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Why the royal standard would never reveal clues to “emergency” Buckingham Palace meeting

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.

  • anon

    Okay… if the Queen were to pass while Prince Charles were somewhere else in the country or world, would that not result in the Standard at BHP being taken down (and possibly replaced with a jack at half mast until Charles returned)? That’s a way that the flag could provide a clue to events not yet announced officially…

    • Jenny O

      There are no if’s and but’s with Royal Protocol. Did this happen with the Queen in Kenya when her father George VI died? No.

      • UF

        I may be in error, but I think a royal standard is with the heir wherever he/she is. Upon the passing of the Monarch, the standard is raised over wherever he is in residence. Again, I’ve heard this but I cannot be sure.

        • Scott White

          All senior members travel with a standard but it is their own personal standard and not the standard of the Sovereign. If you look closely at the flag you will see that it has a white border and emblems on the border from their Coat of Arms. It could be more than likely that if The Prince of Wales is abroad at the Passing of The Queen that the British Embassy of the Country he is in may have the proper standard in storage that could be used for the short time before he would return to London.

          • UF

            Thanks. I’m aware, as royals, all senior members have their own standard as does each Peer. Prince Charles’ own standard so resembles Her Majesty’s that, when draped on Princess Diana’s coffin, many actually thought it was Her Majesty’s standard. I simply thought it might be likely that, given life’s realities, the heir might have a royal standard with him when he travels for the unthinkable. This might prove especially true given Her Majesty’s years. I should think by now that, were this true, Charles’ royal standard would have to be taken out and regularly checked for moth holes and mildew. Given his family’s history – on both sides – Charles may need a walker to get to St Edward’s throne in Westminster a decade or so from now.
            God Save Your

    • Thomas Hooley

      You are correct. The Royal Standard is only flown at Buckingham Palace when the Sovereign is there. If The Prince of Wales, now the new King, was not at BP, the Royal Standard would be taken down.
      Whether it would be replaced with the Union Flag at half mast is another question, as at the time of George VI’s death, the Union Flag wasn’t flown at BP, so we have no historical precedent to look to

  • UF

    Upon the death of Victoria, her body was moved by royal barge from Osbourne House on the Isle of Wight to Westminster Hall for viewing. King Edward was on board. Summoning its captain, he inquired as to why the royal standard was at half staff. The captain replied “Because the queen is dead, sir. Long Live The King” His Majesty replied wherewith the captain had the standard raised to full.
    The compromise HM reached upon advice of the Blair government was that upon her departure from BP for Princess Diana’s Westminster funeral, the royal standard would be removed as is custom. In its place the Jack was raised full to the crown and lowered to half as is custom in such matters. Upon the Queen’s return, the Jack was raised full and then removed entirely. In its place, the RS was raised full on again indicating HM’s return.
    From a foreigners point of view, the whole standard/flag mess was unfair to the Queen. In fact, most of the treatment she received that week was unfair.
    I’m continually amazed at how little some Brits know of their own Monarchy. Some believe Charles can somehow waive his kingship upon the passing of his mother, giving it directly to William. The moment Her royal heart stops beating (please Heaven, many years from now) Charles will be king and can be wheeled up the West aisle of Westminster to be anointed.

  • Scott White

    According to King George VI’s biographer the same thing happened in 1910 upon the death of Edward VI. King George V went to tell his sons that their Grandfather has passed and The Duke of Windsor told him that they already knew that the standard was flying half mast over Buckingham Palace. It took George V a minute or two to understand what he waas being told. Then said that the standard never flies at half mast and ordered the standard to be lowered over Buckingham Palace and a staff be placed on the roof at Marlborough House with the Standard being raised to full mast.

  • Kenneth Hammer

    While I can’t find anything about it, I thought that if the Queen died, and Charles was a distance away such as Scotland or overseas, similar to when the Queen’s father died, that the senior member of the Royal Family at Buckingham Palace could and would fly their own personal version of the Royal Standard, until Charles, or whoever the new Sovereign was, arrived, and it would then be replaced by the “official” Royal Standard of the UK.

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