The Abridged Story of the Swiss Square Flag

Normal national colours are rectangular and let’s put it this way… peaceful. That is not the case with the Swiss national colours. Here follows the extraordinary journey of the Swiss flag.

Depicted: the Swiss Pantone 485 C Red. The approved colour of the Swiss Confederation’s flag.

Our story begins in the Middle Ages, up in the Alps, where a burgeoning community of like minded shepherds and farmers assembled around their local banners some 729 summers ago, at the beginning of August, in the Year of our Lord 1291.

Werner Stauffacher for SchwyzWalter Fürst for Uri and Arnold of Melchtal for Unterwalden swearing the Eternal Oath at Rutli Meadow (Rütlischwur) in 1307, consecrating the alliance of their Valleys.
A composite cantonal war banner. Note its square shape.
This is the story of Switzerland’s humble beginnings.
“IN THE NAME OF GOD – AMEN. Honour and the public weal are promoted when leagues are concluded for the proper establishment of quiet and peace.” thus read the Federal Charter of 1291, the most important political declaration of the Middle Ages. It affirmed the right of men to assemble and maintain their God given natural freedom against everybody and anybody.
At the Battle of Laupen (1339), the Eidgenossen or Confederates started wearing red bands bearing the white cross on their arms to be able to tell friend from foe in the thick of battle.
I do love me those Swiss halberds. One day, I’ll get myself one no matter what.

By the 15th century, the Swiss military prowess recommended them to the princes of Europe forever in need of professional soldiers.

Early 16th century depiction of a knight in Milanese armour, an Imperial pistolero, and a Swiss halberdier.

Forget the pistolero or the gens d’armes… check that halberd wielding Switzer. The strongest Swiss Reislaufer would be able to cleave an armoured knight and his horse in two.

Swiss infantry going to Italy for some spoils. Quick in and out. Late 15th to early 16th centuries. Notice the white cross banner resembling that of modern Scandinavia.
The famous 19th-century painting of Winkelried’s deed by Swiss master painter Konrad Grob (1828-1904).

This is Arnold Winkelried sacrificing his life so that his Eidgenossen could break through the armoured ranks and pikes of the Austrian at the battle of Sempach in 1386. Notice the white cross on the leg of the dead Swiss Eidgenossen.

Battle of Laupen (1339). Note the white cross on the Confederates’ military garb.

Truth of the matter is that the Swiss flag is not a regular flag. It is in fact a war flag or banner.

As a matter of fact, the Old Swiss Confederacy (1291–1515) was a very loose federation of urban and rural cantons. Each canton had its own war banners and flags it carried into battle. The white cross over a square red background has its origins in the middle ages, when the troops of the Holy Roman Empire used to carry a flag depicting the cross as a holy sign, a symbol of its mission as a protector of Christianity. In addition to this, the Empire also used a blood-red flag signifying the imperial high and low power, including over life and death.

Some samples of medieval blazons. Heraldry was a medieval art that, by late Middle Ages, gave itself scientific airs. One can easily understand the appeal of interpreting the various colour and symbol combinations, which represented a vast plethora of noble families as well as communities aspiring to statehood and recognition.

Sometimes, particular cities or states would receive the special honor of carrying such flags, from the Holy Roman Emperor. Examples of such political entities: dukes of Savoy, City of Vienna, Scandinavian countries and the U.K.

If you were really fortunate and managed to get on the right side of the Emperor, you would also be granted the imperial immediacy or direct subordination under the Emperor’s jurisdiction. This would undermine and skirt the jurisdiction of counts, and provide direct access for Swiss cantons and cities to the Emperor. The latter would often grant the founding Swiss cantons the right to bear a cross on one’s coat of arms and on their flags, which were war flags and hence had to be square.

The region of Schwyz in central Switzerland is one of the three founding members of the Old Swiss Confederacy (alongside Uri and Unterwald). Schwyz, which would later give out its eponymous name to the Swiss Confederation, received the Imperial immediacy in 1240, and carried a red flag from the middle of the 13th century, but without the white cross.

In 1289, Schwyz supported militarily king Rudolf of Habsburg in a war against Bohemia, and received in recompense the augmentation of a crucifixion of Christ and the tools used to torture him in the upper right fields of their red square war flag. Originally they painted this symbol on parchment and fastened it on the banner. Only later the cross symbol was painted directly on the banner.

Since the Confederation received new members every 20–40 years, the more they had a problem with battlefield recognition due to inconsistent uniforms. At the battle of Laupen in 1339, the troops of the Swiss Confederation fastened white stripes forming crosses on their breasts, backs, shoulders, arms, legs, hats and weapons.

The Swiss after the battle of Sempach (1386). See the war square banners.

Later on, in the middle of the 15th century, the white cross was integrated into the flags of all cantons of the Confederacy. Originally, the cross reached to the edge of the banner like in the Scandinavian flags.

The Swiss kneeling before the battle of Grandson (1476). See the war square banners. They got bigger, right!
A simplified look at the 26 cantonal flags. Switzerland comprises of 23 cantons and 3 halb-kantone, half-cantons or doubles as I call them: Unterwalden is divided between Nidwalden and Obwalden, Appenzell is divided between Outer and Inner A., and canton Basel is divided between Stadt or City and Land or rural. Each valley has its own accent and regional flavour. Before one is Swiss, one is from Thurgau or Geneva first.

The Swiss flag represents liberty, freedom and the pursuit of happiness more than any other flag. It represents a people who would not bow to oppression no matter what.

In 1864, during the First Geneva Convention, the inversion of the Swiss flag gave the Red Cross flag.

The Swiss War Flag waving happily in the wind coming down the Matterhorn.

And that is why the Swiss flag is square.

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