Today the red flag has, predominantly, become a symbol of socialism and communism. Its European origins date back to the Middle Ages, when a red streamer flying from the mast of a warship signalled a willingness to fight to the death, with no surrender. But its radical political roots lie firmly in the Age of Revolution.
During the early days of the French Revolution (1789 – 1799) the red flag was adopted by the Jacobins (the more extreme revolutionaries), and was presented as their statement of a willingness to die as martyrs to the cause. During the Reign of Terror (1793 – 94) it came to symbolise the martial law of the people in their fight against oppression. The red flag became part of the development of new national emblems for France (including the republican cockade), and was soon taken up by revolutionaries elsewhere.
In 1797, red flags were hoisted to indicate solidarity during the Nore Mutiny in England, when naval ships blockaded the Thames and refused to put to sea in protest for better pay and working conditions. In 1831, some 7,000 – 10,000 men and women rallied under the red flag during the Merthyr Rising in Wales, with the angry crowd protesting against the exploitation of workers by industry owners (the radicals reportedly killed a calf and dipped the white cloth of a reform flag in its blood.) In the early 1800s, revolutionary groups in South America also flew it during their defiant struggles for independence from Spanish Rule.
In 1848, a wave of revolution spread from Paris across Europe. In France, the monarchy was finally overthrown once-and-for-all and the country became a republic once again. Famously, the red flag was presented to Alphonse Lamartine, the politician responsible for the establishment of the Second Republic, as a symbol of protest. He rejected it because of its association with violence and bloodshed, and insisted that the Tricolour must remain the flag of France.
Did you know..?
The red flag was the emblem of the British Labour Party from its beginnings in 1900 until 1986, when it was replaced by a red rose. The song ‘The Red Flag’ is still sung at the close of its annual party conference.
Use our Classroom activities to investigate the red flag and its revolutionary themes further.
The red flag is an important symbol from the Age of Revolution, but we have been unable to find a Museum that includes one in its collection. We would love to hear from you if know where we could find one…
Sources & acknowledgements
This object description and its related educational resources were researched and written by our team of historians and education specialists. For further information see the item’s home museum, gallery or archive, listed above.