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United Kingdom: the White Ensign

Last modified: 2021-04-17 by rob raeside
Keywords: united kingdom | union jack | civil ensign | naval ensign | white ensign |
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[UK naval ensign] by Martin Grieve, 10 July 2007

See also:

The White Ensign

The current official specifications for the white ensign are given in BR20 along with the specifications for the Union Flag, admirals' rank flags and pennants. The St.George's cross should be 4/30ths of the flag width, i.e. a little more than 1/7ths. This means that the Union in the canton is 13 x 28 units, i.e. slightly longer than usual.
Graham Bartram, 3 February 2000

Did Nelson's use of the white ensign at Trafalgar result in the use of the white ensign by the Royal Navy?

The White Ensign became the sole ensign of the Royal Navy in 1864. The use of the White Ensign by Nelson at Trafalgar may have influenced the choice, but I think was not the main reason. The Red Ensign was the obvious choice of ensign for the Royal Navy as it was the ensign of the senior squadron. However merchant ships had always used the Red Ensign, and it would not have been practical to change that. The White Ensign was next in seniority.

David Prothero, 12 September 2002

Under what circumstances can the White Ensign be flown, apart from HMS and Naval shore establishments? Particularly Merchant Navy vessels and replicas of early Naval Square Riggers not now directly associated with the RN. What qualifies these vessels to fly the White Ensign (ex RN crewmembers perhaps) and where should the ensign be worn (stern flagstaff, masthead etc.)?
Tom Robinson, 24 June 2000

My purely amateur understanding of the matter is that a British owned vessel that flies the White Ensign is committing a Statutory Offence and is liable to prosecution, unless it is operated by the Royal Navy or has a warrant to fly the White Ensign issued by the Ministry of Defence (Navy).
David Prothero, 4 July 2000

David is quite correct that only vessels of the Royal Navy or the Royal Yacht Squadron (plus the Trinity House vessel "Patricia" when escorting the Sovereign) are allowed to fly the white ensign at sea or in harbour. The question of historic warrants for restored ships is still "under consideration" but there is a great deal of reluctance in the MoD to grant such warrants.

Ships captained and officered by RNR Officers can apply for an undefaced Blue Ensign.
Graham Bartram, 4 July 2000

Members of the Royal Yacht Squadron are granted the privilege of flying the white ensign, at stern, to denote nationality, on their recreational boats.
Jose C. Alegria, 2 July 2000

Any vessel owned by the Royal Navy proper can fly the White Ensign, whether it is a commissioned warship or a un-commissioned boat (e.g. a landing craft operated by the Royal Marines). However, only a commissioned warship ("HMS") can fly the masthead pennant.
Miles Li, 16 March 2005

Photograph of example of flag from National Maritime Museum in Greenwich (London):
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 13 April 2019

White Ensign without the St. George cross

A photograph from National Maritime Museum in Greenwich (London): shows a large white ensign without the St. George Cross. The flag uses the 1801 pattern for the union jack, and would appear to disprove the claim that blank White Ensigns were no longer made by the time the UK came into existence. This specimen may well be ship-made, as it has the diagonals constructed per quarter, rather than overall.
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 30 April 2019

Use of White Ensign on Land

Having liaised with the Royal Air Force Ceremonial Officer and obtained permission to fly the RAF Ensign on the 80th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain on 15th September 2020, I wanted to find out if it would be possible to fly the White Ensign on Trafalgar Day on 21st October 2020. Having read the relevant chapter in the Queen’s Regulations for the Royal Navy, namely that of Chapter 91, Para 9148 (Flags to be Flown on Shore) I felt that I was on a lost cause when I wrote to the Royal Navy asking for permission. The response that I received was full and exceptionally informative. I provide it below, unattributed to the author, to preserve their anonymity as s/he is a serving officer.

Thank you for your letter of 6 September concerning your considerations about how Wantage might commemorate the battle of Trafalgar this year and, in particular, your request to fly the White Ensign in the Market Place. I have taken advice from the Admiralty Librarian and the Yeoman of the Admiralty and offer the following response.

