HEART OF OAK
NAVAL ENSIGNS OF ENGLAND & GREAT BRITAIN
Images Added December 2013
Masthead Pennants • Sixteenth Century
Credits: Many of these images are based on illustrations in Whitney Smith's Flags Through the Ages and Across the World (1975) and Timothy Wilson's Flags at Sea (revised edition, 1999). My drawing of the personal ensign of James II is based on a scan posted to the FOTW Mailing List by Jarig Bakker. FOTW Mailing List member David Prothero provided information about the correct proportions and design of the 1707-1801 ensigns.
Note on the Music: "Heart of Oak" is the official march of the Royal Navy and of several of the Commonwealth navies. It is performed on this page by the Stadacona Band of the Royal Canadian Navy. "Heart of oak are our ships, jolly tars are our men."
THE TUDOR NAVY
St. George was the patron saint of England, and the flag bearing his cross was the first "national" flag of England. During the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, the Cross of St. George became the basic English naval flag. It also appeared as a canton in many of the striped ensigns of the latter's reign. These striped ensigns often featured green and white, the Tudor livery colors. White and green were also much used for the masthead pennants of the period, which usually displayed royal badges such as the Tudor rose. When the monarch was present on board ship it was customary to fly the royal banner, and commanding admirals were sometimes permitted to fly it as a special mark of royal favor. The Tudor royal banner quartered the arms of France and England, reflecting the English monarch's claim to the French throne.
The earliest known version of the flag of the Lord High Admiral—a swallow-tailed crimson pennant bearing a golden anchor—dates from the reign of Henry VIII.
Royal Banner • Sixteenth Century
Cross of St. George • Ensign, Sixteenth Century
Foremast Flag, 1606-34 • Jack, 1649
Typical Striped Ensigns • Sixteenth Century
Masthead Pennants • Sixteenth Century
Lord High Admiral • 16th Century
THE STUART NAVY
In the 1620s, striped ensigns began to give way to ensigns with solid-color fields and a canton of the Cross of St. George. By the middle of the seventeenth century there were three basic British naval flags: the Cross of St. George, the First Union Flag and the Red Ensign with a canton of the Cross of St. George. These flags formed the basis for all later British naval ensigns and jacks.
The First Union Flag appeared in 1606, when James VI of Scotland became King of England as James I. The Cross of St. George was combined with the Cross of St. Andrew (a white saltire cross on a blue field) to symbolize the union of England and Scotland under a single crown. This First Union Flag was specifically intended for use at sea and it was many years before it passed into use as a national flag on land.
The royal banner of the Stuarts quartered the Tudor arms with those of Scotland and Ireland. When Prince William of Orange became King William III of England, an escutcheon of his arms were added to the royal banner. Throughout the seventeenth century, the royal banner was used both to signify the presence of the monarch and as a fleet commander's flag. The Lord High Admiral's flag was now rectangular, with a different style of anchor.
First Union Flag
Mainmast Flag • 1606-34 Jack • 1634-39 & 1660-1801
Royal Banner • 1603-89 & 1702-07
Royal Banner • William III • 1689-1702
Lord High Admiral • 17th Century
Ensign of the Red Squadron • 1620-1707
Ensign of the Blue Squadron • 1620-1707
1630-1702 Ensign of the White Squadron 1702-1707
Naval Ensign • February-May 1702
Ensign & Masthead Flag
James II as Lord High Admiral Circa 1686
Masthead Pennants • 17th-18th Centuries
THE NAVY OF THE COMMONWEALTH
The English Civil War, the execution of Charles I and the rule of Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector resulted in several changes to British naval flags after 1649, but they all continued to be based on the established national symbols: the crosses of SS. George and Andrew. At first it was proposed to restore the Cross of St. George as the naval ensign of the Commonwealth, but the three existing ensigns were retained instead. New jacks adding a harp for Ireland were introduced, and there were several types of command flags for admirals. The Lord Protector's personal banner was also used as a naval command flag. The Union Flag, which symbolized the united crowns of England and Scotland, was dropped after the abolition of the monarchy, but it reappeared as a naval jack in 1658 with an escutcheon of the arms of Ireland. In 1659, a new ensign quartering the crosses of SS. George and Andrew was adopted. But with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the Red, Blue and White ensigns, with the plain Union Flag, once more became the basic British naval flags.
Jack & Command Flag • 1649-58
Jack • 1658-60
Command Flag • Circa 1652
Lord Protector's Banner & Command Flag 1658-59
Naval Ensign • 1659
THE NAVY OF THE KINGDOM OF GREAT BRITAIN
In 1707, new ensigns were established for the Royal Navy. All ships were ordered to fly the Union Flag as a jack and each squadron was given its own ensign displaying the First Union Flag in the canton. (In 1801 the diagonal red Cross of St. Patrick was added to the Union Flag.) These Red, Blue and White ensigns were used until 1864. In that year, the Union Jack and the White Ensign were reserved for the Royal Navy, the Blue Ensign was reserved for the use of qualified Royal Naval Reserve officers in command of merchant ships, and the Red Ensign became the British merchant ensign. All three are still in use today.
About 1700, the practice of using the royal banner as a command flag was abandoned. Thereafter, it was only flown at sea when the monarch was personally present. Queen Anne's royal banner displayed England impaled with Scotland in the first and fourth quarters, France in the second quarter, and Ireland in the third quarter. When the Elector George of Hanover assumed the British throne as King George I in 1714, the fourth quarter of the royal banner was altered to display his electoral arms.
Command flags for admirals of the three squadrons were white with the Cross of St. George, red and blue—hence the rank titles Vice-Admiral of the White, Rear-Admiral of the Red, etc. Exact rank was denoted by the mast from which the flag was flown: from the mizzenmast for a rear-admiral, from the foremast for a vice-admiral, and from the mainmast for an admiral. An Admiral of the Fleet (roughly equivalent to modern US five-star rank) flew the Union Jack at the main.
The Board of Ordnance was the government department responsible for the supply of weapons and munitions to the Army and Navy. Its vessels were permitted to fly a Red Ensign with the badge of the Board in the fly.
Some of the dates given with the drawings are approximate and it is likely that there were many deviations from the system described above. Commanding admirals, for example, often specified the flags to be flown by their fleets.
Royal Banner • Queen Anne • 1707-14
Royal Banner • House of Hanover • 1714-1801
Ensign of the White Squadron
Ensign of the Red Squadron
The Meteor Flag
Ensign of the Blue Squadron
Lord High Admiral
Jack & Admiral of the Fleet
Admirals of the White Squadron
Admirals of the Red Squadron
Admirals of the Blue Squadron
Board of Ordnance Ensign