1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Switzerland/History/Origins

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1. On the 1st of August 1291 the men of the valley of Uri (homines vallis Uraniae), the free community of the valley of Schwyz (universitas vallis de Swilz), and the association of the men of the lower valley or Nidwalden (communitas hominum intramontanarum vallis inferioris)—Obwalden or the upper valley is not mentioned in the text, though it is named on the Early History of the Three Lands. seal appended-formed an Everlasting League for the purpose of self-defence against all who should attack or trouble them, a league which is expressly stated to be a confirmation of a former one (antiquam confederationis formam juramenlo vallalam presentibus innovando). This league was the foundation of the Swiss Confederation.

What were these districts? and why at this particular moment was it necessary for them to form a defensive league? The legal and political conditions of each were very different. (a) In 853 Louis the German granted (inter alia) all his lands (and the rights annexed to them) situated in the pagellus Uraniae to the convent of Sts Felix and Regula in Zürich (the present Fraumünster), of which his daughter Hildegard was the first abbess, and gave to this district the privilege of exemption from all jurisdiction save that of the king (Reichsfreiheit), so that though locally within the Zürichgau it was not subject to its count, the king's deputy. The abbey thus became possessed of the greater part of the valley of the Reuss between the present Devil's Bridge and the Lake of Lucerne, for the upper valley (Urseren) belonged at that time to the abbey of Disentis in the Rhine valley, and did not become permanently allied with Uri till 1410. The privileged position of the abbey tenants gradually led the other men of the valley to “commend” themselves to the abbey, whether they were tenants of other lords or free men as in the Schächenthal. The meeting of all the inhabitants of the valley, for purposes connected with the customary cultivation of the soil according to fixed rules and methods, served to prepare them for the enjoyment of full political liberty in later days. The important post of “protector” (advocates or vogt) of the abbey was given to one family after another by the emperor as a sign of trust; but when, on the extinction of the house of Zäringen in 1218, the office was granted to the Habsburgs, the protests of the abbey tenants, who feared the rapidly rising power of that family, and perhaps also the desire of the German king to obtain command of the St Gotthard Pass (of which the first authentic mention occurs about 1236, when of course it could only be traversed on foot), led to the recall of the grant in 1231, the valley being thus restored to its original privileged position, and depending immediately on the king. (b) In Schwyz (first mentioned in 972) we must distinguish between the districts west and east of Steinen. In the former the land was in the hands of, many nobles, amongst whom were the Habsburgs; in the latter there was, at the foot of the Mythen, a free community of men governing themselves and cultivating their land in common; both, however, were politically subject to the king's delegates, the counts of the Zürichgau, who after 1173 were the ever-advancing Habsburgs. But in 1240 the free community of Schwyz obtained from the emperor Frederick II. a charter which removed them from the jurisdiction of the counts, placing them in immediate dependence on the king, like the abbey men of Uri. In a few years, however, the Habsburgs contrived to dispense with this charter in practice. (c) In Unterwalden things were very different. The upper valley (Obwalden or Sarnen), like the lower (Nidwalden or Stans), formed part of the Zürichgau, while in both the soil was owned by many ecclesiastical and lay lords, among them being the Habsburgs and the Alsatian abbey of Murbach. Hence in this district there were privileged tenants, but no free community, and no centre of unity, and this explains why Obwalden and Nidwalden won their way upwards so much more slowly than their neighbours in Uri and Schwyz. Thus the early history and legal position of these three districts was very far from being the same. In Uri the Habsburgs, save for a brief space, had absolutely no rights; while in Schwyz, Obwalden and Nidwalden they were also, as counts of the Zürichgau, the representatives of the king.

