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Swiss Mercenary Flags

Last modified: 2024-05-25 by martin karner
Keywords: switzerland | mercenary | war flag | flame | swiss guard |
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[Regiment de Meuron flag] image by T.F. Mills

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Description of the Mercenary Flags

Flamed flags have a long tradition in Switzerland. For those who never saw such a flag: the flames a kind of wavy rays from the center to the edge of the flag. They usually come in two or three colors.
These flags were mainly used by Swiss mercenary troops. Here the colors of the commander of a regiment (usually a Swiss noble) were arranged in such flames. The last (and only) mercenary regiment still in service is the Swiss Guard in Vatican.
The cantonal flags do not have any official standing, nevertheless they are seen quite often because of their attractive design. Here the cantonal arms are placed on a two-color flamed background. The colors are usually the ones of the arms
A beautiful book illustrating cantonal banners in the flame style is Flottez Drapeaux! (Fly flags!) by E.A. Gessler (Zurich: Editions Fraumunster, 1943). [ges43]
T.F. Mills, 14 May 1996

History of the Mercenary Flags

The wavy flames radiating from the center originated in the 16th century. In Switzerland proper cantonal flags predominated over the confederate white cross, but in mercenary service the units were mixed and of little cantonal significance.
The Swiss Guards Regiment in France (which was massacred in the August 1792 assault on the Tuilleries, an event commemorated by the Lion Monument in Lucerne) had a rainbow design of black, blue, yellow and red rays.
The de Meuron Regiment, which served the British in India and America from 1795 to 1816 had similar rays in all cantons but the first which was the UJ (altered in 1801 to include the St. Patrick saltire).
French regiments of the 18th century borrowed the Swiss cross and put their own regional devices in the cantons.
T.F. Mills, 14 May 1996

Swiss Guard

The Swiss Guard does not have a regimental flag any more, but I think the colors of the uniforms go back to such a flag.
Harald Müller, 14 May 1996

If the Guard no longer has a flag, that is relatively recent. I think each pope presented a new one. There is one hanging in the Musée des Suisses au Service Etranger near Geneva. It consists of the Swiss white cross extended to the edges, the arms of Colonel Pfyffer d'Altishofen in the 1st quarter, the arms of Pius XII (1939–1958) in the 4th, and horizontal rays in the colors of the Guard uniform.
T.F. Mills, 14 May 1996

The Swiss were a special class of mercenaries, because they belonged to Switzerland first and secondarily to their foreign employer. In 1515 at the battle of Marignan two Swiss armies did each other considerable damage. Some time later the Swiss negotiated "military capitulations" with other countries whereby mercenary regiments enjoyed unusual extra-territorial rights. The units flew their own Swiss flags, were officered only by Swiss, the men were subject to Swiss law, and Switzerland reserved the right forbid mercenary regiments from participating in campaigns which might bring them into battle with other Swiss units. Swiss regiments in France were essentially Swiss colonies, and legally not considered mercenaries.

A few days ago, I posted the flag of the "Cent Suisses", the French King's company of Swiss guards. That company belonged to a larger regiment called the "Regiment des Gardes-Suisses". The Swiss "mercenaries" were temporarily engaged for campaigns until 1616 when this permanent regiment was formed from the Gallati Regiment. The "Cent Suisses" guarded the King inside the royal residence and the "Gardes-Suisses" mounted guard outside the building. On 10 August 1792 the Paris mob stormed the Tuilleries Palace where the Swiss were guarding the King and killed some 600 Swiss (at a cost to themselves of 3000). On 3 September, 156 Swiss prisoners were slaughtered. When Switzerland heard the news, they withdrew all their other regiments from France. The Lion Monument in Lucerne commemorates this Swiss tragedy.

[Swiss guard flag] image by T.F. Mills

The Regiment de Gardes Suisses had six flags. I think they were identical, but they probably evolved over time. Attached is a GIF of one representation I have seen. It has the typical white Swiss cross "traversante" and thirteen "piles wavy" in each quarter. I have seen another version with only nine stripes per quarter, and a small fleur de lys at the end of each arm of the cross. A white cravat tied to the pike signified that the regiment was in the service of France.
T.F. Mills, 26 July 1997

The standard of the Swiss guard of the King of France is mentioned in Neubecker (1932). This flag is a flaming flag, with a white cross (arms approximately 1 in 12) with each quarter containing 9 flames: the outer two black and the others alternating gold and red. The black flames are half as wide as the other flames, and at the edges half as wide as the cross arms.
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg
, 6 July 2002