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History of British Naval Ensigns (Great Britain)

After 1603

Last modified: 2014-11-22 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:

Introduction: British Ensigns used after the Tudor Years 1603-1625

In 1603 the House of Stuart replaced the House of Tudor as England´s ruling family with Elizabeth's death. James VI of Scotland became James I of England. Around 1620 we began to see the striped Tudor ensign begin to give way to new naval ensigns with solid-color fields. However, some naval ensigns using the Tudor striped format were reported still in use in the late 1620s, and some parts of the merchant service even longer. An example would be the red and white striped ensign of the East India Company, which was still in general use by ships of that company in 1673.
Pete Loeser, 5 May 2013

Baffin Arctic Expedition 1615

[Baffin ensign, 1615] image by Tomislav Todorović, 21 March 2007

(Editorial Note: Although not a Tudor Ensign, the ensign used by the Baffin Arctic Expedition in 1615 followed the established Tudor naval pattern)

Another striped ensign is shown on the map which William Baffin made during his Arctic explorations in 1615 and which is now kept in the British Museum, London. It was used there to mark two landing points. Its field consists of nine stripes in red, blue, red, green, red, blue, red, green and red colours, respectively from top to bottom. The canton is charged with the Cross of St George and is as wide as four stripes together.
Source: Istorija otkrića i istraživanja, vol. V: Poslednje granice Zemlje. Mladinska knjiga, Ljubljana, 1979
Original title: A History of Discovery and Exploration, Vol. V: Earth's Last Frontiers © 1973 Aldus Books Limited, London
Tomislav Todorović, 21 March 2007

Stuart Royal Navy Squadron Ensign of 1620

#1   #2
Speculative images by Željko Heimer

     We know from Perrin (British Flags) that the Red Ensign began to replace the striped design in Navy Royale service from 1625 onwards, and that those stripes had been in blue, white and yellow, however, this Perrin does not give us the number of such stripes, the size of the canton or the width of the St George’s Cross. From it none-the-less, we can be certain that they had been completely superseded by 1633 (a survey of stores at Deptford carried out in April of that year).
     These images must be considered, therefore, to a certain degree speculative, however, they are based upon illustrations in two related, but non-specific works (The Fighting Ship in the Royal Navy and Dictionary of Sea Painters, both by E.H.H. Archibald), and upon a picture in the National Maritime Museum – The Return of Prince Charles from Spain, 5 October 1623 by Hendrick Cornelisz Vroom.
Christopher Southworth, 28 April 2013 and 5 May 2013

#3 - speculative image by Klaus-Michael Schneider

I made another drawing of the ensign (#3) according to E.H.H. Archibald´s Dictionary of Seapainters. The ensign is depicted in the plate opposite to p.20 as flag no. 27. The golden stripes in my edition are very thin, the golden colour looks somehow brownish. Maybe, the width is slightly bigger than in my rendition.
Klaus-Michael Schneider, 29 April 2013

The illustration in Archibald’s book matches the painting as far as one can see, and one might presume that the top and bottom are therefore also correct. This being so, the sequence of stripes from top to bottom (b = blue, w = white, y = yellow) should be: b-w-b-y-b-w-b-y-b-w-b-y-b-w-b-y-b-w-b-y, with the canton extending down to the top of the fourth blue stripe. Putting it in another way; it is a white flag with four sets of blue/yellow/blue stripes, a blue stripe at the top, and a blue and a yellow stripe at the bottom.
David Prothero, 29 April 2013

Željko's first image (#1) definitely follows Archibald's illustration, and as you said David, the painting is not terribly clear. Vroom's is the earlier image, of course, but this was painted some years before the Dutch tradition of accuracy in this type of genre was definitely established, and I am inclined, therefore, to (err on the safe side and) suggest that FOTW offers both as alternatives?
Christopher Southworth, 29 April 2013

The first image (#1) does not follow the illustration in my copy of The Fighting Ship (1984) by E.H.H. Archibald, curator of oil paintings at the National Maritime Museum. The second image (#2) does, although it might be better with a narrower St George’s cross, as in Klaus-Michael’s image (#3). An image based on a contemporary painting, which may, or may not, be particularly accurate, is better than an image that is not?
David Prothero, 30 April 2013

