1291 - 1515

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History of Switzerland: Introduction / Sitemap A Short History of Switzerland History of Switzerland: Detailed Timeline  Early Swiss History
Prehistory: Lake-dwellings in Switzerland Swiss History: Celtic Helvetians Switzerland during the Age of Romans, Aventicum Aventicum, Old Swiss Capital in the Age of Romans Switzerland during the Middle Ages  Old Swiss History
The Old Swiss Confederacy (1291-1798) William Tell (Switzerland's National Hero) The Swiss Reformation (Calvin, Zwingli)  A Modern Constitution
Swiss Revolution and Helvetic Republic (1798) Switzerland's Federal Constitution (1848) History of Switzerland's Flag Switzerland's Political System The Long Way to Women's Right to Vote  Industrialisation
Industrialisation in Switzerland Johanna Spyri: Heidi, the girl from the alps - A bestseller about times of change  World War II
World War II: General Timeline Switzerland's Role in World War II Spiritual Defense against Nazism Switzerland's Economic Dependence and Rationing Jewish Refugees Looted Assets Switzerland's Neutrality Switzerland's National Public Radio Station Beromünster  Country & People
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History of Switzerland

The Old Swiss Confederacy


The official date of birth of the Old Swiss Confederation is August, 1st 1291. This date can be found on a document of alliance whose age of more than 700 years has been confirmed by radionuclear (C14) analysis recently. It all began with a new transalpine trading route and with three small valleys in central Switzerland that had remained outside the focus of the dukes and kings for a long time. Serious historians will always separate the facts of history from the popular legends concerning the origins of the old Swiss confederation.

The trade route over St. Gotthard pass

From the 11th to the 13th centuries, many cities (among them the federal capital Berne, Lucerne, and Fribourg) were founded. Skilled craftsmen specialized in producing high quality goods and trade became more important in a society in which farmers had used to be self-suppliers for centuries. Trade gave also more importance to roads crossing the Alps, a mountain chain with peaks of up to 4000 m (12000 ft) separating central Europe from Italy and the Mediterranean Sea.

At the same time, people from the upper part of Wallis (Rhone valley) developed means to suspend wooden water pipes and catwalks in steep rocks. Some of these people from Wallis wandered east and settled in upper Uri and Graubünden [Grisons] around A.D. 1200. So the Schöllenen canyon in Uri, that had blocked the way from Lake Lucerne to St. Gotthard pass, was overcome by the new technology and a new trade route developed.

  Alpine road of St. Gotthard: Teufelsbrücke [devil's bridge] over Schöllenen canyon
Devil's Bridge over Schöllenen canyon.
The lower bridge on the picture shown here is more than hundred years old, but does of course not date back to the 13th century. It may give an impression of the steep canyon that had to be overcome by suspended catwalks, however.

Liberation: Federal Pact and the Rütli

The new trade route made those regions far from the centers of power look interesting for the counts of Habsburg (northern Switzerland) who were trying at the time to strengthen their dynastic power. As a reward for help in several war expeditions to Italy, German king Friedrich II exempted the valleys of Uri (1231) and Schwyz (1240) from the jurisdiction of any counts and dukes so they would be subject to the king alone.

Rutli on lake of Lucerne, cradle of the Swiss confederacy

When his successor king Rudolf of Habsburg, the first German Emperor from this house, died in 1291, people from Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden feared that the counts of Habsburg would try to regain influence in their territories. So they swore to help each other against anyone attempting to subject them. This is the historical background of the legend of the Oath on Rütli (a meadow on the western shore of Lake Lucerne, see picture). While the Federal Charter (Bundesbrief), dated from "the first days of August, 1291" is a historical fact and can be seen at the Museum of the federal charters in Schwyz [during summer of 2006, the federal charter has been on exhibition in the USA for a few weeks], the Oath on Rutli is a legend (anyway well composed, because of the secret nature of the beginning of the history of the old Swiss confederacy). Towards the end of the 19th century, August 1st was introduced as a national holiday.

