Friday, 21 March 2008

A Brief History Surrounding the Existence of the Union Flag

The Business

In 1603 King James VI of Scotland was crowned James I of England and King of Ireland. James had a vision of unity, for which there was good precedent: the first king of Scotland Kenneth I MacAlpin (d. 859) had, in the 840s, united the kingdoms of the Picts and the Gaels with Albany (the region from Humber to Caithness) under the name of Alba (Albion –which is now a poetic term for Britain or England, from the Latin albus ‘white’. Does this indicate a racial distinction?) The name Scotia (Scotland) did not appear until about the 10th century. Kenneth’s united kingdom was under a single flag, a flag that from the ninth century became the national standard: the cross of Saint Andrew, a silver saltire (diagonal cross) on a field of blue.

James sought the union of the two kingdoms of Great Britain, a name that he himself proposed, saying: “The blessed union, or rather Reuniting, of two Kingdoms, anciently but one, under one Imperial Crowne.” The unification of England and Scotland was a result not of military power or oppression (like Britain's domination by the unelected and despotic E.U.) but rather by a dynastic marriage of nations not vastly dissimilar. King James I said of the union: “golden Conquest, but cemented with Love.”

On August 11th 1607, Scotland, the more enthusiastic of the two nations, passed an Act of Union, which was conditional of England doing the same. However, the English Parliament rejected the proposal: “We should lose the ancient name of England, so famous and victorious, let us proceed with a leaden foot.”

However, James still proclaimed the name Great Britain on coins, and he laid the stones for an eventual union by achieving a degree of economic union and an acknowledgement of joint citizenship. Therefore, throughout much of the 17th century the two kingdoms were effectively, tentatively, united. This was a great achievement considering that previously, and for hundreds of years, the two kingdoms had fought many battles (at the time not drink or football related!)

The Design of the Union Flag

The creation of the United Kingdom was first proposed by James I of Great Britain in 1606. He commissioned the Earl of Nottingham who undertook the design of the first Union Flag, opposite, with some rather humorous consequences.

The Earl tried to balance the two countries equally but the complexity of heraldry proved very challenging: by the laws of heraldry it is impossible to give equal prominence to different parts within a design. Each element of the flag and its overall arrangement are indicative of relative status and significance. As you can see, various designs were made. The two options that most clearly drew on recent heraldic traditions were placing the crosses in alternating quadrants, or placing them side-by-side. But this inevitably gave superiority to one or other of the countries.

The image of marriage was important in the design of the flag -but which country was to be the man and which was to be the woman? By putting the two flags side-by-side (‘impalement’) would imply unequal power relationship and a dominant partner. The eventual design that was adopted distanced itself from this sexual politics and finally balanced the priority of the two flags. The imposition of the cross of St George over St Andrew might imply supremacy; however, this was counterbalanced by the fact that the canton (the top left quarter) is the most honourable part of a flag and in this design was filled by the colours of St Andrew. Thus the English were satisfied that St George was positioned over St Andrew, and the Scottish were content with their flag occupying the most honourable part of flag.

Did you know?

1 Since King James’ accession to the throne in 1603, British ships had been obliged to fly two flags: the Scottish and the English. However, two flags flying from one mast indicated that a military engagement had taken place, with the victor’s flag hung at the top. This is why flags flying at half-mast are in mourning because they have been conquered by the invisible flag of death

2 English ships once flew the adopted Union Flag, and Scottish ships reversed this, flying a version of the Union Flag that imposed St Andrew over St George. The Scottish version survived up to the reign of Queen Victoria

3 There are at least 500 official or semi-official flags characterised by the Union Flag

4 English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish regiments of the British army all march under the Union Flag.

5 It was not until 1707 that a formal Act of Union was finally ratified and England, Scotland and Wales truly became one

6 The Union Flag as we know it was first flown on January 1st 1801, when the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland came into being

7 Wales is not represented on the Union Flag because it is classified as a principality -a state ruled by a prince

8 Even though most people refer to the Union Flag as the Union Jack, the latter is only applicable when the flag is snapping from a jackstaff of a Royal Navy warship.

By Fyrdist

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