The Rise of the Swiss Republic/Book 2/Chapter 5

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THE reader who has derived his ideas of the origin of the Swiss Confederation from Schiller’s play of “William Tell,” will doubtless feel disappointed at the picture here presented. Tradition would have us believe that the three states were from the very beginning independent commonwealths of freemen, leagued together from time immemorial, that they voluntarily submitted themselves to the German empire during the reign of Frederic II., and only revolted when King Albrecht of Habsburg sought to put an end to their liberties. This view is quite incompatible with contemporary evidence. Uri, Schwiz and Unterwalden were not originally independent states with fully developed republican forms of government; nor can there be a question of their having voluntarily submitted themselves to the empire, since they formed a part of it as early as we have any records. If modern research has proved anything beyond the shadow of a doubt, it is that the Forest States gained their freedom after the lapse of centuries of persistent toil, and not at one blow.

But what was the danger which prompted their final union? What the bond which held them together through all their trials and tribulations? Stated in the simplest terms it was the existence of a common enemy in the ambitious and not over-scrupulous house of Habsburg. Though these young communities had advanced thus far toward the attainment of antonomy, they were overshadowed by a power which threatened at any moment to engulf them. There was a natural, inevitable antagonism between the inhabitants of the Forest States and the Counts of Habsburg, the former alert to defend their liberties, the latter to extend their stewardship into unquestioned dominion.

Since his accession to the throne Rudolf had extended his power in all directions. By reconciling himself to the church in an interview with Pope Gregory X., in the cathedral of Lausanne, he saved himself from an attack from the south. In 1278 he pacified the eastern boundaries of his realm by conquering his great rival, Ottocar, King of Bohemia, at the same time giving the lands thus obtained, Austria, Styria and Corinthia to his sons as imperial fiefs. In this manner the title of Duke of Austria became associated with the name of Habsburg.

Amongst his other exploits was a siege of the flourishing city of Bern, which had refused to pay imperial taxes. The citizens defended themselves bravely for almost a year, until the king’s younger son, Rudolf, succeeded in enticing a large detachment into an ambush at the Schlosshalden. After this defeat Bern was obliged to yield to the sovereign’s demands. In Alamannia he displayed the greatest ingenuity in finding pretexts for usurping lands and titles. He wrested an estate from the Abbot of St. Gallen, absorbed the possessions of the house of Rapperswil, acquired the office of Mayor over ecclesiastical property in Glarus for his sons, and just before his death took advantage of the financial straits, into which the Abbey of Murbach in Elsass had fallen, to purchase its scattered estates, which were situated partly in Luzern and in the Forest States. Nor did the stewardship (Kastvogtei) of the monastery of Einsiedeln and Pfäffers escape him.

Nothing can give one so good an idea of the extent of the family power of Habsburg on all sides of Uri, Schwiz and Unterwalden, as the roll of the estates, the so-called Urbarbuch, in which were recorded the lists of properties and offices with the revenues appertaining to them. An examination of this terrier, which was begun by Rudolf and finished by his son Albrecht, shows conclusively that the Forest States were surrounded by a veritable cordon of Habsburg estates, and that nothing but a determined effort on their part could save them from becoming completely owned by that ambitious family.

Rudolf of Habsburg died on the 15th of July, 1291, and seventeen days after, on the 1st of August, the three Forest States concluded a perpetual league and signed what may be styled the first federal constitution of the Swiss Confederation.

The promptness with which this great act was consummated seems to suggest that the text of the perpetual pact had been drawn up previously and held in abeyance to be ratified after the King’s death.

The Latin original parchment is preserved in the archives of Schwiz. In the following translation the words “Invocation’’ and ‘‘Preamble,’’ and the numbers are inserted for the sake of clearness.

“(Invocation.) In the name of God—Amen. (Preamble.) Honor and the public weal are promoted when leagues are concluded for the proper establishment of quiet and peace. I. Therefore, know all men, that the people of the valley of Uri, the democracy of the valley of Schwiz, and the community of the mountaineers of the Lower Valley (homines vallis Vranie, Universitasque vallis de Switz ac communitas hominum intramontanorum vallis infertoris), seeing the malice of the age, in order that they may better defend themselves and their own, and better preserve them in proper condition, have promised in good faith to assist each other with aid, with every counsel and every favor, with person and goods, within the valleys and without, with might and main, against one and all, who may inflict upon any one of them any violence, molestation or injury, or may plot any evil against their persons or goods. 2. And in every case each community has promised to succour the other when necessary, at its own expense, as far as needed in order to withstand the attacks of evil-doers, and to avenge injuries; to this end they have sworn a bodily oath to keep this without guile, and to renew by these presents the ancient form of the league,[1] [also] confirmed by an oath.

3. Yet in such a manner that every man, according to his rank, shall obey and serve his overlord as it behooves him.

4. We have also promised, decreed and ordered in common council and by unanimous consent, that we will accept or receive no judge in the aforesaid valleys, who shall have obtained his office for any price, or for money in any way whatever, or one who shall not be a native or a resident with us.

