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Unterwalden canton (Switzerland)

Last modified: 2024-01-13 by martin karner
Keywords: switzerland | unterwalden | german |
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[Flag of Unterwalden] image by António Martins

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Description of the flag

Left (Obwalden): Per fess gules and argent, overall a key in pale ward up countercoloured.
Divided horizontally into equal parts, the upper red and the lower white, with superimposed a key white in the red part of the field and red in the white part of the field with its ward turned toward the hoist.

Right (Nidwalden): Gules, a double-key in pale wards up and addorsed argent.
On a red field, a white upright key with two shanks facing outwards and connected to one grip.

The style of the keys can vary on any given flag. Originally the grip of the Nidwalden key was always lozenge-shaped, called a Kraepfligriff (as shown in the FOTW version). The combined Canton flag and arms (as in the FOTW version) shows the two whole ones impaled, i.e. divided vertically with Obwalden in the hoist and Nidwalden in the fly. During the 17th and 18th centuries the combined Unterwalden shield consisted of the Nidwalden double-key on the red and white field of Obwalden.
T.F. Mills, 16 October 1997

Symbolism of the flag

The keys are the emblem of St. Peter, the patron saint of the parish church of Stans, the capital of Nidwalden and the whole of Unterwalden. The red and white colours are thought to come from the personal standard of the Holy Roman Emperor (a white cross on a red field). The colours had the usual Biblical symbolism of blood, passion, sacrifice (red) and purity, chastity, cleansing, hope (white).
T.F. Mills, 16 October 1997

History of the flag

The two valleys of Obwalden and Nidwalden had a troubled rivalry for many centuries. Both gained sovereignty within the Holy Roman Empire in 1241, but Obwalden dominated Nidwalden for much of the middle ages. Nidwalden was a co-founder of the Swiss Confederation on 1 August 1291, but there is some disagreement among historians whether Obwalden joined a few months later or not until 1307. Obwalden's battle flag (whose first recorded use was 1309) remained until 1816 plain red and white without the key, and most of the time Nidwalden was forced to fight under this same banner. Nidwalden's double-key flag dates from about 1241, but did not appear on the battlefield until 1422. The two Cantons were united at the beginning of the 14th century, but separated again in 1432. The Nidwalden flag did not reassert itself until 1505.

According to legend the Nidwalden key was granted by Pope Anastasius in 388 for their defence of Rome, but this is highly doubtful. It is quite probable however that the Nidwalden double key was indeed inspired by the papal keys. Today the two papal keys are crossed saltirewise, but they were originally displayed vertically "palewise" much like the Nidwalden double-key. The doubling of a charge was much practiced in the Middle Ages (most notably with two-headed eagles), probably to achieve symmetry. In 1798 Nidwalden found itself alone resisting the French invasion, with no assistance from its neighbours. Embittered by this experience, they refused to join the new Swiss Confederation in 1815 for about a month. Due to this delay, Obwalden officially ranks as the third canton and Nidwalden as the fourth. The impaled version (side by side) of the joint Unterwalden arms and flag dates from 1816.
T.F. Mills, 16 October 1997

Since the adoption of the new Constitution in 1999, there isn't anymore any "half-canton". The effective difference between a full and a half canton is the fact that a "half-canton" has only one representative in the Swiss States Council while the other cantons have two. In the new Constitution, the old "half-cantons" are listed as those cantons that have only one representative (Basel-Stadt, Baselland, Appenzell Innerrhoden, Appenzell Ausserrhoden, Nidwalden and Obwalden).
Pascal Prince, 24 August 2007

In fact the term "half-canton" (or semi-canton) was never in the Swiss Constitution (although it was used in official documents and legislative texts). The only thing that changed in 1999 was that the half-cantons were now called cantons, even officially. However, the actual status of these cantons has not changed since 1848 (the new federal state). Although only represented with one vote in the State Chamber (Ständerat), they always had the same status as a full canton. Regardless of this, the term "half-canton" is used unchanged in the population and in the geographical and cultural context (i.e. also in vexillology).
The common flag depicted here has only a cultural (and sometimes military) meaning, but no political one. Since the partition there has been no political entity named "Unterwalden canton" or "State of Unterwalden" (This also applies to the other "common flags" of the half-cantons, see Appenzell and Basel).
Martin Karner, 11 January 2023

The concept of half-cantons is indeed somewhat strange and only understandable against the backgound of Swiss history. As T.F. Mills mentions above, the divided cantons have a past when they weren't divided. The causes of partition were different. In the case of Unterwalden they aren't known exactly, the geografy which separates those two lands in two parts may have been one of the reasons.
The other states/cantons didn't accept that the new formed cantons had each two representatives in the Assembly of the Confederation (Tagsatzung) because that would have doubled their weight in comparison to the situation before the partition. Therefore the new cantons had to limit themselves to send only one delegate each to the Assembly. So the old balance of power was maintained. Thus came the notation "half-canton", it's referring only to the half representation in the Assembly (today: Council of States, Ständerat) but not to their status as a full member of the Confederation.
Martin Karner, 11 January 2023

"Unter" in "Unterwalden" is not the opposite of "Ober" (upper, over), but comes from inter (Latin: between). In the Late Middle Ages the name in Latin was Inter Silvas (between the woods). –
Obwalden had for a long time the right to represent both Ob- and Nidwalden with its flag and arms, when there was only space for one emblem (on a flag or picture). When they went to war together, the Nidwaldners had to case their colours in favour of the Obwalden banners.
Martin Karner, 26 November 2023

[Stained glass plate (1557) of Unterwalden, by Carl von Egeri. CoA of Ob- and Nidwalden, flag of Obwalden, which stood for both cantons during military campaigns. Location: monastery of Muri (source). –
This stained glass plate (1606) shows the other way of displaying Unterwalden, if only one CoA is possible: The common CoA shows the divided shield of Obwalden and the double key of Nidwalden. This kind of common emblem was usual from 1600 to 1815. From 1816 onwards the combined emblem with both keys has been used. The depicted flag of Obwalden stood for both lands, as in the previous example. Location: town hall, Luzern (source)]

Original Kräpfligriff grip

[Original Kraepfligriff flag] image by António Martins

Original Kräpfligriff Nidwalden's grip.

Pre-1816 key on red-white

[Pre-1816 Nidwalden flag] image by António Martins

Pre-1816 Nidwalden key on red-white.

Pre-1816 key on white-red

[Pre-1816 Nidwalden flag] image by António Martins

Pre-1816 Nidwalden key on white-red.

Colour Flag

[Colour Flag UW] image by Ole Andersen

Simple rectangular cantonal flag, as shown in Kannik (1956). Common for both half-cantons [So-called colour flag (Farbenfahne in German)].
Ole Andersen, 4 August 2002

Early 20th century flag design

              images located by Martin Karner
(Postmark: 1908 | source)                                                    (source)                                                  (source)

At the beginning of the 20th century, flamed flags were still in use, with the white cross replaced by a (baroque) shield in the centre of the flag. These decorative flags had been used until WWII and then somewhat forgotten in preference of the current cantonal flags. [Today they are being produced again, see images on the right]
Pascal Gross, 30 June 2002

See also:   - Other examples of "Early 20th century flag design": CH, AG, AI, AR, BE, BL, BS, FR, GE, GL, GR, JU, LU, NE, SG, SH, SO, SZ, TG, TI, UR, VD, VS, ZG, ZH
                 - Modern flamed flags