The Union Jack

An interesting angle to the current debate on Scottish independence is what would happen to the British Flag, the Union Jack, should Scotland actually separate from the rest of the United Kingdom. It may seem a trivial point, but the flag and the union are so interwoven that it is worth looking at how it came about in the first place.

Late in the evening of the 26th of March 1603 Robert Carey arrived exhausted, battered and bruised at the gates of the Palace of Holyroodhouse at the foot of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. With him he carried important news, news that would change everything: the Queen of England was dead. Sixty hours earlier he’d left Richmond Palace in London the moment Elizabeth I had expired, and now he was being taken by candlelight to see the King of Scots, James VI in his bedchamber. Without permission or authority from the English parliament, Carey announced to the king that he was being offered the throne of England. It was news that James had been waiting a lifetime to hear.


Not that it came to him as any surprise, for over the last three years or so Elizabeth’s chief councillor, the rather dyspeptic Robert Cecil, had been conducting informal negotiations with the Scottish king; and when it became clear that the old queen was on her last legs those discussions became more official. Indeed, so astute was Cecil that James’s succession was one of the smoothest in English history; no mean feat considering that the king of Scotland was about to wear the crown of St Edward. For centuries kings of England had attempted to make Scotland subordinate to their will; and in one of the great ironies of European history the tables had now been turned.


King James VI

King James VI




James left Edinburgh on the 5th of April, having pledged to his Scottish subjects that he would come back ever three years (a promise he failed to keep) and became the first Scottish monarch in nearly a hundred years to cross the River Tweed and enter England. It took over a month for the travelling show to wind its way to London, and everywhere cheering crowds greeted their new king all along the Great North Road, culminating in a stupendous fanfare as he entered the capital on the 7th of May. Edward I, Hammer of the Scots, must have been spinning in his grave.


James was crowed in Westminster Abbey in July 1603, sitting on the ancient Stone of Destiny, wearing the Crown of England and amid the great and grand of the English aristocracy. To them he was now James I of England; but the new monarch had grander ideas. He once told his parliament, that he now “ruled Scotland from London with a pen, which English kings had never managed with the sword”; a backhanded complement to his Stewart ancestors and his native land, but showing firmly that one king ruled both nations. From the very start he called the new joint-monarchy ‘Magna Britannia‘, or Great Britain: resurrecting an old Roman term for a modern Caesar.


Above all James wanted to unite his kingdoms, it was almost an obsession, and this didn’t go down too well with his English ministers and parliament. Every step towards British-ness was a step away from English-ness; although north of the border the Scots were still basking in the fact that they’d just given England a king and didn’t really care as much. He also didn’t really understand the English system, its laws or customs, so he brought south a Scottish court and surrounded himself with the familiarity. This caused serious tensions, and played a huge part in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Still, undaunted and with a cunning wilfulness his programme of integration, at least in symbolism, continued.


James VI was the son of the stunningly beautiful Mary Queen of Scots and her equally handsome husband Lord Darnley; yet he turned out to be a rather strange looking character. He had a pronounced limp, odd stature and a tongue too large for his mouth which meant he tended to slaver like a simpleton. All this was combined with a raft of personality disorders, all stemming from a childhood that at best could be described as traumatic. However, James was no simpleton; he was well educated, sharp and political expedient – every thing he said or did was done in calculation of his own conceit as a divine king. In Europe he was half-mockingly called the ‘Wisest Fool in Christendom’. He may have looked and sounded like a half-wit, but his brain was razor-sharp; and his English ministers never really grasped that.


The king was passionate about heraldry and symbolism, and he saw this as an effective way to smooth the path to genuine union. His first move was to create a personal heraldic badge: a motif combining the rose of England with the thistle of Scotland. He then changed the Royal Standard, merging elements from both the English and Scottish coats of arms – although Scotland would, and retains a separate royal standard where the Scottish lion rampant takes precedence over the English ‘three lions’ emblem). As independent nations though both Scotland and England retained their own national flags; but here too James decided that his two realms should have one; and it remains his greatest contribution to the symbolic life of the nation.


According to the king there was contentions at various ports in Scotland allowing English ships to enter, and vice versa; a cover story for sure, but one that allowed James to realise an ambition: a national flag. He asked the Privy Council to come up with a flag that ships and navies from both countries could fly and several options came back to his desk for approval. Now considering that his English ministers saw Scotland as little more than appendage, their designs reflected it: with the St Andrew’s Cross reduced to little more than an afterthought against their Cross of St George. James was having none of it, and commissioned a flag that displayed both ensigns with parity, and the result was the red-white cross of England emblazoned against a backdrop of the white-blue cross of Scotland. And so on the 16th of April 1606 the new Union Flag was born.


A very English candidate for the Union Flag

A very English candidate for the Union Flag




With such a Scottish influence over their coveted flag the English parliament and army refused to adopt it; but with direct authority over the navy the new flag was made compulsory. A flag flown at sea is smaller than one flown on land and is known as a ‘jack’. Thus, for the first hundred years of its existence it was known as the Union Jack, a name that has kinda stuck. Also, James was Christened by his French-speaking mother as Jacque (the French for James), and behind his back he was snidely called ‘Union Jacque’. This play on words sealed the name in our national psyche, and few today realise that it is properly the ‘Union Flag’, not ‘Union Jack’.


James VI died in 1625, but his dream of union didn’t; and it took over a hundred years of civil war, fiscal disparity and ultimately bullying tactics to take Scotland into political union with England. With the Act of Union in 1707 James’ flag was adopted as the British national flag as England and Scotland ceased to be independent nations. By this time colonial ambitions were taking the flag to the farthest corners of the globe; and in time it would flutter across a quarter of the world. In 1801 Ireland was united with Great Britain (thus adding the red X cross of St Patrick to the flag) to create the United Kingdom and the standard we know to day was complete.


The British Empire is long dead, but the Union Flag is still an important part of the flags of many Commonwealth nations, such as Australia and New Zealand and most Canadian States (it’s even in the flag of Hawaii). It remains an integral part of the colourful pageantry and pride in our country; a reminder that our United Kingdom is exactly that. Scottish James would be very happy. 


The Union Flag

The Union Flag






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