Three years after James VI of Scotland headed south to take the English throne, the king and his advisers contemplated a question that would have enormously long-lasting consequences. Although the two kingdoms remained separate jurisdictions, should their ships fly the same flag?
The issue might seem academic, but after reports of altercations between English and Scottish ships, the king was keen to find a symbol of harmony. For months his courtiers discussed various designs, and at last, in the spring of 1606, they came up with a winner.
On 12 April, then, James VI and I issued a proclamation, “declaring what Flags South and North Britons shall bear at Sea”. It was evident, he said, that “some difference has arisen between our Subjects of South and North Britain, Travelling by Sea, about the bearing of their flags”. So “henceforth all our subjects of this Isle and Kingdom of Great Britain” should fly from the maintop “the Red Cross, commonly called St George’s Cross, and the White Cross, commonly called St Andrew’s Cross, joined together”.
The exact original design is now lost, but it was probably very similar to the flag generally flown before 1801, when it was adapted to include the cross of St Patrick. And to settle a hoary old question: was it the union flag, or the union jack? The answer is simple. For the first few years, at least, nobody called it either.