You refer to QRRN Article 9148 which restricts the use of the White Ensign to particular civil locations with Naval connections. I am advised that QRRN also refers to Admiralty Memorandum No 397 dated 9 September 1931 and goes on to observe that, since then, the flying of ensigns ashore has become common practice. Admiralty Memorandum 397 expressed the views of the Navy Board with regard to the flying of the White Ensign ashore with splendid clarity: ‘The White and Blue Ensigns of His Majesty’s Fleet are purely maritime flags, and in general their use on shore is incorrect.’ It went on to refer to the ‘customary extension’ of the use of ensigns to mark commissioned establishments and the headquarters of maritime institutions ashore (including yacht club clubhouses and customs houses) and at cenotaphs before continuing: ‘With these exceptions, the use of these ensigns on shore is improper… the White Ensign is nothing else but the national colours of a ship of war in commission and no past service in the Navy or other connection with the Navy can make it correct to hoist it on private buildings on shore’.

This view was reiterated in a letter from the Naval Law Division on 3 February 1945, regarding all three British ensigns, referring to the Merchant Shipping Act and the requirement for them to be flown by different classes of vessel and stating that ‘All these flags are, therefore, clearly maritime flags and My Lords consider that it is in general, improper to be flown publicly ashore’. It is also the case that section 4 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995 makes it an offence to fly the White Ensign on a vessel other than Her Majesty’s ships unless permitted by warrant.

However, in 2012, the government took a different view and published guidance which I forward as the Enclosure ( Among other things, this guidance states that ‘…any flag of Her Majesty’s Forces…’ may be flown without consent providing it is not modified or used as part of advertisements; clearly this guidance is applicable to land.

As QRRN bind only those who serve in the Royal Navy, it is not possible for the Royal Navy to ‘authorise’ the use of the White Ensign ashore by any person or entity which is not part of the Royal Navy. Moreover, in the light of the 2012 Government guidance, no such authority is required and there is no UK statute which limits the use of the White Ensign (or any of the national flags) ashore.

I hope this explains the Royal Navy’s position on the subject of flying the White Ensign and that the information provided will assist you with the matter as it pertains to your proposed commemoration of Trafalgar Day.”
I love the historical part of the Royal Navy response and then the clarification that ON LAND the flying is authorised by the government guidance dated 27th November 2012. This also meant that I did not need to obtain permission from the RAF Ceremonial Officer for flying the RAF Ensign, but I thought it prudent at the time.

Jim Sibbald, Town Mayor of Wantage, 14 March 2021Earlier Contributions

The use of the White Ensign on land is a grey area as it is not clear what law, if any, is being broken (Britain not having land flag laws as such).
Graham Bartram, 4 July 2000

The Admiralty disapproved of the use of the White Ensign on land and did what they could to discourage it. (I imagine that the Ministry of Defence (Navy) take a similar view.) They were not able to prosecute anyone who did fly the White Ensign since, as Graham wrote, there are no British laws that relate specifically to the use of flags on land.

The White Ensign is used by some football fans, who write the name of the club they support along the horizontal arm of the St George's cross. I have never heard of any attempt to curtail or prohibit this.

If the authorities did want to take action against its use they could prosecute those responsible under other, more general, laws. For example: an Italian restaurant that flew the Italian Flag was prosecuted by the local authority with breach of the planning regulations on the grounds that the flag was an unauthorised advertisement. I imagine that it would also be possible under certain circumstances to charge a person or organisation that flew the White Ensign on land with misrepresentation, or acting with intent to deceive.

One ironic result of this situation is that, whilst those who possibly have no regard for the Royal Navy can use the flag almost with impunity, organisations or individuals who would like to fly the White Ensign as an indication of their support for the Navy, or of their former association with it, do not do so, since they know that it would not meet with the approval of the Navy.
David Prothero, 5 July 2000

When arranging a funeral in January 2000, I considered a white ensign on the coffin as an act of remembrance. I contacted the Admiralty in London where I was referred to the Flag Lieutenant in the First Sea Lords Office. He referred me to the Portsmouth Naval Base which deals with requests for buglers flags, honour guards, etc. I discovered the ensign is not officially used at funerals but some people do use it anyway.
Hugh Watkins, 6 July 2000

The British command flag of an 18thC Admiral of the White was usually St George's Cross, flown at the relevant mast truck (main, fore, mizzen, for Admiral, Vice-Admiral, Rear-Admiral), as Nelson's as Vice-Admiral of the White at Trafalgar; that for an Admiral of the Fleet or acting Admiral of the Fleet was the Union at the main, with red Ensign at the mizzen or flagstaff (as Howe's at the Glorious First of June, 1794).
Roger Marsh, 31 December 2001

The White Ensign is for the exclusive use of the Royal Navy, and for private citizens to fly it on land is inappropriate, and on sea definitely illegal.
Miles Li, 22 May 2003

