First Swiss Struggle For Liberty
Author: Baker, Grenfell F.

First Swiss Struggle For Liberty


Owing to the fact that the house of Hapsburg had its origin in
Switzerland, the accession of Rudolph I, founder of the Hapsburg dynasty, to
the throne of Germany (1273), with the virtual headship of the Holy Roman
Empire, was an event of great importance in the history of the Swiss cantons.
To this day the paternal domains whence the Hapsburg family takes its name are
a part of Swiss territory. The local administration, as well as such imperial
offices as still remained in the free communities of Switzerland, were largely
in the hands of this family long before it gave sovereigns to the empire
itself. Its chiefs were the chosen champions or advocates of the district.

Of the Swiss communities Uri seems to have first established its freedom
within the empire, and in that canton liberty was most completely preserved
from the perils that always threatened Switzerland in this period. Under
Rudolph it was at first the policy of the empire to secure the attachment of
the Swiss by making the two other cantons, Schwyz and Unterwalden, similarly
independent. But toward the end of his reign the policy of Rudolph was so
influenced by ambition for territorial expansion that the Swiss began to feel
an encroachment upon their independence. In 1291, the year of Rudolph's
death, the three cantons, fearing danger to their interests in the new
settlement of the crown, formed a league for mutual protection and
cooperation. The very parchment on which the terms of this union were written
"has been preserved as a testimony to the early independence of the Forest
Cantons, the Magna Charta of Switzerland." The formation of this confederacy
may be regarded as the first combined preparation of the Swiss for that great
struggle in defence of their liberties, in the history of which fact and
legend, as shown in Baker's discriminating narrative, are romantically

The empire passed out of the Hapsburg control when Rudolph died, but the
family again got possession of it in 1298, when Rudolph's son Albert was
elected German king. In the following account the relations of Switzerland
and Austria, under the renewed Hapsburg sovereignty, are circumstantially set

There can be little doubt that most of the many stories related by the
Swiss of the cruelty and extortion of the Austrian bailies are wholly or in
great part devoid of a historical basis of truth, as are the dates given for
their occurrence. They doubtless sprang from the very natural feelings of
hatred the mountaineers of the Forest State felt against a foreign master, who
was probably only too ready to punish them for the part they took against him
in the struggle for the imperial throne. Indeed, it was not till about two
centuries after this period that any reference to the alleged cruelties of the
Austrians can be found in the local records, though legends about them have
been plentiful.

Many and various are the stories that have come down to our times of the
oppression and licentiousness of the bailies, most of which have probably
gained much color by constant repetition, even if they were not wholly created
by imagination and hatred of the Austrian rule. According to these accounts,
the local despots imposed exorbitant fines for trivial offences, and
frequently sent prisoners to Zug and Lucerne to be tried by Austrian judges.
They levied enormously increased taxes and imports on every commodity, and
exacted payment in the most merciless manner; they openly violated the
liberties of the people, and chose every occasion to insult and degrade them.
An oft-quoted instance of their cruelty is recorded of a bailie named
Landenburg, who publicly reproved a peasant for living in a house above his
station. On another occasion, having fined an old and much respected laborer,
named Henry of Melchi, a yoke of oxen for an imaginary offence, the Governor's
messenger jeeringly told the old man, who was lamenting that if he lost his
cattle he could no longer earn his bread, that if he wanted to use a plough he
had better draw it himself, being only a vile peasant. To this insult Henry's
son Arnold responded by attacking the messenger and breaking his fingers, and
then, fearing lest his act should bring down some serious punishment, fled to
the mountains, and left his aged father to Landenburg's vengeance. The bailie
confiscated his little property, imposed a heavy fine, and finally burned out
both his eyes.

The hot irons used in this barbarous punishment, the Swiss are fond of
saying, went deeper than the tyrant intended, and penetrated to the hearts and
aroused the sympathies of their ancestors to perform such acts of heroism that
tyranny fled in fear from the land. The conduct of Arnold, however, can
hardly at this period of his life warrant the eulogies bestowed upon his
memory, though he subsequently figures as one of the "Men of Ruetli."

