History of the Swiss flag
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While Swiss independence and democracy traditionally dates from 1291, people are often surprised to learn that the national flag in its current form dates only from 1889. Modern variations of the flag can be said to go back to 1815, and the original Confederate white cross on a red field dates from the 15th century. Its inspiration perhaps goes back to the 4th century.

Some have postulated that the Swiss flag owes its origin to the vexillum of the Theban Legion of the ancient Roman empire, but any such connection is pretty tenuous. In 302 Mauritius and his Christian legionnaires were executed in Valais for refusing to sacrifice to the Emperor and suppress the local Christians. Long after his death St. Maurice was granted arms of a white cross bottony on a red field (symbolising the shed blood of the legion's martyrs), and the arms of his namesake city (whose monastery was founded in 515) consist of the same cross on a field per pale azure and gules. The arms of Sts. Victor and Ursus, patron saints of Geneva and Solothurn and officers of the Theban Legion, also feature the white cross bottony. (Medieval iconography sometimes depicts St. Maurice's flag and arms as a red cross on a white field, very similar to St. George's.)

Most of the Swiss cantons first earned sovereignty within the Holy Roman Empire, and were granted their banners by the Emperor. Later they banded together in a Confederation which grew from three members in 1291 to thirteen in 1513. By the Peace of Basel in 1499 ending the Swabian War, the Swiss threw off the last vestiges of imperial obligations, and their full independence was recognised in 1648 by the Treaty of Westphalia ending the Thirty Years' War (a war in which the Swiss actually had no part).

The Holy Roman Empire had three banners. The personal banner of the emperor was a black eagle on a yellow field (the eagle evoking continuity with ancient Rome), and these colours can be seen as the inspiration for several cantons (Uri, Bern, Schaffhausen, Geneva). The flag of the Empire was a white cross extending to the edges of a red field, and symbolised the Emperor's role as the protector of Christianity. This eventually became the Empire's war flag, and inspired many other flags in the German and Italian states. A third plain red banner (Blutbann) was displayed when the Emperor administered justice, and thus symbolised his power over life and death. During investitures of vassals, the Emperor granted this flag as a sign that they were empowered to exercise life-and-death justice in the name of the Emperor. When the Emperor granted sovereignty to a city-state, a red flag -- sometimes with white cross -- signified freedom and independence from all temporal powers other than the emperor. This influence can be seen in the flags of Unterwalden, Solothurn, and most notably Schwyz. The Schwyz flag was originally an unadorned red banner, and the assumption that the modern Swiss flag derives from it is incorrect since the Swiss cross was in use by the Confederation about a century before Schwyz added it to its flag.

Some cantonal war flags bore a schwenkel, or long pennant, usually granted by the Emperor as a symbol of sovereignty and high rank within the empire. Zurich's in particular is significant since it was red with a small white cross near the hoist (derived from the imperial banner). This schwenkel was granted in 1273, and Zurich eventually became the most powerful member of the Swiss Confederation, with her military commander holding supreme command over Confederate forces. The schwenkel may have influenced the development of the Swiss cross, but it would be a mistake to assume that other cantons had a red schwenkel or that Zurich's signified its membership in the Swiss alliance.

Triangular confederate flag of 1422 (© T.F. Mills)

While the cantons of the Swiss Confederation went to war flying their individual banners, they soon recognised the need for a common recognition sign, and as early as 1339 at the battle of Laupen, troops wore a long-armed narrow white linen cross stitched on their breasts, sleeves and thighs. Soon afterwards, cantonal detachment started putting this white cross on their cantonal banners. Besides its familiar bear flag, powerful Bern had a red over black guidon, and white cross on the red part of their banner became a major sign of recognition. At the battle of Arbedo in 1422 and quite regularly thereafter, mixed levies from more than one Canton carried red triangular guidons with a white cross (see image on the left). The last time this triangular guidon appeared in battle was in 1540, by which time it was already evolving into a full four-sided flag. All these uses of the Confederate cross became increasingly important since Confederation armies were likely to meet other Swiss mercenary troops in the employ of enemies. But 1540 was also the last time a Swiss confederate army was called out until the French invasion of 1798, so the white cross on a red field disappeared from use. The Confederation remained the loosest and most decentralised of governments, and while it had no flag there remained a state seal recognised throughout Europe as the insignia of the Thirteen Cantons. It was a white cross "traversante" on a red shield, and it came to be known in Switzerland as the "federal cross".

