Flags are endlessly diverse in their design. With a dizzying array of colors, imagery, motifs, and patterns, it can be challenging to identify what makes a flag design one that will genuinely last the test of time. Continue reading
Flags are endlessly diverse in their design. With a dizzying array of colors, imagery, motifs, and patterns, it can be challenging to identify what makes a flag design one that will genuinely last the test of time. Continue reading
Every family or congregation has its own share of holiday traditions, whether it’s gathering for a large meal or decorating the house together. Many of these holiday traditions derive from certain religious backgrounds. Continue reading
Most people of Irish descent are very proud of their heritage. Thus, it makes sense they would use a variety of flags to display their pride in the land of Eire or Ireland. One such flag is the Erin Go Bragh flag. The flag features a yellow harp on a green field with the words “Erin Go Bragh.” Continue reading
A Tiny Country with Immense Power
Though Vatican City is the smallest country in the world, it is arguably one of the most influential of all time. It is the home of the Pope, the titular head of the Roman Catholic church and the site of some of some of the most important art and architecture on Earth: Pretty impressive for a tiny patch of land just over 100 acres in size. The population is similarly limited, with only 594 citizens registered in 2011. Most of these live abroad in diplomatic capacities attached to embassies. Continue reading
The Bedford Flag is the oldest intact flag in the United States, possibly the oldest flag carried into battle in the history of America. There is, of course, some controversy, which we will look at briefly. First, though, let’s look at the banner itself:
… or at least a reproduction of it; the original is painted on red silk damask and, while intact, is not in the best of condition. Note the almost square shape; most modern flags are rectangular, in roughly a 2:1 to 4:3 ratio. This probably indicates it was a cavalry flag.
The flag is asymmetrical, with the obverse and reverse having slightly different designs. Here, we view the obverse, where the sword is extended behind the ribbon, gripped in the right hand, and the inscription on the ribbon reads from top to bottom. The reverse has the sword in front of the ribbon, held in the left hand, and the inscription climbing. That Latin inscription is Vince Aut Morire, meaning Conquer or Die.
The exact date of manufacture is unknown, but it was already an heirloom when it was carried into the Battle of Concord (or was it?) on April 19, 1775, by Nathaniel Page. Analysis of the pigments on the flag indicates the presence of the pigment Prussian Blue, invented in 1704, so that limits its creation to after that period.
The damasking suggests further that its likely creation is in the early 1700s; the floral pattern of pomegranates, grapes, and leaves was common in that time period. Also, the Page family is mentioned in military rolls at the time as being dispatched as cornets, who carried the flag for their companies, by 1737 at least. Presuming they brought this flag with them, it certainly indicates it was possible to have been carried to North Bridge in Concord at the appropriate time.
Unfortunately, the ephemera from the battles do not indicate the presence of such a flag. Surely someone at the battle would have taken notice of such a unique flag and made mention of it; most flags are readily identifiable – which is the point, really – and would have been listed in a debrief of a battle, so that the companies and units that participated would be properly recorded. Sadly, the lack of any such notice means that, despite the lore, Mr. Page probably did not actually carry the flag into any such conflict.
That doesn’t mean that its position as the oldest flag in the United States is in danger, though, especially since it’s in very good shape for a three-hundred-year-old piece of cloth. In fact, the symbolism of the flag is pretty interesting, so let’s turn from the sorrow and embrace the heraldry.
The armored arm was a fairly standard heraldry symbol, used throughout Europe to indicate a powerful leader, specifically a person endowed with qualities of leadership rather than just a person in charge by circumstance. The sword, unsurprisingly, is also very commonly seen, indicating military honor and justice.
The cloud is a touch more obscure, indicating mystery, but flag designers were never totally immune to the idea that some things simply look awesome, and a sword-wielding arm emerging from a cloud to declare that it must “Conquer or Die” falls directly into that category. Three cannonballs are suspended in the air; in heraldry this generally means the bearer of the flag has faced such a weapon in battle.
To sum up: A strong military leader who is willing to face cannon and not back down? Definitely a good choice for a unit of Minutemen to rally behind. It is probable that the Page family carried the banner into maneuvers and meetings, even if they likely didn’t commission nor procure it for the company, as that was the company commander’s duty.
Even if it was absent at the first battle of the American Revolution, the long history of the flag ensures that it will command interest for a long time to come. The Bedford Library currently holds the flag in a special room in its history area, where it is available to view at any time the library is open. Seeing such an artifact in person connects the viewer to its original position in a way that is difficult to convey, although now you can acquire an excellent reproduction to re-experience that feeling at any time.
