Flag of an admiral, Royal Navy.
Insignia shoulder board and Sleeve lace for Admiral
Country United Kingdom
Service branch Royal Navy
Rank groupFlag officer
NATO rank codeOF-9
Next higher rankAdmiral of the Fleet
Next lower rankVice admiral
Equivalent ranks

Admiral is a senior rank of the Royal Navy, which equates to the NATO rank code OF-9, outranked only by the rank of admiral of the fleet. Royal Navy officers holding the ranks of rear admiral, vice admiral and admiral of the fleet are sometimes considered generically to be admirals. The rank of admiral is currently the highest rank to which a serving officer in the Royal Navy can be promoted, admiral of the fleet being in abeyance except for honorary promotions of retired officers and members of the Royal Family.

The equivalent rank in the British Army and Royal Marines is general; and in the Royal Air Force, it is air chief marshal.


The first admirals

The title admiral was not used in Europe until the mid-13th century and did not reach England before the end of that century.[1] Similarly, although some royal vessels are attested under King John,[2] the English long depended upon levies of their subjects' vessels for any major naval expeditions.[3] Nonetheless, historians have sometimes extended the concept of an English navy and its supposed admirals and lord high admirals back as far as Alfred the Great, counting several kings as themselves admirals, along with various dukes and earls who commanded fleets at prominent engagements such as Hubert de Burgh off Sandwich in 1217.[4] Other lists begin their count at King Henry III's appointment of Sir Richard de Lucy on 28 August 1223[4] or 29 August 1224.[5] A similar commission was given to Sir Thomas Moulton in 1264,[5] who held the formal title of Keeper of the Sea and the Sea Ports.

On 8 March 1287, Sir William de Leybourne was specifically commissioned as the Admiral of the Seas of England (Latin: Admirallus Maris Angliae) and, in 1294, captain of all sailors and mariners of the king's dominions.[3] Sir John de Botetourt served under him as warden at sea from the Thames to Scotland.[3] This was part of an effort by Edward I to establish a permanent official staff, even if a permanent naval force was not yet considered necessary.[3] Leybourne's immediate purview was subsequently divided into the roles of Admiral of the West and Admiral of the South while Botetourt's became the Admiral of the North; the first and last merged as the Admiral of the North and West in 1364; and from 1408–1414 they were all reunited as the High Admiral of England, Ireland, and Aquitaine, the forerunner to the present Lord High Admiral.[5] (During this process, the short-lived post of Admiral of the Narrow Seas was used in 1412 and 1413. It was subsequently revived from 1523 to 1688.)

The first royal commission as Admiral to a naval officer was granted in 1303[6] to Gervase Alard.[7] By 1344, it was only used as a rank at sea for a captain in charge of one or more fleets.[6]

Squadron admirals of the colour from 1558 to 1603

Main article: Coloured squadrons of the Royal Navy

In Elizabethan times the fleet grew large enough to be organised into squadrons. The squadron's admiral flew a red ensign, the vice admirals white, and the rear admirals blue on the aft mast of his ship. As the squadrons grew, each was eventually commanded by an admiral (with vice admirals and rear admirals commanding sections) and the official ranks became admiral of the white and so forth, however each admiral's command flags were different and changed over time.[8]

Introduction of vice and rear admirals

The Royal Navy has had vice and rear admirals regularly appointed to the post since at least the 16th century. When in command of the fleet, the admiral would be in either the lead or the middle portion of the fleet. When the admiral commanded from the middle portion of the fleet his deputy, the vice admiral, would be in the leading portion or van. Below him was another admiral at the rear of the fleet, called rear admiral.[6]

Promotion path of flag officers from 1702 to 1864

Main article: Coloured squadrons of the Royal Navy

Promotion up the ladder was in accordance with seniority in the rank of post-captain, and rank was held for life, so the only way to be promoted was for the person above on the list to die or resign. In 1747 the Admiralty restored an element of merit selection to this process by introducing the concept of yellow admirals (formally known as granting an officer the position of "Rear-Admiral without distinction of squadron"), being captains promoted to flag rank on the understanding that they would immediately retire on half-pay.[9][10] This was the navy's first attempt at superannuating older officers.[11]

Interregnum to the present

During the Interregnum, the rank of admiral was replaced by that of general at sea. In the 18th century, the original nine ranks began to be filled by more than one man per rank, although the rank of admiral of the red was always filled by only one man and was known as Admiral of the Fleet. After the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 the rank of admiral of the red was introduced.[12] The number of officers holding each rank steadily increased throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries. In 1769 there were 29 admirals of various grades; by the close of the Napoleonic Wars in 1816 there were 190 admirals in service. Thereafter the number of admirals was reduced and in 1853 there were 79 admirals.

Although admirals were promoted according to strict seniority, appointments to command were made at the discretion of the Board of Admiralty. As there were invariably more admirals in service than there were postings, many admirals remained unemployed, especially in peacetime.

The organisation of the fleet into coloured squadrons was finally abandoned in 1864. The Red Ensign was allocated to the Merchant Navy, the White Ensign became the flag of the Royal Navy, and the Blue Ensign was allocated to the naval reserve and naval auxiliary vessels.

