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Portugal - Historical Flags

Last modified: 2015-02-14 by klaus-michael schneider
Keywords: kingdom of portugal | reino de portugal | coat of arms: escutcheons | bezants | shield | crown |
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Historical flags of Portugal

Portugal is a rare case of vexilological and heraldic stability: since independence in 1143, it had only 14 different flags (counting as different flags also differences in the coat of arms), and merely 5 different patterns (square white with blue cross, either solid or made of escutcheons; the same but adding the red border of castille with golden castles and for some time the green cross of Avis; rectangular white with COA; the blue-white bicolour and the green-red bicolour).
Jorge Candeias, 01 Aug 1998

From a purely vexilological point of view, the national flags of Portugal can be classified into four historical periods:

  1. The five heraldic banners from 1143 to 1495, usualy depicted as square; the first three are not sure to have been used as flags.
  2. From 1495 to 1830, were used flags of white charged with the coat of arms; three variations existed. This period includes 60 years of spanish domination (1580-1640), during wich Portugal, as a separate realm ruled by the same king — Filipe II, III and IV (called I, II and III in Portugal) —, was allowed to use its own flags both in land and at sea.
  3. The liberal flag, a vertical bicolor of blue and white charged with the coat of arms, was used for 80 years (1830-1910), but was probably the first Portugal’s flag, in the modern sense of the word.
  4. The modern, republican flag.
António Martins, 21 May 1997

In those two occasions (1248 and 1385) “differences” (but not real cadency marks yet) were introduced because the new King was not the previous’ elder son. And note that not the “national” coat of arms changed, because such did not exist as we know now, but rather the new king’s arms (different from the previous’ because he was not the elder son) became the Kingdom’s arms. The other changes that occured (number of castles, number of bezants, type of crown, type of shield, etc.) were mere decorative or style variations.
António Martins, 08 Oct 1998

Many are the flags Portugal flew in the past. In order to better understand the subject we must divide them in:

  • Royal flags
  • Order of Christ flags
  • Naval flags (including flags for colonies, companies and missions)
  • National flags
Antonio posted Royal and naval flags. Althought royal flags can be considered as representative of the State, I don’t find correct to call them National flags, being at the time the concept of Nation completely unknown. The first National flag of Portugal must be considered that of 1830, even if in 1640 a flag of green with the Order of Christ cross on it was very popular and used as a symbol for the re-birth of the independent State. Also to speak of civil ensign is not appropriate. Portuguese ships hoisted many different flags which often showed who was the financial "sponsor" of the enterprise.

Mario Fabretto, 22 May 1997

Editor’s note: Mario Fabretto’s informations dated 22 May 1997 that can be found in this page, on some of the individual pages of historical flags, on the page on sea merchant flags and on the page on the portuguese coat of arms are based on the following sources:

  • CISV archives
  • Grande Enciclopédia Portuguesa e Brasileira
  • [prb86] Os Símbolos Nacionais, Brasília, 1986
  • [psh79] G. Pasch, Flags over the Americas, 1500-1667, The Flag Bulletin XVIII:5, 1979
  • Many portolanoes
  • [vxt] Vexilloteca n.4 - Flags of Portugal

About the "correctness" of calling "national flags" to the royal flags, you’re right. I used the term as a… convenience flag ;-)

On the concept of nation, that’s maybe ight everywehre else in Europe, but the peculiarities of Iberian history made these peoples early aware of theyer nationhood. Abundant historical evidence supports this (at least in Portugal — though I’d say that also in Catalonia / Aragon, in Castille and in Leon; being Navarra / Euskadi the notorious exception).

I’d also say considering the first national flag that of 1830 is a very strict definition of "national flag". In practice a similar use was given to previous royal flags at least from the 17th century.

On the other hand I agree that the use of "civil ensign" is not appropriate. Sorry — I meant flags flewn at sea or used in maps to mark oversea territories.

António Martins, 22 May 1997

First period: 1143-1495

Dates Kings Field Border Link to flag
D. Afonso Henriques white with a blue cross (none) flag of 1143

D. Sancho I
D. Afonso II
D. Sancho II
white with five blue escutcheons each charged with 11 bezants flag of 1185

D. Afonso III
D. Dinis
D. Afonso IV
D. Pedro I
D. Fernando
D. João I
red with yellow castles (number not fixed) flag of 1248

D. João I
D. Duarte
D. Afonso V
D. João II
red with yellow castles and a green cross of the Order of Avis flag of 1385

D. João II white with five blue escutcheons all pointing down and each charged with 5 bezants red with 7 yellow castles flag of 1485

Note: All dates except 1485 refer not to the actual aproval year of the new flag but to the first year of reign of the king who aproved it.

António Martins, 21 May 1997

From 1495 to this day

The national arms in a white rectangular field were the national flag (so to speak) from 1495 to 1830/34, with small changes in the arms during this period.
Jorge Candeias, 01 Aug 1998

The Royal standard of the time of King João II lost its previous heraldic aspect, becoming a white field charged with the arms and remained of this aspect (with many variations however) until 1830, apart for some short exceptions (1640-1656). It is possible that also the armorial version was used for some time. On Sebastião Lopes 1558 BM 27303 [lop58] a similar flag appears on the Gulf Coast of North America and on Brazil, but the castles are eight and white dots appear between them on the red border. There are also examples with a plain red border, but this could be a simplification either of the chart or of the real flag.

