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United Kingdom: Royal Navy colour

Last modified: 2005-10-22 by rob raeside
Keywords: royal navy | white ensign | colours |
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[Royal Navy King's Colour, George VI] image by T.F. Mills

This is a drawing of the Royal Navy King's Colour from the reign of George VI. I adapted this from a black and white line drawing in T.J. Edwards, Standards, Guidons and Colours of the Commonwealth Forces, (1953). I assume the circlet is blue because it is the Garter. The motto Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense is partially concealed by the crown.

T.F. Mills, 24 January 1999

See also:

Royal Navy colour

Origin of Royal Navy King's/Queen's Colours

Colours were originally called ensigns. Ensigns came into use on the ships of Queen Elizabeth I in the 1570s, and imitated regimental flags, which at that time were called ensigns. Until the early 1600s each ship had its own individual ensign (colour) that was different to the ensign of any other ship. By this time the ensigns on land were being called colours, because of the variety of colours used to distinguish the flag of one regiment from another. The equivalent naval flags retained the name ensign, and it became the practice for all the ships in a squadron to have an ensign of the same design .

Two hundred years later there were occasions when the Royal Navy needed to parade a flag on land. An Admiralty Board Minute of 1807 proposed that a White Ensign paraded by a Naval Guard would be considered a Colour. I don't know whether the proposal was adopted at that time, but in 1920 there were regulations about the use of the White Ensign by landing parties ashore. However although it was a special White Ensign, in the sense that it was reduced in length to make it suitable for use in a parade, it was no different in design to any other White Ensign. This caused a problem when, at a ceremony, there were both Naval and Military Guards of Honour. The Naval Guard saluted the Military Guard as a mark of respect for the King's Colour of the regiment providing the Guard, but the Military Guard did not salute the Naval Guard since there was no Colour to salute. This was criticised by those who did not appreciate that the salute was to the Colour, and not to the troops parading it. 

After an incident at the Royal Tournament in 1923, the King was asked to approve the use, by the Royal Navy, of colours corresponding to the King's colours carried by military forces. On 5th March 1924, as a temporary measure, the King approved a Service Colour which consisted of a silk White Ensign 36 inches by 45 inches, with red, white and blue cord and gold tassels, carried on a staff, capped with a crown and three faced shield bearing the Admiralty anchor. The Service Colour with the addition of a crown and royal cypher superimposed on the centre, was approved as a King's Colour by King George V on the 12th May 1925.

A Colour, each identical, was provided for the Commands of each Home Port and each Overseas Station. Similar colours were purchased by the Royal Australian Navy (2), the Royal Canadian Navy (2), the New Zealand Division and the Royal Indian Navy. New colours were needed after the death of King George V as it was not possible to alter the royal cypher from GVR to GVIR. The Royal Indian Navy Colour did not need to be replaced as its royal cypher was GIR (Emperor of India) which did not change.

Colours are normally changed after 25 years, but the Portsmouth Command Colour presented in 1952, became so worn that it had to be replaced after just ten years. Depending upon their condition old colours are either laid-up or destroyed. The Plymouth Command Colour of 1937 was laid up in Liverpool Cathedral in 1953, but the Portsmouth Command Colour of  1937, which had been damaged in the blitz in 1941, was destroyed by burning in the presence of two officers holding sovereign's commissions on on 13th May 1961.

David Prothero, 19 February 2002

David Prothero discussed above the origin of the RN flag used during ceremonial occasions ashore. As I recall, this flag was granted by the king to the RN circa 1922. When "showing the flag" prior to that, it's likely that RN landing parties used some sort of national flag ... perhaps a small ensign. Can anyone provide some insight into what they might've used between 1900 and 1922?

Al Fisher, 28 February 2002

As far as I know, a plain White Ensign. There was an Admiralty Fleet Order 1362 of 1922 which contained instructions for landing the White Ensign ashore, at home and abroad, when it was to be carried in review. This was cancelled in 1924 to avoid confusion between the recently inaugurated King's Colour and the White Ensign.

An instruction in force in 1934 restricted landing the White Ensign in foreign territories, to those States recognised by the British Government and was limited to occasions when the Head of State was present.

David Prothero, 4 March 2002

If I remember my Queen's Regulations for the Navy correctly they are to use a Queen's Colour, if it is available, for occasions when the Head of State is to be present, and if one is not available the white ensign is to be used in its place.

Actually the chances of a Queen's Colour being available are pretty slim unless someone thought to organize it some months in advance!

Graham Bartram, 5 March 2002

It occurs to me that Al's expression "showing the flag" implies a landing party operating in a situation of tension or a "small war." By the time frame he asks about, the custom of troops carrying flags of any kind in combat was becoming obsolescent, wasn't it? So the landing party would carry the flag only under the ceremonial conditions David describes, not under combat conditions. 

My question would be what flags RN landing parties carried before about 1900--say, between about 1800 and 1880? Anyone have an idea?

