The Nordic cross not only signifies Scandinavia but links to early dabbles with Christianity during the Viking era.

Much as we can argue when the Viking Age ended – conveniently 1066, though Norse influence ran much longer – there are different criteria as to what constitutes Scandinavia

Does this also include Finland, with its non-Germanic languages and centuries of Russian subjugation? What about Iceland? The Faroes? 

The cross that binds 

Aside from their dark winters, all these former Viking lands are linked by one feature: the Nordic cross. 

The national flags of these separate but partly similar countries all line up in the same way, with their cross arranged off-center towards the hoist – or, when flown over the parliaments in each capital, towards the flagpole. 

This vexillological composition is not confined to nations generally considered "Nordic." 

Shetland's flag, officially adopted as recently as 2005, uses a white cross on blue. It was created in 1969 to mark 500 years of the transfer of power to Scotland and the previous 500 years of rule under Norway. 

Orkney equally combines Scottish and Norwegian influences, but its vexillology is more complex, as the local flag was only adopted in 2007 by a narrow margin in a local vote. 

All five candidates, however, carried the Nordic cross. 

So how did the Nordic cross come about, and who was the first to adopt it? 

Philip the Apostle, traditionally believed to have died as a martyr around the year 80, is tied to the Danish flag, Dannebrog, through legends claiming its descent from the heavens during a battle in Estonia in 1219. Illustration: Master Nestor (c. 1000 CE)

Christian beginnings 

Experts cite Philip the Apostle as the inspiration for this depiction of the cross, following his crucifixion in modern-day Turkey in 80 CE.

His manuscript, the Acts of Philip, was distributed throughout Greece and the Levant in the early days of Christianity. 

Christian missionaries had made inroads into southern Scandinavia in the 800s. 

A century later, Harald Bluetooth introduced Christianity to Denmark, although his own conversion remains shrouded in mystery. 

We do know that he had his father reburied in the church next to the pagan mound where he had laid, and erected the Jelling stones in honor of his parents. 

He was also king of Norway, albeit for a short period. 

Around the same time, Haakon the Good, raised in England, was the first Norwegian king to try and introduce Christianity there, further imposed by Olaf Tryggvason, who built the first Christian church in Norway. 

In Sweden, Christianity spread from the southwest to the north, and it was embraced by their first Christian king, Olof Skötkonung, around the turn of the millennium. 

Iceland didn't have to wait decades to convert – it was all decided overnight after a heated debate at the Althingi in 1000. 

Christianity allowed Viking rulers to connect with the broader European network and forge closer economic and cultural ties. 

It empowered medieval Scandinavian kings to form alliances, leveraging trade routes and resources to their advantage. 

A 19th-century reproduction of a medieval ship flag featuring the arms of Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Pomerania, likely originating from the reign of King Eric of Pomerania. Illustration: Julius Magnus Petersen (1827–1917)

Medieval statehood 

The Christianization of Scandinavia almost certainly laid the foundations for the three medieval kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden to emerge. 

The next step was to convert as many pagans as possible, which led to the so-called Northern Crusades from the mid-1100s onwards. 

Northern Germans, Swedes, and Danes led the charge, mainly across Finland and the Baltics. 

This, in turn, saw the birth of Denmark's national flag, the Dannebrog. 

Legend has it that Danish King Valdemar II sailed across the Baltic to take on the pagan army at what is today Tallinn. 

After being beaten back, he and his men took up a defensive position. It was then that the Archbishop of Lund raised his arms towards heaven, only for a red flag with a white cross to fall from the sky. 

The Danes regrouped and decisively defeated the Estonians. The Battle of Lyndanisse is still celebrated every year on June 15th by modern-day compatriots during Valdemarsdag. 

The Danish flag was not seen alongside the Danish coat of arms until the mid-1300s, more than a century later. 

This delay was due to Denmark's membership in the Kalmar Union, with Norway and Sweden under one monarch. 

No illustration survives of its flag, but a letter by King Eric of Pomerania refers to its red cross on a yellow background – the same one featured on the original Danish flag a century earlier. This is what we now call the Nordic cross. 

It is unclear which ruler decided, agreed, or commissioned the Nordic cross to be featured on their flag. 

Some believe that the origin story of Sweden during King Eric IX's Northern Crusade of Finland in 1157, which involves a piece of cloth falling from the sky, is suspiciously similar to this event. 