Landenburg lived in a castle near Sarnen, in Unterwalden, where his
imperious temper, his exactions, his cruelties, and his debaucheries aroused a
universal feeling of hatred among the peasants, that culminated in his
expulsion and the destruction of his stronghold. The latter is popularly
believed to have occurred on January 1, 1308. As the bailie left his castle
to attend mass, some forty determined peasants, who had already bound
themselves by oath to free their country at a solemn meeting on the steep
promontory over the Lake of Lucerne known as the Ruetli, appeared before him
carrying sheep, fowls, and other customary presents, and thus gained admission
to the castle. No sooner were they past the gates than, drawing the weapons
they had till then concealed beneath their clothes, they disarmed the guard
and took possession of the fortress. Other conspirators were admitted, and
the people at once rose in revolt. Landenburg, hearing while still at church
of what had occurred, managed to effect his escape, and fled to Lucerne. Of
the other bailies, Gessler and Wolfenschiess are believed to have excited even
more hatred than their colleague Landenburg, and to have exceeded him in acts
of savage cruelty and vicious living.

One example out of many similar ones will show the spirit in which the
Swiss traditions have treated the memory of Wolfenschiess. On a certain day,
finding that a peasant named Conrad, of Baumgarten, whose wife he had
frequently tried in vain to seduce, was absent from home, Wolfenschiess
entered Conrad's house and ordered his wife to prepare him a bath, at the same
time renewing with ardor his former proposals. With the cunning of her sex,
the wife feigned to be willing to accede to his wishes, and on the pretence of
retiring to another room to undress sped to her husband, who quickly returned
and slew Wolfenschiess while he was still in the bath. After this exploit an
entrance was effected into the bailies' castle of Rotzberg by one of the
conspirators, who was in the habit of paying nightly visits to a servant
living in the castle, by means of a rope attached to her window, and who then
admitted his companions, who were lying concealed in the moat.

But, probably in consequence of his supposed connection with the legend
of William Tell, the bailie to whom the name of Gessler has been given stands
out more prominently in Swiss history than any other. Gessler's residence,
according to tradition, was a strongly fortified castle built in the valley of
Uri, near Altorf, and this he named Zwing Uri ("Uri's Restraint"). He used
every means that cruelty or avarice could suggest in his conduct as governor,
and incurred additional hatred from the methods he adopted to discover the
members of a secret conspiracy he believed existed against him in the
district. With this object in view, Gessler caused a pole, surmounted with
the ducal cap of Austria, to be set up in the market-place at Altorf, before
which emblem of authority he ordered every man to uncover and do reverence as
he passed. The refusal of a peasant to obey this command, his arrest, trial,
and condemnation to pierce with an arrow an apple placed on his own child's
head, his dexterity in performing this feat, his escape from his enemies, his
murder of the tyrant Gessler, the solemn compact sworn at Ruetli, and the
revolutionary events that followed form the motive of the much-celebrated
legend of William Tell.

The mythical hero of this shadowy romance has long embodied in his person
the virtues of the typical avenger of the wrongs of the poor and the oppressed
against the tyranny of the rich and the powerful; his name has been honored
and his manly deeds have been lauded in prose and verse by thousands in many
lands for many centuries, exciting doubtless many a noble deed of self-denial,
and spurring to the forefront many a popular act of patriotic daring. In
Switzerland certainly this picturesque representative of liberty has done much
to mould the political life, if not also to write many pages of the history of
the people, and that in spite of the questionable morality of the received
narrative of his career, and its unquestionable untruth. The emergence of the
Swiss from slavery to freedom, as in the case of all other nations, was
undoubtedly a gradual process, and there is now every reason for believing
that the narrative relating to William Tell and the other heroes who are said
to have been the prime instruments in the expulsion of the Austrian bailies
from the districts of the Waldstaette are purely apocryphal, with a possible
substratum of actual fact.

