The original Red,White and Blue-Happy Birthday!
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Magazine
Four-hundred years old today, the union jack is one of the world's oldest national flags... if you overlook the fact it's only meant to be flown at sea, the proportions are wrong and no one can agree on its name.
Its striking red, white and blue design harks back to a time when Britannia ruled the waves, but the history of the union jack is as tangled as all the mothballed bunting it decorates.
It is a story about custom over clarity, assumption over assertion, anomaly instead of consistency.
In the words of union jack historian Malcolm Farrow, "a mish-mash - but what do you expect from the British constitution?"
Even its real name has been known to pitch grown men into heated argument, 400 years after the flag's creation.
For the record, the BBC website disregards the term "union flag" because of its "great potential for confusion", preferring union jack (in lower case).
The union jack as we know it today dates back to 1801, when Ireland joined Great Britain in a single kingdom. But the original flag, which was set out by royal proclamation on 12 April 1606, was subtly different, lacking the diagonal red lines - the so-called St Patrick's cross.
The flag was the result of the union of the English and Scottish monarchies in 1603, under James I (as he was in England) or James VI (as he was in Scotland).
Several designs for a new flag were drawn up in the wake of this union (see panel, above), juxtaposing the St George's cross and the St Andrew's saltire, but none quite hit the mark for James.
Instead he plumped for a simple merging effect - with the English emblem overlaying the Scottish one - mistake number one in the eyes of many Scotsmen, who couldn't understand why their flag should sit beneath not on top.
Aggrieved Scottish sailors re-drew the nascent flag their way, and stuck with it for some years.
From the outset, the union jack had been a maritime flag - to be flown by naval and civilian vessels. Its use on land had never been considered.
Royals have it
"The concept of a national flag as we know it today, to be flown from a building or a back garden, just didn't exist then, just as nations didn't really exist. It was kingdoms," says Graham Bartram, chief vexillologist, or flag expert, at the Flag Institute.
Which touches on another ambiguity, says Mr Bartram - "since England and Scotland were still separate countries at the time, James had created a flag for a country that didn't yet exist".
The union jack was a royal flag, says Mr Bartram, and, in theory at least, remains so today.
Back in the 17th Century, wily seamen were using the flag to avoid paying harbour duties - a privilege restricted to naval ships at the time. So James' successor, Charles I, ordered it be restricted to His Majesty's ships "upon pain of Our high displeasure".
Those restrictions remain, and today it is a criminal offence to fly the union jack from a boat.
The origins of the "jack" in union jack could derive from its maritime associations - a jack is a national flag flown by warships - but other theories are that it comes from the "jack-et" worn by soldiers or from the Latin or French form of James: Jacobus or Jacques.
Whatever the real explanation, the debate about what to call the flag when it is flown on land - union jack or union flag - rumbles on.
Abolished & restored
Being a royal flag, the union jack was abolished by Oliver Cromwell in 1649, before being restored along with the monarchy, 11 years later. And so it stayed.
OUT OF PROPORTION
Original proportions set down by Samuel Pepys (secretary to the Admiralty), in 1687
Roughly translated as 1:1.6
But changes in thread size have effectively made it 1:2
The sky blue of St Andrew has mutated into navy blue
In 1801 a red diagonal cross was added to represent union with Ireland and after a bit of design adjustment by the Navy it gradually, says Mr Farrow, came to be used as a land flag.
"By the 1800s, Britain was building an Empire and so it needed a flag to plant to say 'this country's ours, it belongs to the UK'."
A further boost to the union jack's fortunes came with growing need for national celebration - Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee, parties for troops returning from World War I and such like.
But even by 1918, the union jack had some way to go to being THE national flag, says Mr Farrow.
"All sorts of flags were being used at the time - red ensigns and white ensigns [both naval flags] and even the royal standard."
And while today, there's no question that the union jack is the national flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, it's got there by default rather than political will.
Sort of enshrined
No act of Parliament enshrines it as such - most countries have flag acts that set out, to the last detail, rules about their national flags. The best authority is cited in two spoken answers in Parliament - one from 1908, the other in 1933.
"There's nothing straightforward about the history. It has been adopted as our national flag without any national authority," says Mr Farrow. "Neither you or I can fly it from a boat, whereas every other country in the world, the first thing a citizen can do is fly their national flag at sea.
"And while there are many rules that govern its use at sea, there's nothing, not a jot, to say how the flag should be used on land - its proportions, its colours, when it can be flown, where it can be flown."
In theory it's a free for all. But, says Mr Farrow, the lack of explicit information has stymied the flying of the union jack rather than helped it.
"It's one of the oldest national flags in the world but a lot of people don't really feel comfortable about being able to fly it."