5. But if dissension shall arise between any of the confederates, the most prudent amongst the confederates shall come forth to settle the difficulty between the parties, as shall seem right to them; and whichever party rejects their verdict shall be an adversary to the other confederates.

6. Furthermore as has been established between them that he who deliberately kills another without provocation, shall, if caught, lose his life, as his wicked guilt requires, unless he be able to prove his innocence of said crime; and if perchance he escape, let him never return. Concealers and defenders of said criminal shall be banished from the valleys, until they be expressly recalled by the confederates.

7. But if any one of the confederates, by day, or in the silence of the night, shall maliciously injure another by fire, he shall never be considered a compatriot. 8. If any man protect and defend the said criminal, he shall render satisfaction to the injured person. 9. Furthermore, if any one of the confederates shall spoil another of his goods, or injure him in any way, the goods of the guilty one, if recovered within the valleys, shall be seized in order to pay damages to the injured person, according to justice. 10. Furthermore, no man shall seize another’s goods for debt, unless he be evidently his debtor or surety, and this shall only be done with the special permission of his judge. Moreover, every man shall obey his judge, and if necessary, must himself indicate the judge in the valley, before whom he ought properly to appear. 11. And if any one rebels against a verdict, and, in consequence of his obstinacy, any one of the confederates is injured, all the confederates are bound to compel the contumacious person to give satisfaction.

12. But if war or discord arise amongst any of the confederates and one party of the disputants refuse to accept justice or satisfaction, the confederates are bound to defend the other party.

13. The above-written statutes, decreed for the commonweal and health, shall endure forever, God willing. In testitimony of which, at the request of the aforesaid parties, the present instrument has been drawn up and confirmed with the seals of the aforesaid three communities and valleys.

Done Anno Domini M.CC.LXXXX. primo. in the beginning of the month of August.”

A recent examination of the seals, attached to the document, shows that the third one, which has heretofore been taken to represent Nidwalden alone, is the same as that used in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries for the whole of Unterwalden. The presumption seems to be justified, therefore, that Obwalden also joined the league of 1291.

On the whole the above agreement is just what would be suggested to men working entirely by experience and not upon any definite theory. It is neither complete nor altogether satisfactory, when viewed in the light of modern statecraft; but it served its purpose admirably, and showed the touch of what we call practical men. Indeed this first perpetual pact of the Forest States is distinctly a conservative utterance—a sort of compromise between a declaration of independence from the nobles, and an oath of allegiance to the feudal system itself, as befitting a people conscious of a grievance and yet unwilling to break with the past. The pact was enacted “for the proper establishment of quiet and peace.” Moreover, the third provision expressly states that “every man, according to his rank, shall obey and serve his overlord, as it behooves him.” Here is direct evidence from the people of the Forest States themselves that they did not aspire as yet to be free in the sense in which the nineteenth century understands that term. As far as can be judged from the document itself, there was no intention of cutting adrift from all previous enactments to found a new state, although this was the actual result of the league. The struggle seems to have been directed more particularly against corrupt judges, as is shown by the emphatic declaration in regard to them. Especially noteworthy is the provision made for settling quarrels between the States by arbitration, a method which thereafter received wide application in the public affairs of the young Confederation.

History has recorded no words in which childlike faith in the justice of a cause and prophetic insight into its inevitable triumph have been better expressed than in the closing lines: “The above-written statutes, decreed for the commonweal and health, shall endure forever, God willing.” Succeeding centuries have practically verified the naive declaration of this group of unpretentious patriots, for the perpetual pact remained the fundamental statue-law of the growing Confederation for centuries, and was only superseded by enactments of a more modern date, when it had as a matter of fact died of old age.

The name of the place where this historic document was signed is not revealed in the text, but in any case it must have been somewhere in the incomparable environment of the Lake of Luzern. It is also to be regretted that the names of the signers have not been handed down to us. We can only speculate as to who those patriots were, but a fortunate circumstance has put us in possession of a list of men who, if they were not the actual signers of the first league, were at all events leading personages in two of the Forest States at the time under consideration.

A little more than two months after the conclusion of this league, Uri and Schwiz entered into a separate alliance for three years with Zürich,[2] and the names of their representatives are mentioned in the document then drawn up. For Uri there was the Landammann Arnold, Mayor of Silenen, besides Knight Werner von Attinghausen, Burkart, the late Landammann, and Conrad, Mayor of Erstfeld; and for Schwiz there was the Landammann Conrad Ab Iberg, Rudolf Stauffacher, and Conrad Hunn—representatives of all the classes in the community, from noblemen to the descendants of serfs.

The conclusion is legitimate that the above-mentioned men were typical leaders, and it is quite probable that they, or at least some of their number, were also the signers of the first perpetual league. If this be the case, we may infer that these early leagues were in reality the combined work of the common people and of the native aristocracy, co-operating in the great cause which lay so near their hearts.

Moreover, it is not too much to say that the patriots, whose names appear in the alliance with Ziirich, with perhaps the addition of the unknown Landammann of Unterwalden, may be proclaimed the real founders of the Swiss Confederation.


  1. Referring to some previously enacted league, whose provisions are not known.
  2. Oechsli, W. Quellenbuch. p. 50.