Skip to Content

What are the 3 flags of the Union Jack?

The Union Jack, also known as the Union Flag, is the national flag of the United Kingdom. It incorporates the flags of the three countries united under one Sovereign – the kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland (although since 1921 only Northern Ireland has been part of the United Kingdom).

The Flag of England

The English flag is the St George’s Cross. This is a red cross on a white background. The red cross on white was chosen as the flag of England by King Henry III in 1239, and later became the flag of the City of London. According to legend, the origins of the flag come from the Great Battle of Acre during the Third Crusade in 1192. English crusaders had been besieging the city for nearly two years when it was decided to attack the city walls on June 18. The English forces carried white crosses on their tunics to distinguish themselves from the French forces, who carried red crosses. After scaling the walls, the English took the city and flew their white cross banners from the top. Their commander, Richard the Lionheart, claimed the city in the name of Christianity, England and St George, soldier-saint of England. The red-on-white cross has been England’s flag ever since.

The Flag of Scotland

The Scottish flag is the St Andrew’s Cross or Saltire. This is a diagonal white cross on a blue background. According to legend, in 832AD the Pictish king Óengus II led an army of Picts and Scots into battle against the invading Angles. On the morning of battle white clouds forming the shape of a saltire (X shape) against the blue sky were said to have appeared. Óengus and his combined force of Picts and Scots were inspired by this, believing Saint Andrew was watching over them. They won a great victory, and from that day Saint Andrew was adopted as the patron saint of Scotland. The Saltire became the flag of Scotland.

The Flag of Ireland

The Irish flag is the St Patrick’s Cross. This is a diagonal red cross on a white background. According to legend, Saint Patrick introduced Christianity to Ireland in the early to mid-5th century. He incorporated the red saltire as an armorial bearing as early as 430 A.D. to represent the death of Christ at Calvary. The association between St Patrick and the red saltire became more concrete over time, with the red saltire eventually evolving into the symbol of Saint Patrick. The red saltires were formerly Ireland’s flag, and after 1921 specifically Northern Ireland’s flag within the Union Jack.

The Creation of the Union Jack

The Union Jack in its current form dates from 1801, when the red saltire of Ireland was incorporated into the flag of Great Britain to form the flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. This came about after Ireland was brought into political union with Great Britain following the Acts of Union 1800. The Union Jack has changed a number of times to reflect the political composition of the United Kingdom and its imperial expansion.

Date Version of Union Jack
1606 First version created when the flags of England and Scotland were joined under King James VI and I, who symbolically united the two kingdoms under one monarch.
1649-1651 Flag of the Commonwealth (English Cross and Irish Saltire only). This was used during the period of the English Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell, when the monarchy was abolished.
1707 St George’s Cross and St Andrew’s Saltire combined to form the flag of Great Britain after the Acts of Union 1707 between England and Scotland.
1801 St Patrick’s Cross added to form the current Union Jack after Ireland joined the union.
1922 The blue field of St Patrick’s Cross changed to black to represent Northern Ireland only.

Throughout its evolution, the Union Jack has incorporated the flags of the constituent countries of the United Kingdom to symbolically represent their unity under one Sovereign. Today, the Union Jack still represents the flags of the three original kingdoms that joined together – England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland (but no longer the whole of Ireland).

The Design of the Union Jack

The current design of the Union Jack consists of three heraldic crosses – the red diagonal cross of St Patrick, superimposed over the white diagonal cross of St Andrew, superimposed over the red upright cross of St George. These represent England, Scotland and Northern Ireland respectively. Wales is not represented in the Union Jack, because when the first version of the flag was created Wales was already united with England. Additionally, the Welsh Dragon does not lend itself well to incorporation in a union flag.

The width of the white St Andrew’s cross exceeds the width of the red St Patrick’s cross, which in turn exceeds the width of St George’s red cross. The white edges of St George’s and St Andrew’s crosses are aligned, red to white along the common boundary. The diagonal red cross fimbriations of St Patrick’s cross overlap with the white fimbriations of St Andrew’s cross. The fimbriations do not cross over St George’s red arms.

There are precise regulations governing the dimensions and colors of the Union Jack. The white fimbriations separating the arms of the crosses are 1/30th the total flag width. The red, white and blue colors must correspond to official color specifications. For example, the Pantone colors are: red 186c, blue 280c, white white.

Flying the Union Jack

There is a special protocol for flying the Union Jack. It is normally flown upside down only as a distress signal. When flown on a vertical flagpole, the white field of St Andrew’s cross should be above the red field of St Patrick’s cross in the upper hoist canton (the upper left quadrant when viewed from the front). This preserves the correct hierarchy of privilege; English first, Scottish second, Irish third.

On a horizontal flagpole, the hoist (fixed end) should be on the left when viewed from the front. The fly end (free end) spreads to the right. The header or top edge with the full width white cross should be uppermost on a horizontally flying flag. This orientation maintains the correct hierarchy top to bottom.

When flying multiple flags on one pole, the Union Jack takes precedence, occupying the most senior position which is the uppermost hoist. The order of seniority is: Union Jack, English flag, Scottish flag, Irish flag, Welsh flag, any other flags. The Union Jack is never flown inferior to any other flag.

When to Fly the Union Jack

The Union Jack is flown on government buildings and public institutions throughout the United Kingdom all year round. It is permanently flown from flag poles on the Houses of Parliament in London. The flag symbolizes the unity of the nations under the Crown and Parliament of the United Kingdom.

Individuals and organizations can choose to fly the Union Jack whenever they wish. It is commonly displayed on national holidays such as the Queen’s Official Birthday. Many people like to fly the Union Jack during royal celebrations such as jubilees or royal weddings. Of course, it is also flown during sporting events where teams are competing as Great Britain, England, Scotland or Northern Ireland.

Incorrect Versions of the Union Jack

Some versions of the Union Jack with incorrect or outdated designs are still seen from time to time. Common mistakes include:

  • Using the pre-1801 Union Jack with only the crosses of St George and St Andrew. This excludes Ireland.
  • Using St Patrick’s Cross in blue rather than black. Blue officially represented pre-partition Ireland.
  • Getting the width ratios of the crosses wrong.
  • Aligning St George’s Cross over St Andrew’s Cross, instead of the red lining up with white.
  • Flying the flag upside down, which is a sign of distress.

Make sure to check your Union Jack follows the official design if you want to display it correctly!

Other Union Jack Facts

  • The Union Jack is incorporated into the flags of several Commonwealth countries, including Australia and New Zealand.
  • It may be displayed as a jack (maritime flag) aboard UK registered vessels.
  • A version of the Union Jack with an extra two quarterings appeared in the canton of the flag of Hawaii from 1816 to 1845.
  • The Butcher’s Apron is a derogatory name for the Union Jack used by Irish nationalists who associate it with British imperialism.
  • The Union Jack has been incorporated into pop culture, fashion and art over the decades.
  • Damien Hirst’s enormous Union Jack painting “The Beautiful Union Jack – Welcome to the World” sold for over £9.5 million at auction.


The Union Jack is an instantly recognizable national flag that encapsulates the unity of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland under the Crown. It is an enduring symbol of the United Kingdom around the world. The unique design incorporates three ancient Christian crosses representing the patron saints of the original kingdoms that came together to form the Union. With its intricate pattern and bright colors, the Union Jack occupies a special place in British culture.