     It would appear that Archibald revised his images between that in the 1972 The Wooden Fighting Ship in the Royal Navy I was using, and your 1984 tome? We must therefore (and as you suggest) go with the second image. Since Željko's gifs with the wider cross were also based upon the 1968 image, I must also agree with you that this should be narrowed also.
     It is a moot point - at least at this early date - about the use of contemporary images as a basis for flag reconstruction, however as you say, however accurate or otherwise it might be, it's better than somebody's second-hand interpretation? Not that I am questioning Mr Archibald's scholarship or his expertise, it is merely a case of primary as against secondary sources, and (in addition to rewriting my notes) I will ask Željko to narrow the cross.
Christopher Southworth, 30 April 2013

All is explained, I think. My copy The Fighting Ship in the Royal Navy combines into one volume, two books, The Wooden Fighting Ship in the Royal Navy and The Metal Fighting Ship in the Royal Navy, previously published separately. I assumed that the first part of "The Fighting Ship ...", that dealt with wooden ships, was the same as the book "The Wooden Fighting ...", but it is apparently different in some respects. I take it that the attached jpg of the ensign on the "Prince Royal" is different to the ensign in "The Wooden Fighting Ship"?
David Prothero, 1 May 2013

Coincidentally or not, there's a Dutch pattern from the 80 Year War of a white flag with alternating orange and blue stripes that are a stripe's width apart. That would give the two a similar structure in more or less the same time frame. Whose influence is this on whom?

The 1984 interpretation I find unlikely. If the blue stripes are little more than edges, they'd be either on both the top and bottom or on neither. Look at Michael's version, where the ochre is just edges. It's only in between, connecting breadths of cloth as it were. Still, if Archibald had the painting at hand. ...
We really do need flag shots of these paintings; high-resolution of the entire painting just doesn't do it. Is this painting on display and is there someone near it who could shoot the flags, if permitted?
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 23 August 2013

Stuart Royal Navy Ensign with red and white stripes

Flag hoisted at the poop (11 stripes)

image by Klaus-Michael Schneider, 8 May 2013

An 11-stripes flag divided horizontally into alternating red and white stripes, according to source flown in the early 17th Century.
Source: E.H.H. Archibald: Dictionary of Sea Painters, flag chart opp. to p.20, flag nos. 25 (Tudor) and 26 (Stuart).
Klaus-Michael Schneider, 8 May 2013

Early Stuart Red Ensign and Jack - 16th Century

#1    #2
images by Tomislav Todorović, 9 May 2013

Fredrick Hulme briefly mentioned these two Royal Naval flags as coming from "a sea piece of the Sixteenth Century." The first (#1) appears to be an early version of the Red Ensign and was displayed at the poop of a unidentified ship in the picture, while the second was displayed like a naval Jack on the bowsprit of the same ship, but appearing very much like an early prototype for the Union Flag.
Source: The Flags of the World (1896) by Frederick Edward Hulme, Chapter 2
Image Source: Plate Eight
Pete Loeser, 9 May 2013

I have a copy of Hulme in my collection and have seen these two before, and I'm afraid I take them with a pinch of salt for at least two reasons: a) this is before the joining of the two crowns (England and Scotland), so they couldn't possibly be a prototype of the Union Flag, and b) the tradition of accuracy in marine paintings had not yet been established and the actual designs are quite likely to be a product of the artists imagination? Having said all that, the freedom of design which characterized sea flags in the Tudor era could well have yielded such a pair of oddities?
Christopher Southworth, 10 May 2013

While the jack was (almost certainly) not the prototype for the Union Flag, the ensign, if its existence could be verified, would have been the precursor of the modern Red Ensign - it would prove that the basic design, along with a multitude of others, was already used in the Tudor era.
Tomislav Todorovic, 10 May 2013

It is, to say the least, highly unfortunate that we cannot trust 16th Century illustrations with regard to flags, however, to show the basic design of a Red Ensign at least 25 years before such a thing was officially adopted (1625 or immediately thereafter) is a reasonable indication of design trends. I cannot agree with you that it actually "proves" anything Tomislav, but even given the lack of reliability in the source, the idea behind it must have come from somewhere?

It is true that we have written proof of the basic designs (e.g., "a banner with a Rose of white and green") of Tudor flags as they were supplied to various of the Royal Fleet, but what visual records we have for the period are considered somewhat unreliable. Having said that, they are all we've got as to what these ensigns, streamers and banners actually looked like, and an "unreliable source" is better than none (at least in my opinion).
Christopher Southworth, 10 May 2013

The purpose of naval ensigns in the 16th century (as now) was unmistakable recognition by all at sea and on land who might encounter the ship. The Royal Navy did not yet roam the seven seas, but it certainly encountered many foreign friendlies and hostiles. Surely most of these ships and coastal forts, at least in Europe, knew how to recognize RN ships. How did they do this? Artists may be whimsical and unreliable, but there must have been other sources, not to mention the designing and issuing authorities. I have little knowledge of 16th century naval matters, so my question is: has this been exhaustively researched?