As Valdemar II set up the feudal system and the Code of Jutland that remained the nation's legal guidelines for 400 years, it's reasonable to assume that he may have been responsible for its use as a flag. 

The red-and-blue flag that fluttered over Roald Amundsen's tent in 1911 marked Norway's historic arrival on the world stage during the Amundsen Expedition at the South Pole. Photo: Olav Bjaaland (1873–1961)

From Vagharshapat to the South Pole 

However, to this day, the Nordic cross flies over areas where Christianity has deep historical roots predating these zealous Scandinavian monarchs. 

Take, for example, Vagharshapat, the spiritual capital of Armenia, which has been inhabited since 2,000 BCE. Christianity was adopted in the fourth century CE, with its cathedral built around the same time. 

The flag of this historic city near the border with Turkey may be more ornate than Denmark's, but there's no mistaking its so-called Nordic cross. 

Across the Caucasus, the flag of Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, is similarly structured, albeit with more sober colors. 

While the historic roots of these Christian emblems are undoubtedly medieval, their revival and rise in popularity dates to the romantic nationalism of the 1800s. 

This is certainly true in Denmark, as its forces tried to wrestle Schleswig-Holstein from German control, the Dannebrog galvanizing a sense of national unity for the Danish kingdom. 

The case of Norway is even more marked. 

The red-and-blue flag that fluttered over Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen's tent, discovered at the South Pole by Captain Scott and his men in 1912, signaled the nation's arrival on the world stage. 

And yet, at the time, the king to whom Amundsen had addressed a letter left inside the tent was Danish. 

The former Prince Carl was given the Old Norse name Haakon, like the last Norwegian monarchs of the 1300s. 

The Norwegian flag he served had not long been purged of Swedish elements before being fully adopted in 1905. 

In the early 1800s, many Norwegians left for a better life in the New World. 

Those who stayed consciously decided 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. 

At the time, Norway was aligned with Sweden in a lopsided union. Educated in London, Meltzer had a cosmopolitan outlook and liberal leanings. 

After Norway's break with Copenhagen in 1814, a temporary flag, an adaptation of the historic Danish one with the rampant golden lion in one corner, came into use. 

However, there were other telling details to this compromise: the dramatic symbol of Norway's golden past was facing the other way, without an axe in its grip. 

The Norwegian press campaigned for change. Answering the call, Fredrik Meltzer got to work. Inspired by the revolutionary ideals of France and America, Meltzer 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. 

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. 

The flag question was heatedly debated in the Storting as Meltzer's creation began to be seen on public buildings around Christiania. 

Today known by its Old Norse name, Oslo, Norway's capital was awash with nationalist sentiment on the day of the 1905 referendum to dissolve the union with Sweden. 

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. 

It was certainly not the one used by their Viking predecessors, whose longships carried a raven banner over the waves to strike fear in foreign lands. 

It is said that the triangular shape with a quarter-moon edge may have symbolized the Norse God Odin, as ravens appear in Old Norse poetry related to warfare. 

Used by Viking chieftains and Scandinavian rulers from the 9th to 11th centuries, the raven banner is described in period sources as a war flag bearing a raven mark, though no visual depiction from the era is known. Illustration: MacRud (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Ravens and yachts 

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

Generations of Norse warriors carried the raven flag into battle at Ashingdon, York, and Stamford Bridge, and it is also depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry

Finland, meanwhile, developed separately from its Nordic neighbors but still shared their Viking heritage. 

After being part of Sweden, it was transferred to the Russian Empire until 1917, when it declared independence amid the chaos of the Russian Revolution. 

And a newly independent nation needs nothing more than its own flag. The origins of Finland's flag, however, are somewhat underwhelming: a yachting club. 

The Suomen lippu, as it is called in Finland, harks back to the Nyländska Jaktklubben, a yachting club established in Helsinki in 1861, with a blue Nordic cross on a white background. 

The blue is said to represent Finland's many lakes, and the white is the snow of the eternal Finnish winter. 

To find out more about the Viking assembly where decisions were made, visit Arkils tingstad as part of the STOEX Viking History Extended tour from Stockholm. 

This branded article was produced in collaboration with STOEX, a partner of The Viking Herald. You can find out more about their Viking and history tours - and book one - here.

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