The history of the Cuban flag is a bit obscure; there are two tales of its origin and design. One has it designed – apparently out of whole cloth, as the saying goes – in 1848. The banner was carried by the Venezuelan general Narsico López in his first attempt to free Cuba from Spanish rule. His wife sewed it, and the symbolism is explicit: The blue stripes are for the three original provinces, the red is for the blood of the Cuban patriots, and the red triangle is a Masonic symbol for liberty, equality, and fraternity. Continue reading
The world as we know it today is astonishingly different from what it was over five hundred years ago. The Age of Colonization was a groundbreaking time of discovery, one where unexpected, dramatic (and occasionally traumatic) voyages changed cultures and ecology across the globe.
Main sea trade routes discovered during the Age of Exploration.
Starting with the largest naval powers of Europe (Portugal, Spain, and England), explorers set out to discover valuable assets. Spices, furs, timber, rich fabrics, rare scents, and more unusual goods were sought all over the world. There was a race, so to speak, to seek out and claim the most valuable territories and their treasures. These colonies enriched and lent value to their conquering empires.
Throughout the Age of Exploration, the globe was marked with the flags of European occupation, some firmly held, others hotly disputed.
Between the 15th and 18th centuries, the map of the world was a pattern of Imperial and Royal flags. Some of these can still be seen in the standards of now independent countries or states. Indeed, it did not matter if a place was already inhabited. As long as it was unclaimed by a European power, the land was fair game.
The energy, curiosity, and rampant greed of the time makes for fascinating storytelling. Anyone who got hooked on the Showtime television series “The Tudors” can attest to this fact.
The modern Portuguese flag.
The Portuguese were great traders and merchants, and were always seeking intriguing and exotic merchandise. Some of the most valuable commodities were caravanned across the Sahara Desert at great expense––salt and gold, as well as ivory, rich cloth, and slaves.
Desert travel was dangerous, expensive, and time consuming, so the Portuguese began exploring alternate routes––less harrowing ones––in order to make better profits. With the Sahara covering 3.629 million square miles, the option to go around it by land was impractical, but a sea route was highly desirable.
Exploring Africa under the sponsorship of Prince Henry the Navigator, the Portuguese established lucrative trading ports along the Atlantic coast. Small pockets of Portuguese influence began appearing on the Arabian Peninsula, India, and, later, Brazil. They also invented an elegant new cargo ship, one that was nimble, swift, and elegant: the caravel.
It was through these travels that they discovered the Azores and Madeira, destinations that are still exotic and beautiful to this day.
The Azores: A Portuguese colony.
Christopher Columbus’ famous journey marked the emergence of Spain as a major sea power. It is arguably one of the single most important journeys ever made, because it marks the discovery of the New World. Others had reached there beforehand, but none had planted a flag and claimed the land in the name of their sovereign. Spain was the first, starting with that initial landing in the Bahamas. From there, it claimed the lion’s share of South America (excluding Brazil, of course).
Spain kept a tight grip on its overseas colonies for their vast riches of gold and silver. It is for this reason that the Age of Exploration and the Age of Piracy have considerable overlap, especially in the Caribbean. While they each jealously guarded their colonies, there were considerable clashes between the Spanish, French, and English, and much dispute over ownership, taxation, and jurisdiction in these areas.
In red, Spanish colonies claimed during the Age of Discovery.
After repelling the Spanish Armada and its failed attempt at invasion in 1588, England emerged as the greatest sea power of its time. Great riches poured into the coffers of King Henry VII, allowing him to set up great economic and political stability. The New World––North America, this time––furnished the empire with timber, fish, and rare furs. India was a wellspring of lush fabrics and rare spices.
Though this collection is from a later time, the evidence of British colonization is reflected in numerous flags around the world. The echoes of colonial history still linger to this day.
The rule and excess of the court of King Henry VIII is partially due to the ready availability of so much wealth. And, while his reign makes for interesting reading for both his scandalous love life and religious reforms, he also set the stage for his successor, one of the most powerful women ever to rule England.
Elizabeth I never married, yet was not deterred by her single status. She singlehandedly guided her country into a new age of enlightenment, fueled by colonial riches and bolstered by the growth of intellectualism. It is peculiar to think that the availability of pepper and beaver pelts allowed for the emergence of Shakespeare, but, without these foreign riches, it is unlikely that he would have achieved the immortality he has in the literary world.
Today you can see how the marks of older inhabitation have molded former colonies into modern independent nations. Some still carry badges of their former colony flags in their own heraldry. Others display distinct attitudes and political systems that hearken back to their original colonial status.
Either way, the flags of colonization have transformed their locations and have been reinvented in fascinating new ways. Though new ways thrive in these places, the flags planted in their soil have left indelible marks in history and in the modern cultures that thrive there today.