Joe McMillan, 5 March 2002

I add that in the Boxer Rebellion, the NCOs in the RMLI Legation Guard in Peking were photographed with a White Ensign behind them [Field, Britain's Sea Soldiers, p277]. Also the Red Ensign is reported as being seen flying over the Tientsin Town Hall in Blumberg, Gen Sir H & Col C Field (Compilers)./ Random Records of the Royal Marines being a Non-Chronological Collection of Extracts from the Diaries & Letters of some of their Past & Present Officers, Non- Commissioned Officers and Men: from Official Documents, and from Notes and Accounts from various Sources, of their Character, History, Uniform and Colours, their Barracks and other Matters of Interest. /Globe & Laurel, 1935/, /p367/.

Mike Blake, 14 April 2005

The expression "showing the flag" usually referred to a peace-time cruise to foreign ports by a ship or squadron. The "flag" was the White Ensign as seen on the ship (s) in port. The visit may have included a ceremony on the quay-side in which a colour was carried, but that would have been incidental. "In Nelson's day ships' names were sewn on the Union Flag for landing parties. The cathedral at Santa Cruz, Tenerife has a Union Flag with EMERALD stitched across the middle. Probably from a boat lost in a night attack in 1797."
D.B.Smith, Admiralty Librarian, 22nd August 1934.

The above was added to a minute proposing that ships should have Colours with Battle Honours similar to a Regiment. The idea was rejected on the grounds that ships with new names would have had no opportunity to be awarded Battle Honours, and that a ship's company and a regiment were not the same thing. [National Archives (PRO) ADM 1/8773/52]

David Prothero, 15 April 2005

As David has indicated the phrase "showing the flag" refers to a visit by RN warships to foreign or colonial ports in peacetime where the flag shown was the White Ensign flown from the ship or ships in question. It is true that any amphibious attack upon a fort or fortified place would require that the attacking force carried a flag with them in order to signal a successful conclusion (the Taku Forts spring to mind), however, I do wonder at what point it ceased to be carried on a staff as a matter of normal practice? In other words Mike's query has raised a question which my sources cannot answer - at what point during the 19th C did Her Majesty's forces cease to carry colours into combat?

Mike was specifically enquiring about RM practice, so please accept my apologies here for digressing Mike, but (if paintings could be said to be evidence) then colours were certainly carried during the Crimean War of the 1850's,and I have a reference to "an attempt to save the colours" in the disaster at Isaldwana during the Zulu War of the 1870's - although this possibly refers to a Union Flag since either the Regimental or Queen's Colour of the (1st Bat.) 24th Regiment of Foot seem not to have been lost on this occasion?

Colours were certainly carried during the American Civil War, but evidence seems contradictory for the Franco-Prussian War of 1871 and we know that they weren't carried (at least by the British Army) during the last Boer War. So the rapid improvement (if that's the right term) of small arms during this period I (and the resultant change in infantry tactics) gives us the reason - muzzle-loaded rifle musket to magazine-fed small bore rifle.

Christopher Southworth, 15 April 2005

The last time British colors were carried in battle was in 1881 during the first Boer War.
Joe McMillan, 15 April 2005

It was the Zulu War of 1879 which forced the British Army to reconsider carrying Colours in battle. When one of the Zululand invasion columns was annihilated at Isandhlwana on 22 Jan. 1879, two officers of the 24th Foot fled the battlefield with the Queen's Colour. Zulus pursued them and killed them in the Buffalo River where they lost the Colour in the river current. A search party later found their bodies and the Queen's Colour further downstream. When the regiment returned home in 1880 Q. Victoria asked to see the recovered Colour and placed a wreath of immortelles on the pike. The wreath is carried to this day, and that particular Colour, presented in 1866, was carried until 1934. In August 1880 an MP questioned the propriety of carrying Colours on the battlefield and recommended discontinuing "such impedimenta". The Secretary of War polled generals and colonels on the matter in July 1881. Finally in January 1882 the Army issued an order that "in consequence of the altered formation of attack and the extended range of fire, Regimental Colours shall not in future be taken with the battalions on active service." But at the same time they decided to retain Colours for ceremonial purposes, "affording a record of the services of the regiment and furnishing to the young soldier a history of its gallant deeds." This order extended to the Dominions and Colonies.

While the debate was in progress, the 58th Northamptonshire Regiment carried their Colours into action at the battle of Laings Nek during the 1st Anglo-Boer War  (28 Jan. 1881). The Colours provided a conspicuous target for the Boer snipers, and Lt. Baillie carrying the Regimental Colour was repeatedly wounded before being killed. This was the last time British Colours were carried in battle. There was a notable exception, however, during WWI. Princess Patricia presented a Regimental Colour in 1914 to the newly formed Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry. They took it with them to France in December 1914, and on 8 May 1915 they flew it above the trenches. It was repeatedly hit by shrapnel and bullets, allegedly giving the regiment much inspiration and enabling them to hold out against overwhelming odds.

T.F. Mills, 15 April 2005

Her Majesty The Queen will present a new Colour to the Royal Navy at a Fleet Assembly off Plymouth on 23 July 2003. Unlike the Colours of the Army, which carry battle honours and vary in design from regiment to regiment, The Queens Colours of the Royal Navy do not alter from Command to Command. There have been only two previous Fleet Colour presentations. The first was by King George V in 1926, and the second by Queen Elizabeth II in 1969.

More details at

David Prothero, 21 January 2003