The British flag, also known as the ‘Union Jack’, is a composite visual design whose component parts have been roughly a thousand years in the making.
What follows is a simplified outline of the main stages in its evolution (footnotes provided for more detail).
St George’s Cross
The red cross on a white background [See footnote 1] was worn by Christian soldiers during the Crusades (beginning at the end of the eleventh century) and gradually became associated with various nations, including England (which itself developed over the tenth century upon the unification of its warring Kingdoms).
St Andrew’s Cross
In 1603 Elizabeth I, the ‘Virgin Queen’ died without an heir. She had been the Queen of England (which at that time included Wales [see 2]) and Ireland (and, in title only, also France).
Having no children of her own, Elizabeth’s Crown passed to her cousin, James VI of Scotland. The national flag of Scotland is the Saint Andrew’s Cross  .
First British Union Flag (1606)
So in 1603 James VI of Scotland also became James I of England (including Wales) and Ireland. The states remained independent, but were bound by his royal ‘personal union’. And it was this same King who ordered the creation of the first British flag in 1606. The design consisted of a simple merging of the St. Andrew’s Cross of Scotland and the St. George’s Cross of England :
To begin with then, this was the pet project of James I, a man who understood the importance of a united people in the age old game of thrones.
Notice that the first union flag included no visual reference to Ireland at all, the most recognizable symbol for which was the Gaelic Harp. Actually, there was a brief period (1658-1660) during the interregnum  when the Irish Harp superimposed on the Union Flag was flown by parliamentary naval vessels of the Protectorate (while Royalist ships continued to fly the Union Flag without the harp), but this only lasted a few years.
The Acts of Union (1707)
It was not until 1707 however that the Union Flag became the official flag of the Kingdom of Great Britain, with the Acts of Union between Scotland and England (including Wales), creating a single state under one monarch. From then on, both sea and land forces of the United Kingdom operated under this flag . In a way, the design now made more sense as the legally binding Acts of Union did not involve Ireland.
Each step in the evolution of the flag had its controversies though. The Scots, for example, had never been happy with the superimposition of the St George’s Cross on their own St Andrew’s Cross and they persisted in the unofficial use of their own version where the order was reversed:
The Union of Great Britain and Ireland (1801)
We have to skip forward another one hundred years for the next big change to the design. The Union of Great Britain and Ireland occurred under George III’s reign in 1801. This involved the fusion of the original ‘Flag of Great Britain’ with the St.Patrick’s Cross 
The Union Jack is therefore a summary of conquest, domination and treaty. Even the Heraldry from which flags evolved was a feudal product introduced to the Isles by conquest with the Norman invasion. The whole concept of a flag or standard has its origin in battle and became a well recognized form of national identification through early naval conflict.
The symbolic elements of the Union Jack, as we have seen, begin with the religious wars of the Crusades and contain mute reference to the key subjugations and alliances that went on within shifting Kingdoms over a formative two centuries of gradual unification. As a visual design it would become the focal point of an Empire that spanned the world.
Empires come and go. In the case of the British Empire, many former colonies developed their own flags through re-appropriation of the original design, sometimes as the union flag was still itself developing.
For example, the flag flown by the thirteen American colonies prior to the revolution was the Red Ensign of the British Navy (which included the original Union Flag):
By the end of the first year of the American Revolutionary War in 1775, this had been adapted, by the simple expedient of sewing on white stripes, and was being flown by the American Continental Army as the very first national symbol of America, The Grand Union Flag.
Pre-dating the 1801 Union of Great Britain And Ireland by a few years, the Grand Union Flag also therefore incorporated the 1606 British Union Flag .
With the 1777 Flag Resolution, the new flag officially retained the thirteen stripes of the colonies and these same thirteen were represented by white stars on a blue background to symbolize a new configuration of states in union, although the arrangement of the stars was very variable in the early years.
Likewise, The Australian flag is an adaptation of the Royal Navy’s Blue Ensign, a design development which took place at the beginning of the twentieth century and therefore involved the present day British Union Flag, in addition to a large white star representing the Commonwealth and five smaller stars to represent the Southern Cross (referring to the characteristic constellation of the Southern Hemisphere night sky) :
Similarly, the national flag of New Zealand is also an adaptation of the Blue Ensign with the addition of red stars representing the Southern Cross.
Anglo-Irish Treaty (1921)
With the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921 and the formation of the Irish Free State in 1922, the Union Flag faced the possibility of a major change in design: the removal of the Cross of Saint Patrick.
The Irish Free State adopted the Irish tricolor as its official flag: the Gaelic green representing the Republican element, the orange representing the protestant Orange Order , and the white in the middle representing a lasting peace between the two groups on either side .
As such, the flag of Northern Ireland  remains the Union Jack, and with the continued presence of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom, it was decided that the Cross of Saint Patrick could also remain within the Union Flag .
