Today, the flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is referred to as the “Union Jack” or “Union Flag.”
The Union Jack as we know it today was born from the union of Ireland and Great Britain in 1801. However, before 1603, the British flag was very different than today’s flag. England, Ireland, and Scotland were different countries, each having their own individual flags. England’s flag honored the patron saint of England, St. George with his emblem of a red cross on a white field and had been the official flag of England since the Medieval times.
King James’ flag did not become official until the reign of Queen Anne, when England and Scotland united their parliaments to give birth to the new nation of Great Britain.
In 1707, Queen Anne officially adopted King James I’s flag as the national flag. This new combined flag was used for 101 years.That changed when Queen Elizabeth I of England, who was unmarried and had no children, named, on her deathbed, that her cousin, King James VI of Scotland, succeed her. So King James ruled both nations. In Scotland, he was King James VI. In England, he was King James I. At that time, King James called his two countries the “Kingdom of Great Britaine.” To further show his desire that the countries be considered one, King James made a proclamation in 1606 that his countries’ flags, the red cross of Saint George, who was the patron saint of England, and the Saltire of Saint Andrew, patron saint of Scotland, be combined to reveal the joining of two countries. (Wales was not represented in the Union Flag by Wales’s patron saint, Saint David, because at that time, Wales was part of the Kingdom of England.
However, changes did not stop there. In 1800, Ireland became part of Great Britain in the Act of Union with Ireland, passed by both the Irish and British parliaments despite much opposition. It was signed by George III in August 1800 to become effective on 1 January 1801.
In 1801, the Union Flag was redesigned to include the Cross of St. Patrick (which has a red, diagonal crosss), the patron saint of Ireland. It is in this form that the British flag exists today.
There is some disagreement as to the origin of the the term ‘Union Jack.’ One source cites it evolving from the ‘jack-et’ of the English or Scottish soldiers. Another alternative is that it’s a shortening of Jacobus, the Latin version of “James.” It may also have been derived from the term ‘Jack’ which once meant small as evidence by the nickname “Jack” which once meant “little John” or “John Jr”–a proclamation by Charles II required that the Union Flag be flown only by ships of the Royal Navy as a “jack,” which is a small flag at flown at the bowsprit. So really, it’s anyone’s guess.
If you are a Brit, you probably learned about the creation of the modern-day British Flag in school. But as an American history geek who loves all things British, I find this history fascinating, and I hope you do, too.
BTW, I found a great figure of the four flags superimposed upon one another on Enchanted Learning: