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Historical Flags 1701-1785 (Spain)

Last modified: 2015-07-28 by ivan sache
Keywords: flag size | sizes of flags | law |
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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 Oct 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 image 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 Oct 2000

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 Oct 2000

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 Oct 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 strategic importance in naval warfare.

Guillermo Aveledo, 29 Oct 2000

[War Ensign 1785-1931 (Spain)]

A picture of the coat-of-arms used on a Spanish flag flown at Trafalgar (1805) is shown at the Naval Museum website. The website says the flag measures 3.9 m x 6.1 m, so:

  • even though it describes the flag as "insignia del teniente general de la Real Armada don Federico Gravina y Napoli" i.e. "distinguishing flag of lieutenant general of the Royal Navy Federico Gravina y Napoli" it is most probably an ensign, considering the size; and
  • as I once mentioned, recalling a picture of another ensign captured at Trafalgar and shown (IIRC) in Wilson 1986 [wil86], Spanish ensigns at that time had already a ratio 2:3.
A (much better) picture of a similar arms, as displayed on the ensign of the cruiser Princesa de Asturias (1896-1927) is shown here.

Santiago Dotor, 09 Feb 2005

My God, that's a big flag. I wonder how big the ship that flew it was.

Nathan Lamm, 11 Feb 2005

It's the ensign of the 74-gun San Ildefonso, which used to be mentioned on our pages (I can't find it on the site anymore) in a report I submitted on the sizes of naval flags in the days of sail. According to Timothy Wilson's Flags at Sea, the San Ildefonso ensign measures 9.8 x 14.4 meters (32 x 47 feet). Assuming that Spanish and British ships of the same rating were about the same size, the San Ildefonso should have been about 175 feet long and 48 feet wide (53 x 15 meters). The size of the flag relative to the size of the ship is a little bigger than would have been the case for battle ensigns on UK and US warships of the same period, but not by much.

Joe McMillan, 11 Feb 2005

The flag is the Spanish naval ensign 1785-1931. The ship "San Ildefonso" was built in Cartagena, Spain, in 1775: (600 tons, 53 meters long, 14 meters wide, main mast 34 meters high) Its captain at Trafalgar was Jose Vargas. 34 members of the crew died at the battle, and 126 were injured. The ship was captured and taken to England. Under an English ensign, she served at least until 1813. More info at

Jose C. Alegria, 11 Feb 2005

A view of the same Spanish ensign hanging over the front of (probably) the library at Greenwich can be seen at, here ot here, under "Historical Events: Ceremony and Catastrophe: State Funeral of Lord Nelson: Funeral Service." The description is

Repro ID: A3391
Description: This Spanish naval ensign, captured during the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805, was displayed at Lord Nelson's funeral service in St Paul's cathedral. It belonged to the 'San Ildefonso'. After a great chase across the Atlantic Ocean from the Mediterranean to the West Indies and back, Nelson finally defeated the combined fleets of France and Spain and ended Napoleon's ambition to invade England.
Creator: Unknown
Date: 1805
Credit line: National Maritime Museum, London. Greenwich Hospital collection.

David Prothero and Santiago Dotor, 11 and 14 Feb 2005

Jose confirms that you got the San Ildefonso's dimensions right Joe, which goes to prove that the Spanish, unlike the French, did not build larger ships for the equivalent rate. Anyway,the nearest I have (for the RN) is the Establishment of 1822, and it is suggested that flags had begun to get smaller during the years following the peace of 1815, so the only evidence we appear to have is a surviving Ensign from, what I am advised, was also a Third Rate (HMS Brunswick) although in the Battle of the Glorious First of June, 1794, which measures 20' x 40' (6.1 x 12.2 metres) There is, of course, no evidence that this was typical, or that the Third Rates at Trafalgar flew an Ensign of the same (or roughly the same size) but it doesn't seem unlikely?

Christopher Southworth, 11 Feb 2005

Flags of the three Naval Squadrons 1732-1760

Royal Order of 20th January 1732

A Royal Order of 20th January 1732 organized the Navy into three Squadrons. Source: Fernández Gaytan 1985.

Sergio Camero, 01 Jun 2002

This is the relevant text of the Royal Order of 20th January 1732, from Sergio Camero's Banderas Militares website:

...Teniendo el Rey resuelto que el cuerpo de navíos de la Armada se divida en tres escuadras, y que cada una de ellas tenga su puesto en un Departamento de los tres establecidos en España, como son Cádiz, Ferrol y Cartagena, ha deliberado S.M para que cada una de estas divisiones se conozca por las banderas e insignias de que han de usar, lleven todos los navíos de cualquiera de las tres referidas escuadras, los pabellones o banderas largas de popa, blanca, con el escudo de las armas reales en la forma que se practica.

Los navíos que se armasen en Cádiz, usarán en las insignias de banderas cuadras, cornetas, rabos de gallo, gallardetes, banderas de proa, de botes, de lanchas, sobre blanco el referido escudo de armas reales.

Los navíos que se armasen en Ferrol, en todas las referidas insignias y banderas de proa, de botes y lanchas, de la cruz de Borgoña, sobre blanco con cuatro anclas en los extremos del cuadrado que forma la referida cruz.

Los navíos que se armasen en Cartagena usarán en las mencionadas insignias y banderas de proa, de botes y lanchas, sobre color morado el escudo de armas reales sencillo, de castillos y leones y cuatro anclas a las esquinas...

My translation:
...Having the King decided that the Navy's corps of vessels be divided into three squadrons, and that each of them have its seat in one of the three Departments established in Spain, namely Cádiz, Ferrol and Cartagena, H.M. has deliberated so that each of these divisions is known by the ensigns and rank flags which they shall use, all the vessels of any of the three referred squadrons shall fly the ensigns or long stern flags [sic], white, with the escutcheon of the royal arms in the usual way.

Vessels built at Cádiz, shall use in the command flags [made up] of square flags, swallowtailed flags, pennants, jacks, boat and launch flags, on a white field the referred escutcheon of the royal arms.

Vessels built at Ferrol, in all the referred command flags and jacks, boat and launch flags, the cross of Burgundy, on white with four anchors in the corners of the square formed by the referred cross.

Vessels built at Cartagena shall use in the above mentioned command flags and jacks, boat and launch flags, on a purple field the simple [i.e. lesser] royal arms, of castles and lions and four anchors on the corners...

Please note that the war ensign was the same for all three squadrons, very similar or identical to the Cádiz Squadron flag. The three squadron flags were used for other purposes: command flags, commissioning pennants, jacks, boat and launch flags etc. but not as ensigns.

Santiago Dotor, 01 Mar 2005

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