Ensigns - what are they and who is entitled to wear them?|
They are national flags as worn by the ships of a nation. Many countries that have navies as well as merchant ships use two ensigns, one for naval ships and one for merchant vessels. For British ships three ensigns are used, white, red and blue. All flags have the union flag in their top left hand quarter.
The white ensign is the flag of St George with the union flag in its top left hand quadrant. Ships and naval shore establishments fly the White Ensign, indicating that they are units of the Royal Navy.
Naval auxiliary vessels fly the Blue Ensign. HM Revenue and Customs also fly at Blue Ensign defaced with a crown & portcullis, as can HM Post Office vessels. Merchant ships commanded by Retired Officers of the Royals Navy are permitted to fly the Blue Ensign.
The Red Ensign is flown by vessels of the merchant navy.
The Royal Yacht Squadron, who are based in Cowes, on the Isle of Wight, have the Admiralties permission to also fly the white ensign.
Many yacht clubs also have approval for their yachts to fly the Blue Ensign defaced with the badge of the club.
Any British vessel may fly the Red Ensign and many yacht clubs also have permission to fly this defaced. The scout association have the scout badge on their Red Ensign. The Red Ensign is nicknamed ‘The red duster’.
Royal Air Force vessels fly a sky blue ensign, defaced with an RAF roundel.
The use of the union flag on a vessel is illegal and has been since the days of Charles 1 when he ordered that it be restricted to His Majesty's ships "upon pain of Our high displeasure" in the 17th century. This is thought to be mainly due to its unauthorised use by merchant mariners to avoid paying harbour duties by passing themselves off as Royal vessels.
Originally all three ensigns belonged to the Royal Navy. When the fleet was at sea for long periods during the 18th century it was customary to give each division of a fleet a different coloured ensign. Thus, the senior division (in the centre) took the Red Ensign, the next senior (the van) the Blue Ensign and the junior division (the rear) took the white. In practice the three flags became confused and in battle and at the Battle of Trafalgar, Lord Nelson ordered that all ships should wear the White Ensign, the White Ensign being much more easy to distinguish in the smoke of battle than either the red or blue.
This practice gradually spread and in 1864 the Admiralty officially laid down that henceforth the White Ensign was to be the only ensign worn by ships of the Royal navy. As a consequence the Red Ensign, the senior colour, was adopted as the national ensign of Great Britain and therefore taken as the merchant flag; the Blue Ensign was given to the Royal Naval Reserve.
The union flag is worn by HM Ships of the Royal Navy , when in harbour, at the forward jackstaff, between the hours of 0800 and sunset, unless the ship is being refitted.