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Portuguese municipal flags

Last modified: 2018-05-11 by klaus-michael schneider
Keywords: municipal | municipality | city | town | coat of arms |
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[Associação Nacional de Municípios Portugueses logo] 2:3 image by Klaus-Michael Schneider, 23 Aug 2014 See also: External links:

Rules of Portuguese heraldry and vexillology

In Portugal the various cities, towns, villages and so on are divided into 3 categories depending on the number of its inhabitants, and some other, sometimes esoteric things:

Aldeia (village):
from a few to some hundreds inhabitants
Vila (town):
from at least 3000 inhabitants
Cidade (city):
from at least 8000 inhabitants
This difference is reflected in the place’s coat of arms: to put it simple, the upper part of the coat of arms consists of a kind of castle with towers, a mural crown. Villages use 3 (visible) towers in that castle, towns use 4 and cities 5. Almost all Portuguese municipal and communal coats of arms follow this rule. Finally, it should be said that the municipalities are named after their administrative centre.

According to the municipality’s flag law, only cities (cidades) have a gironny flag, towns (vilas) have them quartely. Of 305 minicipalities I suppose that no more than 70 are cities (were 39 in 1974…). There are some exceptions to this rule, of course — by heart, I’d recall Calheta de São Jorge and Fronteira, wich are vertical bicolours instead of quartely; Lagos, that is saltire quarterly instead of gironny; and a number of flags that should de quarterly and are gironny or the other way around.
The law also says that the flag backgrounds should be one colour (or metal) or metal and colour — not colour and colour nor metal and metal… But a lot of flags don't obey to this rule!…
All the Portuguese municipal and communal coats of arms are topped by a mural crown. As far as I know, there is only one exception to this rule, the municipality of Horta in the Azores, whose arms have a real crown on top (plus an arm holding a sword).
It should be noted that that only communes (freguesias) and municipalities have flags and arms — cities, towns and villages per se are not recognized as an adminstrative division. (Some municipalities occupy the same territory of the head, but typical municipalities have both urban and rural areas…).
Jorge Candeias and António Martins-Tuválkin, 15 Sep 1997 - 30 Apr 1998

Description and explanation of the Portuguese municipal flags

The only way to learn the meaning of the charges in Portuguese municipal coats of arms is by guessing, because they are not explained nearly everywhere.
Although there are legal texts at the Official Journal, Diário da República, and some heraldic information published here and there, in practice it is very difficult to gather a comprehensive list of all of them (total 307). Usually it is necessary to send a letter to each municipality….
Every municipal coat of arms is described in the law that creates the municipalities (the problem is knowing when this law was published and finding a copy of the Diário da República of that date, which is practically impossible for those that do not live in or near Lisbon). But, as far as I know, the charges are not explained anywhere. Even when we write letters to the municipalities, we usually only get the description, not the explanation.
The official text indeed is only a description, not an explanation. This should be obtained from the Heraldry Committee, something quite difficult (and expensive), also to those living in Lisbon.
There is a big confusion about the gyronny flag colour order in the law about Portuguese municipal flags.

While most printed flags have identical reverses with illegible writing, some quality flags have two identical images of the coat of arms sewn or embroidered on each side. The gyronny or quarterly background of the flag is naturally not reversed in the reverse, though, the colours being thus in opposite positions.
Portugese subnational flags using the same pair of colours can only be distinguished by the coats of arms.
Most flag images show the arms’ charges in yellow and white where the arms show respectively golden and silver.
Jorge Candeias, António Martins-Tuválkin and Sérgio Horta,5 Apr 1998 - 26 Oct 2001

Order of the Tower and Sword

According to the relevant law, there should be no other elements on the flag, apart from the coat of arms. Typically the coat of arms consists of shield, crown and scroll, augmented with any Chivalry Order granted to the municipality seat. Currently, those are the Order of the Tower and Sword (Ordem da Torre e Espada), depicted with it’s necklace under and below the shield, and granted to 15 municipalities (Alcobaça, Amarante, Angra do Heroismo, Aveiro, Bragança, Chaves, Coimbra, Covilhã, Elvas, Évora, Lisboa (Lisbon), Mirandela, Ovar, Porto (Oporto) and Santarém), and the Order of Christ (Ordem de Cristo), depicted as its medal and a piece of ribbon showing from bottom below the shield, partly covering the scroll, and granted to one municipality (Castelo Branco). Some atypical municipal flags have other elements charged on the background, usually atypical parts of the coat of arms. António Martins-Tuválkin, 26 Oct 2001


