When Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his four men approached the South Pole in January 1912, they soon spied a Norwegian flag, its striking tones of red and blue contrasting with the surrounding white landscape and bright skies of an Antarctic summer.
Beneath the fluttering Nordic cross, within the now empty tent erected four weeks before by Norwegian Roald Amundsen and his successful crew, was a letter written to Norway's recently crowned king. This was for Scott to deliver should anything befall the Norwegian party as they made their way home.
At that moment of bitter discovery, it is said, Scott turned from explorer to postman. The flag-bearer for the British Empire had been eclipsed by the representative of a country of barely two million people. Once Amundsen telegraphed his king from Tasmania in March 1912, the whole world knew about Norway. No spin doctor could have dreamed up a more effective global PR coup.
A matter of national identity
On the other side of the world, nearer the opposite pole, little Norway had not long gained its full independence from Sweden and was seeking to establish a national identity.
The king in question, however, was Danish, the former Prince Carl of Denmark, given the Old Norse name of Haakon like the last Norwegian monarchs of the 1300s. The Norwegian flag he served had not long been purged of its Swedish elements before being fully adopted in 1905.
It was certainly not the one used by the Vikings, whose longships carried a raven banner over the waves to strike fear in foreign lands. Triangular in shape with a quarter-moon edge, it is said to have symbolized the Norse God Odin – ravens appear in Old Norse poetry related to warfare.
Picking over the remains of the fallen in battle, these ominous birds also feature on Norse coinage discovered in recent years, such as those minted by Harald Bluetooth unearthed in Finland in 2022.
Even today, a raven still proudly supports the shield on the coat of arms of the formerly Norse-dominated Isle of Man. Carried into battle by generations of Norse warriors, at Ashingdon, York, and Stamford Bridge, the raven flag is also depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry.
The Norwegian flag that Amundsen could also have flown above his tent, a banner still in use today, is the Royal Standard. Dating back to the late 1200s, it is first associated with Eirik Magnusson, one of Norway's last monarchs before Swedish or Danish rule. Best remembered for wars against the Danes, twice married to Scots royalty, Magnusson fought under a fire-red flag centrepieced by a rampant golden lion wielding an axe.
Over the centuries, when Norway was aligned with its neighbors, the Royal Standard was used as a symbol of Norwegian identity in certain regiments.
The proposal for the Norwegian flag by Fredrik Meltzer, dated May 4, 1821. Photo: Fredrik Meltzer / David40226543 / Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication
The 1800s and the 1900s
In the early 1800s, Norwegians, in many numbers, left for a better life in the New World. Those who stayed made a conscious decision to tie their future to their homeland. One such was Bergen merchant Fredrik Meltzer, a member of the Norwegian national assembly, the Storting, established after the collapse of Danish rule.
Now Norway was aligned with Sweden, a lopsided union that would last until the time Amundsen was planning his Polar adventures in the early 1900s.
Educated in London, the Netherlands, and Napoleonic France, the well-traveled Meltzer had a cosmopolitan outlook and liberal leanings. He also embraced the principles of the American Revolution.
After Norway's break with Copenhagen in 1814, a temporary flag came into use that was an adaption of the historic Danish one, with the rampant golden lion in one corner. There were other telling details to this compromise, however: the dramatic symbol of Norway's golden past was facing the other way, without an axe in its grip.
With nationalism rising, and Stockholm well aware that Norwegians had already repelled the Swedish army before the creation of their new alliance, it was decreed that feisty Norway should have its own flag.
The Norwegian press campaigned for proposals. Answering the call, Fredrik Meltzer got to work. Inspired by the revolutionary ideals of France and America and the free-thinking school of thought prevalent in the Netherlands, Meltzer knew he wanted to use a combination of red, white, and blue, the signature colors of their flags. The new Norway would be outward-looking and progressive in its aims.
By the same token, with red representing Denmark and blue Sweden, Norway would not break entirely with its past, nor could it. To emphasize this link with his neighbors, Meltzer used the Nordic cross. First used by Denmark in 12th-century battles against Estonian tribes, it was later adopted by Sweden and is now standard across the Nordic region. Today, from Finland to the Faroes, each flag displays a cross more oblong in appearance than square.
A compromise and a fading alliance
Meltzer's suggestion for Norway's carried many messages, hence its successful adoption by the national committee. But for many decades, Norway would continue to fly one indicating compromise with Sweden, featuring a confusing criss-cross of Swedish blue and yellow in the top left-hand corner. Nicknamed the Herring Salad, it illustrated the ever more unpopular union of the two countries.
As Norway developed its own economy, cultural identity, and infrastructure, the alliance with its eastern neighbor has less and less meaning. Among the many Norwegian figures of significant stature in the 1800s, pioneering explorer Fridtjof Nansen earned the most global fame through his Arctic and scientific exploits.
Later to mentor Amundsen, lending his younger compatriot his ship, the Fram, the influential Nansen not only lobbied for an independent Norway but was also instrumental in persuading Prince Carl of Denmark to assume the Norwegian throne.
The flag question was heatedly debated in the Storting as Meltzer's creation, without its Swedish accouterments, began to be seen on public buildings around Christiania. Today known by its Old Norse name of Oslo, Norway's capital was awash with nationalist sentiment on the day of the referendum to dissolve the union with Sweden in 1905.
Using Meltzer's plain red, white and blue design for its patriotic campaign material, upon which the word JA! ('YES!') was superimposed to stress the message of independence, the secessionists carried the day with a nearly 100% majority.
The Norwegian flag is a common sight throughout Norway. Pictured is a flag in Bergen, Western Norway. Photo: Matej_Veronika_Kvapilovi / Shutterstock
The adoption of a national flag
On June 9, 1905, Norway officially adopted its own national flag designed eight decades before. Section 111 of the constitution was amended to read, as it does today: "The shape and colors of the Norwegian flag are determined by law."
By the time Nansen granted Amundsen use of the Fram for his Polar expedition in 1907, the Borge-born explorer would be taking on board the recently reignited spirit of Norwegian independence.
Stored among the ski boots Amundsen himself designed, the North Greenland dogs, and sleds of Norwegian ash, the Fram's cargo was embellished by the flag that would duly mark Norway's entry onto the global stage.
Ironically, it was nearly a century before the world would see its true colors.
Amundsen damaged his camera en route to the South Pole, so the mission only had Olav Bjaaland to rely on for images.
For many years, these were believed to have been lost until a box of colored slides was discovered in the Oslo attic of Bjaaland's nephew's widow in 1986.
The bright red, white, and blue of the Norwegian flag clearly visible for the first time since December 1911, it signaled one of the most heroic achievements of the 20th century – and the arrival of a new nation after centuries of subjugation.
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