Swiss prowess on the battlefield put them in high demand as mercenaries. The Swiss signed "capitulations" with other countries, enlisting whole regiments of mercenaries. Many of these regiments in the 17th and 18th centuries, especially those in French service, carried flags with the white cross traversante. The quarters created by this cross were not red, but rather filled with all sorts of devices -- usually "flames" in the colours of the colonel's arms.

Honorary federal flag granted to regiments returning from France (© T.F. Mills)

In many ways Switzerland entered the modern era when the French overthrew the flag-less Swiss Confederation in 1798. Switzerland had recalled its French regiments in 1792 when the Swiss Guard was massacred in Paris, but they were disarray six years later, and only Bern resisted the invasion. When France imposed the Helvetic Republic on the Swiss in 1798, they also recruited a Helvetic Legion of four regiments to fight France's wars. While the regiments carried flags with an image of William Tell -- the seal of the Republic -- these flags bore no resemblance to previous Swiss iconography. When the regiments returned home after the fall of Napoleon they became border troops, and the restored Swiss Confederation in 1815 presented each of them with an honorary flag (see image on the right). These flags were an important development in that they represented the first prototype of a modern federal flag. They consisted of a long narrow white cross, couped near the edges of the flag, on a red field. This cross was essentially the centuries-old "confederate" cross, but in its slightly truncated form it prefigured the forthcoming federal cross. Spanning the vertical arms of the cross was a sword wrapped in a laurel vine. The obverse of the horizontal arms featured the motto "Fu"r Vaterland und Ehre" (For Fatherland and Honour) while the reverse contained the text "Schweizerische Eidgenosschenschaft" (Swiss Confederation).

The cantons remained all-powerful and raised their own armies, but since they had their own varied flags and uniforms, a federal armband consisting of a short white cross on a red field was introduced for all troops. This 1815 armband was in effect the precursor of the stocky white cross which would soon appear on the federal flag. Also in 1815 the government of the restored Confederation designed a state seal consisting of the short white cross on a red shield and surrounded by the arms of the twenty-two cantons. (Thus the seal also necessarily "finalised" the form of the cantonal arms.) The cross on the pre-1798 seal had extended to the edges of the shield.

Gen. Dufour's federal flag, proposed in 1817, first flown in 1821, adopted in Aargau in 1833, and in the whole Army in 1840. Cross consists of five equal squares (© T.F. Mills)

General Henri-Guillaume Dufour, charged with training a small federal cadre of troops in 1817, simultaneously championed the idea of a federal flag for Switzerland. He argued that cantons flying the same flag were more likely to feel fraternity and come to each other's aid in times of crisis (which they had failed to do in 1798). This flag (see image on the left) first flew at nationwide military maneuvers in 1821, and gradually caught the popular imagination. It appears to have been in fairly widespread unofficial use by the 1830s. In 1833 Aargau -- one of the new cantons created in 1803 -- scrapped its cantonal war flag in favour of the new federal flag. Other cantons, especially the older ones, resisted surrendering centuries of history to this new federal identity. In 1840 the Diet ruled that the federal flag would replace cantonal war flags for all of Switzerland's armed forces. This flag went to war for the first and only time with Dufour's federal army as it suppressed the Sonderbund forces in the short civil war of 1847. The federal flag consisted of a stocky white cross, made up of five equal squares on a red field. This transformation of the old Confederate cross was probably adopted to avoid confusion with Savoy. The flag was enshrined in the Constitution of 1848, which in effect transformed Switzerland from a loose Confederation into a unitary federal state. So well did it catch on that when the Constitution was rewritten in 1874 no further mention was made of a federal flag.

While it took several decades to adopt the now familiar federal flag, it took a few more to refine it. It was widely criticized as being ugly, and beginning in 1880 a sometimes vehement debate broke out in the press. Finally in 1889 the Federal Assembly ruled that Switzerland was keeping its white cross, but that it would be changed from the five equal squares to one in which the arms were one sixth longer than they were wide. This last change in the flag actually brought it into conformity with the cross on the state seal of 1815.

It is evident from its history that the Swiss national flag evolved from war flags, which is why it is square. That distinction among the world's nations is shared only with the Vatican, which is ironically the only state for which Switzerland still permits mercenary service.

Switzerland has no Presidential flag, but during national crises the Federal Assembly appoints an overall commanding general with extraordinary emergency powers. As a sign of this authority, the general receives a special standard. It is an unadorned national flag with red and white fringe, identical to a cavalry guidon. The last such flag was carried by General Henri Guisan during the mobilisation of 1939-1945.

T.F. Mills, 14 November 1997

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