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Variants of the National Flag (Spain)

Last modified: 2011-06-10 by eugene ipavec
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Civil, State and War Flag and Civil and War Ensign
Civil Flag and Ensign variant with no coat-of-arms
image by Antonio Gutiérrez, taken with permission from the S.E.V. website

[Civil Flag and Ensign variant with no coat-of-arms Spain]
image by Jorge Candeias

See also:

Flag Variants

According to Law 39/1981 of 28th October 1981 (Boletín Oficial del Estado no. 271 of 12th November 1981), official entities must display the flag with coat-of-arms. Neither the Constitution nor the 1981 Law limits the use of this flag to official entities however, so it is both a civil and a state (and war) flag. It is not infrequent to see the flag displayed without the coat-of-arms, but I believe the reason is only one of cost. Only people not affording to pay for a coat-of-arms-bearing flag (both individuals and low-level or small sized administrations) display a plain flag. This is becoming more and more infrequent however, since nylon flags with a printed coat-of-arms are now cheap to obtain.

Santiago Dotor, 07 Apr 1999

I know at least four laws stating the plain flag (with no coat-of-arms) as the national flag:

  1. Decree of August 29th, 1936 (National flag in Nationalist Zone)
  2. Royal Decree 1511, of January 21st 1977 (Regulations on flags, standards, ensigns...)
  3. Spanish Constitution of December 27th, 1978 (Art. 4)
  4. Law 39, of October 28th, 1981 (Flag of Spain)

Antonio Gutiérrez, 27 May 1999

[Many flag books] show a civil ensign for Spain – the national flag without coat-of-arms. I believe Spain has only one national flag and ensign, the one with coat-of-arms. Any merchant or fishing ship can fly the coat-of-arms version. Many don't, just because the cost of a flag with a colored coat-of-arms is much higher than one without it.

José Carlos Alegría, 11 Sep 2000

[For instance] Smith 1975, p. 124, says, "The war ensign and most military colors of Spain include the national coat of arms (...). The national flag, however, remains the starkly simple red-yellow-red".

Wayne J. Lovett, 20 Sep 2000

There are two separate questions here. Firstly, which is the Spanish civil flag. The 1978 Constitution says:

Artículo 4
1. La Bandera de España está formada por tres franjas horizontales rojas, amarilla, y roja, siendo la amarilla de doble anchura que cada una de las rojas.
that is:
Article 4
1. The flag of Spain is made of three horizontal stripes red, yellow and red, the yellow one being twice as wide as each of the red ones.
The Flag Act no. 39/1981 of 28th October 1981 (published on the Boletín Oficial del Estado no. 271 of 12th November) says however:
Artículo 2º.
1. La bandera de España, de acuerdo con lo preceptuado en el artículo cuarto de la Constitución española, está formada por tres franjas horizontales, roja, amarilla y roja, siendo la amarilla de doble anchura que cada una de las rojas.
2. En la franja amarilla se podrá incorporar, en la forma que reglamentariamente se señale, el escudo de España. El escudo de España figurará, en todo caso, en las banderas a que se refieren los apartados 1, 2, 3 y 4 del artículo siguiente.
that is:
Article 2
1. The flag of Spain, according to what is specified in article four of the Spanish Constitution, is made of three horizontal stripes red, yellow and red, the yellow one being twice as wide as each of the red ones.
2. The yellow stripe may bear the coat-of-arms of Spain in the way which shall be legally approved. The coat-of-arms of Spain shall appear anyway in the flags to which paragraphs 1, 2, 3 and 4 of the following article refer.
Paragraphs 1 through 4 of article 3 refer to buildings and facilities of the national, autonomous, provincial or island governments and local councils; buildings, ships and planes of the Armed Forces and of the national police corps (National Police and Civil Guard); and buildings and official vehicles of diplomatic and consular missions.

So the (civil) flag of Spain may bear the coat-of-arms whereas the state and war flag must bear it allways. Which is then the correct civil flag? Both.

However, given the facts that:

  • it is not illegal to use the coat-of-arms on the civil flag,
  • it is no longer necessary to pay for a expensive embroidered flag to have one with a coat-of-arms,
  • most flag manufacturers incorporate the coat-of-arms, and
  • it is almost impossible to purchase a flag without the coat-of-arms,
the flag with the coat-of-arms is almost universally used as civil flag. So from my point of view, the plain flag is some sort of optional civil flag – simply out of factual use. As Wayne Lovett pointed out, not even the Olympic Team displayed a plain flag.

