THE UNION JACK: The Story of the British Flag

The Union Jack: The Story of the British Flag

Bookmark and Share

This article by Alistair McConnachie was published originally in the July 2007 issue of Sovereignty, and published on this site on 21 March 2012.

Nick Groom's book, The Union Jack 1 bills itself as "the first history of the British flag". It is certainly the most complete treatment of the subject which we have encountered. He introduces his subject by setting it in a broad national context.

Groom explains the idea of union is:
at the heart of this book: the union of England with Wales, Scotland, and Ireland to form a United Kingdom. The ebb and flow of the dream of union washes around the British shores like the seas that surround it, confirming to its inhabitants the islands' independence from mainland European geography and history, and the Union Jack, made by laying together the crosses of the realm's national patron saints, is its symbol: the history of the Union and its extension across the globe forms the back-story to the biography of the flag. 2

The dream of union has been long and for many it has been a nightmare, but it is the one dream from which Britain can never awake: to do so would be to end the 'British Isles' as a meaningful concept. 3

Groom starts at the very beginning where heraldic and pre-heraldic "attempts to represent both visually and symbolically a union of Great Britain are effectively prototypes of the Union Jack." 4

He continues through the centuries in a comprehensive rendering of history.

In 1603, 33 years after being crowned King of Scotland, James VI became James I of Great Britain.

His vision was one of British unity:
Doe wee not remember, that this Kingdome [England] was divided into seven little Kingdomes, besides Wales? And is it not now the stronger by their Union? And hath not the Union of Wales to England added a greater Strength therto?…I desire a perfect Union of Lawes and Persons, and such a Naturalizing as may make one Body of both Kingdomes under mee your King. That I and my Posteritie (if it so please God) may rule over you to the Worlds End; Such an Union as was of the Scots and Pictes in Scotland, and of the Heptarchie heere in England. 5

Throughout the book are references to the flag and related patriotic matters in song, poetry and culture, up to the present time.

Groom suggests that, like Rule Britannia -- "one of two anthems that literally gave voice to the possibilities that the creation of Great Britain presented to the world" -- written by the Scot James Thomson, God Save the King may also have been written by a Scot, James Oswald, although there are various claimants for authorship and composition. 6

Groom includes text of an early version of God Save the King published in 1750, which includes several verses we hadn't read before. In this regard it's important to reiterate what we say on this page about God Save the Queen that there has never been an official version of the National Anthem and the Palace has never approved any version believing the words evolve by tradition rather than decree.

Many previous verses would be considered anachronistic today, and possibly illegal!

For example, one of the verses listed here, goes:
Protect our Church and State
And make true Britons hate
Priests with bald-headed Pates

While the book is largely history, Groom permits himself some interesting political comments in his Conclusion. Overall, he is pro-Union:
Disbanding the Union is simply not feasible. Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales could not exist as minnow states wholly independent of England: whether they like it or not, they would be unable to escape from the economy, infrastructure, population, history, and culture that has been shared with England for hundreds of years. 7

And very pro-Union Jack, concluding:
It will fly in many different variations, and it will continue to fly, streaming across the skies, floating over the ether, carried to the planets, and even to the stars: an emblem of unity, conciliation, and renewal -- the Union Jack. 8

The book also lists a chronology of English, Scottish and British monarchs, the dimensions of the Union Jack, the rules for hoisting flags on government buildings, and the full list of official days in which the Union Jack is to be flown. An extensive bibliography, full references, and index are also included.

(1) Nick Groom, The Union Jack: The Story of the British Flag, (London: Atlantic Books, 2006), 396 pages, and out now in paperback. Page numbers in this article refer to the hardback edition.
(2) at xvii.
(3) at xvi-xvii.
(4) at 2.
(5) at 125.
(6) at 179.
(7) at 313.
(8) at 316.

The Muses, still with freedom found, Shall to thy happy coasts repair.
Blest isle! with matchless beauty crowned, And manly hearts to guard the fair.

(Rule Britannia)
Below "Muse" perform "Survival" at the Closing Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics.

Help us Raise Money via Amazon: Here is a way you can help us cover our running costs. We get a commission on products which are purchased on Amazon after the customer has arrived at Amazon via clicking on an item in one of our Amazon widgets (as below). This includes products which are not listed on the widget but which you find after arriving on Amazon via this portal. For example, if you click on an item below, get taken to Amazon and then move around to purchase an item, of any value, then we will receive a percentage of your purchase. Depending upon the product - for example, watches and jewellery - it can be up to 10%. Books are 5%. The product costs exactly the same to you whether it is accessed via our site or directly, and nor do you have to purchase the item we have recommended. Therefore, any time you want to purchase from Amazon, please get in the habit of reaching it through any of our widgets. This can really help us. Thank you!
[Legal Statement: Alistair McConnachie is a participant in the Amazon EU Associates Programme, an affiliate advertising programme designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to ]

If you like what we say, please support us by signing-up to receive our free regular Update email - which will keep you informed of new articles and relevant pro-UK information - by entering your details in the 'Subscribe' box at the top right of this page.
You can find out more about Alistair at the About Alistair McConnachie page. And here is a link to Alistair McConnachie's Google Profile.

Bookmark and Share