It is sad for an individual, and still more so for a nation, to lose the
illusions of youth, if not of innocence, and to awake to the knowledge of an
unbeautiful reality, bereft of all fictitious adornment. When, however, the
naked truth can be discovered - and that is seldom the case - it must be
faced; if the national or individual mind cannot receive it, the fault lies
with the immaturity or morbid condition of the former, not with the material
of the latter.

As the legend of William Tell is more devoid of actual historical
foundation, and is more widely known and believed than are the many others
related as the records of events happening at the period from which the Swiss
date their independence, it may be as well to devote some little space to its
consideration. All the local records that might possibly throw some light on
the existence and career of Tell have now been thoroughly searched by many
impartial and competent scholars, as well as by enthusiastic partisans, with
the invariable result that, till a considerable lapse of years after the
presumed date of their deaths, not one particle of evidence has been
discovered tending to prove the identity of either William Tell or of the
tyrant Gessler. On the other hand, many local authorities, as early as the
beginning of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when the story was fully
established, have gone out of their way to deny its truth and prove its entire
falsity from their own researches. Materials, indeed, are many relating to
the events that befell the Waldstaette during their conflicts with the
bailies, whom they succeeded in expelling from their country; and it seems in
the highest degree improbable that, had Tell and his friends lived and taken
so prominent a part in effecting their country's freedom as is popularly
assigned to them, they should have been entirely ignored by all contemporary
writers, as well as by subsequent ones, for a hundred and fifty or two hundred
years - yet such is the case.

William Tell is supposed to have performed his heroic deeds in or about
the year 1291, and not till between 1467 and 1474 are his acts recorded, when
in a collection of the traditions of the Canton of Unterwalden, transcribed by
a notary at Sarnen, an account is given of the apple episode and the
subsequent escape of the famous archer, and his murder of Gessler, though
nothing is said of his having taken part in a league to free his country or of
his being the founder of the confederation. A little prior to the compilation
of the White Book of Sarnen, as this collection is called, an anonymous poet
composed a Song of the Origin of the Confederation, in which, although no
reference is made to Gessler, the other details are related concerning William
Tell shooting at the apple, the revolt of the peasants, the expulsion of the
bailies, and the formation of a patriotic league. It is, of course, quite
possible that a Gessler was killed by the peasants, as the name was common
enough at the time, but no member of that family - the records of which have
now been most carefully traced - held any office under the Austrians at that
period in any of the Waldstaette, nor is it at all probable that Austrian
bailies governed the districts later than 1231. Neither is it possible for a
bailie named Gessler to have occupied the castle at the date assigned, the
ruins of which have so long been pointed out as being those of his former
abode. So, also, the celebrated Tell's Chapel on the Vier Waldstaette See, at
Kuesnach, was certainly not built to commemorate the exploits of Schiller's
and Rossini's Swiss hero.

"The fact is that in Gessler we are confronted by a curious case of
confusion in identity. At least three totally different men seem to have been
blended into one in the course of an attempt to reconcile the different
versions of the three cantons. Felix Hammerlin, of Zurich, in 1450, tells of
a Hapsburg governor being on the little island of Schwanan, in the lake of
Lowerz, who seduced a maid of Schwyz, and was killed by her brothers. Then
there was another person, strictly historical, Knight Eppo, of Kuesnach, who,
while acting as bailiff for the Duke of Austria, put down two revolts of the
inhabitants in his district, one in 1284 and another in 1302. Finally, there
was the tyrant bailiff mentioned in the ballad of Tell, who, by the way, a
chronicler, writing in 1510, calls, not Gessler, but the Count of Seedorf.
These three persons were combined, and the result was named Gessler."

Moreover, it is extremely doubtful whether the green plateau of the
Ruetli below Seelisberg, and some six hundred and fifty feet above the lake,
with its miraculous springs, ever witnessed the patriotic gathering of the
thirty-three peasants who, tradition asserts, there formed the league against
Austrian rule, or heard the solemn oath they and their leaders, Stauffacher,
Fuerst, and Arnold, mutually swore.

