The national flag of the United Kingdom, the Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories is the Union Flag, which may also be called the Union Jack. The first Union Flag was created in 1606 and combined the flags of England and Scotland. The present Union Flag dates from 1801 when St. Patrick’s Cross was added to represent Ireland. It then became possible to display the flag upside down. There is no Flag Act in UK law and the Union Flag is the national flag by long established custom and practice, rather than by statute.
The Flag Protocol of the United Kingdom
The national flags of the United Kingdom (ie. the Union Flag and the flags of England, Scotland and Wales) should be displayed only in a dignified manner befitting the national emblems. They should not be displayed in a position inferior to any other flag or ensign.
It is improper to use the national flags as a table or seat cover or as a masking for boxes, barriers, or the intervening space between a dais or platform and the floor. The use of any of the national flags to cover a statue, monument or plaque for an unveiling ceremony is discouraged.
Flying the Flag
Flags may be flown on every day of the year. Government and local authority buildings in England, Scotland and Wales are encouraged to fly national flags every day of the year (the flying of flags at certain locations in Northern Ireland is constrained by The Flags Regulations [Northern Ireland] 2000 and Police Emblems and Flag Regulations [Northern Ireland] 2002).
Flags are normally flown from sunrise to sunset but they may also be flown at night, when they should be illuminated.
No permission is needed to fly the national flags and they are excluded from most planning and advertising regulations (but flagpoles may not be).
National flags should never be flown in a worn or damaged condition, or when soiled. To do so is to show disrespect for the nations they represent.
Important: the Union Flag has a correct way up – in the half of the flag nearest the flagpole, the wider diagonal white stripe must be above the red diagonal stripe, as Scotland’s St Andrew’s Cross takes precedence over Ireland’s St. Patrick’s Cross. It is most improper to fly the flag upside down.
If a purely decorative effect is desired it is better to confine the display to flags of lesser status; for example, house flags, pennants or coloured bunting.
Position of Honour
The order of precedence of flags in the UK is: Royal Standards, the Union Flag, the flag of the host country (England, Scotland, Wales, etc.), flags of other nations (in alphabetical order, see the list below), the Commonwealth Flag, the European Union Flag, county flags, flags of cities or towns, banners of arms, and house flags. See Appendix B for a detailed precedence list and special precedence orders for international organizations.
When British national flags are flown with the flags of other nations each flag should be the same size (or have the same width – the measurement from top to bottom) and should fly from a separate flagpole of the same height. The UK’s flag shape of 3:5 works well with nearly all other nations’ flags and it is recommended to use these proportions if a standard size is required for all the flags in a display.
The senior British national flag (eg. the Union Flag or the flag of England, Scotland or Wales) should be raised first and lowered last, unless all the flags can be raised and lowered simultaneously. Flags should be raised and lowered in a dignified manner. An alternative British tradition for flag raising is to hoist the flag while rolled up and secured with a thin piece of cotton or a slip knot. A sharp tug of the halyard will break the cotton and release the flag to fly free. This is known as ‘breaking’ the flag, and is sometimes used to signal the beginning of an event, or the arrival of a VIP.
1. Fold in half
2. Fold in half again
3. Fold the last 1/3 inwards
4. Roll towards the heading
5. Tie with light cotton
6. The flag is now ready for breaking
National flags should be displayed as follows:
In Front of and On a Building
Where there are two or more flagpoles parallel to the building line, the senior national flag should be the first flag on the left of an observer facing the main entrance of the building. The remaining flags then appear in order of precedence from left to right.
Where there are two or more flagpoles on the forecourt of a building angled to the main entrance, the senior national flag should be flown on the outermost pole when the flagpoles are to the left of the main entrance and on the innermost pole when the flagpoles are to the right of the main entrance, as shown in the diagram.
If only one flag is to be flown and there are two flagpoles, it should be flown on the flagpole to the observer’s left. If there are more than two flagpoles, it should be flown as near as possible to the centre. This only applies when the other flagpoles remain empty. It is permissible to fly the same national flag on more than one flagpole by repeating the order of precedence.
If one flagpole is higher than the rest, then the senior national flag can fly from that flagpole; however no non-UK national flags can be flown on the other flagpoles. These can be used for more junior flags such as county and house flags. Alternatively the higher flagpole can be left empty and the remaining flagpoles used. In general when siting flagpoles it is preferable to keep them at the same level to avoid protocol restrictions.
The appropriate size of flag for any flagpole is a matter of aesthetics but, as a guide, a ground-level flagpole should have a flag whose length (its longer dimension) is no more than 1/ of the pole’s height. A flagpole on top of a building may need a larger flag because of the added height of the building.
