The birthday of the world’s most famous naval standard will be celebrated today as naval and political leaders gather to mark the 150th anniversary of the White Ensign.
On July 9 1864, the Admiralty ruled that the flag – flown by all serving Royal UK Navy warships, ship’s boats, Royal Marines craft, naval bases and establishments at home and overseas – would become the Service’s only standard, marking it apart from the merchant fleet.
In the 150 years since, the White Ensign has become the iconic symbol of British seapower – and has spawned similar naval flags, particularly in Commonwealth countries.
To celebrate its importance past and present, First Sea Lord Admiral Sir George Zambellas, Second Sea Lord Vice Admiral David Steel and Armed Forces Minister Mark Francois will join members of the White Ensign Association and Royal Navy and Royal Marines Charity at an event at London’s reservist unit HMS President, near Tower Bridge.
Today’s ensign – the cross of St George on a white background with the Union Flag in the upper canton – traces its history back more than 300 years and assumed its current form at the beginning of the 19th Century following the Act of Union.
At the time, ships of the Royal Navy flew Red, White or Blue Ensigns – according to the three squadrons in the Fleet at the time and the seniority of the admiral in charge (Nelson at Trafalgar, for example, was an Admiral of the Red).
In addition, the Red Ensign had been flown by merchant ships since at least the reign of Charles II.
To clear up any confusion, in 1864 the Admiralty finally ruled that the Royal Navy alone would fly the White Ensign, as it does to this day – although there are a few exceptions, such as vessels of the Royal Yacht Squadron and Trinity House ships when escorting the monarch are allowed to raise the White Ensign.
The flag also flies at the Cenotaph in Whitehall as well as the MOD’s main building, St Martin in the Fields Church in Trafalgar Square and the Fleet Air Arm Chapel in Yeovilton – the official houses of worship of the Naval Service and naval aviation respectively – WW2 destroyer HMS Cavalier, now a museum in Chatham, and wartime cruiser HMS Belfast, which is also the headquarters of the White Ensign Association.
Press Release, July 09, 2014; Image: UK Navy