Tuesday June 15, 2021’s Smile of the Day: The Dannebrog

On this Day:

In 1219, on this day according to legend, the “Dannebrog”, a red flag with a white Scandinavian cross that extends to the edges of the flag where the vertical part of the cross is shifted to the hoist side, fell from the sky during the Battle of Lyndanisse (now Tallinn) in Estonia, and turned the Danes’ luck. The flag subsequently fell into favour and became the national flag of Denmark. But in which battle, and when did it allegedly fall from the sky? This question certainly raises several red flags.


A banner with a white-on-red cross is attested as having been used by the kings of Denmark since the 14th century. An origin legend with considerable impact on Danish national historiography connects the introduction of the flag to the Battle of Lindanise of 1219. The elongated Nordic cross reflects the use as a maritime flag in the 18th century. The flag became popular as a national flag in the early 16th century. Its private use was outlawed in 1834, and again permitted in a regulation of 1854. The flag holds the world record of being the oldest continuously used national flag.

A tradition recorded in the 16th century traces the origin of the flag to the campaigns of Valdemar II of Denmark (r. 1202–1241). The oldest of them is in Christiern Pedersen’s “Danske Krønike”, which is a sequel to Saxo’s Gesta Danorum, written 1520–23. Here, the flag falls from the sky during a Russian campaign of Valdemar’s. Pedersen also states that the very same flag was taken into exile by Eric of Pomerania in 1440.

The second source is the writing of the Franciscan friar Petrus Olai (Peder Olsen) of Roskilde (died c. 1570). This record describes a battle in 1208 near Fellin during the Estonia campaign of King Valdemar II. The Danes were all but defeated when a lamb-skin banner depicting a white cross fell from the sky and miraculously led to a Danish victory. In a third account, also by Petrus Olai, in Danmarks Tolv Herligheder (“Twelve Splendours of Denmark”), in splendour number nine, the same story is re-told almost verbatim, with a paragraph inserted correcting the year to 1219. Now, the flag is falling from the sky in the Battle of Lindanise, also known as the Battle of Valdemar (Danish: Volmerslaget), near Lindanise (Tallinn) in Estonia, on 15 June 1219.

It is this third account that has been the most influential, and some historians have treated it as the primary account taken from a (lost) source dating to the first half of the 15th century.

In Olai’s account, the battle was going badly, and defeat seemed imminent. However the Danish Bishop Anders Sunesen, on top of a hill overlooking the battle, prayed to God with his arms raised, and the Danes moved closer to victory the more he prayed. When he raised his arms the Danes surged forward but when his arms grew tired and he let them fall, the Estonians turned the Danes back. Attendants rushed forward to raise his arms once again and the Danes again surged forward. But for a second time he grew so tired that he dropped his arms and the Danes again lost the advantage, and were moving closer to defeat. He needed two soldiers to keep his hands up. When the Danes were about to lose, ‘Dannebrog’ miraculously fell from the sky and the King took it, showed it to the troops, their hearts were filled with courage, and the Danes won the battle.

The possible historical nucleus behind this origin legend was extensively discussed by Danish historians in the 19th to 20th centuries. Jørgensen (1875) argues that Bishop Theoderich was the original instigator of the 1218 inquiry from Bishop Albert of Buxhoeveden to King Valdemar II which led to the Danish participation in the Baltic crusades. Jørgensen speculates that Bishop Theoderich might have carried the Knight Hospitaller’s banner in the 1219 battle and that “the enemy thought this was the King’s symbol and mistakenly stormed Bishop Theoderich tent. He claims that the origin of the legend of the falling flag comes from this confusion in the battle.”

The Danish church-historian L. P. Fabricius (1934)[8] ascribes the origin to the 1208 Battle of Fellin, not the Battle of Lindanise in 1219, based on the earliest source available about the story. Fabricius speculated that it might have been Archbishop Andreas Sunesøn’s personal ecclesiastical banner or perhaps even the flag of Archbishop Absalon, under whose initiative and supervision several smaller crusades had already been conducted in Estonia. The banner would then already be known in Estonia. Fabricius repeats Jørgensen’s idea about the flag being planted in front of Bishop Theodorik’s tent, which the enemy mistakenly attacked believing it to be the tent of the King.

A different theory is briefly discussed by Fabricius and elaborated more by Helge Bruhn (1949). Bruhn interprets the story in the context of the widespread tradition of the miraculous appearance of crosses in the sky in Christian legend, specifically comparing such an event attributed to a battle of 10 September 1217 near Alcazar, where it is said that a golden cross on white appeared in the sky, to bring victory to the Christians.

In Swedish national historiography of the 18th century, there is a tale paralleling the Danish legend, in which a golden cross appears in the blue sky during a Swedish battle in Finland in 1157.

The white-on-red cross emblem originates in the age of the Crusades. In the 12th century, it was also used as war flag by the Holy Roman Empire.

In the Gelre Armorial, dated c. 1340–1370, such a banner is shown alongside the coat of arms of the king of Denmark. This is the earliest known undisputed colour rendering of the Dannebrog. At about the same time, Valdemar IV of Denmark displayed a cross in his coat of arms on his Danælog seal (Rettertingsseglet, dated 1356). The image from the Armorial Gelre is nearly identical to an image found in a 15th-century coats of arms book now located in the National Archives of Sweden (Riksarkivet). The seal of Eric of Pomerania (1398) as king of the Kalmar union displays the arms of Denmark chief dexter, three lions. In this version, the lions are holding a Dannebrog banner.