Banners are ceremonial flags made to be carried around, although very, very seldom used, at least in Portugal; I don't think I’ve ever seen a single Portuguese municipal banner, with the exception of a couple of ancient ones, framed and attached to the wall.
Jorge Candeias, 10 Mar 2007

List of Portuguese municipal flags

Municipal coats of arms

Often charges


Often ad nauseam, invariably shaped as a wavy fess at the point of the shield, these stand for rivers (blue and white) or sea (green and white), sometimes combined. May also be only one (usually fimbriated) or as many as nine.
António Martins-Tuválkin, 07 Aug 2001

Usually (at least in Portuguese vexillology) blue and silver wavy stripes mean river, while green and silver mean sea.
António Martins-Tuválkin, 08 Apr 1998

Castle and tower:
Castles are probably the most often motif on Portuguese municipal arms, for virtually every municipality seat has or had some kind of fortress.
António Martins-Tuválkin, 16 Jun 1998
The quina, either single or in a group of five, set in cross, are also a common motif, usually attributed to municipalities (or communes) with some regal background.
António Martins-Tuválkin, 16 Jun 1998
Santiago cross:
This purple (sometimes red) sword like cross can be found in many southwestern Portugal municipal coats of arms.
António Martins-Tuválkin, 19 Feb 1998
(Portuguese) Templar cross:
Templar cross, very common in Portuguese subnational heraldry.
Jorge Candeias, 19 Apr 1998
Christ Knights’ cross:
It was used in the Discovery sail ships, and has been used as an ubiquous symbol of Portugal ever since. That said it features in relatively few subnational coats of arms, even if it is quite often
António Martins-Tuválkin, 14 Jan 1997 and 07 Oct 2001
Avis’ cross:
This green cross fleury can be found in several central-southern Portugal municipal coats of arms.
António Martins-Tuválkin, 21 Sep 2009
other crosses:
Albergaria-a-Velha; Póvoa de Lanhoso; Batalha; Monforte; Resende; Calheta de São Jorge; Santa Cruz das Flores
Proença-a-Nova (elongated); Sertã; Vila de Rei; Portel; Crato; Gavião; Maia; Sernancelhe; Oliveira do Hospital
Alvaiázere (12); Batalha (4); Ponte de Lima (probably Avis); Lagoa (Azores)
Jorge Candeias, 6 Feb 2001

Local use only

Algarvan heads and Azorean goshawk are the only distinctive regional charges in our municipal heraldry (plus the star in the municipalities of the Estrela Range region, though in a much lesser degree), having all the other charges a more local / historical character. Although in the Algarve what happens is that it used to be a de jure separate kingdom under a personal union with Portugal until the 20’s of the last century, thus having its own set of symbols, the goshawk is derived from the obvious graphical expression of the name of the islands.
Jorge Candeias, 31 Mar 1999

Logos vs. coats of arms

A phenomenon is being repeated with some frequency in recent years and in many municipalities: Whenever the newly elected municipal government is lead by a party formerly in the municipal opposition, the former municipal logo (something that become common place in almost all municipalities) is discarded a new one is created.
This has probably to do with the fact that municipal logos are created by local advertisement agencies, and the new mayor’s “friends” in that particular field may not be the same as the former’s — or in general, has perhaps to do with the ephemerous nature of commercial campaign logos in general. One thing is though certain: this has little political meaning in itself, as the logos, new and old, have never any evident political element.
For what it is worth, I know no situation where a reelected mayor (or a new mayor from the same party as the former) has caused a radical change in the municipal logo. This may imply that the municipal logo (and the flags with it) are more and more clearly seen as the symbol of the municipal “cabinet”, while the coat of arms and the official municipal flag are seen as the symbol of the municipality itself and its administrative and representative power.
This trend is perhaps a welcome clarification and dismantles the need to “chose” between a municipal logo and a municipal coat of arms, as they become more and more distinct in their meaning and usage.
António Martins-Tuválkin, 26 Aug 2003

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