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.
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.
By the 15th century, the Swiss military prowess recommended them to the princes of Europe forever in need of professional soldiers.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
And that is why the Swiss flag is square.