Admit it. You’ve got no idea what the UK flag symbolises do you? And, for that matter, you haven’t a clue why the flag’s nicknamed ‘the Union Jack’. Well, don’t feel too bad. Before I started my research for this post, I honestly didn’t know either – and, I was born and raised in the UK!!! 😬 😅
Where is the UK flag flown?
Unlike parts of the US, we don’t tend to fly flags outside our homes as signs of everyday patriotism. Generally speaking, we tend to wait until there’s a special occasion before dusting our flags off and hanging them out the nearest window. For example, it’s quite common to see St George’s cross hanging in the window of an England football fan during the FIFA World Cup. And, personally, I’ve been known to commute to work during the Olympics – and Wimbledon – with a five foot UK flag tied about me like a cape. True story.
There are military ceremonies where the flag is prominently displayed. But, as a new expat in the UK, you’re more likely to see it in tourist locations e.g. outside some hotels or displayed on some major high streets that tourists frequent. You’ll find the Union Jack on products too, everything from fashionable clothing to some rather questionable souvenirs. There will be times when it feels like you can’t swing a cat without hitting several Union flags. It’s clear that we Brits are proud of our flag. But, what does it actually stand for, if anything?
Multiple nations, one flag
Let’s start with the name. Technically, the UK flag should only be referred to as a ‘Union Jack’ when it is flying from a ship at sea. Otherwise, it’s officially a ‘Union Flag’. But, in practice, they’re used interchangeably in conversation.
The United Kingdom is made up of four different nations: England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Each nation actually has its own separate flag.
These flags were combined to create the UK Flag we know today. I know what you’re thinking. I just said that there are four nations. But only THREE flags are shown above. What happened to the Welsh flag? Unfortunately, Wales was considered part of the Kingdom of England when the flag was created. So, it’s represented, along with England, by St George’s cross. It’s interesting to imagine what the Union flag might have looked like with a red Welsh dragon on there.
The symbolic meaning of each flag
The blood-red cross of St. George symbolises the crucifixion. So, England, then, is represented by the universal sign of Christianity. In the earliest folktales, St. George is said to have been a martyr who demonstrated great bravery. Refusing to renounce his Christianity, he was tortured to death. Centuries after his death, and painters like, Raphael, had turned St. George into a knight in shining armour. The legend of his bravery had him slaying a dragon and saving maidens.
In any case St. George’s red cross has come to represent bravery and valour. White symbolises purity. The flag was worn by English soldiers during the Crusades. King Edward III made it official, by declaring St. George as England’s new Patron Saint.
St. Patrick lived a wild life. Kidnapped by Irish pirates when he was almost 16 years old. He eventually managed to escape and later dedicated himself to Christian missionary work – converting the Irish population with great zeal. Legend has it that St. Patrick rid Ireland of snakes. This claim to fame isn’t supported by the historical record, though.
Some 1400 years after St. Patrick’s time, the English monarch King George III created the Order of St Patrick. It was 1783 and Ireland had just been granted a small (and very short-lived) amount of autonomy. The Order took on the red diagonal cross as their official flag. Some historians think this symbol was taken from the coat of arms of the Fitzgeralds – an important family in Ireland. Although, it’s worth noting that there ARE other theories about the origins of the red saltire.
You won’t catch the Republic of Ireland using it, though. It was rejected for being the choice of an English king, and the symbol of an English Order.
St. Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland, even though he never actually visited the place… while he was alive. A former fisherman, St. Andrew was the first apostle to follow Jesus Christ. And, when the apostles disbanded, Andrew spent the rest of his life traveling in the East, preaching the Gospel. During this time he suffered many hardships because of his faith: from having rocks hurled at him, to being badly beaten. He was later crucified on an X-shaped cross – hence the design of the Scottish flag. Interestingly, even on the cross, St. Andrew apparently continued teaching the Gospel before finally dying a martyr.
St Andrew’s bones (relics) were being transported to a different country, by a monk, when there was a shipwreck and the monk washed up on the East coast of Scotland. There is a little more to the story. But, in essence, that his how the Scottish symbol of freedom was inspired by a diagonal crucifixion cross.
The UK flag catches on
There are many other countries, territories and states that have incorporated the Union Jack somewhere into their own flag design e.g. Australia, British Columbia (Canada), Tuvalu, Fiji, Bermuda, Cayman Islands, Hawaii (USA) and Ontario (Canada) – to name but a few.
So, now you know the background to the UK flag, and what each of the parts stand for / refer to: from steadfast Christian missionary work, to martyrdom, to acts of bravery. I hope you’ll pass this knowledge on to others, and will look on the Union Jack with a new understanding of what it means to be part of the United Kingdom.