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15th Century Flags (Spain)

Last modified: 2005-02-26 by santiago dotor
Keywords: coat of arms: quartered (counterquartered) | columbus (christopher) | cross: formy (green) | letters: 2 (green) | fy | crowns: 2 (yellow) |
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Ensigns 13th-15th Centuries

I have no knowledge of Spanish ensigns from the battle of Covadonga in the 8th century, starting point of the Reconquista, until the 13th century. There is a great anarchy on the flags used by different expeditions, captains, and local privateers. The first ensigns denoting nationality I know of date from the 13th century. Boats based on Castilian harbours would fly the quartered flag of Castile and Leon as ensign, while those based on Aragonese harbours would use the striped flag of Aragon. Both the usage and the shapes and proportions lacked all uniformity, and different paintings show several versions. They were used until 1517, when the Burgundy cross flag took over.

José Carlos Alegría, 29 December 2001

Royal Standard of the Catholic Kings 1492-1506

[Royal Standard of the Catholic Kings (Spain 1492)]
N.B. after the conquest of Granada a pomegranate was added to the base of the shield
by José Carlos Alegría

The Royal Flag carried by Columbus was white with the arms of the Catholic Kings: quarterly, 1st and 4th quarters counterquartered of Castile and Leon, 2nd and 3rd quarters per pale Aragon and Sicily; crest: an open royal coronet or; supporter: St. John's eagle displayed sable, nimbed, beaked and membered or, langued and armed gules; at dexter and sinister base of the escutcheon, respectively, a yoke and a bundle of five arrows, all proper the arrows pointed argent. This is similar to the 1938-1945 and 1945-1977 coats-of-arms, but the Catholic Kings' one lacked the "Una Grande Libre" scroll, the pillars of Hercules and the Granada arms on the point. Source: Calvo and Grávalos 1983, illustrations no. 69.

The Catholic Kings were not the Kings of Castile and Leon — Elizabeth was Queen of Castile and Leon, Ferdinand was King of Aragon and Sicily (and Count of Barcelona, which was the basis of his realms). Upon the death of Elizabeth (1506) and the mental illness of the their daughter Joan —caused by the death of his husband Philip I the Fair (1506), Duke of Burgundy and King Consort of Castile and Leon— Ferdinand governed temporarily Castile as Regent.

Santiago Dotor, 28 January 1999

The symbols associated to the (first) Catholic Kings, namely the eagle of Saint John, the yoke and arrows and the motto Tanto Monta, Monta Tanto, as well as other traditional, pre-Catholic Kings' symbols such as the royal bend of Castile, gradually disappeared from Spanish coats-of-arms and flags along the 16th century, as Austrian and Burgundian symbols became gradually more frequent. Thus, the eagle of Saint John —which is basically a black (sometimes proper) eagle displayed with wings inverted and a nimbus behind its head— was replaced with the Austrian double-headed eagle. The Tanto Monta, Monta Tanto motto was substituted by the Plus Ultra. The yoke and arrows were replaced with the pillars of Hercules, etc.

After that it was not until the early 1930s when the Spanish Phalanx party adopted the yoke and arrows as their emblem. Later, the 1938 and 1945 Decrees adopted the eagle of Saint John and the yoke and arrows as part of the national arms, and the bend of Castile as the standard of the head of state.

Historically there was no convention on where the arrows should be pointing or what number should they be. In 15th century coats-of-arms they could be seen as any number from five to nine arrows, pointing upwards, downwards or sideways.

Santiago Dotor, 31 October 2000

The yoke and the arrows are the personal badges of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Yoke (yugo) for Ysabel and arrows (flechas) for Ferdinand.

Victor Lomantsov, 1 November 2000

Representations of Columbus' landing in 1492 are only that, later-date representations, and probably inaccurate. Almost the only genuine source is Columbus logbook, which mentions that the landing was made under three flags, Columbus bearing "the royal flag, and his captains two flags which the Admiral carried in all the ships as Ensign, each white with a green cross addorsed by the crowned letters F and Y". The royal flag is generally understood to be a white flag with the arms of the Catholic Kings (not including yet the pomegranate in base for Granada). Other authors however suggest it might be the royal banner of Castile and Leon, considering that it was Queen Elizabeth (and not both Catholic Kings) who sponsored the expedition.

Santiago Dotor, 25 January 2002

Christopher Columbus' Flags 1492

The first European flags in America

[Captain's Ensign of Columbus' Ships 1492]
Captain's Ensign of Columbus' Ships (not Columbus' personal flag)
by António Martins

[Pennant of the 'Santa María' 1492 (Spain)]
Pennant of the Santa María
by José Carlos Alegría

The Castile and Leon flag is reputedly the first to have flown on American territory, since it was the one used by Christopher Columbus on behalf of the Spanish government who subsidized his journeys. The Spanish flag being relatively new —it was first used at the end of the eighteenth century— the kings of Spain used to fly the flags of the different kingdoms that joined together at the end of the Middle Ages.

José Gabriel Barbero, 27 January 1999

US commercial sites sell a historical "Columbus flag" which is not the Castile and Leon one but a standard containing the initials F (Fernando) and Y (Ysabel) with a cross between the initials and crowns above them.