The 18th- and 19th-century Royal Navy also maintained a positional rank known as port admiral. A port admiral was typically a veteran captain who served as the shore commander of a British naval port and was in charge of supplying, refitting, and maintaining the ships docked at harbour.

The problem of promoting strictly by seniority was well illustrated by the case of Provo Wallis who served (including time being carried on the books while still a child) for 96 years. When he died in 1892 four admirals under him could immediately be promoted.[13] By request of Queen Victoria, John Edmund Commerell became Admiral of the Fleet rather than Algernon Frederick Rous de Horsey, who as senior active admiral nearing the age limit would customarily have received the promotion; John Baird became an Admiral; James Erskine a vice-admiral; and Harry Rawson a rear-admiral. Ironically, all these younger men would die at least a decade before de Horsey. In the time before squadron distinctions were removed or age limits instituted, the death of James Hawkins-Whitshed resulted in ten men moving up to higher ranks.[14]

In 1996, the rank of admiral of the fleet was put in abeyance in peacetime, except for members of the Royal family but was resurrected on an honorary basis in 2014 for the appointment of Lord Boyce. Admirals of the fleet continue to hold their rank on the active list for life.

Rank insignia and personal flag

The current ranks are rear admiral, vice admiral, admiral and admiral of the fleet, also known as flag ranks because admirals, known as flag officers, are entitled to fly a personal flag. An admiral of the fleet flies a Union Flag at the masthead, while an admiral flies a St George's cross (red cross on white). Vice admirals and rear admirals fly a St George's cross with one or two red discs in the hoist, respectively.

The rank of admiral itself is shown in its sleeve lace by a broad band with three narrower bands. In 2001 the number of stars on the shoulder board was increased to four, reflecting the equivalence to the OF-9 four-star ranks of other countries.[15][16]

History command flags

Main article: List of command flags of the Royal Navy

Prior to 1864 the Royal Navy was divided into coloured squadrons which determined his career path. The command flags flown by an Admiral changed a number of times during this period, there was no Admiral of the Red rank until that post was introduced in 1805 prior to this the highest rank an admiral could attain to was Admiral of the White who then flew the Cross of St George. The next promotion step up from that was to Admiral of the Fleet.[17]

See also



  1. ^ "admiral, n.", Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2024.
  2. ^ Marsden (1909), p. 675.
  3. ^ a b c d Kingsford (1928), p. 97.
  4. ^ a b Beatson (1788), p. 260.
  5. ^ a b c Houbraken & al. (1747), p. 270.
  6. ^ a b c "History of Naval Ranks and Rates". National Museum of the Royal New Zealand Navy. 10 November 2015. Retrieved 13 February 2019.
  7. ^ Pryde & al. (1996), p. 134.
  8. ^ "Information sheet no 055: Squadron Colours" (PDF). The National Museum Royal Navy. 2014. Archived from the original (PDF) on 8 November 2020. Retrieved 13 February 2019.
  9. ^ Millar, Stephen (2008). "Promotion in the flag ranks of the Royal Navy During the Napoleonic Wars". Retrieved 23 December 2016.
  10. ^ Rodger, N. (1986) The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy, Collins, p. 299
  11. ^ N.A.M. Rodger (2004) The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain 1649-1815 London, Allen Lane, 325-6
  12. ^ "Promotion in the Flag Ranks in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars". Retrieved 6 October 2019.
  13. ^ "The Amazing Career of Lieutenant Wallis, Royal Navy – War of 1812". Retrieved 6 October 2019.
  14. ^ "London Gazette, "The following promotions have taken place, dated the 30th ultimo, consequent on the death of Admiral of the Fleet, Sir James Hawkins Whitshed..."". Retrieved 6 October 2019.
  15. ^ Archived 27 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine – Uniforms and Badges of Rank: Admiral
  16. ^ Admiral is a four-star rank in NATO, Commonwealth and, since 2001, the Royal Navy (Refer UK DCI (Joint Service) 125/2001).
  17. ^ Perrin, W. G. (William Gordon) (1922). "IV:Flags of Command". British flags, their early history, and their development at sea; with an account of the origin of the flag as a national device. Cambridge, England: Cambridge : The University Press. pp. 73–109.


  • Trafalgar Ancestors, Glossary, London: National Archives, 2017.
  • Beatson, Robert (1788), A Political Index to the Histories of Great Britain and Ireland..., vol. I (2nd ed.), London: G.G.J. & J. Robinson.
  • Bothwell, James (2004), Edward III and the English Peerage: Royal Patronage, Social Mobility, and Political Control in Fourteenth-Century England, Boydell Press, ISBN 9781843830474.
  • Houbraken, Jacobus; Paul de Rapin Thoyras; George Vertue (1747), "A List of Admirals of England, 1224–1745", The History of England, J. & P. Knapton.
  • Kingsford, Charles Lethbridge (1928), "The Beginnings of English Maritime Enterprise", History, vol. 13, Wiley, pp. 97–106, JSTOR 24400638.
  • Marsden, R.G. (October 1909), "Early Prize Jurisdiction and Prize Law in England", English Historical Review, vol. 24, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 675–697, JSTOR 550441.
  • Perrin, William Gordon (1922), "Flags of Command", British Flags..., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Pryde, E.B.; et al. (1996), Handbook of British Chronology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 9780521563505.

Media related to Admirals of the United Kingdom at Wikimedia Commons