Twentieth Century Imperial Decline and the Turn to Europe
The break away of a large part of ‘The Emerald Isle’ (Ireland) from the British crown, and the loss of ‘The Jewel in the Crown’ with Indian independence were two traumatic events in an ongoing decolonisation process. But it was the Suez Crisis that delivered the clearest signal of a new global order. Acted out on the international stage, it revealed a paradigm shift in international power, one might say it was the point at which the red, white and blue baton was passed from the British (and the French) to the Americans .
Following the seismic shifts of the World Wars, another major change in British identity was its entry into the European club. Britain applied to join the EEC in 1961 (it was not accepted until 1973), and many former British Commonwealth countries were prompted to remove the Union Jack from their flags following this initial application. Until 1965 for example, the de facto national flag of Canada was this:
It is interesting to note that this turn towards Europe by the UK (one might now describe it as the British entry to the European market, or ‘BRENTRY’) was viewed as a serious economic threat by many Commonwealth countries, with some important trade deals between the UK and the Commonwealth being replaced by European trade after 1973.
Indeed, the debate as to the national identities of various Commonwealth countries continues to this day. On the question of flag design, two notable examples of this re-assessment in recent years have been New Zealand and Fiji, both of which had serious intentions of removing the Union Jack from their flags but eventually decided not to (in New Zealand’s case by a 2016 referendum).
What about Wales?
To return to the central design, The Union Flag itself, to this day it is subject to criticism. If the Cross of Saint Patrick is something of a symbolic overstatement (now that the Republic of Ireland is no longer part of the United Kingdom), then the complete lack of any reference to Wales might be seen as a glaring design fault. At various points the Welsh have suggested and used various alternatives to remedy this situation, such as superimposing the Welsh dragon :
Union Black (2006)
In 2006, the 400th anniversary of the Union Flag, a proposal was made for the rebranding of the Union Flag to reflect multicultural contemporary Britain. Nigel Turner, a private citizen, correctly pointed out that Britishness and the Union flag were overshadowed by the Imperial past, but his design was a crass attempt to remedy the situation. As many people, of all races, pointed out at the time, the red and the blue people were still over represented on the ‘Union Black’:
Scottish Independence Referendum (2014)
In the build up to this referendum, there was much speculation as to what the new Union Flag would look like if Scotland chose to leave. One clever suggestion was to replace the white and blue of the Scottish St Andrew’s Cross with the yellow and black of the Welsh St David’s Cross:
Or this more inclusive version, where the English and Welsh crosses appear superimposed, but both Ireland and Scotland are still part of the design.
In the event, the ‘remainers’ won the referendum with 2,001,926 (55.3%) of the votes, against the ‘leavers’ with 1,617,989 (44.7%) of the votes. The referendum itself saw the highest turn out of any vote in the United Kingdom since the beginning of Universal Suffrage. Despite the decision for no change, it was clear that something was changing…
On the 23rd of June 2016 a controversial UK referendum ended in 52% of UK voters deciding to leave the European Union. Since then, the current UK prime minister stated that the first step of the formal disengagement from the EU, invoking Article 50, would take place in a matter of months, putting in motion a legal process that could result in the independence of the UK from the EU by as early as 2019.
Brexit itself will not affect the status of the Union Flag of course, but it may well have profound indirect effects that do end up changing the design.
While England and Wales (divided within themselves over the referendum) produced a majority vote for ‘Leave’, both Scotland and Northern Ireland proved to be mainly ‘Remainers’ therefore being at odds with the overall UK referendum result.
Clearly this encourages the momentum towards Scottish independence, and has even raised speculative discussion of the possibility of a reunited Ireland within the EU: both of which would involve the radical re-design of the Union Flag.
New Union Flag (2018)
On April 23rd 2018, the United Kingdom woke to find the public squares of all its cities and major towns had been covered with posters and daubed with street art involving one specific design. It is estimated that several thousand people were involved in the covert operation in the early hours of that day.
An anonymous hacker, using the tag ‘Post-Present’ delivered an explanation on the same day which appeared for several hours on both the Gov.uk homepage and the BBC homepage. The text of the unauthorized statement was a recorded repetition of two simple sentences played over the image:
The new flag of the nation. We have moved beyond the political.
During the media frenzy in the hours immediately after this mysterious public statement, various unfounded claims as to who was behind the performance gained brief currency, fueled by social media speculation.
By the following day it had become clear that the teams of flyposters and street artists were lose conglomerations of people who had organised themselves online through a private group administered by ‘Post-Present’. That same day the design was finally traced to a painter on the Welsh borders who claimed to have no knowledge of, or connection to, any of the people involved.
It was beginning to look more complex than just another prank from a notorious street artist. The identity of ‘Post-Present’ has still not been conclusively proved, and although many of those involved in the nocturnal flyposting operations subsequently appeared on tv shows explaining their activities, most of them were as vague about their motives as the public had been on waking to find the repeated image covering the public spaces of the United Kingdom on the morning of 23 April 2018.