Another popular legend tells of Wilhelm (William) Tell, the Swiss national hero of liberty. There is, however, no historical evidence that he ever may have lived, shot an apple from his son's head and killed a tyrannic bailiff with his crossbow as the legend tells. Not even his name (or any similar name) is mentioned on any known document from this time.

  Monument for William Tell, Swiss national hero, Altdorf, Uri, central Switzerland

Only nearly 200 years later, when the Swiss confederacy had already grown and was well established, the legend appears in a chronicle named the White Book of Sarnen (written in 1470) and in a ballad praising Switzerland's success against the duke Charles of Burgundy (1476/77). While historian Jean François Bergier is inclined to believe, that the legend is based at least partially on historic events, many others refuse to accept this legend alltogether. But no doubt, the legend itself has become a historical factor that has influenced the history of Switzerland between 1500 and 1945 as well as of other countries (France, Germany) quite a lot.

The battles of Morgarten, Sempach and Näfels

The counts of Habsburg tried to reach their goals by military force but were defeated several times (battles of Morgarten 1315, Sempach 1386, Näfels 1388) and finally even had to leave their native castle in northern Switzerland, while they were on the other hand strong enough to gain the German crown from their new seat in Austria, where their dynasty remained in power until 1918.

The confederacy of 8 member states

Lucerne entered into the confederacy in 1332, Zürich in 1351, Zug in 1352, Berne and Glarus in 1353. Appenzell signed an alliance as associated member in 1411, the city of St. Gall in 1412 (both of them against the dominance of the monastery of St. Gall in the region). Uri, Unterwalden and Lucerne allied with the bishop of Sion (VS) and the inhabitants of the upper Rhone valley in 1403. When the lords of Raron (VS), that had a right of citizens in the city of Berne, attempted to enlarge their influence over the Rhone Valley in 1414, the peasants of the valley defended themselves - and the Swiss confederacy had their first problems with incoherent alliances.

The conquest of Aargau

Habsburg (close to Brugg, Aargau), residence of the counts of Habsburg Habsburg  

Duke Friedrich IV. of Habsburg took sides with the antipope on the council of Constance in 1415, but the German king Sigismund supported the other side - and won. So Sigismund encouraged the confederates to conquer the native territories of Habsburg in Aargau in 1415. The same year, the city of Lucerne where Habsburg had still exercised some jurisdictional rights became a free city.

The war of Zurich

When the last Count of Toggenburg died in 1436 without heirs in his family, Schwyz, Glarus and Zurich quarreled with each other on the subject of the heritage. In 1440 this even lead to a civil war between the three confederates (called old Zurich war). They valleys of Schwyz and Glarus won and could expand their territory in 1446.

The conquest of Thurgau

In 1460 the confederates profitted once again from a dispute between church and higher nobility. This time Pope Pius II. excommunicated duke Sigismund of Habsburg which meant in these times that any mighty person could lay hands on the property of the person punished by the church without fearing intervention from the authorities of the empire. The confederacy used the occasion for the conquest of a territory named Thurgau (northeastern Switzerland) and of the region of Sargans (eastern Switzerland). Zurich bought the city of Winterthur. Now the borders of the confederacy had reached the Rhine with few exceptions from Basel to Chur.

The wars against duke Charles of Burgundy

Berne and the French king pushed the confederacy to a war against the duke Charles of Burgundy who was allied to the dukes of Habsburg and to the comtesse of Savoye. Duke Charles of Burgundy was defeated in three battles (Grandson 1476, Murten 1476, Nancy 1477, where the duke was killed). After the battle of Murten, the Berne seized a part of the territory of Vaud, in 1478 the confederacy and the duke Maximilian of Habsburg signed a peace treaty: the territory of Burgundy was given to Habsburg against 150'000 florins - the other confederates feared that expanding to the west would give Berne too strong a position within the confederacy.