Dov Gutterman, 27 January 1999

In Washington, an 1846 painting by John Vanderlyn (U.S. Capitol rotunda) depicting the landing shows the castles and lions flag and in the booklet Columbus in the Capitol, Quincentenary Edition it is noted on page 5 shows the Castile and Leon flag, which is the flag under discussion. I hesitate to call the Columbus flag —as described by Dov Gutterman— a flag, at least in the original sense. It was originally described as the Expeditionary Banner in some catalogues when it first came on the market. One version that I have seen, from Spain, was arranged so the flag hung as a banner, although most all that I have seen sold in catalogues are arranged as a flag. The Vanderlyn portrait seems to portray this as a banner/pennant ending in a swallowtail.

Phil Nelson, 27 January 1999

Christopher Columbus wrote in his logbook that on October 12th 1492 he picked the Royal Flag, and his captains two flags which the Admiral carried in all the ships as Ensign, each white with a green cross formy couped addorsed by old Gothic letters 'F' and 'Y', both green and crowned with golden, open royal crowns, for Fernando and Ysabel. With these three flags he took possession of Guanahani island (nowadays San Salvador). Source: Calvo and Grávalos 1983, illustrations nos. 69 and 70. These were the first European flags to fly over America — provided the Vikings did not display one earlier.

So US commercial sites are quite right. However, strictly speaking, Columbus travelled only on behalf of Elizabeth, Queen of Castile and Leon. Some historians argue that this is the reason why so few Aragonese-Catalan conquerors travelled to the Americas. The Catholic Kings were not the Kings of Castile and Leon — Ferdinand was King of Aragon and Sicily, Elizabeth was Queen of Castile and Leon.

The letters F and Y stand for "Fernando" and "Ysabel" (nowadays spelt "Isabel"). It is funny that the usual English name for that queen, rather than Isabel or Elizabeth, is Isabella which is neither proper English nor Spanish...

Santiago Dotor, 28 January 1999

The original documents of Columbus' expeditions describe a banner (apparently ecclesiastical-style, hung from a crossbar and forked at the bottom), white with a green cross and the crowned initials F and Y. This is not a perfect description, so interpretations differ. I don't think that his expedition is known to have carried any other flag. As for "the kings of Spain used to fly the flags of the different kingdoms that joined together at the end of the Middle Ages", Castile and Leon were the realms of Elizabeth; Ferdinand was the King of Aragon.

John S. Ayer, 3 February 1999

Columbus Day has been taken over in the United States by the Italian community as "their" festivity. I guess the large amount of Italian inmigrants have historically seen St. Patrick's day, as the Irish festivity, like a mirror to look at, and found the national holiday of Columbus Day as a chance to make themselves present. They claim Cristopher Colombus was Italian. Nobody can prove that, but, anyway, the celebration is because he arrived at America, and he did that in the name of Spain. I send the flags from the book Calvo and Grávalos 1983 used by Cristopher Columbus when he landed in San Salvador island [nowadays part of Bahamas, see this country's coat-of-arms]. The pennant from Cristopher Columbus ship, the Santa María, was as long as the mast and bore the royal arms, the [Catholic Kings'] motto Tanto Monta and a crucifix.

José Carlos Alegría, 12 October 1999

This flag of Columbus [es~cc492.gif] appears in Crampton 1990 with a swallowtail. And I've always had a doubt: is this a personal flag, one belonging to him (Colombus), or is it a position flag, the flag of the captain of the ships sailing to America (that is Colombus as a member of a hierarchy, not Columbus as a chap with a flag)?

Jorge Candeias, 15 October 1999

In the records written in his logbook, he says that October 12th, when they arrived at San Salvador (of course, he didn't know at the time where he was exactly), they landed in small boats from the three ships. Cristopher Columbus took from the Santa María the Royal Flag, and the captains of the Pinta and the Niña, a Captain's flag each. About this last flag, we know it was a capitana flag (a Spanish military term) for the expedition. It was used to distinguish the ships under the command of Cristopher Columbus (3 ships in this trip). It was not a personal/private flag belonging to him, but a sign of the fleet under his authority (each ship having a captain with this flag). It could have been swallowtailed, but only oral transmission remains of the flag. The symbols it contains (the 'F' for King Fernando and the 'Y' for Queen Isabel, crowned, and separated by a cross) are engraved at his burial mound in the Cathedral of Seville, but no flag shape is described.

This flag was given by the monarchs of Spain to distinguish the fleet under the command of Cristopher Columbus. That is, it was a flag to be hold by each Captain (one captain per ship) on Columbus' flotilla. I am no military expert, but I imagine it is something as if all the ships of the American 6th Fleet had a common flag to fly on each ship, and the fleet's commander-in-chief were Columbus.

José Carlos Alegría, 15 and 19 October 1999

Isn't that an ensign? Possibly not the national ensign, but a fleet ensign?

Santiago Dotor, 21 October 1999

Regarding the three ships of the Columbian expedition, the actual names of the ships were the Santa Maria, the Pinta and the Santa Clara. The Santa Clara was the smallest and therefore nicknamed the the small one or Niña. This was also a reference to the Captain's last name and was therefore a play on words on two levels.

James J. Ferrigan (University of Santa Clara '72), 19 October 1999