Armies Battles and Sieges Colours and Standards








Örjan Martinsson

The most valuable possessions a regiment owned were their colours which were carried in every battle and marked the place of each unit in the battlefield. The colours were made with expensive material and artistic decorations in order to show the status of the regiment. To lose the colours was a great shame and conquering the enemy's colours was a great honour. For this reason it was usually near the colours where the hardest fighting occurred and soldiers were required to swear an oath to never abandon the colours.

Depending on troop type the colours had different shape and size. The infantry colours were very large. In the Swedish army during the Great Northern War, these were in average 1.84 metre high and 2.16 metre wide. The cavalry colours were square shaped and considerably smaller, each side of the square just little more than a half metre long. The Swedish cavalry also usually had two different motifs on the obverse and reverse side of the standards, i.e. a provincial coat of arms on the obverse and the royal cypher on the reverse side. This arrangement was also true for the dragoons who officially was mounted infantry but in practise functioned as cavalry. The dragoon colours had however a different shape and size of their colours. These were swallow tailed and had a height of about a metre and a slightly longer width.

Regardless of troop type each Swedish company had their own colour during the Great Northern War, which meant that a typical regiment would have eight colours or standards. Seven of these were called company colours or company standards while the colonel's company ("livkompaniet") had a "livfana" or "livstandar" (= colonel's colour) which was always white. After the Great Northern War the number of colours was reduced to two per battalion (which consisted of four companies) while the cavalry and dragoons continued to have one colour for each company. Then in the 19th century the number of infantry colours was yet again cut in half so that each battalion would carry just one colour. Later it was decided that all regiments would only have one colour each, but at that time the colours had for a long time only had symbolic importance.

However, during the Great Northern War the colours were still of great importance. And in an age where it was hard to find reliable information about the outcome of a battle, the number of conquered colours were compelling evidence of victory which were presented to the people and foreign ambassadors. Likewise, it was hard to conceal defeat when an army had lost many colours.

In Sweden it was for a long time the regimental commanders who decided on how the colours were to be designed. But in the 1670s the colour patterns became regulated by the king, which resulted in the wide scale use of provincial coat of arms in the Swedish colours and standards. The most famous of these regulations was the one from 1686 which more or less would remain in use until 1766. Alongside the regulations, model drawings of the colours and standards were produced as an aide to manufacturers. The preserved model drawings are part of the Swedish War Archive's collection "fanritningar" which I have photographed and published on this website (see links in the left column).

It was however not always the case that the colours conformed to the model drawings so the preserved colours and standards need to be studied as well. Complete lists of preserved colours and standards can also be found in the left column and for those that are a part of the Swedish Army Museum's collection I have also added links showing how they looked. I hope that other museums will digitalise their collections as well so that I can add links top their colours too.

The images above are the model drawings showing how Nyland Cavalry Regiment's standards should look like according to m/1686. The two red to the left show the obverse and reverse side of the company standards. The white standard to the right is the colonel's standard which like all m/1686 colonel's colours and standards contained the Swedish coat of arms in the centre and the individual regiment's provincial coat of arms in the upper inner corner.