|History of the Swiss flag|
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This text is reproduced by permission of http://www.atlasgeo.chWhile 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.
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.
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.
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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