It certainly is subject to controls on land. It flies at RN shore bases (technically commissioned warships in their own right) and at the Cenotaph. The Royal Yacht Squadron can also use it. The reason that I know that it is subject to quite stringent controls is what happened around Trafalgar Day this year. See this page on the MOD site: Royal Navy encourages all to 'Fly the Flag'.
David Newton, 10 November 2005

Although we would rather people didn't fly a White Ensign on land without authorization, the plain truth is that if they choose to do so there is nothing we can do about it. They are not breaking any laws. They don't even need "advertising consent" because the White Ensign is a national flag under our advertising rules. Some locations are authorized, such as RN bases, St Martin's in the Field (the RN's church), and a couple of others.

For the 200th Anniversary of Trafalgar the First Sea Lord (head of the RN) actually asked everyone to fly White Ensigns, and Her Majesty graciously gave her permission for Government buildings to fly the White Ensign over the weekend. We also had several private buildings in strategic locations fly White Ensign to dress the scene, this included buildings near St Paul's, where the memorial service was held, and in Trafalgar Square, where the special show was held. The New Zealand and Australian High Commissions flew their own White Ensigns for the occasion. The RAF church, St Clement's Dane, also flew a White Ensign in addition to their RAF Ensign. We had a huge White Ensign flying from the Canadian Flagpole in Jubilee Gardens, next to the London Eye. Even Downing Street was flying a White Ensign.
Graham Bartram, 10 November 2005

Was the white ensign the normal colour for RN Naval Brigades? - Mike "Botch" Blake, 21 November 2005

I've had a look in what I've got to hand at the moment, namely:

  • Brooks, R., 'The long arm of Empire: naval brigades from the Crimea to the Boxer Rebellion' (Constable, 1999)
  • 'Oxford illustrated history of the Royal Navy' (Oxford University Press, 1995)
  • Trotter, W.P., 'The Royal Navy in old photographs' (Purcell, 1975)
  • White, C. 'The end of the sailing Navy' (Mason, 1981)
  • White, C., 'The heyday of steam', (Mason, 1983)
In all the photos and engravings I cannot see any naval brigade with a flag (two exceptions: photos of captured batteries in China (1860) and in Japan (1863) show a white ensign and a union jack respectively; but this could just be to mark the fact of the batteries' capture, rather than the presence of a naval brigade itself). Which admittedly small selection leads me to several alternative conclusions:
  1. they had flags, but did not think they were worth photographing, perhaps since they were just drawn from the ship's flag locker, and would be returned there when the brigade rejoined the ship
  2. they only had flags at the discretion of the Senior Naval Officer, and it just so happens that all the ones illustrated didn't have flags
  3. naval brigades did not, as a rule, carry flags (yet they obviously did at the end of the 18th century, because the Spanish captured a union jack with 'Emerald' across the horizontal arm at Tenerife in 1797). The more intensive landing party training given to the Victorian matelot appears to have emphasised skirmishing rather than fighting in line, so perhaps, like rifle regiments, flags were considered a useless impediment.
The answer may lie in the 1859 'Instructions for the exercise of small arms, field pieces &c. for the use of Her Majesty's Fleet', which covered the organisation and deployment of naval brigades.
Ian Sumner, 21 November 2005

White Ensign Construction Details

[UK naval ensign] by Martin Grieve, 10 July 2007

Before I tackled the white ensign of the TS WNTS recently, I decided it was time to take a closer look at the Royal Navy white ensign on it's own, and in particular the construction details of this famous flag. I drew my version from description by Graham Bartram on fotw. White panels are 13x28 with the St George's cross 4 units wide, and this is where the problem comes in - Union Jack is no longer and mathematically cannot be in the "usual" ratio of 1:2. So, now I decided to look at UJ specs, and decided that the width of the red St George is 1/10th the length of the UJ with the white fimbriations adjacently on each side of this being exactly 1/3rd of this figure.

I then drew up the diagonals in accordance with Flaggenbuch (1939), St Patrick Saltire width=width of white fimbriation, this figure being 1/3rd the width of St Andrew's Saltire. This results in some "ugly" dimension figures to 6 decimal places, which I decided to round-off for aesthetic purposes on my construction sheet. The result of course would be, and is, a slightly elongated Union, as Graham pointed out.

