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A brief history of the Icelandic flag

A brief history of the Icelandic flag by Birgir Thorlacius. Previously published in Icelandic in Fáni Íslands, skjaldarmerki, þjóðsöngur, heiðursmerki [The Flag, Coat of Arms, National Anthem and Official Honours of Iceland], published by the Prime Minister's Office, 1991.

The flag and the campaign for independence

The campaign for an Icelandic flag was part of Iceland's campaign for independence from Denmark. Controversy sometimes arose over design of the flag and for a long time little distinction was made between the flag and the coat of arms.

Painter Sigurður Guðmundsson advocated in the 19th century that the national emblem – naturally both the flag and the coat of arms – should be a white falcon with spread wings on a blue field. This design enjoyed support for some while, for example among Grammar School and university students.

The parliamentary assembly at Þingvellir in 1885 resolved, at the instigation of Valtýr Guðmundsson, that Iceland was entitled to a separate merchant flag. The same summer the constitutional law committee in the Lower Chamber of Parliament proposed a bill on a national flag for Iceland. The proposed flag would be divided into four rectangles by a red cross with white borders. Three of the sections were to be blue with a white falcon in each. The fourth, the canton, was to be red with a white cross, i.e. like the Danish flag. Jón Sigurðsson from Gautlönd, chairman of the committee, proposed the bill in the house. The bill was not fully debated, but saw a proposal put forward for the three colours that were later used in the Icelandic flag: blue, white and red.

In an article in his journal Dagskrá on March 13, 1897, poet Einar Benediktsson wrote that Iceland's national colours are blue and white and the cross is the most common and convenient flag emblem. He proposed that the Icelandic flag should be a white cross on a blue field.

Matthías Þórðarson, later Keeper of National Antiquities, showed his idea for the flag at a meeting of the Reykjavík Students' Association on September 27, 1906: a white cross on a blue field with a red cross inside the white one. These colours were supposed to represent the blue of the mountains, white ice and red fire.

The National Museum of Maritime History in Stockholm contains an illustration from Calicut (Kozhikode) in the Kerala district of India, from a book by Captain Mathias Gustaf Holmers of the East India Company dating from 1740-1750. The illustration includes two flags, one Danish and the other apparently the same shape and colour as the Icelandic flag: a white cross on a blue field with a red cross inside the white one. This may have been the private flag of a trading company. As far as is known Matthías Þórðarson was not familiar with this flag when he proposed his design for the Icelandic flag in 1906. Pétur Sigurðsson, Director of the Icelandic Coast Guard, noticed the illustration in the museum in Sweden in 1957.

Matthías Þórðarson's flag proposal eventually triumphed. However, at this stage people tended to favour Einar Benediktsson's idea for a blue flag with a white cross. This design became popular, especially after a Danish warship confiscated one in 1913 from a boat in a rowing competition in Reykjavík Harbour. This incident turned the flag question into a heated political issue.

The Icelandic flag was also debated in parliament, for example when a bill on a blue and white flag was proposed in 1911, and in 1913.

After the end of the parliamentary session in 1913, Prime Minister Hannes Hafstein presented the issue of the flag to King Christian X at a meeting of the Danish State Council on November 22 and explained how it could be resolved by a royal decree without legislation. All that this involved was a special flag which could be used in Iceland and Icelandic territorial waters. The King approved the proposal and subsequently issued the following royal decree:

“For Iceland, a special flag shall be sanctioned by law. Its design shall be determined with a further royal decree, when the Prime Minister has had the opportunity to find out the wishes of people in Iceland in this respect. This flag may be raised anywhere in Iceland and Icelandic ships may sail under it in Icelandic waters. However, it is our desire that, on the building or site of Iceland's Government House, the swallowtail Danish Dannebrog flag should also be flown in no less worthy or smaller a place than the Icelandic flag. This our supreme decree in no way restricts the right to fly the Dannebrog flag as in the past. All concerned should conduct themselves in accordance with this.”

While issuing the decree, the King remarked that he naturally assumed that the Icelandic flag would not be noticeably similar to that of any other country. He was alluding to claims made in the flag debate that the blue and white flag closely resembled the national flag of Greece.

The flag committee of 1913

On returning to Iceland the Prime Minister appointed a committee on December 30, 1913 “to consider in detail the design of the flag, establish as far as possible the nation's wishes and present proposals to the government on the shape and colour early enough to give Parliament, when it next convenes, the opportunity to deliver an opinion on it.”

