No. 11 AREA

 British Naval Ensigns

Naval Ensigns

An ensign in British maritime law and custom, is the identifying flag flown to designate a British ship, either military or civilian. Such flags display the United Kingdom Union Flag in the canton (the upper corner next to the staff), with either a red, white or blue field, dependent on whether the vessel is civilian, naval, or in a special category. These are known as the red, white, and blue ensigns respectively.

Outside the nautical sphere, ensigns are used to designate many other military units, government departments and administrative divisions. These flags are modelled on the red, white, and blue naval ensigns, but may use different colours for the field, and be "defaced" by the addition of a badge or symbol, for example the gold anchor of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary.

Today's white ensign, as used by Royal Navy ships, incorporates the St George's Cross (St George's Ensign). British yachts owned by members of the Royal Yacht Squadron are authorised to apply for a permit to wear this ensign. Defaced white ensigns include that of the British Antarctic Territory.

The Union Flag (also known as the Union Jack) should only be flown as a jack by Royal Navy ships when moored, at anchor, while underway and dressed with masthead ensigns or if the Monarch or an Admiral of the Fleet is on board. The Union Flag may also signal that a court martial is in progress. Use of the Union Flag as an ensign on a civilian craft remains illegal to this day, ever since Charles I ordered it be restricted to His Majesty's ships "upon pain of Our high displeasure" in the 17th century, mainly due to its unauthorised use by merchant mariners to avoid paying harbour duties by passing themselves off as Royal vessels.

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

  • White Ensign
  • Blue Ensign
  • Blue Ensign defaced
  • Red Ensign defaced
  • Red Ensign

The traditional order of seniority was red, white and blue, with the red as the senior ensign.

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

The Blue Ensign (undefaced) is worn by 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. The Ensign of the Sea Cadet Corps is a blue ensign defaced by the SCC 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. Merchant vessels from British overseas territories and Crown dependencies are entitled to red ensigns defaced with the badge of their territory.

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