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United Kingdom: ensigns

Last modified: 2004-06-19 by
Keywords: united kingdom | union jack | civil ensign | naval ensign | naval reserve ensign | red ensign | white ensign | blue ensign | yellow ensign |
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The Red Ensign:

[UK civil ensign] by Malcolm Grieve

The White Ensign:

[UK naval ensign] by Martin Grieve

The Blue Ensign:

[UK naval reserve ensign] by Graham Bartram

See also:

Priority of British Ensigns

The seniority of the Ensigns was set in 1653 and was not altered by the Order in Council of 1864, as first Red, second White and third Blue.
Christopher Southworth, 22 April 2004

The modern order of precedence is white ensign, blue ensign, red ensign. As to whether a defaced or undefaced blue or red ensign is higher in precedence is a bit strange. An undefaced blue ensign is normally considered more "elite" than a defaced blue ensign (they are harder to come by), but a defaced red ensign is more "elite" than an undefaced one (similarly harder to get)!
So the full order is white ensign, undefaced blue ensign, defaced blue ensign, defaced red ensign, undefaced red ensign. It's British - you just knew it was going to be odd :-)
Graham Bartram, 23 April 2004

I am afraid that I must disagree with Graham over this. I understand and can appreciate your point, but as far as I can see the Red Ensign remains the senior and legal Ensign regardless of any change to its tactical usage. With respect (and leaving aside for the moment the status of the White Ensign), I would suggest that the
existence (or non-existence) of a Warrant from the Ministry of Defence hardly qualifies a flag for seniority. Perhaps we are confusing exclusivity with seniority here? The Red Ensign remains the only Ensign which is established by Act of Parliament [the Merchant Shipping Act of 1854 (and all subsequent Merchant
Shipping Acts)] - "the senior and legal ensign" - and pending another such Act the White and Blue remain variations of it regardless of their use.
Christopher Southworth, 23 April 2004

The new guide to British flag protocol is published in the form of "British Flags and Emblems", written by yours truly! It includes the order of precedence of British flags and has been scrutinized by the Palace (including Prince Philip who caught several errors), the College of Arms, the Lord Lyon and the Admiralty! They all agreed the order.
Graham Bartram, 23 April 2004

The Red Ensign has historic seniority, but that I think is not relevant to its current precedence. The squadronal system was abolished.
David Prothero, 23 April 2004

I agree with Graham's seniority list. A clinching argument I think, is that at sea both the blue and red ensigns will be dipped in salute to the white when merchant vessels and RFA's meet up with a passing warship flying the white ensign.
Andre Burgers, 23 April 2004


International influence of British ensigns

Unless otherwise stated (a) the relevant national flag appears in the canton, and (b) the term 'white ensign' means a flag with a red St. George's cross.

Antigua: Civil ensign; possibly defunct
Standard British red ensign
Australia: War ensign, State ensign, Civil ensign
War ensign: British Union flag in canton; white field with blue southern cross and seven-pointed Australian star.
State Ensign, Civil Ensign: As above, but with white stars on a red field.
Bahamas: Civil Ensign
Civil Ensign: Red field with white cross.
War Ensign: White ensign
Bangladesh: Civil ensign
Red ensign
Belize: War ensign,State ensign,Civil ensign probably defunct
War ensign, State ensign: British union flag in canton on blue field with state arms on a white disc.
Civil ensign: Standard British red ensign
Brunei Darussalam: War ensign
White field with blue cross
Burma: 1948-1974 flags (Myanmar)
Red ensign, using Burmese 6-star arrangement in canton.
Fiji Islands: Civil ensign,State ensign,War ensign; current status unknown
Fiji uses the British red, blue and white ensigns (the latter without the St George's cross) as its civil, state and war ensigns respectively, with the addition of the state shield.
Ghana: Civil ensign,War ensign
Red and white ensigns
India: War ensign,Civil ensign,State ensign
War ensign,Civil ensign: White and red ensigns respectively.
Civil ensign: Blue field with yellow anchor, on its side
Jamaica: War ensign
White ensign
Jordan: War ensign
White ensign, without cross but with a black anchor emblem
Kenya: Civil ensign
Plain white field on which there is a red anchor
Republic of Korea: War ensign
National flag in canton modified with addition of crossed black anchors behind 'yin/yang' symbol instead of the four black 'kwae' marks. On a blue field. British influenced design?
Malaysia: War ensign, Royal flag
War ensign has plain white field with blue anchor design.
Royal flag has plain red field.
Mauritius: State ensign, Civil ensign
Red and blue ensigns, defaced with addition of state arms, the former in a white disc.
Myanmar: 1948-1974 flags (Burma)
Red ensign, using Burmese 6-star arrangement in canton.
New Zealand: Civil ensign, War ensign, State ensign
Red, white and blue ensigns respectively, defaced with addition of white, red and red-with-white-outlined stars of the southern cross. The State ensign is the same as the national flag on land. The white ensign does not have a St. George's cross.
Nigeria: War ensign
White ensign
Pakistan: Civil ensign,State ensign
Red ensign used for both purposes. The war ensign is a variant of the national flag, but with different proportions
Saint Kitts and Nevis: Civil ensign, probably defunct
British red ensign
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines: Civil ensign, State ensign, War ensign probably defunct since introduction of new national flag in 1979
The colonial blue ensign, defaced with a modified version of the state arms on a disc was official for all purposes at sea.
Samoa: Civil ensign, State ensign
Blue canton on which there is a representation of the southern cross on white. Red field. Used for official purposes at sea (Is the national flag on land as well).
Singapore: State ensign, War ensign
Blue and white ensigns respectively, the white ensign being minus the St. George's cross. The canton is the stars on red background from the top hoist of the national flag on land - a sort of canton of a canton? Both flags are defaced with the addition of a red and white 8-pointed star design
Solomon Islands: Civil ensign, State ensign, War ensign
Red, blue and white ensigns respectively. A 'pure' adoption of the British pattern.
South Africa: War ensign, presumably defunct or superseded since introduction of new national flag
White ensign, with green cross instead of red,
Trinidad and Tobago: War ensign
White ensign
Tuvalu: Civil ensign,State ensign; presumably defunct since introduction of new national flag
The State ensign and Civil ensign were the same as the (old) national flag, itself a derivative of the blue ensign.
United Kingdom: Civil ensign,State ensign,War ensign
The three ensigns were originally the flags of the three squadrons of the Royal Navy. This system was reformed in c1830, with only the white ensign being retained for the Royal Navy.