It seems like a simple quest, searching for the oldest national flag in existence. In reality, the actual historical trail gets much murkier. Legends, national heroes, personal standards, and religious visions all figure into a much more complex picture.
Just to make everything more interesting, the ancient tradition of heraldry, both personal and family, complicates the issue. From the foggiest scraps of historical records emerge the usage of flags and symbols to identify people and tribes. Official adoption of those symbols by larger groups comes much later, and it is harder to trace the actual beginning of a flag as national identity.
One version of history is easy enough to accept. The Dannebrog, the national flag of Denmark, has been in continuous usage since a battle in 1219 AD.
The legend is a little richer in romantic details. On June 15th, King Waldemar II defeated a force of Estonians with a banner that descended from heaven above (or so the story goes). It is interesting to see this legend falls into the formulaic vision of “under this flag you shall be victorious,” which was a common religious metaphor of the age. With a strange twist, though: “cross from the sky” type miracles were much more common in the Iberian peninsula, where clashes between Christians and Moors were not unusual.
This was the Dannebrog, the flag of the Danes, or simply “the red flag.” Simple and elegant in appearance, it features a brilliant white cross against a red background. Through the course of history, this particular design was also used by the Portuguese Order of Christ and by the Knights Hospitaller from the Baltic states (both crusading orders).
The white-on-blue X-shaped cross of Scotland is intensely familiar to most people, if only as part of the combined heraldry that makes up the modern Union Jack. It can also be seen in the provincial flag of Nova Scotia (a.k.a. New Scotland) in Canada.
Much like the Scots themselves, the history of the Saltire itself is contentious and contrary. What is documentable and historically accurate is that the Saltire has been in continuous usage since 832 AD, in one way or another. And, much like the Dannebrog, the Saltire has its roots in an ecstatic vision.
The night before a huge battle in 832 AD , the Pictish King Angus II was preparing for a clash with the English King Aethelstan. In the midst of planning and strategy, Angus was struck by a vision of St. Andrew (soon to become the patron saint of Scotland). The martyred saint promised victory for the outnumbered Picts, and the dream bolstered King Angus II’s faith and hope in the coming battle.
The next day, Angus’ troops were struck by the vision on a massive white Saltire blazoned against a brilliant blue sky. Heartened by the omen, the Picts vanquished their enemies, and the Cross of St. Andrew began its association with Scotland.
The difference here is subtle. The Saltire simply is older. But, with its inclusion in the Union Jack in 1603, with the union of England and Scotland, Scotland is no longer its own independent territory. Inclusion has done nothing to nullify the rich, bloody, and fascinating history of Scotland, but its inclusion means that it is not an independent state. The Danish flag has been used continuously to represent a single, discrete national entity for over 700 years.
Either way, both flags have impressive and heroic pedigrees. But there are other contenders with equally impressive historical lines.
The flag of Austria.
Though its roots are in a dynastic family and not an ecstatic vision, the flag of Austria is both very old and very rich with its own legend. Medieval times were brutal to say the least, and the origin of this banner is nothing short of gory.
The tale begins in 1189 AD during the Siege of Acre (in modern Israel today). Duke Leopold V of Austria was entrenched in a particularly vicious and bloody series of conflicts. When he finally could lay down his sword, his pristine white surcoat was completely drenched in the blood of his foes. On removing his sword belt, a single wide white swathe was revealed: a design so striking that Leopold adopted it as his personal heraldry.
Though used continuously in one form or another (mostly as a family crest), it was finally adopted as the national flag of Austria in 1230 AD. So, while being extremely old in its inception, its official usage came much later than both the flags of Denmark and Scotland.
Simple designs last the longest and remain the clearest in people’s memories. It makes sense for a couple reasons. Clear color blocking schemes like straight lines and crosses are rudimentary enough for even illiterate peasants to recognize and replicate.
It is for this reason that the legends––the spoken tales––of these flags stretch further back through time than the written records we use to authenticate true historical records. Regardless of their origin story, each flag has an intriguing past with both practical and mystical aspects flavoring the tale.
In the land of penguins and orca, with a population of 135 permanent residents, Antarctica is a unique place on Earth. There is no official flag of Antarctica since it is not a country nor governed by any authority.
However, there is a caveat to that as Antarctica is a de facto condominium, governed by parties to the Antarctic Treaty System that have consulting status. Twelve countries signed the Antarctic Treaty in 1959, and thirty-eight have signed it since then. The treaty prohibits military activities and mineral mining, prohibits nuclear explosions and nuclear waste disposal, supports scientific research, and protects the continent’s ecozone. Ongoing experiments are conducted by more than 4,000 scientists from many nations, primarily in its summertime.
