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History of British Naval Ensigns (Great Britain)

After 1603

Last modified: 2019-08-15 by rob raeside
Keywords: united kingdom | union jack | civil ensign | naval ensign | red ensign | white ensign | blue ensign |
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The Red Ensign 1800-present

[UK civil ensign] image by Martin Grieve

The White Ensign 1800-present

[UK naval ensign] image by Martin Grieve

The Blue Ensign 1800-present

[UK naval reserve ensign] image by Clay Moss


On this page: See also:

Ensigns ca. 1625-1799

Union Jack of 1707

[1707 union jack] image by Željko Heimer, 24 January 2018

The pattern which accompanied the 1606 Royal Proclamation (that established the flag) is lost, but [...] a copy (is reproduced in Perrin) of that which accompanied the 1707 Proclamation (of Queen Ann), and all evidence suggests that there was no change from the original."

Taking the Perrin illustration I made the UJ in overall proportions 110×145 (yielding the odd 22:29), with the width of the red cross 18, its fimbriation 6, and the white satire 15 units. I made the blue considerably lighter, just as Perrin shows in comparison with the 1801 model.

For the ensigns [below], I retained the relative widths of the crosses to the hoist size, but elongated the field to 110×180, and than resized it to an exact quarter (which may or may not be correct, further evidence would be needed), filling the remaining three quarters with the red or blue... For the blue I used the usual dark blue of the modern UJ, as Chris suggested that the illustrations tend to support the dark blue. These would have elongated to 5:9 by the mid 18th century and to 1:2 by its end.

I noticed in the Greenwich naval museum during the ICV in London, the actual ensigns that were produced for the navy by the default naval yard workshops were all much distorted with regard to the canton construction details. As far as I understood Barbara Tomlinson, this was the general practice and no more precise versions would have been used by the Royal Navy (or anyone else for that matter). They would have the saltire made of individual four pieces of white material, not even trying to appear "correct" - each occupying E-W diagonals more or less. Much like (a quick search) https://www.rmg.co.uk/discover/behind-the-scenes/blog/recent-acquisitionscommand-flag-admiral-fleet-rn-1801-aaa0730. See also this one http://imageweb-cdn.magnoliasoft.net/nmm/supersize/l0141.jpg.
Željko Heimer, 24 January 2018

The images below show the Red, White and Blue Ensigns of the British Royal Navy as they would have appeared in 1707, c1750 and in 1799, with the various proportions being 11:18, 5:9 and 1:2. The proportions of the cantons are, however, conjectural, with the earlier ones being based on the proportion known (from visual evidence) to have been in use by the English navy prior to 1707.

Until comparatively recently the sizes of flags made for the Royal Navy were traditionally calculated in “breadths”, and this was a multiple based one-half of the width of the fabric originally used to make them (bunting, buntine, bewper or beaufort). The fabric in question was 22” (approx. 56 cm) wide in 1687 with one-half of this being 11” (or approx 28 cm), however, this concept had shrunk to 10” (approx. 26 cm) by c1750 and had reached 9” (approx. 23 cm) by 1799. Thus, with half a yard (18” or approx., 46 cm) of fabric allowed per breadth, we have an ensign ratio of 11:18 in 1687, 10:18 (or 5:9) by the middle of the 18th Century, and 9:18 (or 1:2) by 1799. For example: a surviving list of flags supplied from Chatham Dockyard in 1691 includes an ensign for the flagship of 32 breadths, nearly 30’ along the hoist x 48’ long (approx. 9.1 x 14.6 m) – a huge flag.
Chris Southworth, 27 January 2018

I stated that the mid-18th Century proportions shown by Zeljko’s illustration (prepared using information supplied by myself) were “indeed suppositious”, however, I have since tracked down an extract from the establishment of 1742 which gives the size of an ensign for a first rate ship of the line as 28’ X 51’ (8.5m X 15.5m) which confirms (of course) a “breath” width of 10” and overall proportions of 5:9 .
Christopher Southworth, 30 July 2019


Red Ensigns ca. 1625-1799

ca. 1625-1707      1707
[historic red ensign]      [historic red ensign]
image by Phil Nelson      image by Željko Heimer, 24 January 2018
     ca. 1750      ca. 1799
[historic red ensign]     [historic red ensign]
     image by Željko Heimer, 24 January 2018      image by Željko Heimer, 24 January 2018

William Crampton (1990) says on page 102 that when Charles I reserved the 1606 Union Flag for royal use in 1634, English civil vessels at this time began to use the Red Ensign: a red flag with the cross of St. George on a white canton.

