The Netherlands, the United Kingdom, the USA, France, Chile, Cuba, Australia and Croatia; this diverse group of countries, and many more besides, all have red, white and blue flags. Is this just a coincidence, or is there some deeper explanation?
One popular theory on the frequency of red, white and blue flags relates to the ease with which red and blue dye can be created. Since so many flags are ultimately based on centuries old family or city flags, the reasoning is that red and blue are so common because they are a tradition born from a practical necessity. Although providing some explanation, it doesn’t completely delineate how the three colours ascended to such prominence with the rise of nation states and continue to be so common to this day.
In some instances, fairly obvious historical or political factors can explain the recurrence of the colours. The flags of both Australia and New Zealand for instance, are dominated by red, white and blue due to the presence of the Union Jack, reflecting their history as former British colonies and continued membership of the Commonwealth.
These logical historical and political connections are not always so clear, however, and it’s necessary to look at individual flag histories to see how they came to be red, white and blue.
One of the oldest flags in existence, the Dutch flag is also one of the most influential – providing a wealth of insight. In the sixteenth century William I, prince of Orange led the Dutch independence movement against the Spanish. His livery of orange, white and blue was worn by his troops at the siege of Leiden and quickly became the chosen colours of the Dutch nationalist movement.
From 1577, an orange, white and blue horizontal tricolor became the flag for Dutch ships, although it was never officially adopted. By 1660, the orange in the flag had been replaced by red. Exactly why this took place is a matter debated among historians. Some say it was because red dyes were cheaper than orange, or that the orange dyes tended to turn to red over time anyway. Another explanation is that a 1654 defence treaty between the Dutch and British had seen members of the house of Orange excluded from being heads of state in the Netherlands. Whatever the explanation, the red, white and blue tricolor was legalised as the state flag by the Batavian Republic in 1796.
The tricolor soon started to spread, and so did the Dutch colour scheme. Prior to the French Revolution, France’s state flag was based on the royal coat of arms – a blue shield with three golden fleur-de-lis, while different families and regions also boasted their own elaborate designs. After the Bourbon dynasty came to power, the blue shield started to be displayed against a background of the Bourbon dynastic colour: white.
In the aftermath of the French Revolution the focus shifted towards much simpler flag designs. Blue and red, the traditional colours of Paris and popular among the revolutionaries, started to be added to flags alongside the traditional Bourbon white. Taking influence from the equally spaced horizontal stripes of the Dutch flag, the vertical tricolor of stripes ordered blue, white and red became the official French national flag in 1794. Although the flag has been temporarily changed at various points, for example during the Napoleonic period, the tricolor has been the official symbol of France since 1848.
Seen to embody the French Revolution, the blue, red and white of the French flag have come to represent the ideals of liberty, equality, fraternity, democracy, secularism and modernization. Similarly, the colours used in the Dutch flag can be traced back to the history of the country’s sixteenth century struggle for independence. However, although the design of the French tricolor was influenced by the Dutch flag, and both have been taken to embody a crucial part of their respective nation’s identity; the presence of red, white and blue in the two flags in large part seems to be a coincidence – the consequence of unconnected regional events.
Taking another notable red, white and blue flag from Western Europe, the Union Jack of the United Kingdom is a combination of the flags of England, Wales and Ireland. Each of the flags at the heart of the design is comprised of two colours (blue saltire on a white background for Scotland, red saltire on a white background for Ireland, and a red cross on a white background for England). The flags that make up the Union Jack each have their own stories explaining their colours.
In Western Europe then, the repetition of red, white and blue designs in national flags would seem to owe a lot to specific local circumstances.
Part two of this article will look at flags from further afield: to Eastern Europe, North and South America, and Asia.