During the Middle Ages the mark of knights and other nobles was a "coachwhip pennant" called a pennon. The size of these pennons as well as their diverse splendor usually signified the relative rank and importance of the noble it heralded. During the infancy of modern naval seapower these nobles rarely embarked upon seagoing vessels, but when they did, they flew their pennants from the most visible place on the ship, usually the foremast or main mast.

Perhaps the first time the commission was used independent of feudal heraldry dates back to the 17th century during a conflict between the Dutch and English. Admiral Tremp of the Dutch fleet hoisted a broom at his masthead to indicate his intention to "sweep the English navy from the sea." The gesture was soon answered by the English Admiral who hoisted a horsewhip, to indicate his intentions to chastise the Dutch. The British carried out their boast and ever since a narrow coachwhip pennant (to symbolize the original horsewhip), has been the distinctive mark of a vessel of war and has been adopted by all nations.

The commission pennant, as it is called today, is blue at the hoist, with a union of seven stars; it is red and white at the fly, in two horizontal strings. (The number of stars is arbitrary). The pennant is flown at the main by vessels not carrying flag officers. In lieu of the commission pennant, a vessel with a high ranking officer or official embarked aboard flies his own personal flag or command pennant. Today's ceremony and its participants are enacting an age old tradition handed down from century to century. When the commission pennant is finally lowered from the main and handed over to the commanding officer, the ship is officially retired.