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United Kingdom: Lord High Admiral

Last modified: 2023-07-03 by rob raeside
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[Flag of the Lord High Admiral] by Martin Grieve


See also:

Office of the Lord High Admiral

Admiral of England, or Lord Admiral, later Lord High Admiral was an office created in about 1400 by combining the responsibilities of Admiral of the North, and Admiral of the West. It was an "office" and not a "rank", and could thus be placed in commission. In other words one person could be Lord High Admiral, and given responsibility for executing the duties of the office, or alternatively, the responsibility could be placed upon a particular group of people to be Commissioners for Executing the Office of Lord High Admiral.

This first happened in 1628 when Charles I put the Office of Lord High Admiral into commission and effectively created the first Board of Admiralty. Ten years later the Earl of Northumberland was appointed Lord High Admiral, and the office was in and out of commission until 1709 when the Board of Admiralty were, in legal form, given all the powers that had been vested in the Lord High Admiral of England. The office, as a personal appointment, was revived briefly in 1827 when the Duke of Clarence was appointed Lord High Admiral, but placed permanently in commission when he became William IV in 1830.

The anchor flag of the Lord High Admiral became known as the Admiralty Flag, and after 1850 was flown on land in London; over the old Admiralty Building until 1930, and on the tower of the new Admiralty Building overlooking Horse Guards Parade until 1964. Before 1905 it was flown only on Flag Flying Days, but after that flown continuously day and night, except when the Board as a whole were absent. When the Admiralty was abolished and replaced by the Ministry of Defence (Navy) the Queen assumed the title of Lord High Admiral.

David Prothero, 10 August 2002

Description and use of the flag

The red flag with horizontal yellow anchor is the flag of rank or office of the lord high admiral - that is, of the queen. Back when the first lord of the Admiralty was a senior member of the cabinet, the flag was used by the Admiralty Board, to which the powers of lord high admiral had been delegated by the crown. After World War II a unified Ministry of Defence was set up and gradually the Admiralty Board faded in importance. When it was abolished (I'm not certain of the exact date but 1964 sounds about right) the queen reassumed the title of lord high admiral. Since then she has used this flag herself.

Tom Gregg, 23 February 1999

The flag shown above was the version designed in 1929.

David Prothero, 20 July 2002

The following passage is taken from the Royal Navy website:

THE ADMIRALTY FLAG Properly called the flag for the Lord High Admiral, the Admiralty flag displays a gold anchor horizontally on a crimson ground. It was formerly on the Old Admiralty building, Whitehall, by day and night, and was not half-masted except on the death of the Sovereign (instructions given by King Edward VII). When lowered, the flag remained at half-mast until the funeral, except on the day when the new Sovereign was proclaimed. As insignia of the Board of Admiralty, this flag was flown whenever two or more members of the Board and a Secretary, acting as the Board, embarked. When flown in a flagship it automatically displaced the Admiral's flag which would otherwise have been flown. The Admiralty flag is still flown at the foremast head of a warship whenever the Sovereign is embarked because the Sovereign is, at common law, the Lord High Admiral, and retains those functions of the office not especially delegated to the Secretary of State for Defence and the Defence Council. The flag is flown in the Sovereign's ship to denote that the Sovereign is the source whence the powers of the Board of Admiralty are derived. The flag was lowered from OAE on April 30, 1964.
When on board the royal yacht HMY Britannia the Queen would fly:

Andrew Yong, 24 February 1999

First Lord of the Admiralty

The British expression "First Lord of ......" is used when one of the medieval great offices of state (Lord Treasurer, Lord High Admiral, etc.) is put "into commission." That means it is taken out of the hands of the hereditary nobility and put into the collective hands of a committee that is responsible to Parliament as members of the government. These people are known as the Lords Commissioners of the whatever, and the head of the commission is the First Lord. 

The post of Lord High Admiral was put into commission in 1628 and stayed so for most of the time up until 1964. The Lords 
Commissioners, also known as the Board of Admiralty, along with their staff were the equivalent of a ministry of the navy. 

At the British Ministry of Defence website, it explains that in 1946, the UK created a unified Ministry of Defence, but left the three service ministries (the Board of Admiralty, the War Board, and the Air Ministry) in place alongside it. In 1964, it was decided for reasons of management efficiency to consolidate the three service ministries, including the Board of Admiralty, into a single Ministry of Defence. The Board of Admiralty thus ceased to exist, meaning that the position of First Lord of the Admiralty also ceased to exist. 

As a result, the position of Lord High Admiral was taken out of commission, and now inheres in the Queen, who therefore flew the Admiralty flag on her yacht HMS Britannia when it was still in commission.

Just to confuse things a little, the First Sea Lord is quite different from the First Lord of the Admiralty. The Sea Lords were 
the top ranking professional naval officers assigned to the Board of Admiralty. The First Sea Lord, or 1SL, is a collateral title of the Chief of Naval Staff, the uniformed head of the Royal Navy. The Sea Lord titles were not affected by the 1964 amalgamation.

Joe McMillan, 7 December 2001

The full title of the Lords Commissioners of Admiralty makes it entirely clear: "The Commissioners for Exercising the Office of Lord High Admiral of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, etc."

Andrew Yong, 8 December 2001

1672-1725 version

[Flag of the Lord High Admiral, 1672] by David Prothero

Based on a drawing of the flag from 1672 to 1725 from The Admiralty Flag by Rear-Admiral R.M.Blomfield.

1725-1815 version

[Flag of the Lord High Admiral, 1725] by David Prothero

1815-1893 version

[Flag of the Lord High Admiral, 1815] by David Prothero

1893-1929 version

[Flag of the Lord High Admiral, 1893] by David Prothero

Admiralty Flag, by implication, 1893 to 1929. I'm not sure where the illustration came from; possibly the 1914 edition of the USN Flags of Maritime Nations. The printers mark on the page is Snyder & Black.N.Y. if that means anything to anyone ?
David Prothero, 23 July 2002

Norie and Hobbs (1848) variant

Norie and Hobbs (1848) show a flag similar to that above, except the ropes don't cross the bar, but curl just round it; they do cross the arms.

Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 12 November 2001

Pederson (1970) variant

Pederson (1970) shows a variation in the placement of the rope, clearly lying beneath the anchor on the top side, while on the bottom side, the rope lies on top of the anchor on the right hand side (fly end) of the flag.

Martin Grieve, 19 July 2002

Civilian Members of the Board of Admiralty (obsolete)

[Civilian Members of the Board of Admiralty] by Miles Li

Car flag only 7' x 10 1/2'.
Source: H.M. Stationery Office (1958)
Miles Li, 19 June 2004

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