The committee comprised Guðmundur Björnson (Surgeon General), who was chairman, Matthías Þórðarson (Keeper of the National Antiquities), Ólafur Björnsson (newspaper editor), Jón Jónsson Aðils (academic) and Þórarinn B. Þorláksson (painter).

As pointed out above, some people considered the blue and white flag to resemble the Greek national flag so closely that the Danish King would not agree to it for Iceland. At the request of the flag committee, the Prime Minister asked the king whether he would want to sanction the blue and white flag. And the king replied that he would not, since it resembled the Greek flag too closely. In light of the royal opposition, the committee dropped its proposal for a blue and white flag. After a study by the principal of the Maritime College, it was also felt that such a flag, in poor visibility, could be confused with the Swedish flag, which is a yellow cross on a blue field.

The committee presented two proposals for the colour of the flag:

(1) sky blue with a white cross and a bright red cross inside it, or

(2) white with a sky-blue cross with a white and blue stripe on either side.

In its report, the committee said that, as the Prime Minister knew, the king would certainly ratify either of these two designs.

On the first day of the Parliamentary session in 1914, July 1, Prime Minister Hannes Hafstein explained developments in the flag issue and distributed the flag committee's report. He described the drawbacks of having the blue and white flag ratified, and that he had not felt able to propose another design to the king on his own. Accordingly, he had appointed the committee. The Prime Minister intended the matter to be debated in the United Chamber (both houses) of Parliament, and in camera at least to begin with, but Skúli Thoroddsen, Bjarni Jónsson from Vogur, Benedikt Sveinsson, Jón Jónsson, Björn Kristjánsson and Sigurður Eggerz submitted a proposal for a parliamentary resolution to the Lower Chamber on July 3 to elect a seven-man committee to consider the flag issue and present proposals in connection with it. Skúli Thoroddsen, who sponsored the proposal, considered that the flag was an Icelandic legislative question and the previous session of parliament had expected the Prime Minister to present a draft bill on it, and not to follow the procedure that had now been adopted. Although Hannes Hafstein firmly opposed the proposal, it was passed with a large majority and the committee was elected. However, the issue was discussed in camera, as he had intended. A five-man committee was also elected in the Upper Chamber and the two committees combined to present a joint report and proposal in the United Chamber advocating that the royal decree from November 22, 1913 should be invoked to secure a special flag, which would represent a partial victory while conceding nothing. Skúli Thoroddsen and Bjarni from Vogur felt that this did not go far enough. A special flag would dampen interest in a fully valid flag. Along with others, they felt that the matter should have been handled as a legislative issue as intended by Parliament, and not by royal decree. Members of the house were not unanimous on the colours. Some wanted a blue and white flag with a large white star in the canton, while others favoured the committee's main proposal for a white cross in a blue field with a red cross in the centre.

The joint proposal by the Upper and Lower Chamber committees for a parliamentary resolution on the design of the flag recommended: 1) the blue flag unchanged, 2) the same flag with a large white pentangle in the canton, and 3) a tricolour. However, seven committee members expressed reservations when they signed the report and one of them (Guðmundur Björnson) declared himself in agreement with anything that did not conflict with the views of the government-appointed committee. Four Members of Parliament Guðmundur Hannesson, Sigurður Gunnarsson, Sigurður Stefánsson and Pétur Jónsson – tabled an amendment to drop the proposal for the pentangle. This was agreed by 20 votes to 18, leaving a clear choice of recommendation between the blue and white flag and the tricolour.

Incidentally, there was some debate about the cost of the government-appointed committee, the first joint parliamentary committee to be set up in Iceland without sanction from Parliament itself. In the 1915 session Einar Arnórsson asked about the cost, not to stir up controversy but in order to dispel rumours about it. He mentioned newspaper reports that the committee had been paid six thousand krónur and another two thousand were outstanding. The Prime Minister reported that the cost of the committee was 6,164.26 krónur.

Rejected by the King

A new Prime Minister was appointed while parliament was still in session. Hannes Hafstein left office and Sigurður Eggerz took over. At a meeting of the State Council in Copenhagen on November 30, 1914 the Prime Minister outlined the progress of the flag issue to the king and proposed that he should ratify the tricolour. But the king refused to issue a decree on the design of the flag at that stage, in spite of his earlier pledge. The reason was that Parliament and the Prime Minister did not agree with the king on whether separate Icelandic issues should be presented in the Danish State Council the king refused to ratify a draft bill on a new constitution which Parliament had passed and the Prime Minister conditionally submitted to him. The Prime Minister submitted the constitutional bill to the king for ratification first, and when it was rejected he announced his resignation. The king subsequently refused to issue a decree on the design of the Icelandic flag, although he had previously stated his readiness to approve either design, as the flag committee had pointed out in its report. The Prime Minister then declared that the king's refusal to issue a decree on the flag merely strengthened him in his resolve to resign, and he did so at the State Council meeting.

