On a red field, a white equilateral cross whose arms are one sixth
longer than their width. The relationship between the span of the
cross and the width of the flag has not been established, but in
practice the ratio is about 2:3 or 7:10.
The relative dimensions of the cross are defined in Article 1 of Federal Order #111 on the arms of the
Helvetic Confederation (12 December 1889).
Unlike most flags of the world, the Swiss flag is square. This was an issue when Switzerland joined the
UN in 2002, as all the flags displayed on UN Plaza should have the same size. The UN first had a
rectangular flag, but the Swiss mission protested. Eventually the UN accepted a Swiss square flag.
But, in order to have a flag that is not too small, the flag displayed on UN Plaza has the same area of a
image by Željko Heimer Source: [pay00] (left),
The ratio between of the cross span to the flag width is not established by law, but these two layouts
show how common practice may have changed over time. The flag on the left (from Album 2000
[pay00]) has a ratio of 20:32=62.5%, while the flag on the right
(from Flaggenbuch 1939 [neu39]) has a ratio of 80:110=72.7%.
In both cases, the 6:7 ratio specified in 1889 that defines the relative dimensions of the white cross is
The divisions along an edge of the 2000 version (6-7-6-7-6) are the same as those along the shorter axis
of the Swiss naval ensign, whose construction details were set by law in
Željko Heimer, 30 January 2003
The protocol manual for the London 2012 Olympics (Flags
and Anthems Manual London 2012) provides recommendations for national flag
designs. Each NOC was sent an image of the flag, including the PMS shades, for
their approval by LOCOG. Once this was obtained, LOCOG produced a 60 x 90 cm
version of the flag for further approval. So, while these specs may not be the
official, government, version of each flag, they are certainly what the NOC
believed the flag to be. For Switzerland: PMS 485 red. The vertical flag is
simply the horizontal version turned 90 degrees clockwise (in 3:5 / 5:3 format,
of course, like all Olympic flags). Ian Sumner, 10 October 2012
The Swiss cross on a red field ultimately derives from a similar
banner of the Holy Roman Empire, and thus has strong Christian
connotations. The Swiss flag traditionally stands for freedom, honour
and fidelity (The motto Honor et Fidelitas was inscribed on the
cross of several Swiss mercenary flags of the 18th century). In
modern times, through association with consistent Swiss policy, the
flag has also come to denote neutrality, democracy, peace and refuge.
See also an article from Construire,
reporting views of Swiss citizens on the meaning of the national flag. T.F. Mills, 14 November 1997
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 (see relative page).
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
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 [See also: Der Schwenkel, by Günter Mattern,
and Über die
eidgenössischen Kriegsfahnen und das Glarner Fahnenbuch, by Eduard A. Gessler (both in German)].
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). 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.
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). 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 contained the text "Schweizerische Eidgenossenschaft" (Swiss Confederation),
while the reverse featured the motto "FÜR VATERLAND UND EHRE" (For Fatherland and Honour).
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.
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) 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 [Example: Federal mail coach
shield from 1848. From 1848 the postal service was organized on national level (source)].
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 [For more about those events see Langendorf SO].
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.
[For more info about the history of the Swiss flag see also links and images on
Swiss Army flags]
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
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
T.F. Mills, 14 November 1997
Another postulated explanation for the origin of the Swiss flag is that during the resistance against
the Austrians, the early Swiss (mostly peasants in arms) used to stitch two stripes of white fabrics on
their clothes to recognize each other during combat. From this, the white cross became the symbol of the
Swiss. The red color (imperial color) came later, as it was "granted" by the Austrian Emperor. Jacques F. Baud, 7 December 2002
Mühlemann [mue91] states with "high probability" a connection
between the federal cross and the cult of the Ten Thousand Knights. The martyrs of the
Theban Legion later were added with this designation to the martyrology of the occidental Church.
The abbey of Saint-Maurice (Valais) owes its foundation to the veneration of those martyrs.
Since the Early Middle Ages the veneration of the Theban martyrs Mauritius (St. Maurice), Victor and Ursus
is proven in the Swiss realm which makes the connection to the events of the 4th century. Ursus and Victor
are said to have fled and been executed in Solothurn. Those three saints often are depicted on church
devices, reliquaries, seals and altar pieces. Since the beginning of heraldry fictitious flags have been
associated to those saints (as it was a usual practice in other European countries). Most depictions show
a white cross on a red field which is either extending to the edges (for Mauritius and Ursus) or a cross
bottony (for Mauritius and Victor) (p. 13). Notwithstanding Mühlemann doesn't exclude the possibility
that the war banner of the Holy Roman Empire (white cross on red field) could have influenced too the
early Swiss when they chose a white cross (p. 14). Martin Karner, 4 December 2022
General 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.
Flaggen, Knatterfahnen and Livery Colours
images by Pascal Gross
Flaggen are vertically hoisted from a crossbar in the manner of gonfanon, in ratio of about 2:9,
with a swallowtail that indents about 2 units. The chief, or hoist (square part) usually incorporates the
design from the coat of arms – not from the flag. The fly part is always divided lengthwise,
usually in a bicolour, triband or tricolour pattern (except Schwyz which
is monocolour, and Glarus which has four stripes of unequal width).
The colours chosen for the fly end are usually the main colours of the coat of arms, but the choice is
not always straight forward.
Knatterfahnen are similar to Flaggen, but hoisted from the long side and have no swallow
tail. They normally show the national, cantonal or communal flag in their chiefs.
Željko Heimer, 16 July 2000