally united in 1707 under Queen Anne. While at sea the flag was flown from the jack staff at the bow of the ship, and this is probably where the name ‘Union Jack’ comes from.

Ireland didn’t join the Union until 1801, at which time it was felt that the Irish identity should also be represented in the Union Flag. This is when the cross of St Patrick was added and the flag became what we know it to be today, with the ‘Union Jack’ receiving Parliamentary approval as the national flag in 1908.

So that is how the flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland came into existence. But does this help me in deciding what to call the flag in my novel? The official name is the Union Flag, but it is rarely called that and we British know and love it as the Union Jack. The characters in my novel would not be bothered about history or technicalities but would use the name that was known to everyone. So I have decided to go with the common usage of the time and refer to the Union Jack. I do hope no historians or vexillologists will be too offended by that!

*Flags which feature the Union Jack:

Commonwealth nations – Australia, Fiji, New Zealand, Tuvalu, United Kingdom

Overseas Territories – Akrotiri and Dhekelia, Anguilla, Ascension Island, Bermuda, British Antarctic Territory, British Indian Ocean Territory, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Cook Islands, Falkland Islands, Niue, Montserrat, Pitcairn Islands, Ross Dependency, Saint Helena, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, Tristan da Cunha, Turks and Caicos Islands

Federal, Provinces, Territories and States – British Columbia, Hawaii, Manitoba, New South Wales, Ontario, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, Western Australia

Flags which used to feature the Union Jack:

Canada, South Africa, Australia, Newfoundland

Please let me know if I’ve missed any!

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