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Historical Flags 1701-1785 (Spain)

Last modified: 2002-11-30 by santiago dotor
Keywords: spain | coat of arms (quartered) | order of the golden fleece | crown: royal |
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Introduction (Ensigns 1670s-1785)

I recently saw a facsimile copy of a 1752 book on shipbuilding, with large illustrations showing different views of a contemporary vessel. The stern view showed two ensigns, apparently flying from two halyards on the same pole:

  • One was an enormous, almost square ensign (about as high as the ship itself, without the masts) showing the Burgundy cross on a clear field (probably white). The cross was of the naturalistic variety i.e. in the shape of two crossed branches, and did not reach the corners.
  • The second one was about half as high, and showed the royal arms on a clear, again probably white, field.

Santiago Dotor, 18 October 2000

At that time there was a change on the ensigns used by Spanish ships, as Charles II (1665-1700) started flying his royal arms as an ensign instead of the Burgundy cross. Philip V (1701-1746) definitely dropped the Burgundy cross even from his royal arms.

My guess is that the red Burgundy cross over white was still used as a jack and the royal arms over white as ensign. From a stern view, maybe the drawing shows both and on different levels to be able to distinguish them? I just checked a very good book called El Buque en la Armada Española (The Ship in the Spanish Navy), Silex Ediciones, Madrid 1999, ISBN 84-7737-084-2, which has about the same thing described by Santiago Dotor —different proportions, though— in a drawing on p. 189 of the ship Africa, built in 1752.

Gradually, the usage of the white flag with red Burgundy cross came to an end, even as a secondary flag, and in 1785 the problematic usage of white ensigns with symbols (Burgundy cross and/or royal arms) was solved by introducing the current red-gold-red ensign.

José Carlos Alegría, 18 October 2000

Very interesting. I wonder whether the white flag with the royal achievement was used at all as an ensign before Charles II, for instance on royal ships.

As for José Carlos Alegría's guess, that is definitely not the case. The several views in that book are not artistic depictions of a ship, but high precision, naval engineering drawings. So the stern view shows clearly the stern with all its elements, the mizzenmast behind and nothing more. Both ensigns obscure somewhat the top of the stern, so it is not possible for any of them to be flying anywhere else than at the ensign pole(s). Besides, I cannot imagine a jack that size (about 15m x 15m or more)...

Please note that the ship illustrated on the book is a merchant ship. Maybe the Burgundy cross was discarded as naval ensign but kept being used for other uses. Actually Calvo and Grávalos 1983 shows a blue flag with a white burgundy cross, saying that it was a merchant flag used until the late 1770s.

Santiago Dotor, 19 October 2000

State and War Ensign 1759-1785

[State and War Ensign 1759-1785 (Spain)]
by José Carlos Alegría and Eduardo Panizo, exported to GIF by Santiago Dotor

As far as ensigns are concerned, before 1700, during the Hapsburg dinasty, several forms of the Burgundy cross were used. With the establishment of the Bourbon dinasty in 1700, the main arrangement became a white cloth with the royal arms of Spain. With some drawings provided by Eduardo Panizo, I did the above image of the Spanish ensign from 1759 to 1785, under Charles III. The arms are [offset] towards the hoist.

José Carlos Alegría, 7 January 2001

Size of Ensigns 15th-19th Centuries

I recently saw a facsimile copy of a 1752 book on shipbuilding, with (...) a stern view showing (...) an enormous, almost square ensign (about as high as the ship itself, without the masts, ca. 15m x 15m or even larger) showing the Burgundy cross on a clear field (probably white). (...)

Santiago Dotor, 18 October 2000

According to the Diccionario Enciclopédico Ilustrado de la Lengua Española Sopena, Barcelona, 1954, a bandera de combate or 'combat flag' is "a national flag, very large sized, which is hoisted over the stern of warships when they go into battle or in very solemn events". Is this the practice of Spanish ships? Depictions of sea battles of the 15th to 19th centuries usually show that most warships of different nationalities have large flags and pennants, not only Spanish ships but also Dutch, Portuguese and British. However, it might be that the Spanish Navy's flags were unusually larger than the rest. A book I have on piracy and the Spanish Armada (Heretics in Paradise: English corsairs and sailors on the Venezuelan shores during the second half of the 16th Century, Colección Quinto Centenario del Encuentro de Dos Mundos, Editorial Arte, Caracas, 1994) has several illustrations of sea battles and particular ships. Even though all ships bear many different flags of large size and bright colours, it is certainly the Spanish fleet which boasts the largest 'combat flags'. We should remember that ensigs and war pennants had an enormous estrategic importance in naval warfare.

Guillermo Aveledo, 29 October 2000

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