What do the colours of the flag of Britain mean?

Updated February 21, 2017

The British flag, also known as the "Union Jack," is recognised by its familiar red, white and blue colouring and distinctive pattern of crosses and lines. While we rarely stop to think about the origins of this flag, its design is strongly linked to the UK's rich history. As the country has changed and grown over the years, so too has the flag, and each feature of the flag represents a piece of the country's heritage.


The original flag of England consisted of a solid white base with a red cross centred across the surface. This image was once the emblem of St. George, who is England's patron saint. St. George lived in Palestine during the third century, and became a Christian martyr. The red and white emblem is based on the clothing of the Crusaders, who wore white tunics with red crosses as they fought to protect Christianity. During the 14th century, George was named the patron saint of England, and his emblem was adopted as the country's flag. St. George is perhaps better known for the mythical tales of "St. George and the Dragon."


In 1603, England's monarch Queen Elizabeth died childless. Before her death, she named her cousin King James of Scotland as her heir so King James was named ruler of England. He continued to rule Scotland as well, though the two countries were considered independent. England kept the red and white flag of St. George as its national flag during this period. Scotland was represented by the flag of St. Andrew, who was Scotland's patron saint. His flag consisted of a large white diagonal cross over a blue background.

The Union flag

By 1606, King James had decided to use the two country's flags to help create a sense of unity, though England and Scotland each retained their independence. He designed a new flag, with the English flag design superimposed over the Scottish flag, to form the new "Union Flag." This new flag had a blue background with a red cross at the centre, and a diagonal white cross from corner to corner. King James ordered all English and Scottish ships to hang this flag from the jackstaff of each ship. This is where the modern British flag got its nickname of "Union Jack." During this time, the English and Scottish flags were still considered the primary representation of each nation, and were much more widely used than the Union flag.

The Union Jack

In 1707, England and Scotland were officially united under Queen Anne to form Great Britain. Anne adopted the Union flag to represent the new nation, and the use of the original English and Scottish flags gradually declined. Less than a century later, in 1801, Ireland was joined to Great Britain. Its flag consisted of a red diagonal cross over a white background, which was the emblem of St. Patrick, the country's patron saint. To unify the three countries, the red diagonals from the Irish flag were combined with the Union flag to form the country's modern flag design.

Flag Etiquette

In the UK, flag etiquette is held in high regard. The flag is never permitted to fly on the same staff as another flag, as this would force one flag to fly higher or lower than the other. The flag must only be flown the correct way up, and should never drag along the ground. Once the flag is torn, dirty or worn, it should be replaced with a new one. Older flags should be burnt with respect in a private setting, never disposed of in the trash.

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About the Author

Emily Beach works in the commercial construction industry in Maryland. She received her LEED accreditation from the U.S. Green Building Council in 2008 and is in the process of working towards an Architectural Hardware Consultant certification from the Door and Hardware Institute. She received a bachelor's degree in economics and management from Goucher College in Towson, Maryland.