In all probability the legend of Tell and the apple originated in
Scandinavia, and was brought by the Alemanni into Switzerland; as into other
lands. Saxo Grammaticus, in the Withina Saga, places the scene of a very
similar story in that country, some three hundred years before the appearance
of the Swiss version, and tells of a certain Danish king named Harold, the
counterpart of Gessler, and one Toki, who played the same role enacted by
Tell. Like legends are also related of Olaf, Eindridi, and an almost
identical one to that of William Tell of Egil, who, being ordered by King
Nidung to shoot an apple off the head of the son of the former, took two
arrows from his quiver and prepared to obey. On the King asking why he had
selected two arrows, Egil replied, "To shoot thee, tyrant, with the second,
should the first fail."

Neither are similar narratives absent from the legends of other
countries. Thus Reginald Scott says: "Puncher shot a penny on his son's head,
and made ready another arrow to have slain the Duke of Rengrave, who commanded
it." So also similar incidents occur in the tales of Adam Bell, Clym of the
Clough, and William of Claudeslie in the Percy Ballads, and in the legends of
many places in Northern Europe. On this subject Sir Francis Adams mentions,
in a note to his valuable book on the Swiss Confederation, that a well-known
citizen of Berne, in answer to his inquiry as to whether Tell ever existed,
replied: "Not in Switzerland. If you travel in the Hasli districts you will
find a distinct race of men, who are of Scandinavian origin, and I believe
that their ancestors brought the legend with them." To this it may be added
that philologists have long since traced the rude dialect of Oberhasli to its
Scandinavian sources, and the physical characteristics of the people mark them
as of different racial origin from those around them.

At the period these events were in progress, or, rather, about the time
that the Austrian bailies were expelled, toward the close of the thirteenth
century, the Emperor's ^1 attention was too fully occupied conducting a war
against the Bishop of Basel to allow him to enforce his authority among the
revolted Waldstaette. He did not, however, allow the peasants for long to
enjoy the fruits of their energetic and successful action, as some six months
later he headed a large army with which he intended to enforce obedience. The
expedition thus begun led to Albert's tragic death, and reared another step
leading to the final independence of the Swiss. On reaching Baden, in the
Aargau, a halt was made in order to deliberate on the best mode of punishing
the rebels. Here a general council of nobles decided, after careful
deliberation, on the route to be taken, and the nature of the measures best
calculated to enforce Albert's authority. On May 1, 1308, the Emperor, with a
few followers, returned to Rheinfelden, in order to visit the Empress
Elizabeth, preparatory to marching against the Waldstaette. Shortly before
this time Albert had had a violent quarrel with his nephew John, son of Duke
Rudolph of Swabia, touching the youth's paternal inheritance, which he
persistently declined to allow John to take possession of, and whom he had,
moreover, publicly insulted by offering him a coronet of twigs as the only
recompense for his just claims.

[Footnote 1: This Emperor was Albert I, son of Rudolph I.]

In spite of this quarrel Albert allowed John and four of his fastest
friends to occupy a place in his suite when he left Baden to visit his
consort. Albert's disregard of his nephew's resentment was further shown when
the party arrived on the bank of the Reuss, as he allowed him, with his
friends, to accompany him in the boat in which he crossed the river. The
passage was made in safety, but just as the Emperor was stepping on shore near
the town of Windisch, John and three of his companions struck him down with
their swords, and after inflicting a number of severe wounds left him for
dead. The unhappy monarch expired a few minutes after in the arms of a
passing peasant woman. All this bloody scene took place in full view of the
Emperors train on the opposite side of the river, though no one apparently was
able to render him assistance, probably from the absence of boats and the
suddenness of the tragedy. The murderers succeeded in making good their
escape, though two of them were afterward captured and executed, as were also
a number of innocent people believed to be participators in the conspiracy.
John himself was more fortunate, for, disguised as a monk, he managed for many
years to hide his identity, and, after wandering in Tuscany unsuspected,
eventually died in a monastery at Pisa.