From 1485 to 1830 there were at least eight different royal flags, althought in most of the cases only minor details were modified.

Mario Fabretto, 22 May 1997

In that period between 1640 and 1656 both the arms-on-white and the Avis Cross on green were used, but the latter being always regarded as unnofficial (although much more popular!). The chronicles of this time are not very clear about it, but many historians (especially Jaime Cortesão and more recently José Hermano Saraiva) do agree on this point.

The armorial version was used only until 1495, at least officially… (but with no crown!)

About the royal flags, I believe only three variations existed. This relates to official changes in the royal flag / coat of arms. The eight variations you refer are as far as I know simply different renderings of the same three flags. You know, in those days each artist felt allowed to "improve" the details of the coat of arms at will…

António Martins, 22 May 1997

Considering also the white field with the shield of the period 1485-1494, about which we are discordant (but I believe we both have some part of correctness, being so difficult to speak about old time flags), then we have:

  1. the above referred 1489-1494 flag;
  2. Manuel I 1495-1521 - crowned shield over the cross of the Order of Christ;
  3. João III 1521-1557 - no cross of the Order of Christ and open crown;
  4. Sebastião 1557-1578 - the crown was closed;
  5. João IV 1640-1656 - a complete blue border;
  6. since late 17th century the collar of the Order of Christ was often added to the arms;
  7. 1816-1826 - the arms were placed on a golden armillary sphere on a blue field, the crown got a crimson cap;
  8. 1826-1830 - the armillary sphere was removed.
Naturally all this must be taken very carefully because the notion of official symbols was very different in that time relative to what we mean it today. Mostly one relies upon the fact that a particular rendition was more common than others in a given period of time and artist’s mistakes can be detected and explained (for example it happens very often that an artist represents old facts using flags of his own period). My list comes from comparing a number (limited) of different sources, but it is sure that if I had the possibility to access other sources it could be very different. I found very nice images for Portuguese coats of arms made by Louis Loynes, but I don’t totally agree with his dating. I find seals to be a very good source for ancient coats of arms. Also important is to establish when some changes (that later became characteristic of a coat of arms or a flag) began to appear. Sometimes this is a very difficult task and the only result is that "…between the year x and the year y this change was made…"

Mario Fabretto, 25 May 1997

Acording to Ramalho Ortigão (in Manual Político do Cidadão Portuguez), the distintinction beteween the Kingdom’s Flag and the King’s personal flag dates only from 1640 — before that those two concepts were indistinct.

(Probably the 1580-1640 dinasty of spanish Kings had already used something like these, for the previous portuguese flag is known to be flown during this non-independent period, but the personal or dinastic arms of the three Kings Filipe — I, II, and III (respectively II, III and IV of Spain) were certainly used, even in Portugal. These were the Burgundy cross (raguly saltire geules) and the "Austrian" (Habsburg) compound blazon — including the portuguese arms.)

This book refers the royal flag for four kings (in fact, three kings and one queen): King João IV (1640-1656), King Pedro II (1667-1706), King João V (1706-1750) and Queen Maria II (1826-1828, 1833-1853).

António Martins, 28 September 1997

I recently got to know some heraldry details of portuguese royal arms and flags, which made me correct some images of my site. The red beret inside the crown and the samnitic shield (looks like this: {_| also known as french shield) were used since 1706 (King João V).

Dates Kings Shield Background Crown Castles Link to flag

João III
ogival white old eleven flag of 1495
new, three stems seven flag of 1578
João IV
Afonso VI
round flag of 1640
Pedro II new, five stems flag of 1667


João V
Pedro III
Maria I
french new, five stems, red beret flag of 1706

João VI
Pedro IV
Maria II
round white, armillary sphere on blue flag of 1816

Maria II
Pedro V
Manuel II
french Vertical bicolour blue-white. Proportion of the fields, 1:1 flags of 1830
Vertical bicolour blue-white. Proportions of the fields, 1:2
(none) round Vertical bicolour green-red. Proportions of the fields 2:3. Armillary sphere hollow (none) Current flag

Notes: The first non banner of arms flag dates from 1495, not 1485; King Manuel changed it ten years after becoming a king. King Sebastião changed the flag also in mid reign (before the Alkazar Kibir battle (Morocco), 1578). Between 1580 and 1640 (spanish occupation) that former flag was also used. In 1830-1833 a civil war had different flags for the different parties: While the (later victorious) Liberal flag was aproved in 1830, it was hoisted in Lisbon only three years later. This last flag had also two diffrent prescriptions. In all of these flags bezants and eschuteons had already the modern form (five bezants in saltire on each of five eschuteons in cross, all pointing downwards).

António Martins, 9 April 1998

Anything below this line was not added by the editor of this page.