Union Jack flag

The Origin of the Union Jack Flag

The origin of the Union Jack flag

Whilst researching the March saints for a Tabula story, I was diverted into a story about the flag known as the Union Jack. The Union Jack consists of the flag devices of three of the four patron saints of the countries which comprise Great Britain. The feast days of two of these patron saints occur during the month of March and there is another in April. Not only is the Union Jack the official flag of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, it also appears included on 31 other flags around the world, including Australia, New Zealand and six flags of the Australian States.

The central feature of the flag is the cross of St George, patron saint of England; behind it is the cross of St Andrew representing Scotland and the cross of St Patrick representing Northern Ireland.  Unluckily for the Welsh, the fourth patron saint, St David of Wales, is not depicted on the Union Jack at all!

St David’s feast day is celebrated on 1st March.  This is considered to be the date on which he died in 589AD.  St David was famous as an ascetic and teacher. A great promoter of Celtic Christianity, he helped create twelve monasteries. The Celtic monastic community he founded at Glyn Rhosyn, Wales, became an important Christian shrine and is now the site of St David’s Cathedral.  David was canonised in 1120 by Pope Callistux II. His symbols are daffodils and leeks.

Flags and Saints

St Patrick’s feast day is the 17th March, traditionally the date of his death.  It is a public holiday in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and is celebrated in many other countries to which Irish people migrated, especially the United States.  St Patrick was a 5th century Romano-British Christian missionary and Bishop in Ireland.  Tradition tells us he spent many years evangelising in the northern half of Ireland and converted thousands to Christianity.  The story that he drove the snakes out of Ireland is considered to be an allegory relating to the defeat of Druids in Ireland (as there never were any snakes in Ireland).

St Patrick's Flag

The feast day of St George is normally celebrated on the 23rd April. However, this changes when it falls too close to Easter at which time it is celebrated on the Monday after the 2nd Sunday after Easter.  St George, as patron saint of England, is a tradition established in the Tudor period because of his popularity during the crusades.

St George flag

Finally, St Andrew’s feast day is celebrated on 30 November.  St Andrew has been honoured in Scotland for over a thousand years but it wasn’t until 1320 when Scotland’s independence was declared by the Declaration of Arbroath that he officially became Scotland’s patron saint.  The ancient university town of St Andrews is named after him as it is believed to be his final resting place.

St Andrew's flag

While many of the artefacts in the Abbey Museum collection come from Great Britain and we even have a number of objects donated to the collection by Queen Mary of Teck (the present Queen’s grandmother) there is not a single flag in sight. We do have a remarkable silk panel that was previously identified as St George. However, the image lacks most of the attributes that are usually attributed to St George – weapon, red cloak of martyrdom, white horse, and shield with the red cross of St George.  So who is it?? St Michael the Archangel? And where did it come from?

The image is a batik with additional colour possibly applied with a brush. Is it from the Arts and Crafts Movement with Pre-Raphaelite, Art Nouveau and Expressionist Influences as some have suggested. Or does it have an older and more exotic history. If you would like to wave the flag for St George join our search to unravel this mystery, is this really St George? And if so what are the origins of this beautiful work on silk?

Wax resist image on silk panel of a knightly figure, Abbey Museum collection