For military land forces, the proposition is slightly different. Flags were company/regimental for its members to rally around and follow signals. Since colonels owned their regiments, there was little higher regulatory authority in the 16th-17th centuries, and most flag designs have been lost when the flags themselves disappeared. Foreigners did not really need manuals of recognition for such flags, so what survives was produced more for and by the historically-minded.
T.F. Mills, 10 May 2013

Red Ensigns 1620-1800

1620-1707      1707-1800
[historic red ensign]      [historic red ensign]
image by Phil Nelson      image by Phil Nelson

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.

Blue Ensigns 1620-1800

1620-1702 1707-1800
[historic blue ensign]       [historic blue ensign]
image by Phil Nelson image by Phil Nelson

White Ensigns 1620-1800

1630-1702 1707-1800
[historic white ensign]       [historic white ensign]
image by Phil Nelson image by Phil Nelson

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

[historic white ensign] image by Phil Nelson

Royal Navy White Squadron Ensign 1702

[historic white ensign] image by Željko Heimer, 4 May 2013

Perrin tells us that this flag, replacing the Ensign with a plain white fly, was red bearing a wide, horizontal white stripe, but gives no further details, so the image – whilst not an unreasonable supposition - is almost wholly speculative. This was the first attempt to avoid any confusion between the plain white ensign flown by the French, and the ensign of the English white squadron, however, it proved unpopular (according to Perrin) with the flag officers of the fleet and was replaced by one bearing a Cross of St George as we know.
Christopher Southworth, 4 May 2013

This obscure short-lived Navy Royale ensign was the brain-child of the Earl of Pembroke (the Lord High Admiral in 1702) who sent the Navy Board instructions for its use with the fleet then being fitted out at Chatham and Portsmouth to operate against the French. His instructions were that the ships of the Admiral of the White were to wear "Ensignes with the usual Cross in the Canton, with this distinction: that a third part of the said Ensignes for himself and the Flaggs and private Ships of his Squadron are to be White in the middle of the Flye...and this to be in the whole length of the Ensigne." [from 'British Flags' by William Perrin, who gives the National Archives ADM 2/182 as the source]
This unusual ensign only saw brief use between February and May of 1702 before being replaced with the better known White Squadron Ensign 1702-1707.
Pete Loeser, Text from Historical Flags of Our Ancestors, 4 May 2013

Flags of the blue, red and white squadrons

[admiral of the blue squadron] Blue Squadron    [admiral of the red squadron] Red Squadron

[admiral of the white squadron] White Squadron - images by Phil Nelson

     These are the command flags of the admirals in charge of the various divisions (or later of a particular grade within a given rank) were. The exception to this was the white, which carried a red cross (thus becoming the flag of St George) from around 1702. The order of seniority was changed in 1653 from red, blue and white to red, white and blue (which it still is). The white ensign also had a plain fly originally, but (for tactical reasons) a wide red cross (one-third of flag width) was added overall in 1702, and this was amended to its modern dimensions in 1707.
     The system of grading admirals by colour ceased in 1864, and all admirals thereafter flew a Cross of St George as a command flag. The general addition of red balls to indicate rank came in later - the use of boat flags in other words - because of the introduction of mastless ironclads.
Chris Southworth, 25 February 2003

     In origin there were three naval squadrons, of the Red, White and Blue, and they took these colours from those of the Union Jack. The division was made in the 1680s, if I remember correctly. Because the Red Ensigns of England and Scotland had already been established as merchant flags a Red Ensign with the Union in the canton became the merchant flag of Great Britain upon Union in 1707. This led to potential confusion - was that ship a merchantman or a member of the red squadron?
     In 1864 it was decided to end this anomaly. Henceforth the White Ensign was reserved to the Royal Navy, the Blue Ensign undefaced to the Royal Naval Reserve and defaced with the appropriate departmental or territorial badge to government service, and the Red Ensign to the 'merchant navy' (as the term is in Britain).
     Now, as colonies became dominions they began to acquire navies. These all wore the White Ensign, but wore their appropriate territorial Blue ensign as a jack. The only geographical usage of the Red White and Blue that I know of, and which might be the source of this idea, was in the masthead pennant. Before 1864 this was St. George's Cross in them hoist and a fly of the Squadronal colour. After 1864 the home Royal Navy used the white pennant and colonial naval units used the blue. The red pennant was used briefly by the Royal Indian Marine between 1921 and 1928.
     Source: H. Gresham Carr Flags of the World, 1961, pp 121-8.
Roy Stilling, 6 July 1996

