CultureHistory of Europe

The Strange Case of Belgium’s Unconstitutional Flag

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The Belgian flag as we know it today – composed of a black, yellow, and red vertical stripe – is actually unconstitutional. You may be thinking: how hard can it possibly be to follow the instructions written in the Constitution? If people today can manage to build do-it-yourself IKEA furniture correctly, then surely this can’t be that hard? Well, it’s a bit more complicated than just the government giving wrong instructions to its flag manufacturers. Here’s an account of how this peculiar situation came to be!

A brief history of the Belgian flag

Before the 1830 Belgian revolution and the subsequent establishment of an independent Kingdom, the territories which now compose Belgium passed hands several times. As a result, the official flag of these territories shifted quickly, changing with every ruler. While it was part of Lotharingia, the medieval successor kingdom of the Carolingian Empire, the flag was two horizontal red stripes separated by a white one. When it later passed into Spanish hands, the red cross of Burgundy became a familiar sight together with yellow and red – the official colours of Spain.

Flag of the Austrian Netherlands (SOURCE: Mario Fabretto & Mark Sensen)
Flag of the Austrian Netherlands (SOURCE: Mario Fabretto & Mark Sensen)

When Austria acquired those territories in 1714, it initially tried several different flags. It eventually settled on three red, white and yellow horizontal stripes and a black double-headed eagle as the flag for its occupied territories. The population grew increasingly discontent under this rule, and in 1789 this culminated in an armed rebellion which took the name of Brabant Revolution. This had emerged mainly in opposition to the liberal reforms of Emperor Joseph II, which were perceived as an attack on the Catholic Church and traditional institutions.

Following what France had done during its revolts, the people started wearing red, yellow and black cockades to support the insurrection – the colours being those of the Duchy of Brabant. Its coat of arms was in fact a golden lion with red claws and tongue on a black field. When the revolution culminated in the very brief existence of the United States of Belgium in 1790, its flag consisted of a red, yellow and black horizontal stripe in clear reference to the facts leading up to the formation of this federation.

Unfortunately, that didn’t last and the Austrian rule was re-established before the year was out. The territories that form modern Belgium kept changing ownership, and were ruled in quick succession by the French and then by the United Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1815, changing flags once again. It was under the latter control that another – this time successful – rebellion started and the flag changed for the last time.

The Belgian Revolution and the adoption of the current flag

The regional tensions between the Southern and Northern provinces of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands soon grew too much to bear. In August 1830, these exploded in riots which had their epicentre in Brussels. In remembrance of the old independence fights, the insurgents had hastily made and flown the Brabant Revolt flag from the newly liberated city hall. Contemporarily, Édouard Ducpétiaux and Lucien Jottrand had created a new flag – one which changed the stripes from horizontal to vertical in deference to the French flag which had inspired their own riots. The so-called Belgian Revolution eventually lead to the secession of the Southern states into an independent Kingdom of Belgium.

Scheme of the history of Belgium's flag
Scheme of the history of Belgium’s flag

When the Constitution was ratified, article 193 specified that the official colours of Belgium were to be red, yellow, and black. The horizontal and vertical stripes coexisted for some years, until eventually the vertical stripes prevailed. However, what proved to be more confusing was not the direction of the stripes, but the order of the colours. As scholars have pointed out, it has always been tradition that colours were to be positioned on the flag pole in the same order as they are were presented in the description. Thus, in theory, the flag of Belgium should be red, yellow and black starting from the pole. And yet, to this day, the flag is black at the pole, yellow in the middle, and red at the fly.

Whether this was interpreted wrongly initially and nobody ever noticed, or whether the Constitution was wilfully broken since 1831 is unknown. However, what can be said is that notwithstanding the numerous amendments made to the Constitution, nobody has ever bothered correcting this particular even after all this time. This makes Belgium what is maybe the only country in the world to have a flag which is flagrantly not in line with its own Constitution.


Did you enjoy reading this article? You may also like When Denmark Was Invaded by Nazi Germany or How the Bull Became the Symbol of Europe.

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Eleonora Di Franco

Law student at the University of York by day, plotting European federalisation by night. Also an aspiring academic.

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