The Habsburgs had been steadily rising for many years from the position of an unimportant family in the Aargau to that of a powerful clan of large landed proprietors in Swabia and Alsace, and had attained a certain political importance as counts of the Zürichgau and Aargau. In one or both qualities the cadet or Laufenburg line, to which the family estates in the Forest districts round the Lake of Lucerne had fallen on the division of the inheritance in 1232, seem to have exercised their legal rights in a harsh manner. In 1240 the free men of Schwyz obtained protection from the emperor, and in 1244 we hear of The League of 1291. the castle of New Habsburg, built by the Habsburgs on a promontory jutting out into the lake not far from Lucerne, with the object of enforcing their real or pretended rights. It is therefore not a matter for surprise that when, after the excommunication and deposition of Frederick II. by Innocent IV. at the Council of Lyons in 1245, the head of the cadet line of Habsburg sided with the pope, some of the men of the Forest districts should rally round the emperor. Schwyz joined Sarnen and Lucerne (though Uri and Obwalden supported the pope); the castle of New Habsburg was reduced to its present ruined state; and in 1247 the men of Schwyz, Sarnen and Lucerne were threatened by the pope with excommunication if they persisted in upholding the emperor and defying their hereditary lords the counts of Habsburg. The rapid decline of Frederick's cause soon enabled the Habsburgs to regain their authority in these districts. Yet these obscure risings have an historical interest, for they are the foundation in fact (so far as they have any) of the legendary stories of Habsburg oppression told of and by a later age. After this temporary check the power of the Habsburgs continued to increase rapidly. In 1273 the head of the cadet line sold all his lands and rights in the Forest districts to the head of the elder or Alsatian line, Rudolph, who a few months later was elected to the imperial throne, in virtue of which he acquired for his family in 1282 the duchy of Austria, which now for the first time became connected with the Habsburgs. Rudolph recognized the privileges of Uri but not those of Schwyz; and, as he now united in his own person the characters of emperor, count of the Zürichgau, and landowner in the Forest districts (a name occurring first in the 14th century), such a union of offices might be expected to result in a confusion of rights. On the 16th of April 1 291 Rudolph bought from the abbey of Murbach in Alsace (of which he was “ advocate ”) all its rights over the town of Lucerne and the abbey estates in Unterwalden. It thus seemed probable that the other Forest districts would be shut off from their natural means of communication with the outer world by way of the lake. Rudolph's death, on the 15th of July of the same year, cleared the way, and a fortnight later (August 1) the Everlasting League was made between the men of Uri, Schwyz and Nidwalden (the words et vallis superior is, Le. Obwalden, were inserted, perhaps between the time of the drawing up of the document, the text of which does not mention Obwalden, and the moment of its sealing on the original seal of Nidwalden) for the purpose of self-defence against a common foe. We do not know the names of the delegates of each valley who concluded the treaty, nor the place where it was made, nor have we any account of the deliberations of which it was the result. The common seal-that great outward sign of the right of a corporate body to act in its own name-appears first in Uri in 1243, in Schwyz in 1281, in Unterwalden not till this very document of 1291; yet, despite the great differences in their political status, they all joined in concluding this League, and confirmed it by their separate seals, thereby laying claim on behalf of their union to an independent existence. Besides promises of aid and assistance in the case of attack, they agree to punish great crimina ls by their own authority, but advise that, in minor cases and in all civil cases, each man should recognize the “ judex ” to whom he owes suit, engaging that the Confederates Will, in case of need, enforce the decisions of the “ judex.” At the same time they unanimously refuse to recognize any “ judex ” who has bought his charge or is a stranger to the valleys. All disputes between the parties to the treaty are, as far as possible, to be settled by a reference to arbiters, a principle which remained in force for oversix hundred years. “Iudex” is a general term for any local official, especially the chief of the community, whether named by the lord or by the community; and, as earlier in the same year Rudolph had promised the men of Schwyz not to force upon them a “judex” belonging to the class of serfs, we may conjecture from this very decided protest that the chief source of disagreement was in the matter of the jurisdictions of the lord and the free community, and that some recent event in Schwyz led it to insist on the insertion of this provision. It is stipulated also that every man shall be bound to obey his own lord “ convenient er, ” or so far as is fitting and right. The antigua confoederatio mentioned in this document was probably merely an ordinary agreement to preserve the peace in that particular district, made probably during the interregnum (1254-1273) in the Empire.