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History of British Naval Ensigns Part 2(Great Britain)

Part II - 1625 to 1799 (page 2 of 3 pages)

Last modified: 2020-04-04 by rob raeside
Keywords: united kingdom | union jack | civil ensign | naval ensign | red ensign | white ensign | blue ensign |
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Introduction: British Ensigns used after the Tudor Years 1603-1625

The story of the development of British naval ensigns is as long as the history of the Royal Navy itself, in fact, one might say that it also influenced the development of all flags, both national and military. It was the need to identify ships at a distance and whether they were friend or foe. The practicality and use of flags to identify transferred from the sea to land, first for the military need to see locational movement during battle, and then eventually to the civilian population centers.
Pete Loeser, 15 February 2020

It is worth remembering that the United Kingdom of Great Britain was not created until the Act of Union in 1707, and until that date England and Scotland were separate countries (although sharing a monarch from 1603).
Chris Southworth, 18 February 2020


Union Jack/Flag of 1707
as used by land-based forces

First of all, the Union Jack is not, and never has been, a maritime ensign as the name might suggest. The issue of whether it is acceptable to use the term "Union Jack" is one that can cause considerable controversy since normally the term "jack" refers to a small flag flown at the bow of a ship. The British use of the traditional name "Union Jack" dates back to the early 1700s, when it became usual for the King's ships to hoist a small version of the Union Flag in their bows. The small Union Flag in the bow became known as the "Union Jack Flag," which was later shortened to just "Union Jack." By the time the Union Jack began to be put to other uses, the term "Union Jack" had been used so widely and for so long that the terms "Union Jack" and "Union Flag" became completely interchangeable. It should be noted that "Union Flag," is the term preferred in official documents by vexillologists.
In should also be noted that the Union Jack was later adopted by land forces, although at first the blue of the field used on land-based versions more closely resembled the blue of the flag of Scotland as shown here.
Text from: Historical Flags of Our Ancestors
Pete Loeser, 22 February 2020

[1606 union jack] image by Željko Heimer, 28 September 2019

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

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 110x180, 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.
(Source #1) (Source #2)
Željko Heimer, 24 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

Article One of the Act of Union gave Queen Ann the authority to select a flag to represent the Union, and a subsequent Order in Council (dated 17th April 1707) stated "...that the Union Flag continue as at present."
Chris Southworth, 27 February 2020


Evolution of the Red Ensigns c1625-1799

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

Red Ensign c1625-1707
   
Red Ensign 1707
   
image by Phil Nelson
   
image by Željko Heimer, 24 January 2018

The British Red Ensign, also called the "Colonial Red Ensign" and the "Meteor" Flag, was adopted by Queen Anne (1702-1714) as the new flag for England and her colonies in 1707. The term "meteor" seems to imply the color red and originally comes from a poem by the Scottish poet Thomas Campbell ("Ye Mariners of England") where he first mentions the "The meteor flag of England."
This was the best known of the British Maritime flags, or ensigns, which were formed by placing the Union flag in the canton of another flag having either a field of white, blue or red. This red flag was widely used on ships during the Colonial period. This was the first national flag of the English colonies, and Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown under this flag.
It was not intended that the Red Ensign should be used on land, and the extent to which it was used on land is difficult to determine. The Union Jack/Flag was a semi-royal flag that was probably flown only on the very most important military buildings, and it seems that the Red Ensign was used on land overseas by default.
Text from: Historical Flags of Our Ancestors
Pete Loeser, 22 February 2020

Red Ensign c1750
   
Red Ensign c1799
[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

I stated that the mid-18th Century proportions shown by Željko'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


Evolution of the White Ensign c1630-1799

In 1701, an overall St George's cross was added to the white ensign to distinguish it from the French flag, which was mainly white. The "1606 Union Flag" replaced the "Saint George's Cross" in the canton in 1707, only to be replaced by the "Union Jack" in 1801. To avoid confusion, Nelson used the White Ensign for both the White and Blue Squadrons at Trafalgar in 1805, and in 1864 an Admiralty Order in Council ordered the Royal Navy to discontinue using the Red and Blue Ensigns completely, and made the White Ensign the only official Royal Navy ensign.
Text from: Historical Flags of Our Ancestors
Pete Loeser, 22 February 2020