Special flag

Einar Arnórsson later took over the office of Prime Minister and on June 19, 1915 a royal decree was issued specifying, with reference to the royal decree of November 22, 1913, the following design for the flag: “Sky blue (ultramarine) with a white cross and a bright red cross inside the white cross. The arms of the cross shall extend to the edge of the flag on all four sides. The width of the cross shall be 2/9 of the width of the entire flag, but the red cross half as wide, at 1/9 of the width of the flag. The hoist sections shall be square; and the fly sections shall be the same width as the hoist sections, but twice as long. The ratio between the width and the length of the flag shall be 18:25.”

This is the same design that the king refused to ratify on November 30, 1914.

Now the country had its own flag, but it was still not the long-awaited symbol of sovereignty.

Maritime flag

Before long, the flag question was back on the agenda. One item in the Farmers' Party manifesto in 1915 was to have an Icelandic maritime flag recognised at the first instance.

There was a change of government in 1917. Einar Arnórsson stepped down as Prime Minister and Jón Magnússon formed a cabinet with Björn Kristjánsson (who was replaced later that year by Sigurður Eggerz) and Sigurður Jónsson. At the request of the Independence Party's Reykjavík branch, the Prime Minister made overtures to the Danish government in spring 1917 about the possibility of a maritime flag, but the Danish premier, C. Th. Zahle, replied that he had not expected this matter to be brought up so soon after the special flag had been dealt with in 1915, recalling his remarks in the State Council on November 22, 1913 that alterations to the regular Danish maritime flag needed to be proposed to the Danish parliament. He said he could not accept a unilateral decision by Iceland to do so – but if the relationship between Iceland and Denmark was to be changed, the correct course would be to consider it in its entirety. Some Danes also deemed it inadvisable to consider such a matter, especially a maritime flag, while World War I was still going on.

When Parliament convened in the beginning of July 1917, the Prime Minister outlined these discussions to the members of the house. Early on in the session, ten members proposed the election of a seven-man committee to consider and make recommendations on a course of action to gain control of all Icelandic affairs and receive recognition of Iceland's sovereignty. The proposal was approved unanimously and the committee was elected. It subsequently presented the following proposal: “Parliament resolves to urge the Government to ensure that Iceland shall be assigned a specific and full maritime flag by royal decree, and resolves to authorise that the matter be handled in this fashion.”

Introducing the proposal, Bjarni from Vogur said he felt it was vital for Iceland to have its own maritime flag, since no one knew when they would be prohibited from sailing under the Danish flag, which might halt its marine communications. The Prime Minister declared that the Government would make every effort to move the matter forward. The proposal was then approved unanimously in the Lower Chamber. In the Upper Chamber, Magnús Torfason and Karl Einarsson presented a proposal on the flag issue, but in the end the proposal from the Lower Chamber was also presented there and passed unanimously, in full consultation with the sponsors, after an initial minor disagreement about whether it was better to pass a flag bill as law or a parliamentary resolution calling for a royal decree on a full maritime flag. In the end, it was unanimously agreed to opt for a parliamentary resolution, on the grounds that the will of Parliament was more important than the form in which it appeared.

Prime Minister Jón Magnússon presented the proposal on a maritime flag to the king in the State Council on November 22, 1917, but the king rejected it, after it had been turned down flat by Zahle, the Danish Prime Minister. However, both he and the king declared their willingness to negotiate disputes about the relationship between Iceland and Denmark. Jón Magnússon did not resign when the king rejected the proposal, but stated unequivocally in the State Council that this should not be interpreted as meaning that this issue was not a priority, and that it was known for certain that Iceland's parliament would not drop the matter.

The Crown Union and the flag

Events took a new turn the following year with the appointment of a joint Danish-Icelandic committee to address the relationship between the two countries. The committee first met in Reykjavík in summer 1918. The Act of Crown Union between Iceland and Denmark was approved by Parliament and the Danish State Assembly and ratified by the king on November 30, 1918. The same day a provisional law was enacted stating that as of December 1, no Icelandic ship could fly any other national flag than the Icelandic. A new royal decree on the flag was also issued. It made no changes to the shape and colour of the flag as decided in 1915, but added a provision that the Government and public institutions should use a swallowtail flag, further provisions on the use of which would be specified in a subsequent royal decree.

