The White Ensign

The White Ensign or St George Ensign, was first used in the 16th century and were often striped in green and whiter (the Tudor colours), but other colours were also used to indicate different squadrons, including blue, red and tawny brown ( These striped ensigns can be seen in use on both English and Spanish warships in contemporary paintings of the 1588 Spanish Armada battles) Later, there was usually a St Georges Cross in the upper canton, or sewn across the field as on the modern White Ensign. These striped ensigns continued in use under the Stuart Kings: the Naval ensign of 1623 is described as having “15 horizontal strips alternately blue, white and yellow with a Cross of St George in the canton” After 1630, with the introduction of the Red, White and Blue ensigns, there striped ensign with a Union flag in the canton was adopted as the flag of the Honourable East India Company. The 13 Red and White strips of this flag were copied for the first flag of the United States of America in 1776 and remain in use to the present day. A red, white and blue striped ensign has also been retained as the flag of Hawaii.

The first recognised White Ensign appears to have been in use during the 16th century consisting of a white field with a broad St Georges cross, a second St Georges cross in the canton. But 1630 the white ensign consisted of simply a white field with a small St Georges cross in the canton, which consistent with the red and blue ensigns of the time. In 1707, the St Georges cross was reintroduced to the flag as a whole, though not as broad as before, and the union Flag was placed in the canton. There was also a version of this flag without the overall St Georges cross, which appears to have been in use in home waters only, though this flag appears to have fallen out of use by 1720. In 1801, after the Act of Union 1800, the flag was updated to include the new Union flag in the canton, and so took the form as used today. The blue field of the Union was darkened at this time at the request of the Admiralty, in the hope that the new flags would not require replacing as often as the previous design, due to the fading of the blue. From 1687 to 1837 the ensign changes size several times. The current size, as it is today was not until 1837. The breath was reduced for the final time to 9 inches, giving the current ratio of 1:2

Throughout this period in the history of the Royal Navy, the White Ensign was one of three ensigns in use, with each one being assigned to one of the three squadrons of the navy, according to its colour,( red, white and blue, with red being the most senior and blue the least). Ships flew the colour of ensign corresponding to the squadron to which they were attached, which was in turn determined by the seniority of the Admiral under whose command the ship sailed (a rear admiral of the red was senior to a rear admiral of the white)

In 1864 the Admiralty decided to end the ambiguity caused by the Red Ensign being both a civil ensign and a naval ensign, and the White Ensign was reserved to the Royal Navy; the relevant Order in Council retained the option to use the Red or Blue Ensigns in HM Ships if desired.

Brunel’s SS Great Britain, although a merchant ship, appears to have worn (and still wears, in dry dock) the White Ensign, apparently because it’s first master (an ex Royal Navy man) brought it with him.

St Martins-in-the-Fields church in Trafalgar Square London, which is the church of the parish of the Admiralty, may also fly the White Ensign.

Special permission was also granted to any individual or body to fly the White Ensign to mark Trafalgar Day in 2006.

The US destroyer Winston S Churchill is the only warship to fly the White Ensign long with the Stars and Strips to honour her British name sake.

In 1965 Canada stopped using the White Ensign and adopted their own. This continued to change until this year. In 2013 the Canadian “white ensign” became the ensign and the national flag the jack. Many Canadian veterans’ organisations still use the White and Blue ensigns unofficially as symbols of history and heritage.

During the conflict with Vietnam the RAN & RNZN modified the White Ensign so as to avoid confusion with British vessels which were not involved in the conflict.

Many other Commonwealth navies also use naval ensigns with a visual connection to the White Ensign, India, S. Africa, Barbados, Fijian, Jamaican and Sri Lanka

RNA Norwich

The Norwich Branch is one of 300+ branches of the Royal Naval Association world wide. It was commissioned in 1979 and today has a membership of just over 90. It is a registered charity in its own right - the Registered Charity Number is: 1068699

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