The European Union Flag

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Technically, it’s not a flag.

It sure looks like one, doesn’t it? Well, it’s actually an emblem, suitable for displaying on a rectangular piece of cloth, according to the designer. So … that sounds like one, too, doesn’t it? Yes, except that the various members of the European Union were always concerned about losing their individual identities as nations and having their flags replaced. Which seems, honestly, exactly like what a union of member states ought to be doing, right? But in order to assuage such fears, the emblem is referred to as something that specifically is not a flag, so that can’t happen now.

Except that it pretty much has, even if it isn’t made out to be a big deal. The EU emblem is in flag form pretty much anywhere you want to look for it. It flies over the member countries’ capital cities; it flies over the United Nations; it shows up in sporting events; and everyone who isn’t a member country thinks of it as a flag, and everything’s fine.

And everything is fine with it, largely because there’s nothing that can be wrong with it. The entire emblem’s design and genesis is so softly rounded that there’s no danger of anyone being angered or offended by it. It means nothing and stands for nothing, really. Let’s look briefly at its history; it’s much older than you may have realized.

Designed for the Council of Europe after World War II, the emblem was the culmination of several attempts to make a symbol that wouldn’t offend any of the member countries. Previous attempts had included:

A red cross in a yellow circle on a blue background, which was rejected because Turkey, one of the fifteen member countries, objected to the cross as a de facto Christian symbol.

  • A giant green capital letter E on a white background, which was rejected originally because it was a giant red E, and, when the wind wasn’t blowing, it looked pretty much like a Communist flag; then later was rejected because it was a terrible idea, and looked terrible, and made everyone feel dumber just for having agreed to look at it.
  • A circle of eight linked white rings on a blue background, which was rejected for looking like too many other possible things, including the number zero or a chain.
  • A single yellow star on a blue background, which was rejected for basically being the existing flag of the Belgian Congo.
  • An abstract representation of the capital cities of the member nations on a blue background, as stars in their appropriate areas, with no country outlines, which was rejected for being a little too abstract.

Plus a number of others that were never even going to make it all the way to the rejection stage. But Paul Levy was walking through Brussels one day in 1955 and saw a halo of stars surrounding the head of a statue of the Virgin Mary, and suggested to Léon Marchal, the designer, that he propose a circle of fifteen stars for the emblem, or so the story goes; there are several variants of this origin circulating, not all of which can agree on who saw the statue.

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The blue background is primarily simply a compromise because no other major flag was using a predominantly blue background (although the United Nations flag is blue and some sites claim that “blue is … traditionally the color of the European continent”). There were originally fifteen stars in the circle, but Germany was concerned that if one of the stars represented the Saarland, the tiny, disputed strip of land between France and Germany, it would start to think of itself as an country and not part of Germany, and thus would never return like it was supposed to, as soon as it got sick of France.

As a consequence of this, if there were only fourteen stars, that meant that the Saarland wasn’t getting a star, and so they would veto the new proposal. Thirteen was straight out, since superstition was apparently still dominating world decisions. Twelve, however, was a number with so many possible meanings that it couldn’t possibly be taken poorly: if you didn’t like one interpretation of the twelve stars, you could come up with one you did like in short order.

Then, after all that, nobody even really used the emblem until over thirty years later, when the European Economic Community teamed up with the Council of Europe to start to evolve into what we think of as the European Union. But you can’t really call it a flag. That’s something we can all agree on.

History of the Union Jack

Union_flag_1606_(Kings_Colors).svgFor a small set of islands of the Northwest coast of Europe, with a total landmass not much greater than that of Utah, the peoples of the United Kingdom have had a profound impact on the history of the modern world. In the 19th century it was said that the sun never set on the British Empire, as its reach spread vastly overseas with conquests and colonies spanning the globe. It would not be a stretch to say then that during this time the flag of the United Kingdom, the Union Jack, was the most recognizable flag in the world.

The Union Jack, though, has its own history, and has undergone a series of evolutions that mirror the history and evolution – often contentious, always fascinating – of the nation(s) it represents.

Although the influence of the Empire, now a Commonwealth of Nations, has lessened over time, the Union Jack is still known and flown around the world. In fact, not only is it the flag of the United Kingdom, but its image is also used as part of other flags around the globe, from other national and territorial flags (Australia, New Zealand, Bermuda, etc.), to Canadian provinces (British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario), and even towns in the United States (Taunton, Massachusetts and Baton Rouge, Louisiana).

