Swiss National Day

The Swiss national coat of arms is exceptional. Not only is it clean and straightforward, but it’s so iconic that when the first international organization to nurse wounded soldiers was founded, they got their symbol (and name) from swapping the Swiss arms’ tinctures. It’s so famous that I feel a little ridiculous linking to it and giving its classic blazon of gules a cross couped argent. It’s so famous that the actual charge of a cross couped is sometimes known as the “Swiss cross.”

It’s not entirely clear which came first, the flag or the arms, but it kind of looks like the flag wins this one. The first documented use of the flag is from the Battle of Arbedo in 1422, while the first use of the arms (i.e. the design specifically on a shield) was on coins minted in 1533. It is possible that the arms were used in the Battle of Laupen in 1339, but I can’t find any direct evidence of that. This makes a certain amount of sense to me; arms tended to be personal, but flags aren’t necessarily as exclusive. The white-cross-on-red device seems to have originated as a symbol for the Old Swiss Confederacy that could be used by any of the member cantons, as opposed to the arms of a specific family. 

The Confederacy knew a good thing when it saw one, and the Swiss cross keeps showing up over the next 250 years, until – you probably know what’s coming – Napoleon. I acknowledge that he was probably the most brilliant general of his day, and an excellent politician and administrator, but the man had terrible taste in heraldry. From 1798 through 1803, the cross was supplanted by a seal depicting William Tell. I can’t decide if it got better or worse from 1803 through 1814; the Napoleonic Swiss Confederation used a plain shield with “XIX. Kantone” written on it, which is just kind of sad.

Mercifully, after the fall of the French Empire, the Federal Diet of Switzerland had the good sense to go back to the classic design, and it’s stuck around ever since. There was a brief kerfluffle in the late 1800s over whether the cross should be made up of five equal squares, or have a height/width ratio of 7:6, so the arms of the cross are slightly higher than they are wide. The 7:6 ratio was officially established in 1889, the same year the Federal Council published a history of the arms.

One final thing I want to mention: it’s fairly common to see heraldic arrangements of several coats of arms of component states surrounding the arms of the larger organization. The Holy Roman Empire did this a lot, and it also comes up occasionally in modern heraldry, with, say, the arrondissements of Paris surrounding the Parisian coat of arms, or the German national arms in the center of its states. The cantons of Switzerland are no exception. There are some records from the early sixteenth century showing the canton arms around the arms of the Holy Roman Empire, but 1547 marks the first recorded use of the Swiss cross as the central arms. I think that’s a pretty good marker of when the iconic white cross became widely accepted as a collective symbol.

Arms of the borough of Wandsworth

Wandsworth

London, England

Granted 1965

Blazon: Per pale indented argent and azure a fess chequy of the second and or, each of the last charged with a goutte of the second

Crest: On a wreath of the colors an ancient ship with a dragon’s head at the prow sable four oars in action and as many shields or on the bulwarks, flying a pennon gules and a sail of the arms

Supporters: On the dexter a dove wings elevated and addorsed azure and charged with four molets of five points or, in the beak a sprig of lavender proper; on the sinister a dragon sable wings elevated and addorsed argent and charged with four crosses couped gules

Mantling: Azure lined argent

Motto: We Serve

The field of the arms is derived from the London borough of Battersea. The fess chequy is from the arms of William de Warren, first Earl of Surrey, and the gouttes represent the tears shed by the prosecuted French Huguenots, as many of them settled in Wandsworth when fleeing persecution in the seventeenth century.

Arms of Philip II of Spain before the union with Portugal

1558-1580

Blazon: Per fess I per pale i quarterly 1 and 4 gules a castle triple-towered or, windowed azure (Castile), 2 and 3 argent a lion rampant gules crowned or (León), ii per pale 1 per pale or four palets gules (Aragon) and per saltire a. and d. Aragon, b. and c. argent an eagle displayed sable, armed and langued gules (Sicily), 2 per pale a. per fess argent a cross potent between four crosses couped or (Jerusalem) and gules a chain in orle, cross, and saltire charged with a center point vert (Navarre), b. barry of eight gules and argent (Hungary ancien), all enté en point argent a pomegranate proper seeded gules, slipped and leaved vert (Granada); II per quarterly i gules a fess argent (Austria), ii azure semé de lis or within a bordure compony argent and gules (Burgundy ancien), iii bendy of six or and azure within a bordure gules (Burgundy moderne), iv sable a lion rampant crowned or, armed and langued gules (Brabant), in the fess point an escutcheon per pale or a lion rampant sable armed and langued gules (Flanders) and argent an eagle displayed gules armed and langued or (Tyrol)

Arms of Philip II of Spain 1554-1588

King of Naples 1554-1598 and English Consort 1554-1558 (1527-1598)

Blazon: Per fess I per quarterly i and iv per quarterly 1 and 4 gules a castle triple-towered or, windowed azure (Castile), 2 and 3 argent a lion rampant gules crowned or (León), ii per pale 1 per fess or four palets gules (Aragon) and gules a chain in orle, cross, and saltire charged with a center point vert (Navarre), 2 per pale argent a cross potent between four crosses couped or (Jerusalem) and barry of eight gules and argent (Hungary ancien), all enté en point argent a pomegranate proper seeded gules, slipped and leaved vert (Granada); II per quarterly i gules a fess argent (Austria), ii azure semé de lis or within a bordure compony argent and gules (Burgundy ancien), iii bendy of six or and azure within a bordure gules (Burgundy moderne), iv sable a lion rampant crowned or, armed and langued gules (Brabant), in the fess point an escutcheon per pale or a lion rampant sable armed and langued gules (Flanders) and argent an eagle displayed gules armed and langued or (Tyrol); all impaled with quarterly I and IV azure three fleurs-de-lis or (France), II and III gules three lions passant guardant in pale or, armed and langued azure (England)

Crosses from The Blazon of Gentrie

By Sir John Ferne, p172-4

Left to right:

Arms of the city of Constantinople: gules a cross couped or between four Greek letters Beta, addorsed argent. At the time Ferne was writing (1586), the term “Humet” or humetty (synonymous with couped) was “very new,” and he preferred to call it “a Crosse plaine of equall length.” (172)

Blazon: Azure on a cross couped argent another gules. Except for the above preference for “plain” over “couped,” this blazon has changed very little since Ferne’s time.

Blazon: Or a cross botony umbrated (shadowed). The field is or with the outline of a cross botony. Ferne speculates that “this crosse perhaps hath been remoued and washed away through some either ungentle, or at least unthrifty qualities,” but there is no historical record of using umbration as an abatement, and I have never encountered an umbrated coat outside of heraldic texts.