The current design of the Union flag dates from the Union of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801. The flag combines aspects of the three national flags: the red cross of Saint George, the red saltire of Saint Patrick’s Flag, both superimposed on the Flag of Scotland. The Union flag is normally twice as long as it is wide, a ratio of 1:2. In the United Kingdom land flags are normally a ratio of 3:5; the Union flag can also be made in this shape, but is 1:2 for most purposes. The three component crosses that make up the Union flag are sized as follows: the white diagonal St Andrew’s Cross and the red diagonal St Patrick’s Cross sit side-by-side along the centre-lines of the diagonals. They each have a width of 1⁄15 of the flag’s height with a 1⁄30 flag height fimbriation. The crosses are slightly pinwheeled with St Andrew’s Cross leading in the clockwise direction. The centre-lines of the diagonals must meet in the centre. The three crosses retain their thickness whether they are shown with a ratio of 3:5 or 1:2.
The origins of the Union flag date back to 1603, when James VI of Scotland inherited the English and Irish thrones (as James I), thereby uniting the crowns of England, Scotland and Ireland in a personal union (which remained separate states). On 12 April 1606, a new flag to represent this regal union between England and Scotland was specified in a royal decree, according to which the flag of England (a red cross on a white background, known as St George’s Cross), and the flag of Scotland (a white saltire on a blue background, known as the Saltire or St Andrew’s Cross), would be joined together, forming the flag of Great Britain and first union flag. The flag was variously known as the King’s Jack, the Jack Flag or simply the Jack, and by 1674 was being called His Majesty’s Jack. Incidentally there is no uniquely Welsh element to the Union flag. This is because Wales was part of the Kingdom of England when the flag was created in 1606.
The Union flag retains an official or semi-official status in some Commonwealth realms; for example, it is known as the Royal Union Flag in Canada and it is used as an official flag in some of the smaller British overseas territories. The Union flag also appears in the canton (upper left-hand quarter) of the flags of several nations and territories that were former British colonies. The British Army’s flag is the Union flag, but in 1938, a “British Army Non-Ceremonial Flag” was devised, featuring a lion on crossed blades with the St Edward’s Crown on a red background. This design is used at recruiting and military or sporting events when the Army needs to be identified but where the reverence and ceremony due to the regimental flags and the Union flag would be inappropriate.
The Union flag is generally only flown on public buildings on days marking the birthdays of members of the Royal Family, the wedding anniversary of the monarch, Commonwealth Day, Accession Day, Coronation Day, the Queen’s official birthday, Remembrance Sunday and on the days of the State Opening and prorogation of Parliament. It is also flown at half mast from the announcement of the death of the Sovereign (save for Proclamation Day), or upon command of the Sovereign.
The Union flag is a brand icon and has been used by many music artists ranging from The Who, Freddie Mercury, Morrissey, Oasis, Iron Maiden and Def Leppard, to the pop girl group the Spice Girls. It is commonly used on computer software and internet pages as an icon representing a choice of the English language where a choice among multiple languages may be presented to the user. The Union flag has also been embroidered on various “Reebok” equipment as a mark of the brand’s British origin.