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Why is the Spanish flag red and yellow?

Conor Faulkner
Conor Faulkner - [email protected]
Why is the Spanish flag red and yellow?
Here's why Spain's flag is red-yellow-red. Photo: Chris Boland/Unsplash.

Naval history, 18th century fabrics and printing technology, dynasties and kingdoms. There's a lot of history in 'la rojigualda’, Spain's iconic red and yellow flag.


Article 4.1 of the Spanish Constitution has some pretty clear instructions on what does and doesn’t constitute a proper Spanish flag: “It consists of three horizontal stripes, red, yellow, and red, the yellow being twice as wide as each of the red stripes.”

Though the exact design and colour, as well as the size of the coat of arms (which is always on the yellow band) have varied slightly over the years, the basics as outlined in the constitution are clear and recognisable: two horizontal red stripes, top and bottom, with a yellow horizontal stripe in the middle.


Of course, it should be noted here that Spain is a historically and linguistically diverse country. The classic Spanish flag, known as the rojigualda, doesn’t represent all Spaniards or all regions of Spain, and the distinct identities around the country are often reflected in language and customs, but also in flags.

READ ALSO: Why do many people see Spain's flag as a fascist symbol?

Catalonia has La Senyera (the official regional flag) and La Estelada (the independence flag with the star), the Basque Country has La Ikurriña, and even less separatist-minded parts of Spain such as Andalusia, Valencia and the Canary Islands take pride in their flags.


So, what’s the history behind the Spanish flag? There are several competing yet somewhat intertwined theories, and most revolve around the navy. As a former imperial power, perhaps it’s no great surprise that the rojigualda has its roots in naval history.

In 1785, King Carlos III of Spain asked his Navy Minister Antonio Valdés to design a new national flag for the Navy because the flag they had at the time was often confused at sea for those of other nations. Valdés came up with 12 sketches, all of which are now on display in Madrid, and Carlos III not only changed the flag to something more recognisable to us today but removed the old Bourbon coat of arms.

The flags suggested by Antonio Valdés, on display at Madrid's Naval Museum. Image: Museo Naval de Madrid

The colour red was chosen because it was easy to print on fabric and mass produce, and yellow allegedly for its visibility at sea. Similarly, the horizontal stripes were chosen because they were visible at a quick glance while sailing around the world and taking part in battles.

However, some historians claim that red and yellow was also nod to the traditional colours of the Crown of Aragón, which had by then already featured on the coat of arms. Choosing the red and yellow of Aragón was, historians suggest, reflecting the power sharing (at times competing) between the different kingdoms that eventually gave shape to modern Spain.


Whatever the real reason was, in 1843 Isabel II declared by Royal Decree that the national flag established should be the same colours as the naval flag and it was flown for the first time in non-naval buildings the following year.

The coat of arms of the flag has changed throughout history, usually a reflection of political and dynastic changes. The current coat of arms is composed of four quarters with the symbols of the ancient peninsular kingdoms within Spain: Castile (a castle), León (a lion), Aragón (bars) and Navarre (chains).

At the top of the coat of arms is a crown symbolising the constitutional monarchy.

However, despite the plausible naval explanation, Spaniards have themselves interpreted several possible additional meanings behind the rojigualda.

Some say that red represents the blood shed by the Spaniards in defence of their nation and yellow represents the gold and wealth of the empire, though it’s unclear how popular this interpretation is in the post-colonial, politically correct 21st century.

Some say that red symbolises the bravery of the Spanish people and yellow their generosity. Others say that red is the colour of fire and yellow the light of the sun.

La ‘rojigualda’

Finally, on the proper name for the Spanish flag: la rojigualda is a portmanteau of roja (red) and gualda, which is a yellowish colour but a word very rarely if ever used in modern day Spanish.

Use of the rojigualda name became popular in the 19th century, when the flag was first used as a national symbol rather than a naval flag.

READ ALSO: When did Spain become Spain?



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