A single Red Ensign is known to have been in use from 1620, but general adoption was not made until 2 July 1625.
Chris Southworth, 23 January 2018

A general change to Red Ensigns (from the previous striped variety) was only made in a letter by Rear Admiral Sir F. Stewart dated 2 July 1625, with ensigns in the squadron colour (of red, white and blue) only being made mandatory (under the Commonwealth) in January 1653.

There is no evidence that Blue or White Ensigns were in use before the early 1630s (a survey of stores kept at Portsmouth in March 1653 is the first extant reference). I propose, therefore, that the date “c1630” be used for the Blue and White Ensigns, and that “c1625” be used for the Red. A single Red Ensign was, according to Perrin (p.117) “manufactured in 1621 (not 1620 as I wrote before) and a few more in the following years” but I do not believe that this constitutes an adoption.

The illustrations here of the 1707 patterns are based upon known ratios so are definitive, while those of 1799 are based upon a rare but extant survival of 1787 so are equally precise which leaves only those of 1750 (which are, indeed, suppositions).
Chris Southworth, 17 February 2018


Blue Ensigns ca. 1630-1799

ca. 1630-1707      1707
[historic blue ensign]      [historic red ensign]
image by Phil Nelson       image by Željko Heimer, 24 January 2018
     ca. 1750      ca. 1799
[historic red ensign]      [historic red ensign] 
image by Željko Heimer, 24 January 2018        image by Željko Heimer, 24 January 2018 

The suggestion for a general change to the Red Ensign (from the previous striped variety) was only made in 1625, with ensigns in the squadronal colour (of red, white and blue) only becoming mandatory (under the Commonwealth) in January 1653. In addition, there is no evidence that Blue Ensigns were in limited use before 1633 (this from a survey of stores kept at Portsmouth in March of that year).
Chris Southworth, 14 February 2018

An order that the white or blue squadrons of a fleet would wear ensigns (as well as pendants) of the appropriate colour was (according to Perrin) dated 14 January 1653. The mention in inventories of stores of blue and white ensigns (often defaced) from 1650 onwards, does not in itself imply adoption of the flag.
Christopher Southworth, 5 April 2018


White Ensigns ca. 1630-1799

ca. 1630-1702 (see below for 1702-1707)        1707
[historic white ensign]        [historic white ensign]
image by Phil Nelson        image by Željko Heimer, 24 January 2018
ca. 1750        ca. 1799 
[historic white ensign]         [historic white ensign] 
image by Željko Heimer, 24 January 2018        image by Željko Heimer, 24 January 2018

White ensign 1702-1707

[possible Elizabethan ensign] White Squadron Ensign 1702-1707 - images by Phil Nelson

Concerning the English White Ensign bearing a broad red cross in use between 1702 and 1707, I thought that I should expand a little on the reason for this (short-lived) change: When the English were fighting the Dutch (as they were during the three Dutch Wars of the 17th Century) there was no possibility of mis-identification, however, when the English started fighting the French there was a real (or at least perceived) danger of confusing the white ensigns of the French with those of the white squadron of the English Royal Navy so the cross was added. (after one false start in February 1702 as shown).
   Was a Union canton simply added to this White Ensign with a broad cross in 1707, or was the narrower Cross of St George used (as seems likely) from the beginning – my guess is that it was, but we cannot be certain?”
Christopher Southworth
, 17 February 2018

Alternative white ensign (for use in home waters) 1707- ca. 1720

[historic white ensign] image by Phil Nelson

The White Ensign with a Union Canton and plain fly was made for use “in home waters” as if there was some regulation abolishing it. Perrin (in his definitive “British Flags”) mentions it briefly on p118 where he states that “…both forms were in use as late as 1717, but by 1744 the older form had entirely disappeared”, and the only reference I can find in Wilson (“Flags at Sea”) is an illustration the flag but without any further information. The exact date of end of use is not known.
Chris Southworth, 17 February 2018

An order that the white or blue squadrons of a fleet would wear ensigns (as well as pendants) of the appropriate colour was (according to Perrin) dated 14 January 1653. The mention in inventories of stores of blue and white ensigns (often defaced) from 1650 onwards, does not in itself imply adoption of the flag.
Christopher Southworth, 5 April 2018

See also a post-1801 version of this flag.


