A history of the spanish flag

spanish flag

Spanish culture and traditions

The current flag of Spain features two red stripes, one wider yellow stripe in between, and the Spanish crest is featured, slightly offset to the left. But the flag of pain has suffered many transformations over the centuries, as the governing powers changed hands. In this article, we go over all of the changes the flag has experienced and why. 

History of the Sanish Flag

A brief history of the Spanish Flag

An official Spanish flag was first recognized by the Royal Decree of 1843, signed by Isabella II. This regulation turned the two-colored flag with a shield in the center into what we know today as the flag of Spain. But, even though the flag has been around so long, most people, even native Spaniards, ignore the origins of the design.

The modern configuration of the flag was first put forth during the rule of Charles III. The king decided that the unified kingdoms within Spain needed a national sign that would stand out and would be easily recognizable on Spanish ships out on the high seas. Until then, the Spanish flag was white, and on it was the Bourbon dynasty coat of arms.

Other kingdoms of the era shared a similar design. Parma, Naples, France, Tuscany, or Sicily, and even Great Britain, also used a white background. This made it very hard to differentiate allied ships from the enemy at a distance.

bourbon coat of arms

But let’s go even further back to see how we arrived at the current design. The first real conquerors of the Iberian peninsula, the Romans, used to carry rigid banners into battle, and only with the passing of the centuries would begin to carry cloth flags. So we have to look to the Arab occupation of the peninsula, and the Crusaders in the rest of Europe, who would bring from the East this custom of carrying cloth banners. The first flags in the Iberian Peninsula were, therefore, those of the Muslims and the kingdom of Córdoba.

Banner of the Cordoban Caliph

Over time, Christians adopted this new custom, but at first, the flags only displayed a royal emblem. Flags and banners only represented only the king or, at most, the monarchy. Later they would become associated with the different territories.

Now that the use of flags and banners has been established in the Spanish territory, we have to move to a point in time when the different kingdoms in Spain were unified. Some contend that that didn’t really happen until the reign of Felipe V, but the unification of the country began under the rule of the Catholic Kings: Isabel and Fernando. 

cordoba caliphate flag
flag catholic kings

The Catholic Monarchs and the House of Austria

The Catholic Kings flew a flag that combined the coat of arms of Aragon with those of Castile and those of León. This proto-flag was also used by Felipe el Hermoso, husband of their daughter, Juana la Loca, who brought the Burgundy cross with him.

His son, Carlos I of Spain and emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, took the Burgundy cross as a personal emblem and thus became widespread among the different Spanish kingdoms.

Although the red cross with the white background is always used to remember the Hispanic Empire, the reality is that this was not the symbol of the Spanish states, but the monarch’s staff.

In fact, not even of all the monarchs of the Austrian or Habsburg house, since Philip II changed his colors: he kept the red cross, but the background preferred it yellow.

Cross of Burgundy or Cross of San Andrés, which, with very different designs, was used by the navy who always wore the emblem, since the design became the most varied in colors and shapes according to the regiment.

Its first use as a Spanish military emblem was during the Battle of Pavia, in 1525. It was not used, therefore, by Hernán Cortés in the conquest of Mexico, for example, which lasted from 1519 to 1521.

This flag continues to be present in numerous territories that were part of the Hispanic crown and in various regiments of the three Spanish armies.

The flag under the House of Bourbon

The flag changed again when the house of  Bourbons took over the Spanish throne. Up to this point, the Spanish flag was a symbol of the king or monarchy, not of the country itself.

Because of the aforementioned confusion on the high seas, Carlos III took a practical step and called for a competition for a new naval flag that would differentiate Spanish ships from those of other countries. In fact, there would be two, one for civil ships and one for military ships.

Antonio Valdés y Fernández Bazán came up with a dozen different designs, two of which were selected. Of the two chosen designs, the military option would become the current flag.

Between the reign of Carlos III and the war of independence against Napoleon, the flag became more commonplace in day-to-day life. During the French occupation of the peninsula, this flag design became the flag the population used during their revolt against the French government.

Then during the First Republic, the design remained very similar but the monarchical symbols of the shield were eliminated. 

The flag of Spain in the 20th century

Until the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, the five-stripe civil flag that had been established by Carlos III decided to use on merchant ships continued to be used. The dictator prohibited it and the three-line line was always used, originally restricted to war.

The next change that the flag would suffer would come during the Second Republic. Changes were made to include the colors of the flag of Castille, as the colors of the house of Aragon are prominently featured. The problem is that the banner of Castile, which at that time was thought to be violet, was actually crimson.

republican flag of spain
francisco franco flag

The Flag under Franco’s dictatorship.

At the beginning of the Civil War, Franco’s forces fought under the republican flag, but just a few months later they changed it to the traditional one, although it maintained the shield of the second Republic in the center.

After the fascist victory, the 2 tone flag with the Eagle of San Juan, symbol of the Catholic Monarchs, was officially reestablished and modified twice, in 1945 and in 1977.

Current Spanish constitutional flag.

After the fall of the dictatorship, and the arrival of democracy to Spain, the flag was changed one last time. On the current flag, a ribbon surrounds the columns with the motto Plus Ultra, which in Latin means beyond. The two columns represent the columns of Hercules, which marks the entrance to the Atlantic, and, as legend has it, marked the end of the world. All this set on the traditional red and yellow flag. 

current spanish flag

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