Royal Navy ensigns

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Red Ensign
The Royal Navy ensigns flown by British warships in the early 19th century indicated the admiral under whose orders they were serving. Each admiral had either a red, white or blue flag, and the ships attached to his command could be readily identified by the red, white or blue ensign. (The Union Flag was never flown, except during courts-martial)

An ensign was not always worn at sea, but would be shown upon meeting other vessels: a ship always had to show her true colours before opening fire. Amongst the gunsmoke of a battle it would often become difficult to distinguish the ensigns from the French tricoleur, which used all of the same colours.

From the late 17th century, for each rank of admiral in the navy (admiral, vice-admiral and rear-admiral), there were three grades. The lowest grade at each rank was blue, so the lowest flag rank was Rear-admiral of the Blue squadron. A rear-admiral then advanced to the White squadron and then the Red. Promotion (which was purely on seniority) then went through the same squadrons at the vice-admiral and admiral rank.

A ship carrying an admiral would wear his flag at the appropriate masthead; all others would wear the relevant ensign at a subordinate place depending upon their construction, usually at a yard-arm or backstay. Ships sailing directly under Admiralty orders, and so not subordinate to an admiral, would fly the Red ensign.

White Ensign

The dimensions of the ensigns were originally determined by Samuel Pepys as being in the ratio of 18:11, however by the time of Aubrey, the ratio had become closer to 18:10 or 18:9.

In the Canon

Blue Ensign
Jack Aubrey's ships fly ensigns which depend on the colour of the Admiral commanding him. Jack Aubrey's ambition is to live to hoist his own flag, the blue ensign at the mizzen masthead, upon promotion to Rear Admiral of the Blue.

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