Understanding the British Red Ensign Flag will help you understand the origin of the American Flag. The British Red Ensign was used widely on colonial and British merchant ships during the colonial era. It's creation dates to the Union of Scotland and England into one nation known as Great Britain. The British Red Ensign was the first flag flown in the colonies and served as the first flag of the United States. General Charles Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington at Yorktown under this flag.
The British Red Ensign Flag is a red flag with what is known as a Union in the upper left corner. In order to understand the purpose of the British Red Ensign Flag, it will be helpful to understand a few terms commonly used in heraldry. Heraldry is the art of making flags. This will also help you understand how the American flag developed.
Ensign - An ensign is a national flag when it is used at sea. Ensigns sometimes distinguish between civil, state and navy ships, between government departments and between different squadrons. The word ensign came from a junior commissioned infantry officer whose job it was to carry the flag to give signals to his regiment from the commanding officer. The term for the officer came to signify the flag he carried as well. Eventually, this was transferred to maritime usage.
Canton - The canton is the upper left corner of the flag where there is often a design, such as the stars on the blue field in the American flag.
Fly - The fly is the large part of the flag, often a single color, as in the British Red Ensign Flag, or having a design, such as the stripes on the US Flag.
Jack - Because flags were flown from the top of the highest mast on colonial ships, above the sails, the flags were hard to see when ships were in port. Someone standing on the ground near the ship could not usually see the flag because it was too high and the sails would block the view. For this reason, jacks were created. They were flown from the front of the ship at the main deck level so passersby could easily identify the ship. They were called jacks because the flags were flown from the jack-staff, a small vertical pole in the bow of a ship.
The jack is not the entire flag that flys on top of the ship. The jack is only the part that is put into the canton of the flag. So if the current United States flag was flying on a colonial ship, its jack would be the blue field with white stars only. The main flag or ensign, would be the red and white stripes with the blue/stars jack placed in the canton.
Prior to 1606, the flag of England was the St. George's Cross, which was a thick red cross on a white field. This was the flag of England's patron saint George and came into widespread use during the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. The flag of Scotland was a St. Andrew's Cross, which was a diagonal blue cross in the shape of an X on a white field. St. Andrew was the patron saint of Scotland. He was said to have died on an X shaped cross at Patras, Greece. The use of St. Andrew's Cross became widespread in Scotland in 1385 when the Scottish Parliament decreed the emblem should be put on the front and back of all Scottish soldiers for identification.
Queen Elizabeth I of England died in 1603. Upon her death, her cousin James VI, King of Scotland assumed the English thrown. James then became James I of England. This made James the King of both England and Scotland, but the two countries remained separate countries, with their own Parliaments, laws, etc.
James worked feverishly to unite the two countries into one kingdom, but was never successful. Nonetheless, he did create a new flag to symbolize his joint regency over the two nations. The flag became known as the Union Flag, to represent the Union of the two nations.
The Union flag placed the English red St. George's Cross and the Scottish white St. Andrew's Cross together on a blue field. This Union Flag was created by Royal Proclamation on April 12, 1606. The proclamation reads as follows:
By the King: Whereas, some differences hath arisen between Our subjects of South and North Britaine travelling by Seas, about the bearing of their Flagges: For the avoiding of all contentions hereafter. We have, with the advice of our Council, ordered: That from henceforth all our Subjects of this Isle and Kingdome of Great Britaine, and all our members thereof, shall beare in their main-toppe the Red Crosse, commonly called St. George's Crosse, and the White Crosse, commonly called St. Andrew's Crosse, joyned together according to the forme made by our heralds, and sent by Us to our Admerall to be published to our Subjects: and in their fore-toppe our Subjects of South Britaine shall weare the Red Crosse onely as they were wont, and our Subjects of North Britaine in their fore-toppe the White Crosse onely as they were accustomed.
The Union Flag was not well received at first. The English didn't appreciate having the Scottish flag added to their own flag and the Scottish didn't appreciate that the English St. George's Cross was on top of their St. Andrew's Cross! Over time, the flag became more well accepted and became known as the King's Colors.
