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Drawing The Union Jack Accurately

Julian D. A. Wiseman

Contents: The Union Jack in PostScript, Description of correct construction, A frequently-seen error, Areas of the various parts of the flag

Publication history: only here. Usual disclaimer and copyright terms apply.


The flag of the United Kingdom, the Union Jack, is a superposition of the flags of Saint George (for England), Saint Andrew (for Scotland) and Saint Patrick (for Ireland). This superposition is quite intricate, and often drawn incorrectly.

The next diagram shows the correct construction:

The Union Jack, with construction lines

The flag is twice as wide as it is high. The cross of St George is red, and has width equal to one fifth the flag's height, and a white border of width one fifteenth the height.

The cross of St Andrew is interchanged with that of St Patrick. Start by drawing the diagonals of the whole flag, and then the lines parallel to these that are at a distance of one tenth and one fifteenth the height of the flag. (For clarity the diagram also shows the lines that are apart from the diagonals by only one-thirtieth the height.) On the flag-pole side fill red the diagonally-orientated area of width one fifteenth the height that lies below the diagonals, and on the non-flag-pole side, the diagonally-orientated area of width one fifteenth the height that lies above the diagonals. Finally, fill blue everywhere that is both more than one-tenth the height away from the diagonals, and more than one fifteenth the height away from the red of the cross of St George.

The blue should be Pantone 280, approximated here with an RGB setting of 0:0:102, and the red should be Pantone 186, approximated here with 204:0:0. (Thanks for drawing my attention to the colours goes to Graham Bartram, who maintains a site with excellent images of UK flags at www.flags.net/UNKG.htm.)

Part of an incorrectly-drawn Union Jack The Union Jack is often drawn incorrectly. The ellipse on the left shows a typical error, in which (wrongly) the cross of St Patrick abuts at a right-angle to the white edge of the cross of St George.

In the 2:1 version of the flag (which is what you want unless you really know otherwise) the four red parts of the cross of St Patrick should always be quadrilaterals. Two of the quadrilaterals have two sides parallel and two perpendicular; the other two have both pairs of non-adjacent sides parallel. The four red parts of the cross of St Patrick should not be pentagons or hexagons, although are often drawn that way.

Areas. If the flag is drawn 60 by 30 as in the top diagram, then the various parts have areas as follows, where s is the positive square root of five. The red of the cross of St George is of area 504 square units. The blue of the cross of St Andrew is in eight pieces, four larger and four smaller. The larger pieces each have area (335-75s)/2; the smaller each 445/4-30s; giving a total blue area of 1115-270s, which, at about 511.261646 square units, is slightly more than 1.44% larger than the cross of St George. The red of St Patrick is in four pieces, two larger and two smaller, these respectively each having area 20s and 20s-5; for a total of 80s-10, about 168.8854382 square units. Thus the flag is red : white : blue in the proportions 494+80s : 191+190s : 1115-270s, or about 37.38% : 34.21% : 28.4%.

The author is occasionally asked which of "Union Jack" and "Union Flag" is the correct name. The Flag Institute answers as follows:

It is often stated that the Union Flag should only be described as the Union Jack when flown in the bows of a warship, but this is a relatively recent idea. From early in its life the Admiralty itself frequently referred to the flag as the Union Jack, whatever its use, and in 1902 an Admiralty Circular announced that Their Lordships had decided that either name could be used officially. Such use was given Parliamentary approval in 1908 when it was stated that "the Union Jack should be regarded as the National flag".

However, the Royal Navy disagrees:

The national flag of the United Kingdom is worn as a Jack at the bow by all HM ships in commission when alongside or when 'dressed overall'. This is the only occasion when it is correctly called the Union Jack, although it is generally known by this name through common usage. It is also flown during Courts Martial and is the Distinguishing Flag of an Admiral of the Fleet.

The author enquired of the Royal Navy about this apparent disagreement, asking which of the Flag Institute and the Royal Navy is right? The Naval Historic Branch directly, of 3-5 Great Scotland Yard London SW1A 2HW, answered as follows:

Both and neither. A jack is a sea flag, a small flag, generally rather square in its proportions, flown from a flagstaff rigged on the bowsprit or stem of the vessel. The earliest known reference to a 'jack' of such a type occurs in 1633, the first reference to the Union (rather than the 'Britain' or 'British' flag) dating from 1625 - the Union Flag and the naval jack are much the same age. The jack was initially simply a particular instance of the Union Flag, but as the distinctive flag of warships it quickly became an exceptionally well-known instance. Technically, all Union Jacks are Union Flags, but not vice versa. It is a fine point and one that was much argued over, but it is beyond question that the habit of treating the two terms as interchangeable developed early, and it would not be difficult to multiply instances of individuals who undoubtedly did understand the distinction nevertheless following common usage and using the term Union Jack when Union Flag is clearly meant.
The RN website is quite right in that the Union Jack flown in the bows of commissioned ships is the only one which really is a jack (unless you count the white-bordered pilot jack), but not quite so on that being the only occasion when it is 'correctly' so called - because the Flag Institute is right that the use of Union Jack to mean any Union Flag has been sanctioned both by the Admiralty and by Parliament. Equally, it is questionable to suggest that the distinction between Union Jack and Union Flag is of particularly recent origin - the Union Flag was also employed as a command flag, and there was (and is!) a necessary differentiation to be made, so it is possible that both websites could have chosen their words better, but it would also be difficult to avoid questions like this arising without going into quite inordinate detail.

Learned comment on the Union Jack and its many variants can be found at flagspot.net/flags/gb.html, which in turn links to some specifications at flagspot.net/flags/gb-templ.html. Further information on its history and use can be found at the official website of the British Monarchy.

Also available on this site is a PostScript version of the Union Jack, and a plain text version suitable for converting to emoticons.

Julian D. A. Wiseman, November 1999