Portugal is like a girlfriend to me and it seems I’ve become her lover and as such, it got me thinking about her flag. I knew that the colours are red and green for the most and that a shield is displayed but, apart from that, never really gave it much more thought. With a renewed interest or more accurately, far greater curiosity, I discovered upon research that it really is quite an interesting national flag with a long history of changes with each and every element significant to the history and development of Portugal in one way or other. Following a study of the flag to include a step by step detailed development, reveals something extremely aesthetically pleasing and, beautifully designed due to many years of evolving. On the surface, a flag may appear as nothing more than a flag. In the case of the portuguese flag, a historical story is told, once it is read.
A word of warning prior to me continuing here. If you are disrespectful towards the motherland flag by way of published writings, speech or public acts or show a lack of respect, the perpetrator’s penalty could be a prison sentence of three to twelve month with a corresponding fine. A relapse could result in exile so says a decree, from December 28, 1910. It gets worse, the current penal code punishes infractions with a prison sentence of up to two years. All together now “We love the Portuguese flag”. The afore said, I do think it is a beautiful flag and especially so with an understanding of its design and meanings acquired.
The Portuguese flag displays three important symbols: the field colours, and the armillary sphere and national shield, which make up the coat of arms. As a whole, it is a flag that has evolved from the period of Henry, Count of Portugal in 1095 AD. At this time the flag started as the royal arms and had no immediate resemblance to what is current and was simply a blue cross upon a white background. The flag was always linked to the royal arms and, up until 1640, there was no distinction between either. With gradual development it has incorporated most of the symbols and detail present of the current coat of arms.
There have been sixteen stages in development but look closely and you see the original blue cross on white background as in 1095. King Afonso I from 1143 added the five escutcheons created from bezants and King Sancho I from 1185 deleted much of the blue so creating much more positive shield shapes as clearly seen in the flag’s coat of arms today. There is a difference though, the number of bezants, where this now has religious connotations. Today’s flag is far more complex and colourful than that of the beginning where the colour of red and green today, stem from and are representative of the Portuguese Republican Party of 1891. Red and green however were not used until 30th June 1911. It is suggested that green is for hope for the Portuguese people and red for the spilt blood of battle.
Between 1248 and 1495 again the coat of arms went through changes with more colour added plus, the creation of more complex detailing. Afonso III (1248) started by adding a red bordure and yellow gold bezants into this part. The exact number is unknown though sixteen are shown here.
The exact number was only fixed in the late 16th century. King John I changed this bordure in 1385 by removing four of the castles and replacing them with four A fleur-de-lis in green to the top, bottom, left and right creating an Aviz cross. The whole, to my mind looks overly complex and cluttered at this point, possibly as I prefer more simplicity than displayed.
King John II from 1485 made his alterations also and here five blue escutcheons each charged with 5 bezants on a white field were displayed and the border remained red with seven yellow castles. The five bezants are of great religious importance and the bezants also changed shape too. As seen in the example from King John II period, the current form of the flag has become noticeable from this period with the Aviz cross removed with a downward arrangement and edge-smoothing of the escutcheons. The definitive fixing of five saltire-arranged bezants in each escutcheons and seven yellow gold castles on the red bordure started the norm except during the time of King Manuel I (1495).
Prior to 1495 the traditional square armorial banner had remained with its shape as such for four hundred years since the time of Count Henry of 1095. In 1495 John II was succeeded by his first cousin Manuel I. John II radically re-styled four centuries of square armorial banner into a rectangular. The banner was white with a coat of arms centrally positioned on this new background and eleven yellow gold castles were to be back until King Sabastian’s arrival. The new heater-shaped shield was adopted and surmounted by an open royal crown.
The eighth change came about with King Sabastian (1578). The changes this time were visually subtle but important. Now the number of castles was permanently fixed at seven and the royal crown was converted into a closed three-arched crown.
For a period, Portugal went through a fair degree of turmoil from 1580 with many claiming right to the throne following King Sebastian’s early death in the Battle of Alcácer Quibirin 1578. Portugal lost her independence to Spain only regaining it in 1640. John, Duke of Bragança, at this time was placed on the throne and again the flag went through changes. The ogival shield became rounded to its base. It was from this reign onwards the royal arms and the kingdom’s arms became separate banners.