Secondly, which is the Spanish civil ensign. I am afraid I am no expert here, and I believe that only Navy ships are entitled to use the flag with the coat-of-arms. However I know neither where this is established, nor what do merchant ships use in practice. My only ship flagspotting has to do with yachts and similar vessels, which naturally fly the yacht ensign.

Santiago Dotor, 20 Sep 2000

I would like to state my accordance with what Santiago Dotor said. In fact the flag act of 1981 does not clearly differentiate between a civil ensign with coat-of-arms and one without – the civil ensign may or may not bear the coat-of-arms. Strange as it may appear, it is so.

The official Spanish Navy flag regulation still valid today dates from 21st January 1977 (Real Decreto 1511/1977, de 21 de enero de la Presidencia del Gobierno – Boletín Oficial del Estado núm. 156 de 1 de julio – por el que se aprueba el Reglamento de Banderas y Estandartes, Guiones, Insignias y Distintivos). Title 1, Rule 1 deals with the national flag (bandera nacional): this has the plain three stripes and no coat-of-arms. Under the chapter "Use" of this flag one word only is written: "General." So there is no doubt that this plain bicolour flag is the national flag and may be used everywhere by everybody as he pleases.

This has been repeated by the 1981 flag act. Rule number 2 of the Navy Regulations deals with the coat-of-arms, Rule number 3 with the "national flag with the arms of Spain" (bandera nacional con escudo de España). Under Chapter 3 concerning the use of this national flag with coat-of-arms is written, "warships, arsenals, Navy stations, their castles and fortresses, as well as any others on the coast, airports, campments, quarters and other military dependencies. Offices and buildings belonging to the administration of the state including those abroad which may have extraterritorial status." And that's it. As we have read, the 1981 flag act allows the use of the flag with coat-of-arms by everybody else as well.

From what Santiago Dotor stated and from the Navy regulations we can deduce, that the Navy and any official, military or governmental office or building will fly a national flag with coat-of-arms only, while both a flag with coat-of-arms or one without coat-of-arms may be flown at any other places legally by anybody. This includes the ensign of the merchant navy, which is a plain bicolor flag (have a look at your local harbour!). Almost all fishing boats, passenger ferries, merchant ships, trawlers etc. fly the plain bicolour, while all yachts fly the official yacht ensign and all Navy ships fly the flag with coat-of-arms. All the revenue ships fly another special flag, ships of the mail lines fly a special ensign too, but this is another story.

There is another question as well. The plain flag is some sort of poor man's flag, for everyday use – outside commercial buildings, at gas stations, restaurants, tourist resorts, local popular flag dressing of streets and places etc. Spaniards do not (yet) fly the national flag outside their homes, neither with nor without coat-of-arms, though a few fly their regional or local flag. For a sunday use, a gala use, a special event, you will certainly choose the "more important," richer, more beautiful flag, that with coat-of-arms, like a sunday dress or a military uniform with medals instead of an average drill uniform.

Emil Dreyer, 20 Sep 2000

I still have one remaining doubt. As I said before, the broad majority of civil flags used in Spain display the coat-of-arms (because they are perfectly legal, easy to find, and no longer expensive). Why is it that the tendency with civil ensigns is the opposite one, i.e. to have no coat-of-arms? The example of a fishing or commercial boat is particularly puzzling, since this is the most similar instance (from the points of view of economic resources and vexillological knowledge) to the average "civil flag bearer." Why does the latter choose almost always a flag with coat-of-arms, while the first chooses one without it?

Santiago Dotor, 25 Sep 2000

Luis Miguel Arias reported in the Spanish Vexilologia mailing list that he wrote to the Spanish Naval General Headquarters asking whether there is any legislation which determines that the ensign with arms cannot be used by merchant ships, i.e. as civil ensign. The Naval GHQ answered him mentioning two laws – Real Decreto 23335/1980, de 10 de octubre (utilización de la Bandera Nacional y otras, a bordo de buques nacionales) and Ley 39/1981, de 28 de octubre (uso de la bandera de España y el de otras banderas y enseñas) –, none of which forbids using the flag with arms as civil ensign.

Santiago Dotor, 26 Feb 2002

There is some here about the question of if and when the plain flag without arms is used, particularly as civil ensign. Do we have any photographical evidence for the use of the plain flag as civil ensign?

Marcus E.V. Schmöger, 12 Mar 2002

Actually the question should be "do we have any photographical evidence for the use of the flag with coat-of-arms as civil ensign?" since it is compulsory to use the red-yellow-red flag, and it is not forbidden to place the arms on it, as discussed above.

