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Denmark: History of the Flag

Last modified: 2021-08-25 by christopher oehler
Keywords: denmark | state ensign | crown | training ship |
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Among the independent nations recognised by the UN, the Danish flag is generally considered as the oldest continuously used national flag in the world. Regions, counts, kings and the like have had flags or banners older than Dannebrog, but no sovereign nation has used the same flag as long as Denmark.
Dennis Nielsen, 18 April 2001

Legend relates that the "Dannebrog" fell from the skies on 15 June 1219, the day in which King Waldemar II defeated the Estonians in battle. The cross represents, unsurprisingly, Christianity.

Legend aside, there is a small controversy around the idea that the design was linked somehow to an ensign of the Holy Roman Empire. A white cross on a red background was used by the Empire in many of its provinces. A problem with this hypothesis exists in the fact that Denmark was never a province of the Holy Roman Empire. This question remains unresolved.

The Danish flag has changed its proportions over the years. The 'splitflag' was first specified in 1696 and changed in 1856, while the square-ended flag was first specified in 1748, and changed in 1893. But none of these changes really altered its essential character.
Christopher Southworth, 9 July 2003

The documented use of the Dannebrog is since the mid-14th century - under king Valdemar Atterdag, who ruled 1340-75. Using this criterion, the Austrian flag, documented on a seal 1230, is an older flag.
Ole Andersen, 16 August 2003

"The Knights of Malta" is an excellent, thorough, well researched and well illustrated account of the Order of Malta (SMOM). In the section dealing with the German "Tongue" --which under the SMOM included Scandinavia-- it is said, "The Hospitallers arrived here [in Scandinavia] in the second half of the twelfth century as preachers of the crusade, and in 1219 they helped the Danes defeat the pagan Estonians; as a consequence the Danish kingdom adopted the Order's flag as its own."
Source: "The Knights of Malta", H.J.A. Sire, Yale University Press, 1996, p. 194.

This webpage on the Swedish Johanniter Order (the Swedish protestant offshoot of the SMOM): says in footnote [3], "The date of the adoption by the Danes of a flag similar to the Order's is unknown (the cross is not placed centrally); one probably apocryphal story relates that at Woldemar's funeral his coffin may have been covered with the banner of the Order, a white cross on a red background, while a more romantic version states that the flag came down from heaven in 1219 during a battle in Estonia. Indeed, it seems likely that the brothers would have joined in the crusades in the Baltic and it is probable that the Order's flag would have been born at the head of their contingent. The other Scandinavian nations all adopted similar flags with the Cross in different colors."
Santiago Dotor, 21 March 2006

18th Century Merchant Flag

As illustrated in National Geographic (1917), used in 1705

[Denmark 1705 merchant flag] by Željko Heimer

The modern national (so also the merchant) flag was defined in 1748. Before that this was the usual form of the flag, apparently, with the cross centered. That such flags were actually used confirms this historic event explained here regarding the defacing of the naval flags for use in the Mediterranean:

"Regulations dated 25 March 1757 inserted a white panel with the Royal cypher to the intersection of the cross in the Danish flag for ships sailing in the Mediterranean. This was made necessary because of increasing Danish trade and the conclusion of treaties with the North African states who on payment of tribute undertook to respect the flag of Denmark as long as it was distinguished from the flag of Malta. This variant civil ensign survived, with changing cyphers, until it was abolished in 1867.
Jan Oskar Engene,11 March 2003"

Željko Heimer, 3 June 2004

18th Century Naval Ensign

As illustrated in National Geographic (1917), used in 1705

[Denmark 1705 naval flag] by Željko Heimer

Chris writes that "the 'splitflag' was first specified in 1696 and changed in 1856". Now, 1696 and 1705 may be a bit too close for a flag chart of the period to be updated, so probably what we see here is the pre-1696 variant. Notice how the indentation is triangular rather than like in the modern shape (however, this may be a flag chart manufacturer's error also!)
Željko Heimer, 3 June 2004

The information concerning the dates given was taken from Henning, Henningsen (1969) pp.29-31 (of which I have an extract), and was confirmed by "The National Flag" issued by the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 16-10-99. I have no note of any legislation or Decree of 1927, with both sources giving only 1856 for the current dimensions. The only other legislation I have concerning the 'splitflag' is the text of a Royal Decree dated 25 October 1939 which states that (at least I think that it does) 'The Naval Ensign is the splitflag' - the original wording is "Orlogsflaget er et splitflag af dyprod farve med hvdit kors".
Christopher Southworth, 3 June 2004

Original Flag, based on an illustration

The civil ensign of Malta is (still, even if not used continuously) indeed the same red flag with the white cross throughout. The picture in the Gerle Armorial (1370-86), which is considered to be the oldest representation of the Dannebrog actually shows a short flag with centered cross throughout (see the reprint in Smith (1975) p. 64). I have resketched this flag:

[Denmark 1398 flag] by Željko Heimer, 3 June 2004