Irregular variants

Pendant of H.M.S. Lion image located by Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 30 April 2019

GB White Ensign, with diagonals of the UJ constructed per quarter. UJs often had the diagonals constructed that way, possibly because the flags were created on board.
Source: https://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/937.html
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 30 April 2019


Royal Navy Streamers flown by the H.M.S. Lion 1745

Streamer flown from the foremast

Pendant of H.M.S. Lionimage by Tomislav Todorović, 02 May 2013

According to Fredrick Hulme this plain red streamer was flown by the HMS Lion from her foremast while engaging the French ship Elisabethe, on July 9, 1745 (as shown in a painting by Van de Velde). The plain red streamer was also used by all Colonial armed vessels during the 18th Century.
Source: The Flags of the World (1896) by Frederick Edward Hulme, Chapter 2
Image Source: Plate Three #25
Pete Loeser, 7 May 2013

The Tricolour or Common Pendant

Pendant of H.M.S. Lionimage by Tomislav Todorović, 02 May 2013

This is also from Hulme, illustration #74, Plate 8: "Pendant of H.M.S. Lion, 1745."
Source: The Flags of the World (1896) by Frederick Edward Hulme, Chapter 2, p. 40.
Image Source: Plate 8

The Tricolour or Common Pendant was according to Tim Wilson introduced in 1661. It was flown by vessels sailing under Admiralty orders (together with a Red Ensign) as a visual indication that any such vessel was not subject to the authority of a local flag officer. As far as I can discover the practice ceased in about 1850, although 1864 would seem a more likely date.
Christopher Southworth, 5 April 2018


Evolution of the British Ensign

Nathan Lamm asked, "How was the white altered? I hadn't thought the large cross was added that early [1702]."

According to Perrin (1922), the change in white command flags was contemporary with the change in the white ensign of February 1702. At first admirals of the white squadron were instructed to fly the Union as a command flag, however, by orders issued on 6 May 1702 this was amended to a white flag "with a large St George's Cross". (On the evidence of paintings) the cross had narrowed by 1710, and so it has remained to this day (becoming the command flag of a full admiral c1870 with the increasing demise of the sailing navy - confirmed in 1898).
Christopher Southworth, 29 June 2003

Based on descriptions in Wilson's Flags at Sea

Cross of Saint George c1277    [possible Elizabethan ensign] Tudor Ensign 1485-1603

Wilson's Flags at Sea (1986) has a black and white image on page 15 and states on page 14:

"By the end of the (16th) century striped ensigns were common on European ships and those of English ships were often distinguished by a cross of St. George in a canton or overall. To judge from the scattered evidence of illustrations, the colors of ensigns varied from ship to ship: although red and white (the colors of the cross of St. George) and green and white (the Tudor's livery colors) were used, there seems sometimes to have been no significance in the colors chosen."
Although no blue stripes are mentioned they may be implied by 'varied'; furthermore in old flag charts the colors blue and green were often confused with each others.
Jarig Bakker, 10 November 1999

Before then English merchantmen had often flown the Union, and before 1606 the plain Cross of St. George. However, there is an older English flag with a canton - the Tudor naval ensign, which was alternating green and white horizontal stripes (the livery colours of the Tudor family) with St. George in a square canton. I don't recall if there was a set number of stripes - I suspect not, but nine rings a bell. There is a reproduction of this flag displayed on the upper floor of the Victory Gallery of the Royal Naval Museum in Portsmouth along with a number of other flags from the Royal Navy's history.
Roy Stilling, 8 February 1996

     Stern Ensigns were, according to Perrin, a rather late entrant on the English naval scene and he gives a date of around 1574. Prior to this a simple Cross of St George would be flown, or perhaps the Royal Arms in addition to a great number of streamers and other banners.
     As far as the introduction of plain ensigns is concerned: Prior to c1625 English Royal Naval Ensigns were striped in various colours (green and white, red, white and blue, gold, white, and blue etc.,) with a white canton and red Cross of St George (or occasionally with a Cross of St George overall). Merchant ensigns were either striped with a St George canton (that of the Honourable East India Company is a survival from that age) or a simple cross of St George on a white field - if, that is, a stern ensign was carried at all, since a masthead flag of St George was the older form of recognition. The exact date of introduction of the red ensign is slightly uncertain, however, it is known that the recommendation was made in 1625 and that the striped ensigns had become obsolete by 1630 (for warships). The white and blue ensigns were introduced for all naval ships by an Order of the Navy Commissioners in 1653.
Christopher Southworth, 24 February 2003

The Royal United Service Institution’s Journal of 1880 contained an article entitled ‘The Heraldry of the Sea’ by J.K.Laughton, Lecturer on Naval History at the Royal Naval College. It included the following passage:

“..., and the tactical necessities of large fleets led to their divisions and subdivisions being distinguished, each by its own flag. In this the English Admiralty was beyond doubt guided by the usage within the Straits, amongst the Venetians or Genoese: in accordance with which the fleet was divided into three squadrons—the centre or red, the van or blue, and the rear or white—...”

Is anyone able to confirm that this was indeed the way in which the Genoese and Venetian fleets were organized ?
David Prothero, 31 October 2014