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The Union Flag

The British are a Christian nation, as their great cathedrals, their classic literature and their flags proclaim. The kingdoms that formed the British nation, the English, Scots and Irish, took for their emblems the crosses of three Christian Saints ~ George, Andrew and Patrick ~ which, conjoined, became the most famous flag in the world.

The identity of St George has been controversial, partly because one famous author had him born in Coventry, for which there is no evidence, but it is now accepted that he was a famous soldier born in Cappadocia who was tortured to death for his religion in Nicomedia in the year 303. His association with the English dates from at least the foundation by Edward III of the Order of the Garter in the mid-14th century.
St George's cross
St Andrew was martyred in the year 69, on 30th November according to the Calendar of Saints, and has been the Patron Saint of Scotland since the mid-8th century. That Achaius, King of Scots, who died in 819 saw the cross of St Andrew (a saltire in heraldry) in the sky before his battle with Athelstan, and that after his victory he went barefoot to his church to vow that the Saint's cross would be the national device, is anachronistic.
St Andrew's cross
St Patrick's origins also have been contested, but the most credible are that he was born at Dumbarton, in Scotland, in 373, was kidnapped by the Irish and sold as a slave, escaped to become a priest in Gaul, and returned to Ireland as a bishop missionary. St Patrick had no cross, nor was he tortured, and his saltire gules on argent is the original heraldic device of the Geraldines who invaded Ireland with the Normans in 1169.
When James VI of Scots became King of England, the flags his ships were to fly created much argument which, in 1605, was temporarily solved by his proclamation that the flag illustrated here on the left ("the Union") be flown from the top of the mainmast. But this solution did not quieten the Scots and, during the time of Oliver Cromwell, other proposals resulted in a quartered flag with St George 1st and 4th, St Andrew 2nd and 3rd.
"The Union"
After the Restoration there was more argument until, with the Union of Scotland and England in 1707, Queen Anne re-authorised "the Union". "The Commonwealth" of Cromwell had seen other combinations that included Ireland, initially with the harp in the third quarter, then with the adopted "St Patrick cross" ~ a combination difficult to distinguish at sea.
First attempt
Second attempt

The Union of Great Britain (England and Scotland) with Ireland in 1801 necessitated a revision of the national ensign, and the Union Flag became ~

Azure, the Crosses Saltire 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.

The Army accepted this blazon unquestioned, but the Royal Navy modified it to make the flag easier to recognise at sea, and as the years followed and infantry regiments replaced their colours, the Admiralty design became the accepted version.

In the illustrations above, the flags are square, and most military flags are almost square. Naval flags are much more rectangualar. (The reasons for the difference are the obvious ones.) The shapes are not critical, and "the Union" can be displayed on a shield also, as shown here on the left.
Union shield
In the illustration shown here on the right, the hoist is to the left of the flag. If it were on the right of the flag, the flag would be upside down ~ a signal of distress. The key is the width of the white (silver) saltire of St Andrew. Scotland joined England before Ireland did, and thus is senior. This is signified by the St Andrew saltire appearing above the St Patrick saltire "at the hoist" (the staff), the higher ranking part of the flag.
Union Flag
The smaller version of "the Union" flown at the jackstaff was named the "Union Jack", and this is really a term restricted to a flag used aboard ship.

The Union is borne also by many member states of the British Commonwealth, not to signify any subordinate status, but to recognise their history.
Australian ensign
The Union Flag ~ previous page
Oct-Dec 1999 Baronage contents page
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