White Ensign c1630-1702
   
White Ensign 1707
   
image by Phil Nelson
   
image by Željko Heimer, 24 January 2018

Originally there were three naval squadrons - the Red, White and Blue - they took these colours from those of the Union Jack. 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 naval ship?
In 1864 it was decided to end this anomaly. 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

White Ensign c1750
   
White Ensign 1799
   
image by Željko Heimer, 24 January 2018
   
image by Željko Heimer, 24 January 2018

In 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.]

Alternative White Ensign (for use in home waters) 1707-c1720

[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's "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


Evolution of the Blue Ensigns c1630-1799

The evolution of the Blue Ensign followed that of the Red and White ensigns. The Blue Ensign originated in the 1600s with the Saint George's cross (the Flag of England) in the canton. After 1707, England and Wales united with Scotland to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain. Because of this a new Blue Ensign was designed with the new Union Flag in the canton. With the Act of Union in 1800, Ireland the St Patrick's Cross was added to the Union Flag and once again the cantons of all British ensigns were changed.
Prior to 1864, the plain blue ensign had been the ensign of one of three squadrons of the Royal Navy, the Blue Squadron. After this the Red Ensign became the merchant ensign, the White Ensign became the Royal Navy ensign, and the Blue Ensign became the flag of ships in public service or commanded by an officer in the Royal Naval Reserve. Certain British yachts were also authorized to fly defaced blue ensigns.
Text from: Historical Flags of Our Ancestors
Pete Loeser, 22 February 2020

Blue Ensigns 1630-1707
   
Blue Ensigns 1707
   
image by Phil Nelson
   
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

Blue Ensigns c1750
   
Blue Ensigns c1799
   
image by Željko Heimer, 24 January 2018
   
image by Željko Heimer, 24 January 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


Flags for the Blue, Red and White Squadrons c1702

General Introduction: The Royal Navy was organized into three squadrons, which flew either solid red, solid white or solid blue ensigns, later the Saint George's cross in white cantons were added. The oldest was the Red Ensign which had been a general flag from about 1620, this was even before the squadron system was introduced around 1630. In 1674, the Red Ensign with Saint George's Cross in the canton was also approved as the merchant ensign.
Pete Loeser, 22 February 2020

As far as I am aware the Royal Navy never flew plain ensigns in the squadronal colours, and indeed, it is known (from Boteier-1634) that (prior to 1654) such affiliations were marked with masthead pendants in the relevant colours. It is known (from captured flags in Holland) that the English merchant marine had unofficially begun to use the Red Ensign (with Saint George's Cross in the canton) during the years following its formal adoption by the Royal Navy, which is confirmed by the Merchant Shipping Act of 1674.
Chris Southworth, 22 February 2020

[admiral of the blue squadron] Blue Squadron - image by Phil Nelson

[admiral of the red squadron] Red Squadron - image by Phil Nelson

[admiral of the white squadron] White Squadron - image 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

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


White Squadron Ensign #1
(February-May 1702)

[historic white ensign] image by Martin Grieve, February 2018

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.
Text from: Historical Flags of Our Ancestors
Pete Loeser, 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


White Squadron Ensign #2
(June 1702-1707)

[possible Elizabethan ensign] image by Phil Nelson   [historic white ensign] image by Željko Heimer, 24 January 2018

The 1702-1707 White Ensign, 11:18, red cross throughout 1/3 of the hoist, red cross in the canton 1/3 of its hoist wide.
Željko Heimer, 24 January 2018

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


Irregular White Ensign Variant

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

Great Britain White Ensign, with diagonals of the Union Jack constructed per quarter. Union Jacks often had the diagonals constructed that way, possibly because the flags were created on board. (Source)
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. Lion
image 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. Lion
image 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
Pete Loeser, 7 May 2013

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


Continued on History of British Naval Ensigns Part 3 - 1800 to present


 
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