The Cross of St. George

This simple design, a red cross on a white background, would have an intensely complex impact around the world. Initially used to identify the Knights Templar, and hearkening to the Second Crusade, the Cross of St. George symbolized what it was to be a warrior and a knight.

St. George himself has a vast array of lore associated with him. Whether your tastes run to last minute rescues on the battlefield, or defeating dragons and liberating maidens, there’s something to inspire you – or at least capture your imagination.

England adopted this symbol informally as a way for English soldiers to identify each other upon the field of battle. Within a hundred years, St. George was adopted as England’s patron saint, and the red-on-white design was firmly entrenched in English culture.

Queen Elizabeth I Passes the Crown: Scotland Joins

Though arguably a cunning leader and undoubtedly inspiring, Queen Elizabeth I left a tangled problem after her death in 1603: no heir. Instead, the crown passed to her cousin, King James VI of Scotland. This was at first just a personal connection, not  necessarily a political one (much like having the same math teacher, but at different times of day). But, by 1606, James VI, now King James I of England, consolidated his rule and ordered a combined flag to be commissioned. In it, the red-on-white Cross of St. George would be counterposed on top of the blue-and-white saltire (that’s heraldic speak for “x-shaped cross”) of Scotland’s St. Andrew. The Great Union Flag, as it was called in the beginning, would fly unchanged for 200 years until its next major evolution.

There is some irregularity as to when the name “Union Jack” became standardized, and what actually constituted a Union Jack. Part of the problem stems from the fact that a nautical bow flag is known as a “jack.” It was known for some time rather formally as “His Majesty’s Jack,” but, by 1674, the name had stuck quite firmly. What is known is that the name stems from a small pun: Jack being a shortened form of Jacobus (Latin for James), and therefore referencing His Majesty King James I forevermore in the banner.

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An Alternate Union: The Scots Weigh In

Some controversy did arise when the first Union Flag was adopted. The Scots were not pleased to be joined with the English; they were also not particularly happy that the Cross of St. George got slapped over top of their Cross of St. Andrew. 

After all, both countries were united under a Scottish king. Why should the English get precedence? In this light, an alternative flag was proposed, with the Scots’ white Saltire Cross overlaying the red of St. George. Though never officially used, it remains an interesting footnote in the history of things that could have happened, and was occasionally spotted flying in unofficial capacity over private Scottish vessels.

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The Cross of St. Patrick and Ireland

In 1801 Ireland was fused politically to England and Scotland to become the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. St. Patrick’s red-on-white saltire would be added to the overall design. This addition made it possible to now fly the Union Jack upside down, but the difference is so subtle that it often slips by in some official capacities. This is the Union Jack so very familiar to us all, and the one associated with so much daring, exploration, military conquest, and colonization.

King George III ushered this flag upon the global stage during his time upon the throne. During his lengthy reign, the Union Jack would mark the British as they engaged in military conquests and conflicts. This was also the flag and the king that the United States of America would eventually rebel against and secede from during the American Revolutionary War.

Modern Usage

While being less warlike than in previous centuries, the presentation of the Union Jack has become a common theme in popular culture. From the mid-1960s the British Invasion of music would bring the Beatles, the Who, the Rolling Stones, and the Union Jack into just about every home in America. Today, the Union Jack might be one of the most popular designs to be incorporated into products, from t-shirts and jackets, to household linens and beachwear.

A Last Note

Even though the United Kingdom is a very modern country now, its flag (and all other flags) are still described in ancient heraldic convention. It’s practically a language in and of itself. So, with the clues that blue=azure, white=argent, and red=gules, the official description of the Union Jack goes as follows:

‘Blazoned: Azure, the Crosses Satire of St. Andrew and St. Patrick, quarterly per Saltire, counterchanged Argent and Gules, the latter fimbriated of the second, surmounted by the Cross of St. George of the third, fimbriated as the Saltire.’

Pretty peculiar sounding, isn’t it? But much like the British Empire itself, the flag and its description encapsulate a much larger concept, and one that continues to impact the modern world.