By the end of that month ‘The New Union Flag’ had become an internet sensation with hundreds of thousands of people in the UK replacing their facebook status photos with the flag. Several commentators noted that The New Union Flag had been adopted almost equally by Leavers and Remainers from the Brexit vote two years earlier. Accidental or otherwise, it did seem to be living up to its name and bridging a societal gap.
The only real source of information on any of this, the man who had designed the flag in the first place, was someone who had never intended or even imagined it would gain such national prominence.
Apparently Harold Blackstream had designed the image for his own amusement in 2016 and raised it above the entrance to his farm:
“To begin with this was all just a bit of fun. It was my own way of distancing myself from political bullshit. I used to tell people the farm was an independent state. It was partly just to amuse myself, I suppose. But I always find that if you confuse people, they’re less likely to defend the same old talk, and more likely to think things through again from the beginning.”
He still doesn’t know exactly how the flag became such a phenomenon:
“I’ve been gradually reforesting a section of the farm and I’d opened an area for campers. It’s free, but people have been donating. You get better groups that way and people look after the place on the whole. You have to have a permanent presence of course, just to keep things within limits, but it seems to work. The flag became a kind of talisman at the campsite. I can only think that’s where they got it from. I produced several versions you see and they must have copied or photographed it or something. People were beginning to fly them from vehicles as early as August last year. I think it was all partly in jest, or just to remind them of what a great time they’d had here. I like to think so anyway.”
By the time the national papers had got hold of the story, Harold Blackstream was having to explain himself to the public at large, and seemed to be enjoying it. When asked about the meaning of the flag, he is reported to have said:
“It’s a complete re-invention of the concept of flags. I’ve taken out all the history and politics and gone back to the roots of patriotism: the land. Anyone who lives in this part of the world, whether they were born here or not, will get the same smells coming off the land in the Spring and the Autumn, they’ll see the same colours depending on region and season, they’ll taste the same local foods. These are the things that will remind them of this place. You can only get the vistas of the Black Mountains in the Black Mountains. The hackers were right in a way. This isn’t political. If anything, it’s biological. It’s about life .
 The historical figure on which the stories of St. George are based was actually a Roman soldier of Greek origin who was tortured and martyred by the Roman Emperor Diocletian for refusing to recant his Christianity in the early fourth century, his mutilated body hung from the city walls of Nicomedia (the modern day İzmit, in Turkey). As a soldier, he was always thought of as a ‘warrior saint’ and invoked by many Christians for protection in battle. The city state of Genoa, whose patron saint was St. George, used the red on white Greek cross and was the most significant early combination of the symbol and the saint. The story of the dragon is less easy to pin down, but probably emerged from Syria or Libya, and was retold by the returning European crusaders. Byzantine iconography tended to render the dragon as a symbol of Satan, medieval Europe depicting George in the armour of the day as he became synonymous with the crusades.
 Wales was conquered and annexed in 1284 by Edward I, a union which became official with the Laws in Wales Act of 1535-1542. It is also worth noting in this context that the whole Tudor dynasty, of which Elizabeth I was the last, was of Welsh heritage.
 Andrew along with his brother Peter were called to be ‘fishers of men’ by Jesus and Andrew remained a close disciple of Jesus, partaking in the Last Supper. Saint Andrew is also said to have set up the See of Byzantium in AD 38, and is to this day the Patron Saint of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (which can still be found in the modern day Istanbul). Saint Andrew is said to have been martyred by crucifixion on an x-shaped cross in the Greek city of Patras.
 Although its use as a the national flag of Scotland only really began in the sixteenth century, the St Andrew’s Cross had been a national symbol for a lot longer, and according to legend its first association with the Scots and Picts was during battle with the Angles in 832. Saint Andrew appeared to Oengus II in a dream on the eve of battle assuring him of victory. The next morning the clouds formed an auspicious x-shaped cross against the blue sky and Oengus’ men won against the odds.
 This Original Union Flag or ‘Flag of Great Britain’ (1606) was used for maritime purposes, displayed on ships that additionally flew the St. George’s or St. Andrew’s Cross to show their more particular origin. And in 1634 Charles I restricted the Union Flag further to Royal vessels only.
 For a while after the 1707 Acts of Union the flag of the Land Army flew with a blue field closer to the light blue of the St. Andrew’s Cross flag – the darker blue dye being more practical and hard-wearing for the salt spray of naval use, and this eventually became more standard throughout.
 The Interregnum (1649-1660) followed the English Civil War and the execution of Charles I, a period of republicanism when England, Ireland and Scotland were governed by the Commonwealth under the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. The Restoration saw the return of monarchy with Charles II in 1660.
