Flag Rank

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A Flag Rank is any officer in the Royal Navy that has a command flag designated for that position. The flags designated are also known as positional colours. All officers designated a flag are also known as Flag Officers.[1]


The current flag ranks of Admiral, Vice-Admiral, and Rear-Admiral arose directly out of the reorganisation of the Navy Royal in 1620. As the fleet was expanding the previous system of Red Squadron White Squadron and Blue Squadron only was changed to include 3 squadrons but now they were subdivided into 9 divisions for example a squadron now consisted of centre, vanguard, rear divisions. Assigned to each of these squadrons was a commander-in-chief with a second and third in command, for example the fleet commander was assigned to the senior Red Squadron that would usually included the Admiral of the Fleet his second in command a Vice-Admiral of the Red and his third in command a Rear-Admiral of the Red. The junior flag rank was that of Commodore first introduced in 1674. In 1684, the Admiralty gave the title of Commodore Distinction to the senior Captain of a small squadron or a Commander in Chief of a small naval station when no flag officer was present and therefore involved extra responsibilities below him came a Commodore Ordinary. It was considered as a temporary rank which once the circumstances had passed meant reversion to Post Captain and officers retained their seniority position in the Captain’s list. In 1747, the first list of “equivalent ranks” between Army and Navy was produced and the Admiralty proposed that Commodores should rank with Brigadiers. This was accepted although in reality the “rank” of Commodore did not formally exist until 1806.[2]

In 1806, this anomaly was redressed by creating First Class Commodores ranked and paid as a Rear-Admiral if of sufficient importance to have a separate Captain under him and Second Class Commodores if he commanded the ship himself and did not have a separate Captain. 2nd Class Commodores did not receive the same pay as a Rear-Admiral and, if a more senior Captain visited his ship, he was to strike his broad pennant until that Captain left the ship. The distinction between the two classes of Commodores was abolished in 1958 reverting to a single rank.[3]

The highest flag rank is Admiral of the Fleet that dates from the 14th century, but established on a permanent basis from 1688. This rank came about from a function of the Lord High Admiral since, although technically in overall charge of the fleet, it was very seldom he put to sea with the fleet and thus required another person to undertake the command of the fleet while at sea in his place. This post became known as the Admiral of the Fleet. The first holder of this title was the Earl of Dartmouth, appointed by King James II in 1688. During 1718 and 1739, it became customary to give the most senior Admiral this title even if there was no fleet to command. From the 1740s –1863, only one person was appointed to this rank and was held for life. It was then decided to appoint more than one, since the Army had six Field Marshals. In 1870, new regulations were introduced to ensure the Admirals of the Fleet retired at the age of 70, but ensuring that there would always be three on the active list. The maximum number was three until 1898 when a fourth was appointed. In 1940, all retired rank-holders were replaced on the active list conforming to the Army practice of Field Marshals who remained on the active list for life. In the 1990s, the rank was abolished and only those who held the rank prior to abolition remain using the rank.[4]


  1. "Flag rank - Oxford Reference". www.oxfordreference.com. Oxford, England: University of Oxford. doi:10.1093/oi/authority.20110803095822326. Retrieved 13 August 2019.
  2. National Museum of the Royal Navy.
  3. National Museum of the Royal Navy.
  4. Navy, Royal. (2014). Naval Ranks: Information sheet no 096. Library and Information Services. National Museum of the Royal Navy. Portsmouth, England.