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Dispelling Some Myths: Upside down Union Flags

The Union Flag pictured hangs in an upper hall of a London school recently visited by Tastes Of History to deliver a “Knight and Castles” themed history day. Looking closely at the flag some viewers may well remark that it is upside down, while others may add that this signifies someone is in distress. Yet are these beliefs correct? The short answer is “No”. Dear reader you could stop here, but if you are piqued and wish to find out why these “factoids” are incorrect, then please read on.



A new flag There are two competing parts to this explanation which need addressing. Firstly, is the flag upside down? To better understand that question it is worth dissecting the flag’s design and its evolution. To do that we must travel back to early 17th-century Britain where a new monarch had inherited three resolutely separate kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland. In 1603, however, King James I of England, and VI of Scotland, united these realms in his person in a fledgling union. Just three years into his reign reports of altercations between Scottish and English ships forced the King to contemplate whether vessels of the two nations should fly the same flag to affect some form of harmony. Months of discussion at court eventually agreed a design. Thus, on April 12th, 1606, the King issued a proclamation “declaring what Flags South and North Britons shall bear at Sea”. To avoid any further disputes, James ruled that “henceforth all our subjects of this Isle and Kingdom of Great Britain” shall fly “the Red Cross, commonly called St George’s Cross, and the White Cross, commonly called St Andrew’s Cross, joined together”. Unfortunately, the exact design of this innovative flag is lost to us, but it is highly likely to have looked like the one pictured, which was used before 1801. In that year (1801) witnessed the union of Great Britain and Ireland and a royal proclamation establishing the present design of the Union Flag (or Union Jack).



Today the flag combines aspects of three older national flags: the red cross of St George for the Kingdom of England, the white saltire of St Andrew for Scotland and the red saltire of St Patrick to represent Ireland [2].


Surprisingly there are no symbols in the flag signifying Wales making the Principality the only home nation with no direct representation. In what appears a significant omission actually stems from the Laws in Wales Acts 1535 and 1542 (or the Acts of Union). The law, enacted by the English Parliament during King Henry VIII reign, effectively subsumed Wales into the realm of the Kingdom of England. Sixty-four years later, with Wales thought to be synonymous with England, the designers of James I/VI’s new Union Flag simply did not contemplate including a symbol to represent the nation. The Welsh Dragon was however adopted as a supporter [3] in the royal coat of arms of England used by the Tudor dynasty from 1485. With such long-standing recognition the author cannot see a reason why the red dragon would not make a welcome addition, but to do so will take an Act of Parliament and the Royal Assent. At the time of writing the subject does not appear to be open for debate and there seems little appetite for a change. Shame.


Upside down? Now that we better understand the design elements incorporated into the Union Flag, why might some think our example is upside down? According to the College of Arms, the official heraldic authority for England, Wales, Northern Ireland and much of the Commonwealth including Australia and New Zealand:


“It is easy to fly the Union Flag the wrong way up if close attention is not paid to the design. In the upper corner of the flag nearest the flagpole, the wider diagonal white stripe should be above the red diagonal stripe. If the red is above the wider white stripe the flag is upside-down.”


To the casual viewer of our example, someone who is used to reading from left to right and top to bottom, in the upper left quadrant “the red is above the wider white stripe” and therefore, as the College of Arms explains, the flag should be considered upside down. Except it is not because if you look closely, you should notice that the eyelets for attaching the flag to a lanyard are on the right edge. This means the flagpole would be to the right-hand side and therefore the wider diagonal white stripe is above the red diagonal stripe as shown in the upper right quadrant nearest the flagpole.


The same misunderstanding occurred in 2020 when critics angrily questioned why, after a costly £900,000 refurbishment, the Union Flag on the vertical stabiliser (tail fin) of the Royal Air Force (RAF) Voyager (pictured) had been painted upside-down. Comparing the two inset pictures with the tail fin does seemingly support the critics as the flag looks identical to the incorrect version shown on the right. The RAF, however, was quick to defend the design as being completely correct and one that had carefully followed the proper protocol for displaying the Union Flag on an aircraft. In this respect the convention is for the design to appear as though it is flying from a flag placed at the nose of the aircraft as it travels through the air. However, when viewing the starboard side, one can have the mistaken impression that the design is backwards, or upside down. In fact, it is simply the observer viewing the reverse side of the flag.


Distress signal This leaves us with the second element to address: whether flying the Union Flag the wrong way up signifies someone is in distress. It is frequently claimed that an upside-down flag is a coded distress signal (and should only be used as such). No mention of this “fact”, however, is included in the authoritative publication on “Flying Flags in the United Kingdom”, yet the urban myth persists. To a casual observer or someone unfamiliar with the flag’s design it is not very easy to spot whether it is orientated correctly, especially at a distance. Presumably, however, anyone wishing to signal their distress would want the message to be crystal clear and not simply the case that someone had accidently flown the flag the wrong way up. So, while an upside-down flag may be considered disrespectful in the UK, even if to do so was an honest mistake, it remains simply that – a mistake. Bon appétit!

 

Reference:


College of Arms website, (2024), “Union Flag: FAQs”, available online (accessed March 6th, 2024).


Endnotes:


1. In heraldry and vexillology (the study of the history, symbolism and use of flags), fimbriation is the placement of small stripes of contrasting colour around common charges or ordinaries, usually for them to stand out from the background. In heraldry, a charge is any emblem or device occupying the field of an escutcheon (shield). That may be a geometric design (sometimes called an ordinary) or a symbolic representation of a person, animal, plant, object, building, or other device.


2. Although the Republic of Ireland seceded from the United Kingdom in the first half of the 20th-century, Northern Ireland remains and is represented by the red saltire of St Patrick.


3. In heraldry, supporters, sometimes referred to as attendants, are figures or objects usually placed on either side of the shield and depicted holding it up (see Note 1).

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