Stuart Notholt, 9 February 1996

Perhaps the US, influenced by the Red Ensign even though the color is not used, and Israel (among others?), which uses its national flag in a canton, could be considered part of this list too.

Nathan Lamm, 14 August 2002


Application of the Merchant Shipping Act

Any ship registered in a British port, which includes ports in Overseas Territories and Dependencies, is subject to the Merchant Shipping Act. Certain sections of the Act describe the flag that should be flown, which is the Red Ensign "without any defacement or modification whatsoever". The warrant or order in council is a legal document which exempts certain defined ships from this requirement and indicates the authorised defacement. For example, this is the text of the Admiralty Warrant for the Cyprus Red Ensign.

"Whereas we deem it expedient that vessels registered under the Cyprus Registration of Ships Law 1922, and belonging to British Subjects or to Bodies Corporate established under or subject to the law of the Island of Cyprus, and having in the Island of Cyprus the primary Place of Business, and also boats forming part of the equipment of such Vessels shall be permitted to wear the Red Ensign of His Majesty's Fleet with the badge of the Island of Cyprus on the fly thereof. We do therefore by virtue of the Power and Authority vested in us hereby, Warrant and Authorise the Red Ensign of His Majesty's Fleet and the badge of the Island of Cyprus in the fly to be used on board the Vessels hereinbefore specified. 25 August 1922."
That is a document that covered any number of ships, but other exemptions were for named ships. During WWII Danish merchant ships operating out of Britain had to be placed on the British Register and were therefore required to fly the Red Ensign. Later it was agreed that providing the Master and crew of a Danish ship were all Danish nationals it could fly the Danish flag whilst remaining on the British Register. Certificates of Exemption were issued individually to those Masters whose ships met the requirement.

The arrangement for those yacht clubs whose members are privileged to fly a defaced Red Ensign are different.

David Prothero, 14 August 2000


The "Yellow Ensign"

I know that at the time of Trafalgar there were 3 sqaudrons of the Royal Navy who had admirals of the red, blue and white. In Bernard Cornwells book 'Sharpe's Trafalgar' there are admirals of the yellow mentioned who don't have ships. Did yellow ensigns exist?

T.M. Cox, 11 September 2002

No, nor did yellow admiral's flags. "Admiral of the yellow" or "yellow admiral" was a colloquial, somewhat sarcastic term for a flag officer without a flag. In the Royal Navy of the early 19th century, promotion beyond the rank of captain was purely by seniority. If you lived long enough, you made rear admiral regardless of merit or performance. Now suppose the time came when a certain Captain Smith was next in line for promotion, but Captain Brown, next junior to him on the list, was better qualified or had better political connections or whatever. The Admiralty really wants to promote Brown, but it cannot jump him ahead of Smith. It promotes them both, but assigns Brown to a command as a rear admiral of the blue and leaves Smith sitting on the beach without an assignment--nowhere to hoist his admiral's flag. Technically, Smith has become a "rear admiral without distinction of squadron."

But everyone knew that admirals were all of a particular color--blue, white, or red. So people began referring to officers like Smith as "admirals of the yellow" as a kind of grim joke, or at least it was grim to Smith and other "yellow admirals."

The prospect of being "yellowed" looms large in the fortunes of Captain Jack Aubrey in the later volumes of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels. Since the last book is entitled "Blue at the Mizzen," it is not giving away the ending to say that Aubrey avoids this fate worse than death.

Joe McMillan, 12 September 2002

'Yellow Admiral' was a term used in Britain to denote a post-captain promoted to rear admiral on retirement but without serving in that rank. They were promoted to flag rank and placed on the retired list on the following day, so that they did nor automatically swell the rear-admirals' list. The term was in use between 1815 and 1864.
Source: The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea (1976)

Jarig Bakker, 12 September 2002

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