The reason why the kings of Denmark in the 14th century began displaying the cross banner in their coats of arms is unknown. Caspar Paludan-Müller (1873) suggested that it may reflect a banner sent by the pope to the Danish king in support of the Baltic countries. Adolf Ditlev Jørgensen (1875) identifies the banner as that of the Knights Hospitaller, which had a presence in Denmark from the later 12th century.

Several coins, seals and images exist, both foreign and domestic, from the 13th to 15th centuries and even earlier, showing heraldic designs similar to Dannebrog, alongside the royal coat of arms (three blue lions on a golden shield.)

There is a record suggesting that the Danish army had a “chief banner” (hoffuitbanner) in the early 16th century. Such a banner is mentioned in 1570 by Niels Hemmingsøn in the context of a 1520 battle between Danes and Swedes near Uppsala as nearly captured by the Swedes but saved by the heroic actions of the banner-carrier Mogens Gyldenstierne and Peder Skram. The legend attributing the miraculous origin of the flag to the campaigns of Valdemar II of Denmark (r. 1202–1241) were recorded by Christiern Pedersen and Petrus Olai in the 1520s.

Hans Svaning’s History of King Hans from 1558 to 1559 and Johan Rantzau’s History about the Last Dithmarschen War, from 1569, record the further fate of the Danish hoffuitbanner: According to this tradition, the original flag from the Battle of Lindanise was used in the small campaign of 1500 when King Hans tried to conquer Dithmarschen (in western Holstein in north Germany). The flag was lost in a devastating defeat at the Battle of Hemmingstedt on 17 February 1500. In 1559, King Frederik II recaptured it during his own Dithmarschen campaign.

In 1576, the son of Johan Rantzau, Henrik Rantzau, also wrote about the war and the fate of the flag, noting that the flag was in a poor condition when returned. He records that the flag after its return to Denmark was placed in the cathedral in Slesvig. Slesvig historian Ulrik Petersen (1656–1735) confirms the presence of such a banner in the cathedral in the early 17th century, and records that it had crumbled away by about 1660.

Contemporary records describing the battle of Hemmingstedt make no reference to the loss of the original Dannebrog, although the capitulation states that all Danish banners lost in 1500 were to be returned. In a letter dated 22 February 1500 to Oluf Stigsøn, King John describes the battle, but does not mention the loss of an important flag. In fact, the entire letter gives the impression that the lost battle was of limited importance. In 1598, Neocorus wrote that the banner captured in 1500 was brought to the church in Wöhrden and hung there for the next 59 years, until it was returned to the Danes as part of the peace settlement in 1559.

Used as a maritime flag since the 16th century, the Dannebrog was introduced as a regimental flag in the Danish army in 1785, and for the militia (landeværn) in 1801. From 1842, it was used as the flag of the entire army.

During the first half of the 19th century, in parallel to the development of Romantic nationalism in other European countries, the military flag increasingly came to be seen as representing the nation itself. Poems of this period invoking the Dannebrog were written by B.S. Ingemann, N.F.S. Grundtvig, Oehlenschläger, Chr. Winther and H.C. Andersen. By the 1830s, the military flag had become popular as an unofficial national flag, and its use by private citizens was outlawed in a circular enacted on 7 January 1834.

In the national enthusiasm sparked by the First Schleswig War during 1848–1850, the flag was still very widely displayed, and the prohibition of private use was repealed in a regulation of 7 July 1854, for the first time allowing Danish citizens to display the Dannebrog (but not the swallow-tailed Splitflag variant). Special permission to use the Splitflag was given to individual institutions and private companies, especially after 1870. In 1886, the war ministry introduced a regulation indicating that the flag should be flown from military buildings on thirteen specified days, including royal birthdays, the date of the signing of the Constitution of 5 June 1849 and on days of remembrance for military battles. In 1913, the naval ministry issued its own list of flag days. On 10 April 1915, the hoisting of any other flag on Danish soil was prohibited. From 1939 until 2012, the yearbook Hvem-Hvad-Hvor included a list of flag days. As of 2019 flag days can be viewed at the “Ministry of Justice (Justitsministeriet)” as well as “The Denmark Society (Danmarks-Samfundet)” (per Wikipedia).

First, a Story:

What is one of the best things about living in Denmark? Well, as you know, the flag is a big plus…

Second, a Song:

Denmark is struggling to keep their population at 5.6 million. The biggest cause for the decline: young couples aren’t having babies. One Danish travel agency, Spies Rejser, is urging young couples to go on vacation, where the chances of conceiving are higher (per YouTube.com).

People aren’t having babies in Denmark so they made this provocative ad.  I hope you enjoy this!


Thought for the Day:

“One of my life’s watchwords is ‘hyggelig.’ It’s an untranslatable Danish term for getting together with friends and family and sitting around in a cosy atmosphere with nice food and wine and candles.” – Sandi Toksvig

Further to the Sandpaper Smile, Eric O’Dell of Surrey, BC, Canada writes:

“Notes on Leroy Anderson were interesting.  I remember many of those tunes…”


Have a great day!

Dave & Colleen

© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky

Leave a Reply