 The Cross of St Patrick had never really been a commonly recognized Irish symbol up to that point. Although there is still uncertainty, it probably derives from the coat of arms of the Fitzgerald dynasty (a family of Norman-Welsh heritage whose progenitor actually took part in the 1169 Norman invasion of Ireland which ultimately secured parts of Ireland for the Anglo-Normans, so marking the beginning of the English presence – England itself having been conquered by the Normans only a century before). Earls of Kildare since the thirteenth century, the Fitzgeralds have played a major role in Irish history.
 It is interesting to note that although the popular concept of Great Britain and Britishness goes back to James I of England, the creation of Britain as a composite legal state (with the 1707 Acts of Union) was only 69 years before the invention of that other composite ‘nation’, the United States.
 In fact, of the fifty-three independent nations making up the British Commonwealth, forty-four removed the Union Jack from their flags at some point following their independence (with four of them never having had it in the first place). Along with Canada, nations which have dropped the Union Jack from their national flag include India, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Zambia, Singapore, Malaysia, Cyprus, Jamaica, Malta, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, the Seychelles, and Trinidad and Tobago.
To this day though, The Union Jack still features in the flags of several islands, states and former colonies, including Hawaii (an interesting one because it is currently an American state and was never actually British at all), the Falkland Islands, British Antarctic Territory, the Cook Islands, St Helena, Ascension Island, Tuvalu, Fiji, Bermuda, Turks and Caicos, Niue, the British Virgin Islands, The Cayman Islands, Anguilla, British Indian Ocean Territory, Montserrat, Pitcairn Islands, Tristan da Cunha, and South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.
 This harks back to the Battle of the Boyne of 1690 between Catholic James II and Protestant William III of Orange, a decisive moment in the history of Ireland that signalled the continuation of Protestant control.
 A symbol of free Ireland since the mid nineteenth century, the tricolor was first raised as an Irish flag above the Dublin Post Office during the 1916 Easter Rising. It followed that it should become the flag flown by the republicans during the Irish War of Independence and the subsequent formation of the Irish Free State in 1922. In 1937 it was given constitutional status as the national flag of the Republic of Ireland.
 Northern Ireland had already been partitioned from the rest of the island by the British parliament in 1921 during the Irish War of Independence and the majority protestant and Unionist North had opted out of the Irish Free State at its formation in 1922, desiring to remain within the United Kingdom (though of course there are those on both sides of the border who are more likely to use the term ‘Butcher’s Apron’ than Union Jack).
 The removal of the Cross of Saint Patrick was raised in the Irish Parliament in 1961 as something that should be put to the British government, but the matter was quickly dismissed by the Irish Minister for External Affairs as a pointless exercise.
 The Suez Canal (opened in 1869) within Egyptian territory and subject to various international agreements, was in reality under British-French control. It was a critical lifeline for British administration of its colonies (in particular India) and also served as a game-changing strategical advantage both during the Russo-Japanese War and WWI. Following WWII and the independence of India, its importance was more as a transit point for oil from the Middle East to Europe. As a key logistical nexus for the whole colonial project, Britain and France (with the aid of Israel) were prepared to take military action when Egypt nationalized the canal in the 1950s. This was during the Cold War, and although the Soviet Union actually threatened to make missile strikes against the aggressors, in reality it was US economic sanctions against France and Britain that forced them to withdraw from the situation: Not only a very real strategic step-down, but also a symbolic ending to an era of British Imperial world power.
 The New Zealand flag change proposal involved a panel of judges coming up with a shortlist of designs from which the people chose their favourite in a referendum at the end of 2015.
A second referendum in the Spring of 2016 ended with the original flag winning a majority over the most prererred alternatıve by 1,208,702 to 921,876 votes.
 The lack of Welsh representation is a more complex business than most realise, and this proposal for the inclusion of the dragon misses some of the historical context. The fact is that the annexation of Wales by England goes back to a 1536 Act of Union under Henry VIII. Henry was a member of the House of Tudor, a royal dynasty of Welsh origin that ruled the Kingdom of England from 1485. This Act of Union was a close marriage in the legal sense, without any need for distinction (bearing in mind that the Kingdom of England was being ruled by a Welsh dynasty).
By the time of the creation of the first Union Flag in 1606, the Welsh were legally synonymous with the English, and the King under which the Union Flag was devised was the first of a new Royal House: the Stuarts. Besides which, the inclusion of the dragon which had become part of the symbolism of a royal house (the House of Tudor), ran counter to the more demographic impetus of the Union Jack, a flag which incorporated the crosses of national patron saints, representative not of royalty but of nations as a cultural totality.
There is a Welsh patron saint, Saint David, and there is a Cross of Saint David, but Saint David only became the Welsh patron Saint in the nineteenth century, so in 1606 King James would not have been able to use it, even if he had wanted to or known of its existence: