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Iceland - Flag History

Last modified: 2002-07-20 by rob raeside
Keywords: iceland | island | europe | cross | scandinavian cross |
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[Flag of Iceland]
by Edward Mooney, Jr. 1998-09-14

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From 1350 to 1896

From about 1350 Iceland's arms were on a red field a silver stockfish (a split and dried cod) with a golden crown. These arms were incorporated into the arms of the Kings of Denmark, and so were a part of the Danish Royal standard until this century. Incidentally, it was also part of several Greek royal flags, since the Greek royal family was related to that of Denmark. As Iceland went with Norway in union with Denmark, the Danish flag was used also in Iceland.


[Unofficial Flag of Iceland]

In 1897 an unofficial flag with a white cross on a blue field was made, and this became popular it seems, at least until the current flag was introduced in 1915. Though it was a Scandinavian cross flag, it was too similar to the Greek flag, and did not meet with official approval.
Jan Oskar Engene, 24 June 1996

In 1897 the poet Einar Bendiktsson proposed arms and flag for Iceland. In an article printed in the newspaper Dagskra on the 13th of March, 1897, Einar Bendiktsson proposed to do away with the crowned stockfish as arms of Iceland. He wanted to have a silver falcon on blue instead. Einar Bendiktsson wanted the flag to be based on the colours of the arms, so that the flag of Iceland was to be a blue field with a white Nordic cross.


In 1903, the same year as Iceland got home rule, the Icelanders had the stockfish replaced with new arms. They felt that the stockfish was a humiliating symbol that the ruling Danes had invented for them. The new arms (adopted 11 December 1903) had a blue field with a silver falcon. The colours and the falcon were regarded as more ancient symbols of the country than the stockfish (this is not the case however).

Alternate proposal of 1914

[Alternate Proposed Flag of Iceland, 1914]  by Jan Oskar Engene

According to Birgir Thorlacius: Fa’ni I’slands og skjaldarmerki, Andvari, Vol. 6 (New series), No. 1, 1964, the flag that was hoisted in front of the government building in Reykjavik on Sunday 1. December 1918 is item no. 15134 of the National Museum. There is no reason to consider this the original flag, however, as the Icelandic flag of this exact design was approved by Royal decree dated 19 June 1915 and put into use then.

William Crampton claims in his The World of Flags: A Pictorial History (Rev. edition, London: Studio Editions, 1992, p. 52) that the present design was introduced on 22 November 1913, but this is not correct as this date refers to a proclamation by king Christian X to the effect that Iceland had the right to fly a separate flag on land and in territorial waters. It was explicitly specified that the design of the flag which was to be decided by a future royal decree.

It took a further couple of years to settle on a design, as the king refused to recognized the blue and white cross flag widely used for some time and favoured by many Icelanders. This flag was too reminiscent of the Greek flag, according to the opinion of His Majesty, though this is difficult to understand as the Greek flag of the day was the same as the one in use today.

In the end, the flag committee appointed by parliament came up with two proposals, the primary one corresponding to the current Icelandic flag [shown at the top of this page], the secondary being also a cross flag with a white field charged with a blue cross bordered in white and blue. This was not the first time a blue-white-red cross flag had been proposed, however. It seems that honour belongs to Matthias Thordarson who suggested such a design during a debate in the student’s society of Reykjavik on 27. September 1906. The source for this information is again the article by Birgir Thorlacius.
Jan Oskar Engene, 6 January 2001

The flags of 1915

[1915 Flag of Iceland, 1914]  by Jan Oskar Engene

The blue and white flag gained some popularity, especially after the flag incident of 12 June 1913. A young man, Einar Petursson, was rowing around Reykjavik harbour with a blue and white flag flying from the small boat. The captain of the Danish coast guard ship "Islands Falk" ("Falcon of Iceland") arrested the young man and confiscated the flag. This provoked outrage throughout Reykjavik and blue and white flags appeared everywhere. As the captain tried to go ashore to pursue the matter against the young man, he was forced to go back again under an espalier of blue and white flags. (See this photo of Petursson, courtesy of the Prime Minister's office, Iceland.)

A meeting was called and a resolution protesting against the action of the captain was adopted. The resolution also called for the official adoption of a flag for Iceland. The parliament wanted the blue and white cross flag, but this was denied by Danish authorities, apparently because the King thought this flag to be too similar to the royal flag of Greece.

The new flag of 1915 had a blue field with a red cross bordered in white. It is this flag that is used today. The design was proposed by Matthias Thordarson. He explained the colours as blue for the mountains, white for ice and red for fire (Iceland has much volcanic activity). Though the King had agreed that the Icelanders had the right to a flag, he declined to accept the blue-white-red flag at first. However, a Royal decree of 19 June 1915 allowed the flag to be used on land, but restricted the use at sea to local waters. The flag was officially accepted by the king 30 November 1918 and adopted by law as the national flag the same day. It was first hoisted (as a state ensign) 1 December 1918. On this day Iceland became a separate kingdom united with Denmark under one king.

Although the pattern is the same as the modern flag, note that the shade of blue has changed. Originally, the flag was described as "sky blue (ultramarine blue)", a light blue shade. When legalisation was enacted in 1944, the ultramarine specification was dropped, and the shade of blue got darker.

Jan Oskar Engene, 2 February 2002

The National Museum of Iceland has the original flag that was flown on Iceland's Independence Day on the 18th of December 1918. 

Petrína Bachmann, PMO, Reykjavik, 2 January 2001

State Flag and Ensign (1915)

[1915 State Flag of Iceland, 1914]  by Jan Oskar Engene


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