Seven countries lay claim to a part of Antarctica, known as “territories,” which basically allows a country to do experiments provided they follow the regulations of the Antarctic Treaty System. Britain holds the British Antarctic Territory (yes, such an original name!) and New Zealand holds the Ross Dependency. France claims Adelie Land, named for the penguins there. Norway holds Peter I Island and Queen Maud Land. Australia, Chile, and Argentina also have stakes in the land of Antarctica.
In 2002, a flag was approved by the Antarctic Treaty Organization and is being used as an informal ensign of the continent. Many other designs for the flag have been suggested and are currently under consideration. The designs suggested by Whitney Smith and Graham Bartram are the most eminent designs.
The Graham Bartram design uses the flag of the United Nations as its base pattern. It is a simple white map of Antarctica on a blue setting. The map essentially represents the continent’s nonaligned status.
The Graham Bertram Flag was first hoisted on the continent in 2002. When he planned the ensign, Bertram was cognizant of the converging territorial demands of Chile, the United Kingdom, and Argentina. This version is probably the most famous design for the continent, proven by its wide presence on the web.
On the other hand, the Whitney Smith design applies the orange color as the setting for the flag because of the high visibility factor. This unique symbol comprises many constituents. “A” represents Antarctica and the lower part of the earth symbolizes the continent’s position on the planet.
At the same time, two hands gripping the lower portion of the globe symbolize a nonviolent human role. The white shade of the symbol stands for the ice and snow of the continent. There are very few instances where this design has been used, but it seems to be the one that is most closely associated with Antarctica.
Flags are used for various reasons, most importantly to unite people with a feeling of belonging and patriotism. For Antarctica, it seems the flag is more of a symbol of conservation and scientific exploration, so does that make it any less important?
Since not many people live on Antarctica, and it is not a sovereign nation, it makes sense that they don’t have an official flag. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for humanity as a whole as we become more populated; perhaps Antarctica might begin to look appealing to more people.
Technically, it’s not a flag.
It sure looks like one, doesn’t it? Well, it’s actually an emblem, suitable for displaying on a rectangular piece of cloth, according to the designer. So … that sounds like one, too, doesn’t it? Yes, except that the various members of the European Union were always concerned about losing their individual identities as nations and having their flags replaced. Which seems, honestly, exactly like what a union of member states ought to be doing, right? But in order to assuage such fears, the emblem is referred to as something that specifically is not a flag, so that can’t happen now.
Except that it pretty much has, even if it isn’t made out to be a big deal. The EU emblem is in flag form pretty much anywhere you want to look for it. It flies over the member countries’ capital cities; it flies over the United Nations; it shows up in sporting events; and everyone who isn’t a member country thinks of it as a flag, and everything’s fine.
And everything is fine with it, largely because there’s nothing that can be wrong with it. The entire emblem’s design and genesis is so softly rounded that there’s no danger of anyone being angered or offended by it. It means nothing and stands for nothing, really. Let’s look briefly at its history; it’s much older than you may have realized.
Designed for the Council of Europe after World War II, the emblem was the culmination of several attempts to make a symbol that wouldn’t offend any of the member countries. Previous attempts had included:
A red cross in a yellow circle on a blue background, which was rejected because Turkey, one of the fifteen member countries, objected to the cross as a de facto Christian symbol.
Plus a number of others that were never even going to make it all the way to the rejection stage. But Paul Levy was walking through Brussels one day in 1955 and saw a halo of stars surrounding the head of a statue of the Virgin Mary, and suggested to Léon Marchal, the designer, that he propose a circle of fifteen stars for the emblem, or so the story goes; there are several variants of this origin circulating, not all of which can agree on who saw the statue.
The blue background is primarily simply a compromise because no other major flag was using a predominantly blue background (although the United Nations flag is blue and some sites claim that “blue is … traditionally the color of the European continent”). There were originally fifteen stars in the circle, but Germany was concerned that if one of the stars represented the Saarland, the tiny, disputed strip of land between France and Germany, it would start to think of itself as an country and not part of Germany, and thus would never return like it was supposed to, as soon as it got sick of France.
As a consequence of this, if there were only fourteen stars, that meant that the Saarland wasn’t getting a star, and so they would veto the new proposal. Thirteen was straight out, since superstition was apparently still dominating world decisions. Twelve, however, was a number with so many possible meanings that it couldn’t possibly be taken poorly: if you didn’t like one interpretation of the twelve stars, you could come up with one you did like in short order.
Then, after all that, nobody even really used the emblem until over thirty years later, when the European Economic Community teamed up with the Council of Europe to start to evolve into what we think of as the European Union. But you can’t really call it a flag. That’s something we can all agree on.