The flag of Great Britain, commonly known as the Union Flag, Union Jack or King’s Colors, is a maritime flag of Great Britain that was used from 1606 to 1801.
The design was ordered by King James VI and I to be used on ships on the high seas, and it subsequently came into use as a national flag following the Treaty of Union and Acts of Union 1707, gaining the status of ” the Ensign armorial of the Kingdom of Great Britain,” the newly created state.
The various settlements in the thirteen colonies were established under three different flags, the English, Dutch, and Swedish.
Development of the Union Flag
The cross of St. George, a white banner with a red cross, was adopted in 1327 (some writers favor an earlier date), as the English standard and ensign, and it continued as such until 1606. In that year King James I, whose accession to the throne in 1603 had united the kingdoms of England and Scotland, united by his royal proclamation the red cross of St. George with the cross of St. Andrew, a diagonal white cross on a blue ground (which had been adopted as the Scottish symbol in the time of the early crusades), as a distinguishing flag for all his subjects traveling by sea. This blue ensign, bearing the symbol of the union of England and Scotland, was called the King’s Colors, or Union Jack.
The King’s Colors was required to be displayed from the maintops of all British vessels; those of England, however, were to carry the St. George’s cross, and those of Scotland, the St. Andrew’s cross, in their fore-tops, to designate which section of the United Kingdom they hailed from. It is probable that the cross of St. George continued to be very generally used on land by the English subjects of Great Britain.
King Charles I was beheaded on the 30th of January, 1649, and following that event the partnership between England and Scotland was dissolved. England became a commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell, and the national standard was changed from the King’s Colors to the cross of St. George alone, as it had been before the union of the English and Scottish symbols. During the Protectorate several modifications were made in British flags. In 1660, when Charles II ascended the throne, the Union flag again came into use.
In 1707 the complete union of the kingdom of Great Britain, including England, Wales and Scotland, was established and the first Union parliament assembled. The act of Parliament which ratified this union January 17, 1707, ordained that the crosses of St. George and St. Andrew conjoined be used on all flags, banners, standards, and ensigns, both at sea and on land.
Red Ensign Flag of Great Britain
From 1707 until 1801 the Union flag was a red ensign with the symbol of the union of England and Scotland in the canton. This has since been known as the “Meteor Flag” of England.” On January 1, 1801, the cross of St. Patrick, a red diagonal saltire, on a white ground, was united with the other crosses to mark the incorporation of Ireland into the kingdom. The description of the flag as then established and as it has continued ever since is as follows:
The Union Flag shall be Azure, the Crosses Saltire of St. Andrew and St. Patrick Quarterly, per Saltire counter changed Argent and Gules: the latter fimbriated of the second, surmounted by the Cross of St. George of the third, fimbriated as the Saltire.”
The King’s Colors was adopted in the year previous to the settlement at Jamestown, Virginia; and, without doubt, the ships in which those colonists sailed flew two flags, the King’s Colors being displayed from the maintop and a St. George’s cross as a secondary banner at the fore as required by the king’s proclamation of 1606. The King’s Colors at the maintop and a St. George’s cross at the fore were hoisted over the Mayflower and other ships in which English colonists came to our shores, until the establishment of the Protectorate under Cromwell, when the cross of St. George, having again been adopted as the national standard in place of the king’s colors, was displayed from the maintop.
It will be seen that the cross of St. George was in continuous use either as a national standard, or a distinguishing banner for English ships, until 1707; when Parliament ordained that the King’s Colors should be exclusively used on all flags on land and sea.
This continued to be the flag of Great Britain until 1801, when the ensign now in use was adopted. The present ensign of Great Britain was, of course, never used by any of the American colonies, for they became independent States a quarter of a century before it was established.
When the ship Half-Moon, in command of Henry Hudson, sailed into the harbor now known as New York, in September, 1609, she displayed the flag of the Dutch East India Company, which was that of the Dutch Republic, three equal horizontal stripes, orange, white, and blue, with the addition of the letters “A. 0. C.” (Algemeene Ost-Indische Compagnie), in the centre of the white stripe. This was the flag of the colony of Manhattan, established under the auspices of the Dutch East India Company, until 1622. In that year the Dutch West India Company came into the control of the government of the colony, and the letters ” G. W. C.” (Geoctroyeerde West-Indische Compagnie) took the place of the letters ” A. 0. C.” in the white stripe.
With the change of the orange stripe for a red one in 1650, this continued to be the dominant flag until 1664, when the island was surrendered to the English and the Union flag  of England supplanted the flag of Holland. In July, 1673, the Dutch again took possession of Manhattan, which they held until November 10, 1674, when by a treaty of peace between England and Holland, the English flag was rehoisted over the city, where it continued to fly until November 25, 1783, when the Stars and Stripes was raised in its place. On the 29th of March, 1638, Swedish and Finnish colonists landed on the shore of the Delaware river, where they founded the first permanent European settlement on the bank of that stream.
This settlement (called New Sweden) was established under the Swedish national flag, which since 1523, when Sweden won her independence from Denmark, has been a yellow cross on a blue ground.
In 1655 the Dutch overpowered the residents of New Sweden, and they came under Dutch authority, which was continued until the English secured jurisdiction, which they held for more than a hundred years, when their flag was supplanted by the red, white, and blue of the American Republic.
The Union flag, or King’s Colors, as it was called, was established in the same year that the Jamestown, Virginia, expedition was chartered, but the red cross of St. George on a white ground, which preceded it as a national standard and ensign, had been so long in use that it was at that time called the ancient national flag of England. It was familiar to all, and probably some of the colonies adopted it as their emblem, while others displayed the king’s colors.
According to the Massachusetts Bay records, the red cross of St. George was in use in that colony in 1634, and probably had been for some time. The Puritans strongly objected to the red cross in the flag, not from any sense of disloyalty to the other country, but from a conscientious objection to the use of a papistical symbol, which they said was idolatrous. It had been given to an English king by a pope and blessed by a pope, and it seemed to call for obedience to Rome. That opinion does not exist to-day, for that symbol belongs to the whole world of Christians.
In November, 1634, complaint was recorded that John Endicott had defaced the English ensign at Salem by cutting out with his sword a part of the red cross in the flag that hung before the governor’s gate, declaring that it savored of popery, and he would have none of it. He was a member of the court assistants, but for this insult to the King’s Colors he was reprimanded, removed from his office, and disqualified to hold any public office for the space of one year.
In this sentiment, that his violent act indicated, Endicott was not without sympathizers; and soon after some of the militia refused to march under the symbol that was to them idolatrous. After a grave controversy, which was not concluded until some time in December, 1635, when the military commissioners “appointed colors for every company,” leaving out the red cross in all of them, it was agreed that the King’s Colors should fly from ships and be displayed over Castle Island, Boston, because the castle belonged to the King, and this flag continued in use there until the establishment of the commonwealth under Cromwell.
In 1651, when the English Parliament revived and adopted the old standard of the cross of St. George as the colors of England, the General Court of Massachusetts adopted this order:
As the Court conceive the old English colors, now used by the Parliament, to be a necessary badge of distinction betwixt the English and other nations, in all places of the world, till the state of England alter the same, which we very much desire, we, being of the same nation, have therefore ordered that the captain of the Castle shall advance the aforesaid colors of England upon all necessary occasions.”
 Some writers say that it was the cross of St. George alone, and not the King’s Colors, that was hoisted over the island.