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Flags of the Blue, White and Red Squadrons - 1620-1800 (Great Britain)

Last modified: 2018-03-03 by rob raeside
Keywords: united kingdom | red squadron | white squadron | blue squadron |
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The Red Ensign 1800-present

[UK civil ensign] image by Martin Grieve

The White Ensign 1800-present

[UK naval ensign] image by Martin Grieve

The Blue Ensign 1800-present

[UK naval reserve ensign] image by Clay Moss

On this page: See also:

Flags of the blue, red and white squadrons

[admiral of the blue squadron] Blue Squadron    [admiral of the red squadron] Red Squadron

[admiral of the white squadron] White Squadron - images by Phil Nelson

     These are the command flags of the admirals in charge of the various divisions (or later of a particular grade within a given rank) were. The exception to this was the white, which carried a red cross (thus becoming the flag of St George) from around 1702. The order of seniority was changed in 1653 from red, blue and white to red, white and blue (which it still is). The white ensign also had a plain fly originally, but (for tactical reasons) a wide red cross (one-third of flag width) was added overall in 1702, and this was amended to its modern dimensions in 1707.
     The system of grading admirals by colour ceased in 1864, and all admirals thereafter flew a Cross of St George as a command flag. The general addition of red balls to indicate rank came in later - the use of boat flags in other words - because of the introduction of mastless ironclads.
Chris Southworth, 25 February 2003

     In origin there were three naval squadrons, of the Red, White and Blue, and they took these colours from those of the Union Jack. The division was made in the 1680s, if I remember correctly. Because the Red Ensigns of England and Scotland had already been established as merchant flags a Red Ensign with the Union in the canton became the merchant flag of Great Britain upon Union in 1707. This led to potential confusion - was that ship a merchantman or a member of the red squadron?
     In 1864 it was decided to end this anomaly. Henceforth the White Ensign was reserved to the Royal Navy, the Blue Ensign undefaced to the Royal Naval Reserve and defaced with the appropriate departmental or territorial badge to government service, and the Red Ensign to the 'merchant navy' (as the term is in Britain).
     Now, as colonies became dominions they began to acquire navies. These all wore the White Ensign, but wore their appropriate territorial Blue ensign as a jack. The only geographical usage of the Red White and Blue that I know of, and which might be the source of this idea, was in the masthead pennant. Before 1864 this was St. George's Cross in them hoist and a fly of the Squadronal colour. After 1864 the home Royal Navy used the white pennant and colonial naval units used the blue. The red pennant was used briefly by the Royal Indian Marine between 1921 and 1928.
     Source: H. Gresham Carr Flags of the World, 1961, pp 121-8.
Roy Stilling, 6 July 1996

About 1837, according to Colours of the Fleet, naval flags were made-up in regulated sizes, but whilst the length was specified in inches, the breadth was not specified because a breadth was a breadth - it being the width of the standard fabric from which the flags were made. In 1687, Samuel Pepys, Secretary of the Admiralty, and remembered for his diaries, directed that flags should be half a yard (eighteen inches) long for each breadth, which at that time was 11 inches, giving a ratio of 11:18. Early in the eighteenth century the width of the material, as manufactured, was reduced to ten inches, but the length was not adjusted, so the proportion changed to 10:18 (5:9). Then about 1837, the width was changed to 9 inches, again with no alteration to the length, resulting in a ratio of 9:18 (1:2). How to get a badly proportioned flag without even trying!
David Prothero, 3 April 1997

Which British ensign (red, white or blue) would have been used by the Royal Navy in the Caribbean towards the end of the 18th century?
William E. Hitchins, 2 May 2000

Any or all. It would depend on the flag officer in command. British flag officers up until 1864 were commissioned as admiral, vice admiral, or rear admiral of the red, white, or blue squadrons. A captain promoted to flag rank became a rear admiral of the blue, then moved up to rear admiral of the white, rear admiral of the red, vice admiral of the blue, vice admiral of the white, vice admiral of the red, and so on. If you can find out (from contemporary Navy Lists) what color admiral was commander in chief in the West Indies at the time, you'll know what color ensign the ships under his command flew - at least normally. It's complicated by the facts that:

