iPlayer Radio What's New?
Image for The Flag That Failed

Listen now 15 mins

Listen in pop-out player

The Flag That Failed

Episode 15 of 20

15 minutes
First broadcast:
Friday 04 May 2012

Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, continues his object-based history. Taking artefacts from William Shakespeare's time, he explores how Elizabethan and Jacobean playgoers made sense of the unstable and rapidly changing world in which they lived.

With old certainties shifting around them, in a time of political and religious unrest and economic expansion, Neil asks what the plays would have meant to the public when they were first performed. He uses carefully selected objects to explore the great issues of the day that preoccupied the public and helped shape the works, and he considers what they can reveal about the concerns and beliefs of Shakespearean England.

Programme 15. THE FLAG THAT FAILED - The problems in uniting Scotland and England and in creating a Great Britain are encapsulated in a set of designs for a common flag.

Producer: Paul Kobrak.

  • Flags for Great Britain

    Date: 1603-1604  

    Size: H:290mm, W:425mm  

    Made in: Unknown  

    Made by: Unknown  

    Material: Paper


    Making a nation can be difficult. When King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England, he found himself ruling over two countries with different political and legal systems, different established churches, different currencies, and a long history of mutual dislike and suspicion.


    His central ambition was to unite these two countries to form a new unified state – a Great Britain. But turning this dream into public reality was quite another matter. As these early designs for the new British flag show, it’s incredibly difficult to get the balance right and please everybody.


    This object is from the National Library of Scotland


    British Museum Blog: Building a Nation by John Morrill, Professor of Early Modern History, University of Cambridge

  • Quotations

    'Publish we this peace To all our subjects. Set we forward, let A Roman and a British ensign wave Friendly together.'  

    Cymbeline Act 5 Scene 5

  • Background

    • The Treaty of Union proposed by James I in 1604 followed half a century of unbroken peace between Scotland and England (if you don't count the usual border skirmishes)
    • As King, James I could force through the designs for a symbolic flag even if both parliaments were blocking the proposal itself
    • Heraldry is set up to indicate hierarchy and precedence and it was in fact heraldically impossible to unite the two flags in exact equality
    • The position nearer to the flag pole is better, as is being positioned at the top
    • The union flag remained unpopular in both nations and it took until the 1800s for it to reach its current, modern, form.
  • More from Radio 4: The Discovery of England's Past

    The Discovery of England's Past

    The Holinshed Chronicles collected the fragments of British History for the first time. But how much was based on political propaganda? Jonathan Bate investigates.


    Listen to the programme

  • More from Radio 4: The Thistle and the Rose

    The Thistle and the Rose

    An intimate view of a monarchical succession told through the correspondence between James VI of Scotland and the gaoler of his mother, Elizabeth I.


    Listen to the programme


Free download

  1. Image for Shakespeare’s Restless World

    Shakespeare’s Restless World

    British Museum Director Neil MacGregor presents Shakespeare's Restless World. The 20-part series…

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.