While #BuckinghamPalace trended on Twitter and the world waited in a frenzied state for news about the “emergency” meeting called on Thursday, many people turned their eyes to the flag flying over the palace. Though they may have hoped it would reveal a clue as to the nature of the meeting they would be disappointed because even if a monarch were to pass away, the Royal Standard would never be flown at half-mast.
The Royal Standard flag, which flies above royal palaces, ships, planes and cars when The Queen is in residence, represents the Sovereign and the United Kingdom. The most used of all royal flags, the Standard is reserved for the sovereign and has nearly 1,000 years of tradition. Historically used by kings and queens to identify them in active battle or on the high seas the Standard is synonymous with the identity of the sovereign.
Though it has changed in appearance in the centuries since the Union of the Crowns in 1603 under James VI of Scotland and I of England and Ireland, the current Royal Standard has four quarters representing the arms of England, Scotland and Ireland. Wales is not represented as its special position was recognised with the creation of the Prince of Wales long before the current Standard was put into use.
When The Queen is in England, the Standard shows England in the first and fourth quarters with Scotland in the second quarter. When The Queen is in Scotland, this is reversed with the Scottish arms in the first and fourth quarters and the English arms in the second quarter.
The Royal Standard is always flown when The Queen is in residence at a Royal Palace and when she goes to Parliament it can be seen flying from Victoria Tower at the Palace of Westminster. The Standard can be flown on any other buildings during a visit by Her Majesty if the owner has specially requested it. When The Queen is not in residence a Union Jack is flown.
Though it’s a global practice to fly flags at half mast as a “mark of mourning”, the Royal Standard will never fly at half mast because there is always a sovereign on the throne. The one time in recent history where this practice came under dispute was after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997.
Because The Queen was at Balmoral when it happened there was no flag flying over Buckingham Palace. After public outcry, The Queen proposed a compromise, which would allow the Union Jack to be flown at half-mast on the day of Diana’s funeral.
From that point onwards the standard practice has been for the Union Jack to fly over Buckingham Palace whenever Her Majesty is not in residence. It has been lowered to half mast on several occasions including the first anniversary of Diana’s passing, the death of The Queen Mother and the 7 July 2005 bombings.