Last modified: 2012-12-30 by rob raeside
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by Martin Grieve
by Martin Grieve, 10 July 2007
by Clay Moss, 1 March 2008
The modern order of precedence is
white ensign, blue ensign, red ensign. As to whether a defaced or undefaced blue
or red ensign is higher in precedence is a bit strange. An undefaced blue ensign
is normally considered more "elite" than a defaced blue ensign (they are harder
to come by), but a defaced red ensign is more "elite" than an undefaced one
(similarly harder to get)!
So the full order is white ensign, undefaced blue ensign, defaced blue ensign, defaced red ensign, undefaced red ensign. It's British - you just knew it was going to be odd :-)
Graham Bartram, 23 April 2004
I am afraid that I must disagree with Graham over this. I understand and can
appreciate your point, but as far as I can see the Red Ensign remains the senior
and legal Ensign regardless of any change to its tactical usage. With respect
(and leaving aside for the moment the status of the White Ensign), I would
suggest that the existence (or non-existence) of a Warrant from the Ministry of
Defence hardly qualifies a flag for seniority. Perhaps we are confusing
exclusivity with seniority here? The Red Ensign remains the only Ensign which is
established by Act of Parliament [the Merchant Shipping (Colours) Act of 1889] - "the senior and legal ensign" - and pending another such Act
the White and Blue remain variations of it regardless of their use.
Christopher Southworth, 23 April 2004
The new guide to British flag protocol is published in the form of "British
Flags and Emblems", written by yours truly! It includes the order of precedence
of British flags and has been scrutinized by the Palace (including Prince Philip
who caught several errors), the College of Arms, the Lord Lyon and the
Admiralty! They all agreed the order.
Graham Bartram, 23 April 2004
The Red Ensign has historic seniority, but that I think is not relevant to
its current precedence. The squadronal system was abolished.
David Prothero, 23 April 2004
I agree with Graham's seniority list. A clinching argument I think, is that
at sea both the blue and red ensigns will be dipped in salute to the white when
merchant vessels and RFA's meet up with a passing warship flying the white
Andre Burgers, 23 April 2004
On the subject of the 'Priority of British Ensigns', there is clearly
confusion between 'seniority' and 'exclusivity'. The Red Ensign remains the
first and principal ensign. Furthermore, the last comment [Andries Burgers,
23 April 2004] overlooks the fact that those same merchant Red and RFA Blue
Ensigns would NOT be dipped to the White Ensign worn by a yacht of the Royal
Yacht Squadron. Merchantmen dip their ensigns to warships, not to the White
Ensign. If it suits the authorities to decide to use the Red, Blue or any other
Ensign in warships in the future then we can be quite sure that merchantmen and
RFAs will salute them, whatever ensign is so authorised.
One might more logically argue that it is the Commissioning Pendant that it being recognised by the salute, since the RYS yacht has a burgee and is not saluted while wearing the same White Ensign.
E & M Morgan-Busher, 13 October 2008
A document entitled "Naval Flags and Ensigns - A Note by the Naval Staff
'The Red Ensign of Her Majesty's Fleet (undefaced) is authorised as the proper national colours for British ships which are not entitled by Warrant or any other legal authority to wear other national colours. The authority for the status of the Red Ensign is Section 2 of Merchant Shipping Act 1995. Section 1 of the same Act provides the authoritative definition of 'British ship'; unregistered vessels and craft (e.g. small motor boats, dinghies and canal craft) fall within the definition. It remains the senior British Ensign, and should not be regarded as in any respect inferior to special ensigns of privileged Yacht Clubs.'
This certainly contradicts statements made concerning the purported priority of the British ensigns (and special ensigns). I cannot now find this document online, so perhaps it has been 'suppressed'?
Concerning salutes, it is surely not the White Ensign itself that is saluted, but rather Her/His Majesty's Ship wearing it (i.e. in recognition of the vessel's status). When a British (or any other) merchantman dips to the 'Stars and Stripes' worn as an ensign, she does so in salute to a commissioned ship of the United States Navy; no salute is rendered to the same flag when carried by a United States Naval Service (= Royal Fleet Auxiliary) ship or an American merchantman.
Ted MB, 14 October 2008
It is thought that British naval flags attained a ratio of 1:2 through
carelessness. 17th century English naval ensigns were made from material that
was about eleven inches wide. It was stipulated that the length of a flag should
be eighteen times the number of widths of material used to make the flag. The
ratio at that time was therefore 11:18. Over the years, for reasons that I have
never seen explained, the width of the material used to make flags was reduced,
but no corresponding adjustment was made to the stipulated length. The length of
the flags thus increased relative to their width. By about 1840 the width of the
material had been reduced to nine inches, giving a ratio of 8 : 18. Standard
sizes were now introduced, in which the length was twice the width.
David Prothero, 6 February 2006
Not quite if you don't mind me saying so David. According to Pepys writing in
the last half of the 17th Century "It is in general to be noted that the bewper
(bunting) from which colours are made being 22 inches (approx 56 cm) in breadth
and half of that breadth or 11 inches in ordinary discourse by the name of a
breadth being wrought into colours, every such breadth is allowed half a yard
(18 inches or approx 46cm) for its fly".
