Why is the Union Jack so asymmetric?

I really like the Union Jack, partially because I’m interested in British history and and Britain as a whole, but also because it appeals to me visually.

This useful page describes the accurate construction of the flag. The construction sheet shows clearly that the diagonal red stripes of the St Patrick’s cross are positioned asymmetrically - they are not centered within the white stripes of the cross of St Andrew, but moved off center. This gives a somewhat awkward appearance to the flag as a whole, if you look at the diagonal stripes, because each of the red stripes is shifted counterclockwise compared to where you would instinctively expect it to be (if the pole is on the left).

Why is this? Didn’t a fully asymmetrical flag appeal more to the decision-makers who designed the new Union Jack after Ireland joined the Kingdom?

As a student of British history you will likely know that the answer to your question will be met with a scratch of the head and a mumbled “Errr, it just is”. When the flag is flown upside down it’s a distress signal, but that’s not why it’s asymmetrical I guess.

I always assumed it was because a symmetric stripe would give undue prominence to the cross of St. Patrick over St. Andrew’s; it would just look like St. Andrew’s & St. George’s cross overlaid on a blue background. Under the current arrangement, each diagonal stripe is half St. Patrick, half St. Andrew.

It is rotationally symmetric, if you imagine the diagonal stripes rotating around the centre of the flag. I suppose that flag designers of the time valued rotational symmetry more than mirror symmetry.

Yeah, but had the red stripes been centered, it would have been both.

The “upside-down” flag as a symbol of distress has its problems when it comes to the Union Jack. After all, the average British person can’t tell if the thing is upside-down or not.

And why not include the Flag of St David, Patron of Wales. I guess the black and yellow would clash too much with the rest of the Union Jack.

When the first Union Flag was introduced in 1606, Wales was already a part of England, and thus was represented by the English flag.

If it weren’t asymmetric, the St Andrew cross would be interpreted as simply a border (fimbriation) separating the cross of St. Patrick from the blue field, in order to avoid having the red directly on the blue. The asymmetry makes it clear that the St. Andrew cross is an element of the flag.


My Dad (Catholic from Monaghan) loves that irony, having worked for about a year as a court clerk, he knows more about raising and lowering that flag than most of the Ulster Loyalists we share a country with :stuck_out_tongue:

Couple of points:

Technically, the St. Andrew’s ensign and the St. Patrick’s ensign (phrased that way because they are not “the flags of Scotland and Ireland”) have saltires of equal size. That means on a symmetrical Union Jack whichever was “on top” would completely obscure the other. To compensate for this, the St. Patrick’s emblem is offset so that the two saltires are of approximately equal dimensions.

Second, the present Union Jack (representing the United Kingdom, since 1800) replaces one for the Kingdom of Great Britain (1707-99) formed by conjoining the ensigns of St. George and St. Andrew. And this was done because the first symbolized the union of the Kingdoms of England and of Scotland. The second was set up that way because it was the union of the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland (which, like the Kingdom of Canada and the Kingdom of Australia, shared the same monarch).

This is the answer to Great Dave’s question. It’s not a matter of the four main elements of the U.K., but of the three constituent kingdoms whose merger led to the U.K. The Principality of Wales was an appanage of the Kingdom of England prior to union with Scotland, hence had no element to include in the flag.

It is, however, important to note that when floral “trim” is used to symbolize either the monarchy or the U.K., the required elements are all four of the English (single) rose, the leek (for Wales), the thistle (for Scotland), and the shamrock (d’oh). I suspect though I don’t know for certain that this is prescribed by letters patent.

It’s a heraldic thing. To amplify a bit, the blazon of original union flag of 1606 Azure, the Cross Saltire of St Andrew Argent surmounted by the Cross of St George Gules, fimbriated of the second “Fimbriated” means to avoid the rule of no color on color, a thin stripe of metal (argent) is added on either side of the red (gules) cross of St. George where it would touch the blue (azure) field. Here.

In 1801, the red saltire of St Patrick was added, not atop At Andrew’s but rather as a countercharge, i.e. the four arms cranked clockwise. That’s why the two diagonals of St Patrick’s saltire don’t match up when they cross the center. Again, being all the way to the edge of the saltire it was countercharging, the red of St. Patrick would be touching the blue field, so some more fimbriation was added on the side that needed it. Here. To quote the second link, the current flag is blazoned Azure, the Crosses Saltire 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.

It all made sense two hundred years ago.

I’m going to have to remember the word “fimbriate” for the next time I play the Dictionary Game.

That’s obviously not the only problem, though. As said, it has rotational symmetry, not mirror symmetry. If you turn it over 180 degrees, it still looks the same. If you mirror it along an axis, it looks switched. If you want one that looks upside-down, you have to make a mirrored one.

(And I hope I’m not the only person who thinks this is weird, and had to picture it a dozen times in my head, and then actually import it into Photoshop to rotate it and mirror it, to make sure I got that right.)

The problem you’re having is that you’re working with a two-dimensional image of the flag. If you had a real flag you’d find that you’d been supplied with a mirrored version of the design along with the original.

It’s called the other side. :smiley:

I believe the naval union jack is placed in the corner of a red field, thusly, so it can be recognised as upside down. But that’s just an observational guess.

That’s the Red Ensign, flown by British merchant ships. The Navy uses the White Ensign.

OK, that answers it - centering the Patrick’s cross within the Andrew’s cross would reduce the latter to a mere fimbriation (indeed a cool word!) of the former. Thanks!

<trivia>Or in some cases the Blue Ensign, on which a number of other flags are based including the flags of Australia and New Zealand. </trivia>

I’m a flag junkie, and that’s how I’ve always understood it.

Incidentally, in the Jeffrey Archer book A Matter of Honour, a British diplomat is picked up by a limo flying a miniature British flag from one of its bumpers. He realizes that the limo driver and another guy in the car are imposters because he realizes that the flag is upside-down. :dubious: I agree with PaulParkhead that most Brits wouldn’t notice.