  • Any vessels under direct Admiralty orders (i.e., not under the C-in-C's command) would have flown the red ensign.
  • (I'm not absolutely sure of this one but I think that:) Subordinate flag officers, if there were any, would convey the color of their rank to the ensigns of ships under their command.
  • A flag officer in command could direct that vessels under his command fly a different ensign to avoid confusion in combat - for example, a vice admiral of the blue might direct his ships to fly white ensigns (as Nelson did) to avoid confusion with the French Tricolor.
Joe McMillan, 7 May 2000

     According to Siegel (1912) the distribution of the three colours over the squadrons seems to stem from an order by Lord Wimbledon in 1625. His source appears to be a book by Sir Julian S. Corbett, published as an e-book at Gutenberg. He quotes from the Lord of Wimbledon, 3 October 1625:

17. The whole fleet is to be divided into three squadrons: the admiral's squadron to wear red flags and red pennants on the main topmast-head; the vice-admiral's squadron to wear blue flags and blue pennants on the fore topmast-heads; the rear-admiral's squadron to wear white flags and white pennants on the mizen topmast-heads. [2]
The note is: [2] This is the first known occasion of red, blue and white flags being used to distinguish squadrons, though the idea was apparently suggested in Elizabeth's time. See Navy Records Society, Miscellany, i. p. 30.
     Corbett writes about a change in the instructions, but being unfamiliar with the expedition and not having a paper copy to easily compare reference, I'm unable to determine whether it were these instructions being drawn up at see, which would suggest such flags were always on board, or whether these were written well in advance and would have allowed the acquiring new flags.
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 11 October 2005

     The Union Flag of 1606 could have theoretically led immediately to the adoption of red, white and blue pennants but apparently didn't, and there is no record of the Stuart red and gold being used on English ships? There are references in the 1620's to white pennants, whilst the first mention of red, white and blue pennants (of which I am aware) occurs in Boteler who wrote c1634, which suggests to me that the three pennants were introduced during the years following 1625 and the introduction of a red ensign (replacing the previous striped version) into the English Royal Navy?. They were certainly formally established by an Order of March 1653, with the common or tricolour pennant being introduced immediately following the restoration (from memory in 1662).
     Were the squadronal colours inspired by the Union? Perhaps they were, but I am more inclined to think that the introduction of blue along with the traditional English red and white was more co-incidental than deliberate.
Christopher Southworth, 22 October 2005

Royal Navy White Squadron Ensign Feb May 1702

[historic white ensign] image by Martin Grieve, February 2018

Perrin tells us that this flag, replacing the Ensign with a plain white fly, was red bearing a wide, horizontal white stripe, but gives no further details, so the image whilst not an unreasonable supposition - is almost wholly speculative. This was the first attempt to avoid any confusion between the plain white ensign flown by the French, and the ensign of the English white squadron, however, it proved unpopular (according to Perrin) with the flag officers of the fleet and was replaced by one bearing a Cross of St George as we know.
Christopher Southworth, 4 May 2013

This obscure short-lived Navy Royale ensign was the brain-child of the Earl of Pembroke (the Lord High Admiral in 1702) who sent the Navy Board instructions for its use with the fleet then being fitted out at Chatham and Portsmouth to operate against the French. His instructions were that the ships of the Admiral of the White were to wear "Ensignes with the usual Cross in the Canton, with this distinction: that a third part of the said Ensignes for himself and the Flaggs and private Ships of his Squadron are to be White in the middle of the Flye...and this to be in the whole length of the Ensigne." [from 'British Flags' by William Perrin, who gives the National Archives ADM 2/182 as the source]
This unusual ensign only saw brief use between February and May of 1702 before being replaced with the better known White Squadron Ensign 1702-1707.
Pete Loeser, Text from Historical Flags of Our Ancestors, 4 May 2013

Royal Navy White Squadron Ensign 1702-1707

[historic white ensign] image by Željko Heimer, 24 January 2018

The 1702 1707 White Ensign, 11:18, red cross throughout 1/3 of the hoist, red cross in the canton 1/3 of its hoist wide.
Željko Heimer, 24 January 2018