Within a Circle of Flags
In a semi-circle of flags representing a number of nations, the senior national flag should be in the centre. The remaining flags should be placed with the next most senior flag (or first in alphabetical order if all the flags are of equal seniority) on the left of the central flag, the next on the right of the central flag, the next on the 2nd left from the central flag, and continuing to alternate left and right.
In an enclosed circle of flags representing a number of nations, the senior national flag should be flown on the flagpole immediately opposite the main entrance to the venue, or above the Royal Box if there is no main entrance. The remaining flags should be arranged as for the semi-circle of flags described above. Alternatively they can be arranged alphabetically, going clockwise.
From a Flagpole with Yardarm and Gaff
When displayed on a flagpole fitted with yardarms (horizontal cross-pieces), the senior national flag or ensign should be flown from the starboard yardarm (the right as viewed from the rear, the left as viewed from the front).
If the flagpole is fitted with a gaff (a short pole attached to the flagpole at an angle – see diagram), the senior ensign should be flown from the gaff. If there is no ensign to be flown, the gaff should be left empty and the senior national flag flown from the starboard yardarm, as described above.
A yacht club burgee or distinguishing flag can be flown from the masthead, the highest point of the flagpole.
The senior national flag should always lead in a single file of flags.
When two or more flags are carried side-by-side, the senior national flag takes the position of honour at the right-hand side of the line facing the direction of movement (the left of an observer watching the line approach).
When passing the person taking the salute the flag should be lowered so that the staff is horizontal. This can be done by simply lowering the staff straight ahead, or by lowering the staff towards the person taking the salute and then swinging it round to straight ahead. All the movements should be slow and dignified. After the salute, the flag should be raised again.
With Crossed Flags
Whenever crossed with the flag of another nation or organization, the senior national flag should be on the left of the observer facing the flag. Its staff should be in front of the staff of the other flag.
Suspended Vertically Above a Street
Care should be taken to ensure that all flags suspended vertically across a street are hung to be seen from the same direction.
Flat Against a Surface
Union Flag – If hung horizontally or vertically, the broad white diagonal should be uppermost in the top-left corner.
Other flags – If hung vertically, the edge that would normally be the top of the flag should be on the left, so, for example, ensigns have their Union Flag canton in the upper left corner. On ensigns that have an armorial badge, if possible the badge should be upright, and the correct way round.
On a Speaker’s Platform
When displayed from a staff, on a speaker’s platform, the senior national flag should be placed on the right-hand side of the speaker, and therefore to the audience’s left.
For interior or parade use a ‘dress flag’ may be used. This is sometimes made of silk or satin with a fringe around three sides. The fringe can be gold or red/white/blue for the Union Flag, red/white for St. George’s Cross, blue/white for St. Andrew’s Cross and green/white for the Red Dragon. The fringe is purely decorative.
Sometimes it may be desired to display two flags when only one flagpole is available. As long as both flags are British this is possible. The senior flag should fly at the top, with a gap of about 30cm (12”), assuming there is enough vertical space on the pole. For example, the Union Flag can be flown over the flag of England, Scotland or Wales (as shown), or over a county, city or house flag. When flags are at half-mast the lower flag must be removed.
As a Pall for a Coffin
If a national flag is to be used on a coffin, it should be placed so that the top-left corner of the flag is over the deceased’s left shoulder. The flag should be removed before interment or cremation and folded.
If the flag is to be retained by the next of kin it can be folded using the Royal Navy’s method shown here, based on a 1:2 flag (138cm x 276cm) with no fittings (ie. ropes, toggles or clips), or using the method shown above:
A Coffin with a Fitted Cover(if a flag is used, 1:2 proportions fit the shape of the coffin better)
The Union Flag is pulled taut. The Union Flag is folded in half, lengthways (Fig. 1).
Keeping the Union Flag taught it is then folded in half (lengthways) a second time (Fig. 2).
A straight fold of 1/14 of the flag’s length (20cm on a casket cover) is taken from the foot of the Union Flag (Fig. 3). This fold may not be necessary, or may need to be a different length, depending upon the shape, size and material of the flag being folded – practise first!
The first triangular fold is made ensuring it is within 5mm of the straight edge (Fig. 4).
The triangular folding procedure continues until it reaches the head of the Union Flag (Figs. 5, 6 & 7).
Any remainder is tucked away into the fold of the triangular shape (Fig. 8 & 9).
The Union Flag ready for presentation (Fig. 10).