Santiago Dotor, 13 Mar 2002

Just watching TV coverage on the visit of recently elected Spanish prime minister Zapatero to Germany, I was struck by the consistent display of the Spanish national flag without coat-of-arms. This was shown in several "official" occasions:

  • flying together with German federal flag in front of a government building (was not able to discern which)
  • standing behind Zapatero and Schröder during press conference (together with German and EU flag)
  • as car flag on Zapatero's car
I thought (at least that is what I read on FOTW pages on Spanish flag), that the state flag has to show the arms, whereas the civil flag/ensign may show the arms. So what is the official status of the plain Spanish flag?

Marcus E.V. Schmöger, 28 Apr 2004

I was also shocked to see the plain Spanish flag behind prime minister Zapatero. In any official use, the Spanish flag must bear the arms.

"Official status" is quite a confusing term in this already confusing matter :-) From an official i.e. legal point of view the plain flag is the flag of Spain, period. From that same point of view, whenever the flag is used in official places, acts etc. it must bear the arms.

Santiago Dotor, 29 Apr 2004

According to William Crampton, the plain triband became the National Flag of Spain by Decree of General Franco on 29 August 1936, and it is reported as such in his published works (as well as by Christian Fogd Pedersen). We on FOTW, however, give the flag with arms as the National Flag and I was wondering at what point did legislation alter the original Decree (or were William and Christian incorrect)?

I am inclined to follow a country's own legal definition of what makes its National Flag. Thus in the case of Spain I would consider the plain triband as the National Flag. There are some cases where no legal definition exists of course (or at least ones I know about which is not the same thing), and in those cases perhaps one could use the flag which represents that country at the UN? Where I, myself, am not sure I must admit to following William Crampton's various definitions.

Christopher Southworth, 06 and 07 Jul 2003

On 29 August 1936, Miguel Cabanellas (who chaired the "Junta de Defensa Nacional," "National Defence Committee," the rebels' government – General Franco, who would become the leader of the rebellion after the deaths of Generals Sanjurjo and Mola in unrelated plane crashes, did not take command until 1st October 1936) issued Decree No. 77, a single, very short article reading:

"Articulo nico. Se restablece la bandera bicolor roja y gualda, como bandera de España."
("Single article. The red and gold/yellow bicolour flag is re-established as the flag of Spain.")
Not a word about the coat-of-arms, which remained as it was since 27 April 1931 (date of the Republican law on flags and coat-of-arms). This coat-of-arms continued to fly on the bicolour flag of the rebel forces. There are photographs showing nationalist men-of-war wearing the bicolour flag with the Republican coat-of-arms at the stern.

If the flag prior to the Second Republic had arms, once re-established it logically ought to have arms. Only the civil ensign had no arms so we may assume that after 1936 only the civil ensign would lack arms.

The immediate question is, "what arms?". Only the flag prior to the Second Republic is re-established, not the arms, which kept being the Republican one. Since the flag prior to the Second Republic used the lesser Royal arms [per pale Castile and Leon on an oval escutcheon, royally crowned], the answer was not clear and everybody used the arms he saw fit. Some used the Republican arms, some the Royal one with greater or lesser arms, and yet others the charges they liked most. Aiming to end with this chaos, a further Decree dated 13th September 1936 stated that the shape and dimensions would be "the same as before the proclamation of the Republic, and the arms, the current one", that is, the Republican one. Which means that the Republican arms would be placed wherever there was arms on a flag before the Second Republic.

This is an analysis of the legislation. In actual practice this rule was not generally followed and bicolour flags kept being manufactured without any uniformity.

Santiago Dotor, 08 Jul 2003

Vertical Version

[Vertical Version (Spain)]

I spotted a vertical flag of Spain in the port area of Los Christianos, La Gomera Island, Canary Islands, on 11 February 2010, hoisted from a staff with horizontal bar. The ratio is 3:1. The flag is a vertical red-yellow-red tricolour with ratio 1:2.1 and the coat of arms at the top of the yellow stripe.

Klaus-Michael Schneider, 10 Mar 2010

image by Antonio Gutiérrez and Klaus-Michael Schneider, 10 Mar 2010

"500th Anniversary of Spanish Discoveries" Flag

[500th Anniversary of Spanish Discoveries flag (Spain)]
image by António Martins-Tuválkin, 26 Aug 2003

Spanish national flag charged with the official logo of the 1992 discoveries' 500th centennial. According to my notes, the flag was not official, but was mass-produced.

António Martins-Tuválkin, 26 Aug 2003