If the flag sizes given for 1742 may be cited as evidence the 'breadth' had decreased to 10 inches by that date, and a surviving 20 foot x 40 foot White Ensign of 1787 (not counting an Establishment of 1822) seems to indicate that the breadth had reduced yet again to its modern width of 9 inches by the later 18th Century?
Christopher Southworth, 6 February 2006
Unless otherwise stated (a) the relevant national flag appears in the canton, and (b) the term 'white ensign' means a flag with a red St. George's cross.
Stuart Notholt, 9 February 1996
Perhaps the US, influenced by the Red Ensign even
though the color is not used, and Israel (among others?),
which uses its national flag in a canton, could be considered part of this list
Nathan Lamm, 14 August 2002
The practice of placing colonial badges on red ensigns for private was
somewhat common globally. The evidence lies in all of the unofficial red ensigns
floating around out there. Although the practise was illegal, British
authorities were not going to penalize colonial residents for showing colonial
patriotism or for clarifying where they were from via their particular red
Clay Moss, 4 November 2006
I suggest that British Colonial Ensigns can be classified under eight headings.
David Prothero, 27 June 2005
Blue Ensigns (defaced or otherwise) are generally Warranted by the Minister
of Defence who must naturally have some influence thereafter as to their
appearance, whereas Red Ensigns (for use as a civil rather than a yacht ensign)
are mostly established by Royal Order in Council which, together with an
integral, illustrated schedule, is then presented to Parliament in accordance
with the Merchant Shipping Act.
Christopher Southworth, 16 April 2010
Any ship registered in a British port, which includes ports in Overseas Territories and Dependencies, is subject to the Merchant Shipping Act. Certain sections of the Act describe the flag that should be flown, which is the Red Ensign "without any defacement or modification whatsoever". The warrant or order in council is a legal document which exempts certain defined ships from this requirement and indicates the authorised defacement. For example, this is the text of the Admiralty Warrant for the Cyprus Red Ensign.
"Whereas we deem it expedient that vessels registered under the Cyprus Registration of Ships Law 1922, and belonging to British Subjects or to Bodies Corporate established under or subject to the law of the Island of Cyprus, and having in the Island of Cyprus the primary Place of Business, and also boats forming part of the equipment of such Vessels shall be permitted to wear the Red Ensign of His Majesty's Fleet with the badge of the Island of Cyprus on the fly thereof. We do therefore by virtue of the Power and Authority vested in us hereby, Warrant and Authorise the Red Ensign of His Majesty's Fleet and the badge of the Island of Cyprus in the fly to be used on board the Vessels hereinbefore specified. 25 August 1922."That is a document that covered any number of ships, but other exemptions were for named ships. During WWII Danish merchant ships operating out of Britain had to be placed on the British Register and were therefore required to fly the Red Ensign. Later it was agreed that providing the Master and crew of a Danish ship were all Danish nationals it could fly the Danish flag whilst remaining on the British Register. Certificates of Exemption were issued individually to those Masters whose ships met the requirement.
The arrangement for those yacht clubs whose members are privileged to
fly a defaced Red Ensign are different.
David Prothero, 14 August 2000
I know that at the time of Trafalgar there were 3 sqaudrons of the Royal Navy
who had admirals of the red, blue and white. In Bernard Cornwells book 'Sharpe's
Trafalgar' there are admirals of the yellow mentioned who don't have ships. Did
yellow ensigns exist?
T.M. Cox, 11 September 2002
No, nor did yellow admiral's flags. "Admiral of the yellow" or "yellow
admiral" was a colloquial, somewhat sarcastic term for a flag officer without a
flag. In the Royal Navy of the early 19th century, promotion beyond the rank of
captain was purely by seniority. If you lived long enough, you made rear admiral
regardless of merit or performance. Now suppose the time came when a certain
Captain Smith was next in line for promotion, but Captain Brown, next junior to
him on the list, was better qualified or had better political connections or
whatever. The Admiralty really wants to promote Brown, but it cannot jump him
ahead of Smith. It promotes them both, but assigns Brown to a command as a rear
admiral of the blue and leaves Smith sitting on the beach without an
assignment--nowhere to hoist his admiral's flag. Technically, Smith has become a
"rear admiral without distinction of squadron."
But everyone knew that admirals were all of a particular color--blue, white, or red. So people began referring to officers like Smith as "admirals of the yellow" as a kind of grim joke, or at least it was grim to Smith and other "yellow admirals."
The prospect of being "yellowed" looms large in the fortunes of Captain Jack Aubrey in the later volumes of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels. Since the last book is entitled "Blue at the Mizzen," it is not giving away the ending to say that Aubrey avoids this fate worse than death.
Joe McMillan, 12 September 2002
'Yellow Admiral' was a term used in Britain to denote a post-captain promoted
to rear admiral on retirement but without serving in that rank. They were
promoted to flag rank and placed on the retired list on the following day, so
that they did nor automatically swell the rear-admirals' list. The term was in
use between 1815 and 1864.
Source: The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea (1976)
Jarig Bakker, 12 September 2002