A car flag should be placed on a staff fitted to the front-right wing, in the centre of front edge of the bonnet, or in the centre of the front edge of the roof. If two flags are to be flown, the senior flag should be on the front-right wing and the junior flag on the front-left wing.
When flags are painted onto a vehicle, or on the tail fin of an aircraft, the flag on the port side should show the obverse of the flag (ie. the flagpole on the left), while that on the starboard side should show the reverse (ie. the flagpole on the right). On surfaces perpendicular to the direction of travel (eg. the back of the vehicle) the obverse of the flag should be shown.
When flag shoulder patches are worn on uniforms the flag on the left shoulder or sleeve should show the obverse of the flag (ie. the flagpole at the wearer’s front). If there is a patch on the right shoulder or sleeve it should show the reverse of the flag (ie. still with the flagpole at the wearer’s front). If more than one flag is to be worn, the Union Flag should be at the top.
At Civilian Transport Facilities
Civilian marine facilities should fly the Civil Ensign (the undefaced Red Ensign) as their national flag, unless they belong to an organization that holds a warrant for a special ensign, when that ensign should be used instead.
Civilian air facilities, such as airports and airfields, should fly the Civil Air Ensign as their national flag, rather than the Union Flag. They may additionally fly the flag of England, Scotland or Wales and the appropriate county flag.
It is sometimes impractical to fly a full-size flag throughout the year – flags can wear out quickly, especially if they are flown in adverse conditions. Bare flagpoles are a sad sight. The pennant, or vimpel, is a solution to these problems. The long narrow streamer-like flags are designed to be left flying day and night. The optional single point attachment and the narrow tail reduce wear and their length means that they can be easily repaired.
The Royal Standard
The Royal Standard (actually the Royal Banner – a standard being an heraldic flag similar to the pennants above) should only be flown whilst the Royal person is on the premises, being hoisted (or broken) on their arrival and lowered following their departure. If the Royal person is to be present in a building, the Lord Chamberlain’s Department or the Royal person’s private secretary should be consulted. They will advise on the flag to be flown. The Royal Standard is never hoisted when the Royal person is passing in procession.
The Royal Standard takes precedence over all other flags in the United Kingdom, including the Union Flag.
The Royal Standard(in Scotland the design is different)
Flags at Half-mast
Half-mast means the flag is flown two-thirds of the way up the flagpole, with at least the height of the flag between the top of the flag and the top of the flagpole. Flags cannot be flown at half-mast on poles that are more than 45° from the vertical, but a mourning cravat can be used instead (see below).
When a flag is to be flown at half-mast, it should first be raised all the way to the top of the mast, allowed to remain there for a second and then be lowered to the half-mast position. When it is being lowered from half-mast, it should again be raised to the top of the mast for a second before being fully lowered.
When a British national flag is at half-mast, other flags on the same stand of poles should also be at half-mast or should not be flown at all. Flags of foreign nations should not be flown, unless their country is also observing mourning.
The Royal Standard never flies at half-mast. It represents the Monarchy, which is continuous, and it would therefore be inappropriate for it to fly at half-mast.
Flags should be flown at half-mast on the following occasions:
- From the announcement of the death until the funeral of the Sovereign, except on Proclamation Day when flags are flown at full-mast following the proclamation.
- From the announcement of the death until the funeral of a member of the Royal Family styled ‘Royal Highness’, subject to special commands from the Sovereign in each case.
- On the day of the announcement of the death and on the day of the funeral of other members of the Royal Family, subject to special commands from the Sovereign in each case.
- The funerals of foreign Rulers, subject to special commands from the Sovereign in each case.
- The funerals of Prime Ministers and ex-Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom, subject to special commands from the Sovereign in each case.
- The funerals of First Ministers and ex-First Ministers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, subject to special commands from the Sovereign in each case. Unless otherwise commanded by the Sovereign, this only applies to flags in their respective countries.
- At British Embassies, High Commissions and Missions when flags in the host country are flown at half-mast, subject to the discretion of the Chef de Mission.
- Any other occasions where the Sovereign has given a special command.
If the body of a very distinguished citizen is lying in a building, the flag should fly at half-mast on that building until the body has left.
An alternative mark of mourning, used when half-masting is unsuitable, is to add a black cravat or ribbon to the top of the flag, at the hoist.
The above cover Royal and National Mourning, but flags may be flown at half-mast on private or non-Government buildings on other relevant occasions. Flags fly at full-mast on Remembrance Sunday.
The Proper Disposal of Flags
When a flag becomes tattered or faded and is no longer in a suitable condition for use, it should be destroyed in a dignified way, for example by burning, tearing or cutting into strips that no longer resemble the original flag.