Flags, Heraldry and the Origins of the Banners We Fly

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Today, many families carefully research and proudly display the crests and mottoes of their ancestors, and pore through family trees to trace the genealogy of their families. A sense of belonging is a basic need, and knowing our origins is a way to connect with those who came before us. While still feeling American first, knowing the nationality of our ancestors helps with that sense of belonging, and many Americans proudly recognize and celebrate the cultures from which they came. Celebrating St. Patrick’s day decked out in green or having a margarita on Cinco de Mayo, we can be proud of where we came from. Flying a flag in honor of our family’s origins is a special way to demonstrate that sense of belonging, and AmericanFlags.com makes this easy with its offerings of a wide range of international flags.

National Flags

While learning about one’s own origins, it will become apparent that many national flags seem to have common origins, with many colors, patterns, and emblems all held in common. As with the genealogy of people, national flags have a genealogy—a history of their own.

The genesis of the national flag can be found in the battlefields of antiquity and in the pageantry of the middle ages. The popular image of the medieval knight in shining armor evokes a sense of romance, of valor, of men at arms fighting for the honor of a fair maiden. A closer look at the medieval knight though will show that their equipment was not just designed to protect them, but also to identify them upon the battlefield or tournament list.

Heraldry Through History

A unique art form, known as heraldry, was developed for the rigorous rules that developed as this grew. Far from just an art of pageantry, the combinations of colors, patterns, shapes, selections of animals and other objects formed a complex language of identification. In battle it helped separate friend from foe, and in a tournament it helped the wearer to stand out from the crowd.

In the heraldic tradition, different colors and symbols came to embody different meanings. For example, to display a bear on one’s heraldry was to portray strength, the rose to symbolize beauty, while the axe implied duty. The colors, too, carried meaning, and there were strict rules about which colors could be placed next to each other. Even in medieval times the red, white, and blue of our own Stars and Stripes represented ideas of strength, innocence, and dedication.

In fact, the rules of heraldry first articulated in the middle ages carry through to the modern day and have direct bearing on the development of modern flags. Even today, flags must follow the strict guidelines of principles such as “the Rule of Tincture,” and Colleges of Heralds still exist to ensure that new heraldic devices follow the antique rules. For example, when Kate Middleton married Prince William and became the Duchess of Cambridge, it was necessary for her to be granted a coat of arms.

Her device was created to represent her, her family and its impending connection to the Royal Family of Great Britain. It consists of three acorns separated with gold and white chevrons, and contains “jokes” that only those versed in heraldry would likely appreciate. The acorns were to represent the Duchess and her siblings. The gold chevron refers to her mother’s maiden name, Goldsmith, and the division down the center between blue and red is a pun on her surname Middle-ton. There are some basic concepts of medieval heraldry.

Modern Heraldry

The influence of medieval heraldry extends beyond royal families. Many of these archaic laws of heraldry are still found in design today, from advertising to clothing trends. As with the original meaning of colors carrying down to modern flags, specific emblems from  medieval heraldry continue to appear in modern logos. For example, a cross that once represented an off-shoot of the infamous Knights Templar is found in the logos of the Portuguese and Brazilian national Soccer Teams. The Emblem of the Order of Christ, an offshoot of the Knights Templar, is still used today in crests of both the Brazilian and Portuguese National Soccer Teams.

Historical Flags

As a modern American, the world of the medieval knight and his heraldry can seem so far away as to be of little meaning. However, while time moves on, and particular politicians may come and go, ideas endure, and a flag, more than anything else, represents an idea. The historical flag collection at AmericanFlags.com offers a sampling of such flags.

Just as fashion will disappear only to find itself in vogue again, many Americans find themselves sharing ideas with our Revolutionary forefathers. In this light,  Gadsden’s famed “Don’t Tread on Me” banner once again finds itself flown proudly by Americans seeking to ensure our government does not overreach its bounds and tread on the freedoms so many Americans have given so much to protect.

Raising a flag in your front yard for all to see evokes that ancient sense of belonging, of marking what is precious and what belongs to us as individuals and as a nation. Perhaps without even being aware of it, we take our place in the line of those who display character through the colors we fly. A beautiful, well-made flag highlights an American home as a bastion of those virtues we share and hold dear, and our carefully constructed, made in the USA offerings of American flags will make sure that your respect for the traditions embodied in the flag you fly are as evident as the meaning they evoke.