Of all of the different types of flag designs seen around the world, I’ve always had a soft spot for flags which employ the Nordic, or Scandinavian, Cross. For whatever reason, the aesthetics of it just grab me. There’s something about the way that it’s geometrically designed – linear and precise, yet slightly off-centre; an ‘oomph’ that basic striped flags can’t provide. It’s a simple, solid pattern that can still produce a wide variance in design, not just in flags in northern Europe, but in flags used around the world. With an origin dating back nearly a millennium, perhaps it’s surprising that the Nordic Cross is only as widespread as it is.
The Nordic Cross can trace its origin to what remains the world’s oldest national flag in continuous use, the Danish Dannebrog. Denmark has used the Dannebrog in an official capacity since the 14th century. The most popular of the legends and stories that revolve around the Dannebrog’s origin involves the pennant falling from the sky during either one of two Danish battles waged in Estonia during the Northern Crusades: the Battle of Fellin in 1208, or the Battle of Lyndanisse in 1219. Other theories postulate that the design came from a papal banner sent to either the Danish king or the Danish archbishop for use in said crusades. The earliest undisputed link is traced to between 1340 and 1370 in a Dutch book documenting coats-of-arms known as the Gelre Armorial.
Regardless of the actual origin, it can be reasonably assumed that the Nordic Cross emerged out of the banners uses by Christian princes waging battle in the Northern Crusades. Used as gonfalons, this explains why the Nordic Cross appears to be lying on its side, as the flag is a 90-degree rotation of the gonfalon. Realms, dioceses, and lands ruled by, or in contact with, Denmark applied the existing colours and patterns from their own coats of arms to the basic template laid out on the Dannebrog. This is when the design became secularised under Erik of Pomerania using the same red background only with a gold cross (today known as the Scanian Cross, although the modern version with the same colours is instead meant as a merger of the Danish and Swedish flags in order to reflect Scania’s position as a bridge between the two lands).
The Scanian flag was reintroduced in 1902, and has been in official use in Skåne County since 1999.
Since those early flags, countless variations have entered into use around northern Europe and other places touched by Nordic countries, some (like Norway and Iceland, whose flags are direct opposites of one another) with crosses embedded inside of an outline, creating a rather aesthetic variance on the original design.
The flags of Åland (a Swedish flag defaced with a red cross symbolising the Finnish coat-of-arms), Orkney (a merger of Norwegian and Scottish national colours), and Vepsia (a Finnic people living in the areas near lakes Ladoga and Onega in northwestern Russia; the colours represent forests, water, and fields).
Whether via immigration, symbolism, or pure aesthetics, the design has spread around the world. Accompanying that spread has been numerous changes and alteration to the design, all based around the original off-centre cross. And then there are those that just stick to the basics.
The flags of Bayamón, Puerto Rico; Saarland; the Tongan Naval Ensign; Chilliwack, British Columbia; Tbilisi, Georgia; Skarsterlân, Friesland; Alt Áneu, Catalonia; Osove, Czech Republic; Sucre, Aragua, Venezuela (a merger of the Nordic Cross with the Miranda tricolour).
Olsson, S-O. R. (1993). The Flag of Scania: “The Red and Yellow Cross Flag, History and Stories Told“. Trans. I.E. Clenman. Malmö: Stiftelsen Skånsk Framtid – The Foundation for the Future of Scania. Available at http://www.scania.org/facts/flag/Flag%20english.pdf. Accessed 13 February 2011.
Raeside, R. (2010). Off-centred Crosses (Overview). Flags of the World, 30 October 2010. Available at http://www.fotw.net/flags/xx-scand.html. Accessed 13 February 2011.
Raeside, R. (ed.) (2010). Denmark: History of the Flag. Flags of the World, 29 December 2010. Available at http://www.crwflags.com/fotw/flags/dk_his.html. Accessed 13 February 2011.
Trylle Charlie (2010). Danish Flag. FYI Denmark, 30 November 2010. Available at http://www.fyidenmark.com/danish_flag.html. Accessed 13 February 2011.