Incidentally, in Christian Fogd Pedersen's book "The International Flag Book in Colour" (1970 edition), the ratio given goes like this :
length---8-1-8 width--4-1-4 (St George=1 unit) which means that the overall ratio is 9:17! (obviously to get a "perfect" Union at 1:2 in the canton - dubious.) The same problem occurs in South African Naval Ensign, but they get around the problem here simply by "stretching" the horizontal stripes and thus keeping the triangle at the hoist in canton intact.

Martin Grieve, 19 November 2003

Neubecker (Flaggenbuch (1939)) also obviously used an official source and based his figures on an overall flag size of 900x1800 (which is the smallest unit size using whole numbers that can be achieved). The exact figures are: for the hoist 390-120-390, for the length 840-120-840, and for the UJ: for the hoist 130-26-78-26-130, for the length 340-26-78-26-340, and for the saltire (white) 39, (red) 26, (fimbriation) 13. Once again the Flaggenbuch has proved correct, and I would have saved myself an awful lot of calculation if I'd consulted it before drawing up my own spec some time ago.
Christopher Southworth, 19 November 2003

The truth is that I did not have a scan of white ensign from Flaggenbuch (1939) to work with, and when I mentioned this book, I was referring to the construction of the Union Jack proper (which I do have a scan of) the width of St George being 1/10th length of UJ, which as you have correctly pointed out, is different when placed on white ensign.
Martin Grieve, 20 November 2003

What size were the Ensign and Jack on ships like the HMS Victory?
I can give you the sizes for a first rate in the establishment of 1822:- Ensigns of 26, 16 and 10 breadths (of 9" per breadth) or in round figures 20' x 40', 12' x 24' and 7' 6" x 15', jacks of 10 breadths and pennants 24 yards (21.9 metres) in length. It is, however, entirely possible that (whilst the sizes of ships had increased) the sizes of flags had lessened between 1805 and 1822? An ensign reputedly flown by HMS Brunswick (which as far as I can find out was not a first rate) at the battle of the Glorious First of June 1794 measures 20' x 40' (6.1m x 12.2m), and the largest size of ensign in the establishment of 1742 was about 28' x 51'?

By this period the jack was only worn at anchor, and I would suggest that the largest size of ensign was flown in battle, the middle in harbour and the smaller in stormy conditions (but I am not sure).
Christopher Southworth, 23 November 2004

Going by contemporary paintings, the ensign was about the same length as the mizzen topgallant yard. The width of the ensign was about 3/5ths of the length. Ships were also issued with a smaller storm flag; Red Ensign only. The jack, normally flown only in harbour, was about 1/3rd to 1/4th the size of the ensign.
David Prothero, 24 November 2004

Jacks of White Ensign

Some of the flags which have been used as jacks in conjunction with the White Ensign:

David Prothero, 2 January 2004

White ensign used by yacht clubs

Source: The Navy List (2005) (p. 234) 

Andrew Thomas, 14 November 2005

White ensign used on HMS Trincomalee

An unusual version of the White Ensign was shown on BBC Television in the North East and Cumbria today. There was an item about the restoration and re-launch of HMS Trincomalee, a former Royal Navy frigate originally launched in 1874. The report claimed that she was the oldest British ship still actually afloat, as both HMS Victory and the clipper Cutty Sark are both in special drydocks.

The report showed a depiction of the Trincomalee's flag as flown from her stern. This was a standard White Ensign, but the three blank quarters of the flag had been defaced by what appeared to be a black stencil of Trincomalee under full sail in black. As the ship is no longer in commission and belongs to a private trust which paid for its restoration, I do not think that Trincomalee is entitled to fly the WE in any shape, and certainly not in a defaced form. The directors of the trust which own and refitted Trincomalee have announced that they plan to enter her in various Tall Ship races and to have her as a working vessel again insofar as this is possible. In this case I would have thought that Trincomalee should fly the Red Ensign and not the White.
Ron Lahav, 14 November 2005

Additional naval flag used in WW1

IIn certain circumstances, during the greater part of the 1914-1918 War, ships of the Royal Navy flew a distinguishing flag in addition to the White Ensign because of the dangerous similarity between the White Ensign and the German Naval Ensign. The practice of flying an additional flag appears to have been introduced in local orders by the Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet (the fleet based in Britain) as the result of difficulties experienced during the Battle of Heligoland Bight on 28 August 1914. It was then adopted by the Admiralty on a Navy-wide basis. The accounts in both Perrin (1922) 'British Flags' and Wilson (1999) Flags at Sea, appear to be inaccurate in some respects.

