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Unterwalden canton (Switzerland)

Last modified: 2004-08-14 by
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[Flag of Unterwalden] by António Martins

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Description of the flag

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.

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.

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.

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).

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

Original Kraepfligriff grip

[Original Kraepfligriff flag] by António Martins

Original Kraepfligriff Nidwalden's grip.

Pre-1816 key on red-white

[Pre-1816 Nidwalden flag] by António Martins

Pre-1816 Nidwalden key on red-white.

Pre-1816 key on white-red

[Pre-1816 Nidwalden flag] by António Martins

Pre-1816 Nidwalden key on white-red.