About 1837, according to Colours of the Fleet, naval flags were made-up in regulated sizes, but whilst the length was specified in inches, the breadth was not specified because a breadth was a breadth - it being the width of the standard fabric from which the flags were made. In 1687, Samuel Pepys, Secretary of the Admiralty, and remembered for his diaries, directed that flags should be half a yard (eighteen inches) long for each breadth, which at that time was 11 inches, giving a ratio of 11:18. Early in the eighteenth century the width of the material, as manufactured, was reduced to ten inches, but the length was not adjusted, so the proportion changed to 10:18 (5:9). Then about 1837, the width was changed to 9 inches, again with no alteration to the length, resulting in a ratio of 9:18 (1:2). How to get a badly proportioned flag without even trying!
David Prothero, 3 April 1997

Which British ensign (red, white or blue) would have been used by the Royal Navy in the Caribbean towards the end of the 18th century?
William E. Hitchins, 2 May 2000

Any or all. It would depend on the flag officer in command. British flag officers up until 1864 were commissioned as admiral, vice admiral, or rear admiral of the red, white, or blue squadrons. A captain promoted to flag rank became a rear admiral of the blue, then moved up to rear admiral of the white, rear admiral of the red, vice admiral of the blue, vice admiral of the white, vice admiral of the red, and so on. If you can find out (from contemporary Navy Lists) what color admiral was commander in chief in the West Indies at the time, you'll know what color ensign the ships under his command flew - at least normally. It's complicated by the facts that:

  • Any vessels under direct Admiralty orders (i.e., not under the C-in-C's command) would have flown the red ensign.
  • (I'm not absolutely sure of this one but I think that:) Subordinate flag officers, if there were any, would convey the color of their rank to the ensigns of ships under their command.
  • A flag officer in command could direct that vessels under his command fly a different ensign to avoid confusion in combat - for example, a vice admiral of the blue might direct his ships to fly white ensigns (as Nelson did) to avoid confusion with the French Tricolor.
Joe McMillan, 7 May 2000

     According to Siegel (1912) the distribution of the three colours over the squadrons seems to stem from an order by Lord Wimbledon in 1625. His source appears to be a book by Sir Julian S. Corbett, published as an e-book at Gutenberg. He quotes from the Lord of Wimbledon, 3 October 1625:

17. The whole fleet is to be divided into three squadrons: the admiral's squadron to wear red flags and red pennants on the main topmast-head; the vice-admiral's squadron to wear blue flags and blue pennants on the fore topmast-heads; the rear-admiral's squadron to wear white flags and white pennants on the mizen topmast-heads. [2]
The note is: [2] This is the first known occasion of red, blue and white flags being used to distinguish squadrons, though the idea was apparently suggested in Elizabeth's time. See Navy Records Society, Miscellany, i. p. 30.
     Corbett writes about a change in the instructions, but being unfamiliar with the expedition and not having a paper copy to easily compare reference, I'm unable to determine whether it were these instructions being drawn up at see, which would suggest such flags were always on board, or whether these were written well in advance and would have allowed the acquiring new flags.
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 11 October 2005

     The Union Flag of 1606 could have theoretically led immediately to the adoption of red, white and blue pennants but apparently didn't, and there is no record of the Stuart red and gold being used on English ships? There are references in the 1620's to white pennants, whilst the first mention of red, white and blue pennants (of which I am aware) occurs in Boteler who wrote c1634, which suggests to me that the three pennants were introduced during the years following 1625 and the introduction of a red ensign (replacing the previous striped version) into the English Royal Navy?. They were certainly formally established by an Order of March 1653, with the common or tricolour pennant being introduced immediately following the restoration (from memory in 1662).
     Were the squadronal colours inspired by the Union? Perhaps they were, but I am more inclined to think that the introduction of blue along with the traditional English red and white was more co-incidental than deliberate.
Christopher Southworth, 22 October 2005

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

Streamer flown from the mainmast

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

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

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

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