In order to fulfil the provisions of the flag decree from 1915 that “on the building or site of Iceland's Government House, the swallowtail Danish Dannebrog flag should also be flown in no less worthy or smaller a place than the Icelandic flag”, two flagpoles had been set up in summer 1915 on the grounds behind Government House, one for the Icelandic flag and the other for the Dannebrog flag. On the occasion of December 1, 1918 the flagpole was erected above the door of Government House which still remains there today, while the other two were bare.

Sovereign flag

At noon on Sunday December 1, 1918 the swallowtail flag was hoisted on the Government House flagpole when the Act of Crown Union entered into force. Finance Minister Sigurður Eggerz, who was acting Prime Minister in the absence of Jón Magnússon in Copenhagen, said in his address from the steps of Government House that “yesterday the king issued a decree on the national flag of Iceland, which as of today will fly above the Icelandic state ... The flag is the symbol of our sovereignty. The flag embodies the most beautiful ideals of our nation, every achievement made by us, enhances the value of the flag, whether at sea in battle with the surf and rough waves, in industrial development or in the sciences and fine arts. The more noble our nation, the more noble our flag. Its honour and renown is the fame of our nation ... We ask the Almighty to give us the strength to raise our flag to renown and fame ...”

As the flag of the sovereign state of Iceland was hoisted, a twenty-one gun cannon salute was heard from the Danish coastguard vessel “Islands Falk”. Its captain, Victor Lorenz Lorck, gave a speech, as did the Jóhannes Jóhannesson, Chairman of the United Chamber of Parliament. The ceremony ended with the Danish royal anthem and Danish and Icelandic national anthems.

The swallowtail flag was flown above Government House on December 1, 1918 even though the provisions on its design were not finalised until February 12, 1919. In its final form the proportions were slightly altered from those of the flag used on December 1, which is now preserved at the National Museum of Iceland (no. 7961).

Parliamentary resolutions and bills

In 1940, Jónas Jónsson proposed a parliamentary resolution in the Upper Chamber on the use of the national flag, which was passed. It urged the Government to make a study of legislation and customs on the correct use of the national flag in other countries and present a bill to the next session of Parliament on the treatment of the Icelandic flag. The following year the Government presented such a bill. Drafted by Sveinn Björnsson, it not only dealt with the use of the flag as prescribed in the resolution, but also addressed its design. The all-party committee of the Lower Chamber made amendments to the bill. Sveinn Björnsson's draft stated that the flag would be sky blue (ultramarine) with a white cross and a bright red cross inside the white cross, which was the same wording as in the royal decree on the flag. After the committee's amendment it was described as follows: “The general national Icelandic flag is sky blue (ultramarine) with a snow-white cross and a fiery red (bright red) cross inside the white cross.” This description is retained in the current Flag Act, except that the word “ultramarine” has been omitted.

There was some debate in Parliament on the design of the flag, including the blue and white version. The flag bill stranded in the Lower Chamber.

In 1942, at the 59th session of Parliament, the bill was resubmitted by members in the form approved by the all-party committee in 1941. It was sent again to the all-party committee, which delivered a unanimous opinion to pass it unamended. Nonetheless, it stranded again.

A parliamentary resolution passed in the Joint Chamber on March 10, 1944 and sponsored by Gunnar Thoroddsen and Sigurður Bjarnason urged the public to use the Icelandic flag more often and delegated the Government to issue an announcement on flag days and draw up legislation on the Icelandic flag to present to Parliament when it next convened. It was pointed out that there were no penalties in Icelandic law for defamation of the Icelandic flag, while the penal code imposed heavy punishment for defaming the flags of foreign countries.

When Parliament reconvened on June 12, 1944,, the Government presented a flag bill in the Lower Chamber. It was identical to the bill of 1942 with the amendments made by the all-parliamentary committee. Several amendments were made during the parliamentary hearings, but none concerned the design. During the hearing in the Lower Chamber, a suggestion for adopting the blue and white flag was made, but the member responsible, Jörundur Brynjólfsson, said he would not present an amendment to that effect, although he expected the issue to be raised later. The flag bill was passed as law by Parliament on June 15, 1944 after only four days' hearing.

Then republic of Iceland was established. The National Flag Act was the first legislation ratified by the newly elected President of Iceland, Sveinn Björnsson. He did so at a meeting of the State Council held on June 17, 1944 in the ministerial house at Þingvellir, which was later destroyed by fire. The Act was co-signed by the Prime Minister, Björn Þórðarson.

