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The Three Crosses of the Union Jack

The Union Jack, or Union Flag, is supposed to represent the four countries that make up the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland: England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. However, the Union Jack doesn't include a national symbol for Wales, something that is often confusing:

  • "The fluttering banners are the English flag, a red cross on a white background called the St. George's flag in honor of England's patron saint. More famous is the Union Flag, known colloquially as the Union Jack, the red, white and blue banner that represents all of Britain—England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland."—Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan, "For Fans, It's Time to Let It Fly: Blowing Past Tradition, Flags Are on Display Across England as Cup Arrives," The Washington Post, June 11, 2006, p. E02.
  • "The white flag with a thin red cross in front of Currysource, 88 Bergen Street (Smith Street), in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, puzzles shoppers. 'It's the English flag, the Cross of St. George,' explained Gary Dovey, the owner, at left with his wife, Jilly Stephens. 'What you think of as the English flag is the Union Jack,' which represents England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales."—Florence Fabricant, "British India Comes to Boerum Hill," The New York Times, July 16, 2003.

However, this isn't just something that American reporters get wrong, it is a current sore-point politically in the United Kingdom:

  • "Why is it that the Welsh flag, the cross of St David, is not included in the union flag? The flag shows the crosses of the three kingdoms of the union: England, Scotland and Ireland (it has been out of date since the creation of the Irish republic). The Welsh cross is not included because Wales, a conquered principality, was not a kingdom when the union flag was created or modified. The story is told in Richard Weight's Patriots (Macmillan, 2002): "The red dragon on a green and white background was the standard of Henry Tudor, adapted from those used by medieval Welsh princes. On taking the English throne, Henry introduced the dragon into the royal standard of England. However, when the Stuarts succeeded the Tudors, they replaced it with the Scottish unicorn. Worse still, James VI did not include the Welsh flag in the first union jack designed in 1606 marking the union with Scotland; nor was it included by George III in 1801 when the flag was redesigned to mark the union with Ireland ... In 1897, 1901, 1910, 1935 and 1945 the Welsh petitioned the government to have the dragon incorporated once more into the Royal Arms. The Garter King of Arms, Sir Algar Howard, told the Home Office [on 24 May 1945]: 'There is no more reason to add Wales to the King's style than there would be to add Mercia, Wessex or Northumbria.'"—N Blake, London N1, "Letters to the Editor," The Guardian (UK), May 23, 2002.
  • "It is, quite simply, brain-scrambling to think that, in 2007, Wales still finds itself unrepresented on the Union Jack. What else does our age pride itself on, if not the successful creation of dynamic brand awareness within the terms of an original corporate brief? Yet the UK's big logo—the flag that goes about the world saying, 'UK'—is an entire constituent member light, and the country that gave us not only Gavin Henson but also the coracle doesn't have so much as a strip along the bottom driving its franchise forward...Anyway, Margaret Hodge, the Culture Minister, has now promised Welsh MPs that 'the issue of the design of the Union Flag will be considered' and is ready to 'think of a new design that would meet everyone's aspiration'. The feeling is that introducing the yellow and black cross of St David would be too complicated and invite visual chaos, so there is backing for using the Welsh dragon instead. But where are you going to put it? In the middle? No disresprect, but that's a little too central, isn't it? And the Scottish won't like it. They'll be under St George and a dragon."—Giles Smith, "Flag crisis: try the inflatable option," The Times (UK), November 29, 2007.

How It's Used

"The earliest version, ordered by King James I in 1606 for the jackstaff of his warships, combines the crosses of St. George of England and St. Andrew of Scotland. The Scots were ticked off that their national flag was placed under that of the English, and the whole design was unpicked again by Oliver Cromwell, with several quartered versions, the worst featuring St. George twice, St. Andrew in the top right corner, an Irish harp in the bottom left and the white lion rampant of the Lord Protector on a shield in the middle.

"The restoration brought back both the monarchy and the old flag. The present flag dates from the union with Ireland in 1800, a design so fraught with complications that the College of Heralds was given the task of starting again.

"The Union Jack we know today first appears in the accounts of the Privy Council for 1800. Draft Mark 'C' takes the Cross of St. Andrew and the Cross of St. Patrick and join them in a style known as 'counter-changing,' so that each colour is uppermost in two quarters. The central join, disconcertingly resembling a swastika, is hidden by the Cross of St. George with a white border."

—James Langton, "Red, White and Beleaguered: Britain wonders if it's time to haul down the Union Jack," The Globe and Mail, June 10, 1995, p. D1.

"One shouldn't make a joke of a national flag, and our flying this one was close to insolence. Going round the National Gallery's "Making and Meaning" show devoted to the Wilton Diptych a couple of years ago, I became entranced by the beauty and symbolism of the flag of St George: the red cross on a white background. So this year I bought one in Hereford. To a modern eye, it is, of course, the flag of England. Well, perhaps not, actually. One woman came to the tent the other evening and asked if the flag was that of Switzerland. Or perhaps Britain? So I delivered a little lecture about the Union Jack. It was derived, I bored on, from the crosses of St George, St Patrick and St Andrew. So what about the Welsh, she asked? I was stumped, and then realised that the Welsh presumably aren't on the Union flag because they are a principality, not a nation."

—Richard D. North, "Fate of the Union Jack," The Independent (UK), August 16, 1995.

"In heraldic terms the Union Jack is: blazoned azure, the Crosses saltire of St Andrew and St Patrick countercharged Azure and Gules, the latter fimbriated of the second, surmounted by the Cross of St George of the third, fimbriated as the saltire. The Welsh dragon was not incorporated in the flag because in 1606 the principality was already united after England conquered Wales in the 13th century and Henry VIII established an Act of Union in 1536."

—Tom Elsom, "UK's enduring flag a Jack of all trades," The Daily Telegraph (Australia), April 12, 2006.

"The people [British], however, didn't exactly possess it to begin with. Many don't like what it stands for. A fair number aren't sure when, or if, the law lets them unfurl it. Quite a few haven't the foggiest idea which side of it is up.

"The Union Jack isn't Britain's official flag; the country doesn't have one. The Union Jack is really a three-flag combo: crosses of St. George (England), St. Andrew (Scotland) and St. Patrick (Ireland) laid on top of each other; Wales, a principality, didn't fit in. This snug pattern dates from the 1801 union with Ireland. For a century, though, the Union flag waved mainly for the military. A small version -- a jack -- flew from a short pole -- a jack-staff -- on the bows of naval ships in port. Thus the nickname. But if a citizen of 100 years ago put up a Union Jack, the police, citing military prerogative, would pull it down."

—Barry Newman, "The British Display Of the Union Jack Is Unflappably Static—A Tory Tries to Raise Interest But Is Left Red-Faced: Flag Makers Get the Blues," The Wall Street Journal, November 7, 1996, p. A1.

"Nick Groom's elegant account of the emergence of the flag doubles as an excellent guide to the mutating meanings of Britishness. The book emphasises the importance of continuous migration and travel to the construction of the nation, neatly illustrated by the flag's combination of the symbolism of St George (most probably a Palestinian), St Patrick (a Romano-Briton) and St Andrew (who hailed from that distinctly Scottish region of Galilee). As one of the most potent symbols of the nation, the Union flag has multiple histories; and 'the enthusiasm with which it is regularly appropriated and reinvented', Groom writes, 'is only possible because [it] has never been a simple flag'."

—Jo Littler, "Guardian Review Pages: Non-Fiction," The Guardian (UK), April 28, 2007.


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