In the grand scheme of history, the concept of a national flag as we know it is relatively new. By the time that most countries had picked their flags, record keeping had become standard practice. This makes tracing the history behind a national flag relatively easy in a lot of cases. However, there are some flags whose history and symbolism predate written record or records of it simply do not exist. The flag of the Isle of Man (the Manx Flag), a small, self-governed British dependency located in the Irish Sea, is one of the latter flags.
The main feature of the Manx flag, the three joined legs, is a type of triskele, which is a symbol consisting of three bent or curved lines emanating from a central point. The triskele, in its simplest form, is one of the first symbols created by man. The symbol’s first use is believed to have been in Malta between 4400 – 3600 BC, but its use spanned prehistoric Europe, from Ireland (3200 BC) to present day Turkey (370-333 BC).
One of the oldest uses of a triskele depicting human legs bent at the knee was as an ancient symbol of the island of Sicily when it was a colony of Greece in the 8th century BC. Sicily’s triskele depicts the three legs emanating from the winged head of Medusa. According to Roman author Pliney the Elder, the symbol represented the triangular shape of the island.
It is not known for sure how the triskele came to the Isle of Man, but its first known uses trace back to the 13th century. Some say it came with the Vikings who settled the the Isle of Man and several other islands off of the west coast of Scotland and England. However, the Vikings settled on those islands around the 8th century and eventually ceded them to Scotland in 1266 as a part of the Treaty of Perth, which is about the time the oldest known triskele has been traced to. The theory I support was first proposed in the 1880’s and ties the Manx symbol to Sicily. Around the time of the Treaty of Perth, Prince Edmund Crouchback of England had a claim to the throne of Sicily (through some shady dealings by his father with the Catholic Church). Edmund never ended up taking the Sicilian throne, but it’s a good bet that he had at least one Sicilian triskele around. It was around this time that a young King Alexander III of Scotland visited London. It is likely that Alexander was exposed to the triskele for the first time during his trip and adapted it to his newly acquired Isle of Man.
Exact dates of the triskele’s first use on a Manx flag are just as murky as the symbol’s origins, but sources tend to agree that they were between the 1840s -1850s. The first confirmation we have of a Manx ship flying a red British ensign defaced with the triskele come from an 1888 letter from the British Consul in Dunkirk writing to the Foreign Office describing such a flag and asking, “Was this allowed?”
Not even the date of the flag’s official adoption as the official Manx flag is known for sure. Different sources list 1929, 1931, 1932, and 1933 as possible years the flag was adopted. Whatever the date, the first official flag is said to have had the legs “running” in a counter-clockwise motion. The change to a clockwise rotation took place in 1968 and is the present version of the flag.
The legislature of Isle of Man, known as the High Court of Tynwald, adopted its own flag in 1971. It is said to be taken from the former coat of arms of the Kings of Man and is known as the MacDonald flag. The High Court of Tynwald claims to be the oldest legislative body in the world.
In addition to the Manx and Sicilian flags, the flag of Füssen, a town in Bavaria, Germany, also features a triskele composed of bent legs.