The confederacy of 13 members

Admission of Fribourg and Solothurn

In 1477 the confederates did quite disagree on the future of the confederacy: The rural communes Uri, Schwyz, Unterwalden, Zug and Glarus allied to the bishop of Constance, the cities of Berne, Lucerne and Zurich to the cities of Fribourg and Solothurn. The admission of Fribourg and of Solothurn to the confederacy became a breaking test for the confederacy: The rural communes feared dominance of the cities and did not want to enlarge the old Swiss confederacy. Finally in 1481 a suggestion of Niklaus of Flüe, a former peasant, commander of troops, politician and respected judge to Obwalden, that had withdrawn from public life and lived as a hermit, liberated the way to the admission of Fribourg and Solothurn. The treaty is called "Stanser Verkommnis" [agreement at Stans].

  Niklaus of Flüe, national Saint, military commander, politician, judge and hermit, mediator between the confederates in 1481 Niklaus
von Flüe

The confederates (but without Berne) also made alliances to the three confederacies of Graubünden (Grisons) in southeastern Switzerland. Negotiations with the city of Constance (Germany, on the Rhine border) ended without result because Zurich feared competition.

The Swabian War
Switzerland's Independence

The so-called Swabian War of 1499 didn't have any cause in the relations between Switzerland and its northern neighbours, the Swabians (who are even descending from the same Germanic tribe, which is still hearable in todays German dialects spoken here and there). Once more the real reason was the German king Maximilian I. of Habsburg who wanted to bind the different quite autonomous regions of the German Empire stronger to the crown and collect new taxes. The Swiss confederacy, formally still part of the German Empire, refused to obey the new rules and when attacked, defeated the the king in several battles. The cities of Basle and Schaffhausen took sides with the confederacy and were admitted to the old Swiss confederacy in 1501 as a consequence. In 1513 Appenzell was admitted as last member for a long time: the confederacy of 13 member states was complete.

De facto Switzerland was now independent from the German Empire, but it seems that at the time nobody was interested to declare independence formally. It was only in the 1648 peace treaty between all European powers that the Swiss delegation claimed and reached formal independence for Switzerland.

The Milan wars and mercenary troops

Central Switzerland oriented itself towards the south. In 1403 Uri had bought the Leventina (upper valley of Tessin), in 1410 and 1417 they conquered some other valleys and in 1419 bought Bellinzona, but in 1422 the duke of Milan (northern Italy) re-conquered Bellinzona. The Burgundy wars (1474-1477) propagated the glory of the Swiss soldiers. The French kings and the Italian dukes recruited mercenary troops in central Switzerland. In 1512 the Swiss conquered Milan and Pavia and in 1513 they won the battle of Novarra. The old Swiss confederacy was at the summit of it's power.

Marignano 1515

The End of Switzerland's Power Politics

But then the French king came with troops in numerical superiority to Italy to fight a decisive battle against the Italian dukes. The confederates disagreed once more and had no rules for common decisions. Berne, Fribourg and Solothurn regarded this conflict primarily as a risky commercial affair and withdrew their mercenary troops. The troops of central Switzerland were partly engaged as mercenary troops and partly stakeholders (regarding their own territorial ambitions in southern Switzerland). So they sought the battle and lost. The defeat of Marignano in 1515 set the end to Swiss expansion.

The Roots of Switzerland's Neutrality

The lesson learnt at Marignano was that taking different sides in foreign affairs may result in being defeated. Most historians regard Marignano as the key event leading to Switzerland's neutrality.

Literature and links concerning the history of the old Swiss confederacy:

  • Jean François Bergier: Guillaume Tell. Paris: Librairie Arthème Fayard, 1988
    This book by the well known Swiss historian gives a broad description of the history of the Switzerland from the age of the romans to the the birth of the old Swiss confederacy and situates the legend of William Tell in the historic context.
  • www. swisscastles. ch: 500 castles in Switzerland, fotos and history (in French).
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