The national flags of the Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden) form a recognizable "flag family," all being based on the so-called Scandinavian cross. This is simply a cross with the vertical arm offset toward the hoist of the flag. It probably first appeared on Scandinavian flags and banners in the 13th century, and it became firmly established as the national flag of Denmark from the sixteenth century onward. The modern flag of Sweden took form at about the same time, though historians are generally agreed that the Danish flag—the Dannebrog—is the oldest national flag in current use. The flags of the other Nordic countries were based on the Swedish and especially the Danish flags.

Another flag design feature characteristic of the Nordic countries is the use of a forked or swallowtailed variant of the national flag for official purposes. In Sweden and Denmark these forked flags originated as royal flags and war ensigns; they thus symbolized the authority of the state. This tradition has been carried forward by all the Nordic countries, which use forked flags as their naval ensigns and, usually with the addition of a badge, as the flag or ensign of government departments. An exception is Finland, where the forked flag is reserved for the armed forces only. Other government authorities use the national flag with the Finnish coat of arms at the intersection of the cross. Some examples of these government ensigns are illustrated below.

Finland, Iceland and Norway were at one time dependencies of either Denmark, Russia or Sweden and did not gain full independence until the twentieth century. In all these countries, patriotic sentiment was expressed in part via the demand for a "pure" national flag. In each case the design eventually adopted was based on the Scandinavian cross.

The Scandinavian cross also figures in the design of numerous sub-national and regional flags of the Nordic countries. Some, like those of the Åland and Faroe Islands, are officially recognized; other are traditional, popular or proposed and have no legal status. Additionally, the United Kingdom's Shetland Islands and Orkney Islands, which were once part of the Kingdom of Norway, have regional flags of the Scandinavian cross type. Some examples of these sub-national flags are illustrated below.




National Flag & Civil Ensign  •  The Dannebrog


Danish West Indies Merchant Ensign


Ensign of the Ministry for Greenland


Faroe Islands





The Dannebrog (Danish Banner) is the oldest national flag in current use. Its design dates, probably, from the thirteenth century and it has served as the national flag of Denmark since the sixteenth century. It was in Denmark that the custom of using a a forked or swallowtailed variant of the national flag for official purposes developed. The Danish
Splittflag originated as a royal banner and later became the Danish war ensign. By the nineteenth century it was being used by all departments of the Danish government, military and civil, often with a distinctive badge in the canton.



National Flag Since 1905


Union of Sweden & Norway
National Flag & Civil Ensign  •  1815-44


Union of Sweden & Norway
National Flag & Civil Ensign  • 







The Swedish national flag dates from the sixteenth century and its colors are based on the Sweden's ancient royal coat of arms: three golden crowns on a field of blue. As in Denmark, a forked version of the flag is used for official purposes. Between 1815 and 1905 the Swedish flag was modified to reflect the personal union with Norway, first with a canton consisting of a white saltire cross on a field of red and than with the so-called Union Mark:
the Swedish and Norwegian crosses conjoined.



Local Civil Ensign 1821-99   •   National Flag and Civil Ensign Since 1899


Union of Sweden & Norway  •  Civil Ensign 1815-44


Union of Sweden & Norway  •  National Flag & Civil Ensign 1844-99


Postal Ensign


Customs Ensign

Norway was united in a personal union with Sweden under the Swedish crown between 1815 and 1905. The country had been part of Denmark until 1814 and enjoyed a brief period of full independence (1814-15) before being joined to Sweden. The "union flag" for both countries was the Swedish flag with the addition of a white saltire cross on red in the canton for Norway. However, Norway was permitted to continue using the flag of the 1814-15 independence period—the Dannebrog with the Norwegian arms in the canton—as a civil ensign. This arrangement by no means suited the Norwegians, however, and the campaign for a distinctive national flag was to be long and acrimonious. In 1821 a distinctive Norwegian flag was adopted: the Dannebrog with a blue cross superimposed over the white cross. This flag was initially approved as a civil ensign for use in local waters only; not until 1899 did it become Norway's official national flag on land and civil ensign at sea. In distant waters the 1815 civil ensign continued in use, and the 1815 union flag was specified for all official purposes until 1844. In that year the 1815 civil ensign and union flag were abolished. In its place Sweden and Norway were to fly their national flags with the so-called Union Mark in the canton: the Swedish and Norwegian crosses conjoined. This symbol was derided by Norwegians as the "herring salad" and it disappeared from both Swedish and Norwegian flags when the union was dissolved in 1905.



National Flag 


Government Flag & Ensign



Proposed National Flags  •  1918

Åland Islands

Finland was an autonomous grand duchy within the Russian Empire until 1917 and an independent grand duchy until 1919, when plans for the establishment of a monarchy fell through and the country was proclaimed a republic. During the nineteenth century there had been various proposals for a Finnish national flag, many of which incorporated the Scandinavian cross. The flag eventually selected was a white flag with a blue Scandinavian cross. White represents the snows of the long Finnish winter, blue the country's numerous lakes, and the Scandinavian cross symbolizes Finland's links to the other Nordic nations.



National Flag


Government Ensign

The flag of Iceland was adopted in 1915, when the island was still part of the Kingdom of Denmark. Earlier Icelandic flag proposals featured a white Scandinavian cross on a blue field, but this design was rejected by the King of Denmark, who felt that it was too similar to the royal flag of Greece. Accordingly, a red cross was superimposed on the white cross, producing a flag similar to that of Norway, but with blue and red reversed.



Shetland Islands


Orkney Islands

The United Kingdom's Shetland Islands and Orkney Islands, which were once part of the ancient Kingdom of Norway, have adopted regional flags of the Scandinavian cross type.