The Flag Act prescribed that a presidential decree should be issued on flag days, etc. According to the decree, which was made on August 17, 1944, public institutions should fly the flag on the following days: the birthday of the President of Iceland, New Year's Day, Good Friday (at half-mast), Easter Sunday, the First Day of Summer, May 1, Whit Sunday, National Day (June 17), December 1 (Home Rule Day) and Christmas Day. Under the Act, a regulation may be issued containing explanatory provisions if this is deemed necessary. Act No. 20/1987 made Seamen's Day a flag day. The current decree on flag days and flag times dates from January 23, 1991, as does the announcement on the colours of the flag.

Sundry issues

Ever since the campaign for an Icelandic national flag began it was an integral part of the campaign to reclaim Iceland's independence and sovereignty from Denmark. The spirit of independence that surged with ideas for a blue and white Icelandic flag undoubtedly played more part in the Danish king's rejection of it than its resemblance to the Greek flag; at least, Greece itself expressed no reservations about the design.

Two world wars demonstrated to the people of Iceland that above all they had to rely upon themselves. Events turned in Iceland's favour at the end of World War I. As the armistice approached in 1918 and the Allied victory was obvious, it seemed likely that subjugated nations and minorities would be allowed to choose which of their neighbours they wished to belong to. Denmark set much store by regaining the northernmost districts of South Jutland, which had a large Danish majority but had been captured and incorporated into Germany in 1864. For consistency's sake, Denmark would have to take a liberal attitude towards the nations under their jurisdiction if they intended to reclaim their rights in the case of South Jutland. All the political parties in Denmark apart from the Conservative Party favoured giving Iceland a freer hand at that time, to strengthen their bargaining position among the Allies.

World War II then severed all governmental ties between Iceland and Denmark.

The blue and white flag is now the school flag of Laugarvatn Grammar School. On the day of its foundation, April 13, 1953, the school was presented with the blue and white silk flag with which Einar Benediktsson's coffin was draped at a commemorative service in Reykjavík Cathedral on January 26, 1940, and it is preserved at the school. The Icelandic youth movement has also adopted the blue and white flag and uses it as its emblem. Youth societies played a large and noteworthy part in the campaign for an Icelandic flag.

The flag of  “King Jørgen”

When Danish adventurer Jørgen Jørgensen declared himself King of Iceland for a few days in summer 1809 (the dog days), he posted an announcement on the streets of Reykjavík on June 26, prescribing a separate flag for Iceland. In a second announcement on July 11 he stated that the Icelandic flag should be blue with three cods in the canton. For a long time by then, a cod with a gold crown on a red shield above it had been used as a symbol of Iceland. Jørgen's choice is difficult to explain now. In his defence later he said that he had flown the ancient flag of Iceland, as shown by the national seal. He is referring of course only to the cod emblem, not the colour. Conceivably he may have been aware that Sheriff Skúli Magnússon commissioned Eggert Ólafsson to design a flag for the first industrial workshops in Reykjavík and their two ships, Friðriksósk and Friðriksgæfa in 1752-1754. The flag showed a split salted cod with the letters PII (for Privileged Icelandic Interests), although of course this was not a national flag. In choosing a colour for his flag, Jørgen may have taken into account that blue was popularly considered to be a national colour for Iceland. In an article on the female national costume in 1857, painter Sigurður Guðmundsson states that the national colour of Iceland in the Saga Age was the same as in his day: dark blue (“raven blue”). No colour can be inferred from ancient seals, but the gold-crowned cod in the national seal from 1593 was not shown on a red shield until after it had been incorporated into the Danish coat of arms, whose primary colours were red, yellow and blue.

Although Sigurður Guðmundsson described blue as the dominant colour in Icelandic clothing throughout the ages and the extant coats of arms of Icelandic nobility from the 15th century have blue fields, other colours had also been customary before then, such as red clothes and red shields, even if these were not coats of arms in the proper sense. The blue colour associated with the mountains, the beauty of the blue summer sky and the sea, or an influence from the blue used in the old Scottish St. Andrews saltire or the Union Jack which had only been in use for few years (since 1801) when Jørgen seized power in Iceland   may have determined the colour of his flag, since he had spent a long time in England before then. Blue may also simply have been the colour of the most immediately available material for an impromptu flag. Be that as it may, the use of blue as the main colour appears to have been undisputed at all stages of the flag question.

On July 12, 1809 the flag described above – blue with a canton of three cod – was flown from the mast of the Petræus warehouse which stood at the southern end of Hafnarstræti (no. 6) in Reykjavík. The frigate Margaret and Ann, which lay offshore under a British flag and pennant, fired an eleven-gun salute in its honour.

This flag disappeared when Jørgen's brief “reign” came to an end, but it is the first idea for a special national flag for Iceland.


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