The Nordic and British Crosses of Europe

Following on my post on the flags of the Muslim world, by popular request I now write on the flags of Northern Europe that contain crosses, and briefly explore the origin and evolution of the common design.

The story begins with the flag of Denmark, which claims that its flag, know as the Dannebrog, is the oldest flag in the world. Legend states the flag fell from the sky at the Battle of Lyndanisse, during the Danish crusade in Estonia, on June 15, 1219. The flag has been the flag of Denmark and the Danish kings ever since.

nordic flags

In Sweden, according to local lore, the 12th century Swedish king Eric the Holy saw a golden cross in the sky as he landed in Finland during the First Swedish Crusade in 1157, and adopted this sign of God as his royal banner. If true, it would make the flag older than the Dannebrog, but there is apparently insufficient historical evidence. The alternative theory is that it was a resistance flag against the Danish flag, in which case it was created during the reign of King Charles Knutsson in the early 15th century.

The flags of Denmark and Sweden are old, but the remaining flags are modern creations. Norway used the Danish flag during the Danish-Norwegian union that ended in the 16th century, and kept the Danish flag with slight modifications until Norway adopted its current flag in 1821.

The flag of the Faroe Islands (see CA post) was first made by Faroese students in Copenhagen and later brought to the Faroes where it was first hoisted in 1919. It entered common use in 1931. When Denmark was occupied by the Nazis, British troops took the islands and a need to distinguish the ships of the Faroes from those of occupied Denmark occurred, so approved the flag, which was later officially recognized with the Home Rule Act of 23 March 1948.

Finland is one of the newest of these states mentioned and has the newest flag. The current blue-crossed design was first used by a Helsinki yacht club founded in 1861, which was similar to the flag of the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, founded the previous year. It became the flag shortly after Finland gained independence in 1917. And in Iceland, the flag was officially adopted in 1915 and became the national flag upon independence in 1948. While taking the design from Denmark, the blue is the color of the mountains, white represents the snow and ice, and red its volcanoes.

* * *

The British cousins of the Nordic states also have a cross in the flag, but the offset is symmetrical, and diagonal in some cases. Then there is also the unique British and United Kingdom Flags that were formed as a fusion of multiple crosses.

british flags

The flag of England is the St George’s Cross that first appeared as an emblem of England during the Crusades, making it one of the earliest known English emblems. It became the national flag during the sixteenth century. Although it first appeared at around the same time as the Danish and Swedish flags, the cross is not offset like the Nordic flags and is placed in the center of the flag.

Scotland‘s flag is based on the a 9th century symbol, which became the national symbol in the 13th century. It became a flag at around the same time as the English flag in the 16th century.

St. Patrick’s flag in Ireland is controversial. The arms of Ireland since the sixteenth century have been a gold harp with silver strings on a blue field, and the X-shaped flag was adopted in the 18th century. Today it is rejected, perhaps partly because it was adopted and modified by the rightist Blueshirts in the early 20th century, but it remains a part of Union Jack.

In 1606, following the Tudor unification of England and Scotland, the flags of England and Scotland were merged to form the flag of Great Britain. Later, the flag of Ireland was included to form the flag of the United Kingdom, or the Union Jack.

As a postscript, we have the flag of Jersey, adopted in its modern form in 1981 — it previously used a very similar flag to that of the St. Patrick’s flag.

About Curzon

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 - 1925) entered the British House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1886, where he served as undersecretary of India and Foreign Affairs. He was appointed Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century where he delineated the North West Frontier Province, ordered a military expedition to Tibet, and unsuccessfully tried to partition the province of Bengal during his six-year tenure. Curzon served as Leader of the House of Lords in Prime Minister Lloyd George's War Cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in January 1919, where his most famous act was the drawing of the Curzon Line between a new Polish state and Russia. His publications include Russia in Central Asia (1889) and Persia and the Persian Question (1892). In real life, "Curzon" is a US citizen from the East Coast who has been a financial analyst, freelance translator, and university professor; he is currently on assignment in Tokyo.
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16 Responses to The Nordic and British Crosses of Europe

  1. Alfred Russel Wallace says:


  2. s says:

    so wales is left out in the UK flag….

  3. Curzon says:

    By the time it was made, England was politically unified with Wales…

  4. s says:

    yes, i know. just feeling pity for poor wales.

    prince of wales, like duchess of york, they are at a lower level of hierarchy vs queen of england and scotland, or queen of india.

  5. von Kaufman-Turkestansky says:

    The Scottich flag would be the Cross of St. Andrew?

  6. Jarhead says:

    Yes, St Andrew’s cross is on the Scottish flag. The story I heard as a kid was that St. Andrew considered himself unworthy to be crucified as Jesus was, so they crucified him on an X-shaped cross (similar story to St. Peter being crucified upside down). There are a few different stories about how St. Andrew came to be patron saint of Scotland, but my favorite is that during a battle going poorly, King Óengus saw a cloud shaped like a saltire cross and the tide turned. The scots won and St. Andrew was credited with helping to win the battle and venerated as patron saint ever since.

  7. Jim Bennett says:

    I love the flag post series. Here are two more in the Nordic category:

    The Aaland Islands:Åland_Islands

    Normandy’s Nordic Cross flag, the flag of the Norman Movement:

    The Norman flag entry also has the flag of Sark in the Channel Islands, which demonstrates links to both England and Normandy.

    The Vikings got around.

  8. Fat Tony says:

    There is a proposal to incorporate Wales, which is similar to Union Jacks that at one point were adorned with an Irish harp on a blue shield in the middle of the cross, known at one point as the ‘protectorate jack’.

    Both are pretty ugly. Why mess with a design classic?

  9. John says:

    I’ve often wondered if the Confederate Flag of 1863 (the “Stars and Bars”) wasn’t some adaptation of the Scottish Flag ‘X’ shape but with the 13 stars of the Confederacy put onto the ‘X’ cross as a hybridization. It seems logical, since so many of the Southerners were of Scottish descent. Anyone know about the true origins of this flag?

  10. von Kaufman-Turkestansky says:

    Another way to get Wales in would be to incorporate St. Davey’s cross into the Union Flag. That would probably mean adding some black and yellow fringes to the existing St George cross on the flag.

  11. Alec says:

    “In 1606, following the Tudor unification of England and Scotland”.
    I think you’ll find it was in 1603 and the Stuart (James IV & 1) unification of Scotland and England.

  12. Dennis Bolt says:

    The flag of Cornwall is also similar, but different. It is a version of the St. George style cross (not an X or offset like Nordic) with black background and white cross. Devon’s modern flag is Green with black/white cross.

  13. Curzon says:

    John, interesting thought. The Confederate flags actually had lots of designs, and its not clear if the one we call today as “the” Confederate flag is inspired from. It may be a combination of the St. Patrick’s and St. Andrew’s flags. Read more here.

  14. StrathDug says:

    From a Scottish point of view the Union flag did not become widely accepted until after the 1707 Union of parliaments and their had previously been a Scottish version of said flag (where the Saltire was laid over St. Georges cross).

    Also, their is an unofficial Scottish Highlands flag; it follows the Nordic pattern and looks similar to the Icelandic flag but with the red inner cross replaced with a green one.

  15. Pingback: » The Nordic and British Crosses of Europe « Globo Diplo

  16. Thomas says:

    To be really pedantic, there is no official flag of the United Kingdom.

    Technically, the Union Flag is the standard of the Queen. It’s use has been so prolific for so long that it has been unofficially adopted as the flag of the nation but it has that position by custom, not by law.