At first, the Union Flag was flown from all ships of Scotland or England, whether civilian merchant ships or royal navy ships. Land troops from each nation continued to use their own flags, St. George's Cross in England and St. Andrew's Cross in Scotland.
A major change occurred around the 1620s in naval warfare. Naval warfare was becoming increasingly more complex and new flags were needed to help distinguish the different divisions of battle fleets. This led to the introduction of different colored backgrounds for flags - red, white and blue. England continued using the St. George's Cross in the canton, while different squadrons would have red, blue or white backgrounds.
In 1634, Charles I decreed the Union jack should only be used on royal vessels. Receipts indicate payments from the navy for this flag as early as the 1620s. Merchant vessels continued using the St. George's Cross on a red, white or blue field. After the English Civil War, which lasted from 1642-1651, the monarchy was abolished and a republican Commonwealth was set up and ruled by Oliver Cromwell.
During the years of the Commonwealth, the British Union symbol was abandoned and the use of flags with a St. George's Cross in the canton became more entrenched. When the monarchy was restored under Charles II in 1660, however, the union was adopted for use in naval flags again, on fields of red, white or blue. In 1674, Charles II decreed by Royal Proclamation that the Red Ensign, meaning a red flag with a St. George's Cross in the canton was to be the official flag of English merchant ships. This flag had been in use by merchant ships for some time, but the act made it official.
This scheme continued for some time until the Union of Scotland and England into the United Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707. At that time, Queen Anne decreed the British Red Ensign Flag should be the official flag of all British shipping, royal and otherwise. The British Red Ensign Flag puts the Union Jack in the canton with the fly being a red field. It is also sometimes called a Queen Anne's Flag, a Colonial Red Ensign or a Meteor Flag.
From 1707 then, until the Revolutionary War era, the British Red Ensign Flag was the official British flag. Since the American colonies were British colonies, this was also the flag of the colonies. In 1776 when George Washington and the Continental Army were encamped around Boston, Washington had the British Red Ensign Flag raised at Cambridge, but modified by adding strips of white cloth to make white stripes on the red field. He was raising the flag to show that the colonists were still loyal to the king. Remember, this was several months before the Declaration of Independence. This modified British Red Ensign Flag became known as the Grand Union Flag. The British soldiers misunderstood the raising of the flag and thought it was meant as an act of submission. This amused George Washington and may have been part of the reason for creating a new American flag.
The British Red Ensign Flag is the basis for the United States flag. White stripes were added around the time of the Stamp Act to many colonial flags and naval flags. One tradition has the first US naval flag using red and white stripes with a serpent in the middle representing the colonies ability to strike back and the words "Don't Tread On Me." This flag is called the First Navy Jack Flag and is still in use by the US Navy today, even though its historic origin is in question. Finally, the British Union was removed and replaced with 13 Stars representing each new state. You can read more about the 13 Star Flag here.
All during the American Revolution, the British fought the Americans under the British Red Ensign Flag and at the end of the Revolutionary War, General Charles Cornwallis surrendered under this flag as well.
In 1801, Ireland joined the United Kingdom of Great Britain to become the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. At that time, the British Union Flag was adjusted again. This time, St. Patrick's Cross, the symbol of Ireland was added. St. Patrick's Cross was a red X on a white field. So, the red X was added to the white St. Andrew's X to create the British Union Jack that we are familiar with today!
Around the time of the American Civil War, the British Admiralty decided the old usage of red, white and blue flags was outdated and confusing. A new policy was adopted that basically stands to this day. All of the flags continued to use a British Union in the canton. White flags were used for the Royal Navy, blue flags for other government vessels and red flags for merchant shipping.
Many of the British colonies adopted the blue flag and added a badge in the fly that was distinctive to that colony. Civil departments used red flags and often created their own badges as well. You can see these designs and subsequent alterations in many national and state flags today that represent former British colonies, such as on the flags of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Newfoundland. Hawaii is the only US State that still has a British Union in its flag. Bermuda, Gibraltar, the British Virgin Islands and other places that remain British territories still use the Union in their flags as well.
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Learn more about other flags related to the American Revolution here.