This post is part of my irregular series on the study of flags known as vexillology. As historic rivals, I thought it appropriate to discuss the flags of the United Kingdom and France in the same post.



The United Kingdom

The United Kingdom is a sovereign state made of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales. Each of these individual nations has its own flag, and the flag of the U.K., known as the Union Jack, is a compilation of the old flags of the first three.

Like many European Christian nations, the flags of England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland displayed crosses inspired by their patron saints: red cross on white for England’s St. George, white saltire (x-oriented cross) on blue for Scotland’s St. Andrew, and red saltire on white for Ireland’s St. Patrick.

In 1603, King James VI of Scotland succeeded his aunt Queen Elizabeth I as king of England, and took the title King James I of England and Scotland. He decreed that all English and Scottish ships should fly the Union Jack, which merged the English St. Andrew’s cross with the Scottish St. Andrew’s cross, though the nations did not officially adopt the banner until their parliaments merged at Great Britain in 1707 under Queen Anne.[1]

When Ireland joined Great Britain in 1801, the state redesigned the flag to incorporate the cross of St. Patrick.

The image below summarizes these developments.

Image from Ward’s Book of Days


Through the Middle Ages, golden fleurs-de-lis against a blue-indigo background characterized the French flag. Near the end of the era, merchant ships would fly a blue flag with a white cross or a plain white flag that contrasted the English red. Foreigners came to associate white with France and, later, the aristocracy.[2]

The modern French flag is a legacy of the French Revolution of the 18th century when revolutionaries would wear cockades [a knot of ribbons typically attached to a hat] made of the signature blue and red of the Parisian coat of arms. The tricolor cockade, called la cocarde tricolore in French, emerged with the addition of white ribbons to “nationalize” the ornament.

A French revolutionary cockade (Photo from Pinterest)

The revolutionary flag was adapted from the cockade. Blue, white, and red were accepted as national colors in 1789, but their order and design on a flag was not established until February 15, 1794, when the decree of 27 Pluviôse year II created the vertical bars arranged as we know them today.[3]

Apart from the Bourbon period from 1815 – 1830, when Napolean Bonaparte used the white monarchical flag, the tricolor flag has kept its place as the national banner of France. The constitutions of 1946 and 1958 made the design official.

Other “Flag Study” posts

[1] History of the British flag
[2] History of the French flag
[3] The tricolor flag