GFO : Grand Fleet Order. GFSO : Grand Fleet Signal Order.
AIO : Admiralty Interim Order. CIO : Confidential Interim Order (?)

Flag to be used.
2 Sep 1914. Blue Ensign. GFO No.122.
6 Sep 1914. Union Jack replaced Blue Ensign. GFO No.142.
16 Nov 1914. Red Ensign replaced Union Jack. AIO S.55/1914.
11 Jan 1916. Union Jack replaced Red Ensign. AIO S.13/1916.
21 May 1918. Confirmation that the Order of 11 January 1916 was to be regarded as cancelled. AIO S.449/1918.

Occasions when the Additional Flag was to be Flown.
2 September 1914.
When going into action or approaching any suspicious vessel, especially in low visibility.
GFO No.122.

19 September 1914.
All H.M. ships and vessels when at sea. GFSO No.1.

26 November 1915.
All H.M. ships and vessels when at sea. In a Fleet or Squadron, in clear weather, the actions of the Senior Officer were to be followed in hoisting the Red Ensign, but in thick weather it was to be hoisted at once. It was always to be flown by destroyers or detached ships. AIO S.266.

11 January 1916.
On sighting a Man of War, or when in action, but not in sight of land or merchant shipping. AIO S.13/1916.

Position from which Additional Flag was to be Flown.
14 September 1914.
In a conspicuous position on or near the foremast or only mast, using stays, or other convenient projections. Destroyers and Torpedo Boats were to fly it at the yard-arm, to leave the masthead available for answering Pendant and Signals. AIO No.62.

26 November 1915.
The Red Ensign was not to be flown at the masthead. It was to be well clear of the signal halliards and wireless, and at least its own length away from the mast. In ships with one mast the fore steaming light halliards were suggested as being probably the best position. In ships with two masts the Red Ensign was to be flown at or near the mainmast. Destroyers were to fly the Red Ensign at the yard-arm. AIO S.266.


  1. Did the German Navy have the same difficulty, and if so what procedure was adopted to deal with it ?
  2. Why was the Blue Ensign abandoned after four days ? Perhaps because not enough were readily available ? The Blue Ensign was not a widely used flag and stocks were probably small.
  3. Why, ten weeks later, did the Red Ensign replace the Union Jack ? Mead suggests that it was because use of the Union Jack had become common knowledge and the flag was compromised. This idea is supported by the instruction, issued when the Union Jack replaced the Red Ensign in January 1916, that it was it not to be used "in sight of land or merchant shipping". Why would the use of a flag intended to aid identification need to be kept secret ?
  4. An unidentified contributor (A.L.) to the Mariner's Mirror in 1937 wrote that "The adoption of other procedure in the Grand Fleet caused S.13/1916 (reissued as S.377/1916) to become obsolete. As a result the Admiralty issued Interim Order S.449 of 21 May 1918 which stated that, 'As some doubt still exists whether the orders as to wearing the Union Jack on sighting a Man of War, or when in action, which were last promulgated in C.I.O. S.377/16, are still in force, it is notified for general information that these orders no longer hold good and are to be definitely regarded as cancelled'." What was this other procedure ? Why was S.377/1916 not cancelled as soon as it ceased to be relevant ?
  • Naval Historical Library, Search 185/12 (relevant orders). [not seen]
  • C. King 'Flags in the War' Yachting Monthly 27 (1919) pp.304-15. [not seen]
  • W.G. Perrin (1922) 'British Flags' pp.121. [Very brief reference and although Perrin was Admiralty Librarian he apparently did not know that the Union Jack had replaced the Red Ensign in 1916, nor that the additional flag had been abandoned before the end of the war]
  • A.L.(?) 'Red Ensign in the Great War' Mariner's Mirror (April 1937) pp.229-30. [The most comprehensive reference seen. Written specifically to point out Perrin's apparent error]
  • Commander H.P. Mead 'Sea Flags' (1938) pp.89-92. [Signal Officer in HMS King George V during the War. Fairly detailed account which agrees with A.L's piece in the Mariner's Mirror, but gives the impression of being original, and not based upon it]
  • Wilson (1986) Flags at Sea  pp.32. [Cites all the preceding sources (except Perrin) and yet wrote that the Union was used until the end of the war]
  • Captain B. Kent, R.N. 'Signal!' (1993) pp.335-6. [Cites Mead's book, which appears to have been his only source]
David Prothero, 18 November 2006
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