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The 1785 War Ensign Contest (Spain)

Last modified: 2011-06-10 by eugene ipavec
Keywords: spain | coat of arms | war ensign | contest | proposal | castle | crown |
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Selected Proposals for a New War Ensign 1785

In 1785 King Charles III decided it was time to replace the current war ensign, white with the Spanish coat-of-arms, for a new, distinct ensign which could not easily be mistaken with those of other countries (mainly Bourbon-ruled ones as France, Parma, Tuscany or Two Sicilies but also the British white ensign). As a result there was a contest where many proposals were put forward. From these, Minister of the Navy Antonio Valdés selected twelve to present to the King.

From these twelve it becomes apparent that red, yellow, white and blue were preferred to other colours. It is not clear, however, that the reason to choose them was to keep the traditional, heraldical hues present in the Spanish arms – particularly with blue, which at the time only appeared in the Anjou inescutcheon and other small charges of minor territories (and certainly not ones within the Spanish mainland). [See the arms of Two Sicilies for a detailed account of all the escutcheons.] It is probable that cost of the material, ease of production and long distance reconnaisance capability played a role as important, if not much more, than tradition.

The King chose one of them (the first image below) as the new war ensign, but modified its proportions slightly. The proposal had a regular triband red-yellow-red, with the coat-of-arms offset towards the hoist, and the King decreed the central (yellow) stripe to be twice as wide as each of the other two (red ones). This basic scheme still lasts today in the Spanish national flag.

Another proposal (the third below) was selected – though without the coat-of-arms – to become the new merchant flag or, more properly, civil ensign.


  • Calvo and Grávalos 1983 [cag83]
  • Fernández Gaytán 1985 [fgy85]

Santiago Dotor, 08 Jul 1999

Decree of King Carlos III:

Decree of the King. In order to avoid the disadvantages, and damages, that have made us to see confusion can cause the National flag, used by our Navy, and other Spanish ships, being mistaken at long distances, or with quiet winds with those of other Nations; I have resolved, that in the future my Ships will fly a Flag divided in three long lists, of which the upper and down is incarnated, and of a wide each one of fourth part of the total, and the one of the middle yellow, being placed in this the coats-of-arms of my Royal Arms quartered of Castile and Leon with Royal Crown above. And other ships will use, without coat-of-arms, such colors, having to be the list in the middle yellow, and the wide one of the third part of the Flag, and each one of the remaining parts divided in two equal lists incarnated, and yellow alternatively, everything in accordance to the attached design. Given by hand of H.M. in Aranjuez on twenty and eight of May, 1785.

Alvaro Alonso-Majagranzas Baena, 20 May 2005

[Spanish War Ensign proposal no.1 (1785)]
[Spanish War Ensign proposal no.2 (1785)]
[Spanish War Ensign proposal no.3 (1785)]
[Spanish War Ensign proposal no.4 (1785)]
[Spanish War Ensign proposal no.1 (1785)]
[Spanish War Ensign proposal no.2 (1785)]
[Spanish War Ensign proposal no.3 (1785)]
[Spanish War Ensign proposal no.4 (1785)]
[Spanish War Ensign proposal no.1 (1785)]
[Spanish War Ensign proposal no.2 (1785)]
[Spanish War Ensign proposal no.3 (1785)]
[Spanish War Ensign proposal no.4 (1785)]
images by Santiago Dotor

Alternate Depiction of Proposal #11

[Spanish War Ensign proposal no.11 variant depiction (1785)]
image by Santiago Dotor, Luis Miguel Arias, Klaus-Michael Schneider and Eugene Ipavec, 26 Mar 2010

At the Military Museum of Santa Cruz de Tenerife (which I visited on 18 February 2010), images of the flag contest of 1785 are given within two plates, the first showing the final flags chosen by Carlos III, the second one the twelve proposals.

According to a source which unfortunately is not given within the explanations, the twelve well-known proposals are shown with ratio 4:9 (the ratio of the war pennant is estimated at 1:18) and having minimal differences (e.g. crowns, width of crossbars, shades) to our versions already depicted. There is however one significant difference in the depiction of proposal #11: the yellow flag with red cross, the point of intersection shifted to the hoist and superimposed with a quarterly-divided oval shield showing the arms of Castile and Leon and topped by crown.

The primary source is probably from 19th century or even earlier. The flags are depicted as flying colours. [cpe83b] obviously has another primary source, because it shows different ratios. Furthermore only the results are displayed there, without any proposal.

Klaus-Michael Schneider, 16 Mar 2010