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Which ensign should I fly?

The whole issue of which ensign to wear is one fraught with difficulty. It marks out the 'amateur' if you are not flying it properly. To even get to first base, you need to understand a bit of the history. According to, an ensign is a distinguishing token, emblem, badge, or flag such as a symbol of office. The word is derived from the French enseigne from the Latin plural insignia and is more particularly used of a military or naval standard or banner. An armorial ensign applies specifically to heraldic symbols of an army.

In nautical use, an ensign in the form of a flag is usually flown at the stern of a ship or boat to indicate its nationality. Ensigns may also be flown from the gaff of a ship, and may be shifted to the yardarm when the ship is underway.

In 1627 the English Fleet (as it was then) was divided into three squadrons, the Red, Blue and White, in that order or seniority, and each had an English ensign in the appropriate colour with St George's Cross in the top corner. By 1653 the order of seniority had been changed to Red, White and Blue and in 1702 a large red cross was placed on the White Ensign to differentiate it from the French ensign, which at the time was plain white. In 1707, following the political union of England and Scotland, the three ensigns came to bear the Union Flag in the top corner as they do this day. In 1801 the additional red diagonal of St Patrick's Cross was added to the Union Flag and the three ensigns then took their modern form.

Nelson was the Vice Admiral of the White Squadron, so Trafalgar was fought under the White Ensign in 1805 rather than the Red or Blue one. In 1864 the squadron system was abandoned and the entire Royal Navy adopted the White Ensign, meanwhile the Merchant Navy was allocated the Red Ensign, and the Blue Ensign was reserved for non-military government ships. During the years since then a large number of special ensigns have been created for many organisations (including yacht clubs and government departments) whose badges have been placed onto a blue or red ensign to create a new and distinctive flag.

The White Ensign remains the premier British maritime flag and is worn by all Her Majesty's ships. Several other nations have developed their own versions of the White Ensign including Australia, India, Jamaica and Nigeria

In British maritime law and custom, the ensign proper to a British ship is one of several flags with a red, white or blue field, with the Union Flag in the canton (the upper corner next the staff), known as the red, blue and white ensigns respectively. Outside the nautical sphere, there are some flags which are modelled on the red, white and blue ensigns, but which use more unusual colours, e.g. the sky blue of the Royal Air Force ensign.

British ensigns currently in use can be classified into five categories, in descending order of exclusiveness:

the White Ensign
the Blue Ensign
the Blue Ensign defaced
the Red Ensign defaced
the Red Ensign

Since the reorganisation of the Royal Navy in 1864, the White Ensign has been restricted to ships of the Royal Navy and their boats. The Royal Yacht Squadron also fly the white ensign by special dispensation.

The Blue Ensign undefaced is worn masters of vessels in possession of a warrant issued by the Director of Naval Reserves, and by the members of certain yacht clubs. Such warrants are issued to officers in the active or retired lists of the Royal Naval Reserve and the maritime reserve forces of other Commonwealth Realms and territories. The master must be of the rank of Lieutenant RN or above, and fishing vessels must be crewed by at least four other Royal Naval reservists or pensioners.

British government departments use a variety of blue ensigns defaced in the fly with the department badge, and colonial governments use blue ensigns defaced with the colonial badge. The flag of Australia and those of its states as well as the flag of New Zealand are defaced blue ensigns. Several yacht clubs are also entitled to fly blue ensigns defaced by their club badge.

The Red Ensign defaced by a badge is flown by Trinity House and various organisations and yacht clubs. Merchant ships and private vessels registered in British colonies and dependencies, and in several Commonwealth realms, fly the Red Ensign defaced by the badge of their territory.

The Red Ensign undefaced is for the use of all other British Merchant Navy ships and private craft. The Red Ensign is the correct flag to be worn as courtesy flag by foreign private vessels in United Kingdom waters.

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