Albert's daughter Agnes, Queen of Hungary, "a woman unacquainted with the
milder feelings of piety, but addicted to a certain sort of devotional habits
and practices by no means inconsistent with implacable vindictiveness,"
fearfully avenged his murder. This woman appears to have been seized with a
perfectly demoniacal mania for blood and revenge. Aided by those in
authority, who feared lest a widespread conspiracy had been formed, she
seized, on the slightest suspicion, hundreds of innocent victims and put them
to death with all the ferocity of a famished beast. Members of nearly a
hundred noble families, and at least a thousand persons of lower rank, of
every age and of both sexes, fell beneath her savage vengeance. She is said
to have further whetted her appetite for horrors by wading, at Fahrwangen, in
the blood of sixty-three innocent knights, exclaiming the while, "This day we
bathe in May-dew." But at last, after several months, even the implacable
bloodthirstiness of the Hungarian Queen was satisfied, and the massacre
ceased. Over the spot where Albert met his death Agnes built a monastery; she
named it Koenigsfelden and enriched it with the spoils of her victims. Here
she took up her abode for the remainder of her life, and for nearly fifty
years practised the most rigid asceticism, and here, by the side of her
parents, she was eventually buried. Koenigsfelden stood on the road from
Basel to Baden and Zurich, and within sight of the castle of Hapsburg, the
cradle of the house of Austria.

Strenuous efforts were made by Albert's widow to obtain the succession to
the imperial throne for her son, Frederick, Duke of Austria, but the choice of
the prince-electors, headed by the Archbishop of Mainz, fell on Count Henry of
Luxemburg, a liberal-minded and generous noble, who was accordingly crowned,
under the title of Henry VII. During the short reign of this monarch he
proved himself a wise and generous friend to the Swiss, whose privileges he
confirmed. He made no effort to reimpose local governors on the people of the
Waldstaette, but, on the contrary, confirmed the charters of Schwyz and Uri,
granted one to Unterwalden, and acknowledged jurisdiction. After Henry's
death, in 1313, civil war once more divided the empire through the rival
contentions of Ludwig (Louis) of Bavaria and Albert's son, Frederick of
Austria. In this contest the powerful monastery of Einsiedeln sided with the
Austrian candidate, and through its influence induced the Bishop of Constance
to place the large portion of Switzerland supporting the Bavarian cause under
a sentence of excommunication.

Between Einsiedeln and the Waldstaette there had long existed a feeling
of bitter hostility, the canons resenting the independent spirit displayed by
the peasants, and the latter remembering the many acts of arbitrary oppression
they and their ancestors had suffered at the instance of the abbey. Indeed,
actual hostilities were only prevented by the friendly, though interested,
mediation of the citizens of Zurich, who were most anxious to preserve
tranquillity in the territories of both, in order to allow their trade with
Italy over the St. Gothard being carried on. They also favored peace, because
since the Hapsburgs had refused permission to the peasants to enter Lucerne,
these had been in the habit of bringing their cattle and dairy produce through
Einsiedeln to the monks of Zurich. The action of the monks, however, in
bringing about the serious sentence of excommunication so roused the spirit of
the mountaineers that, headed by their Landammann, Werner Stauffacher, they
attacked and captured the abbey, ransacked the whole building from cellar to
altar, and carried off the monks captive to the town of Schwyz. This daring
and sacrilegious act led Frederick - the hereditary avoyer of the abbey - to
place the Waldstaette under the further punishment of the "ban of the empire."
Both these sentences were alike fruitless in bringing the peasants to
submission to the house of Austria. Shortly after, on Ludwig ascending the
throne, the "ban" was removed by the new monarch, and, with the aid of the
Archbishop of Mainz, the Metropolitan of Constance in 1315, the
excommunication was also revoked.

The triumph of Ludwig's claims over those of Frederick began that long
series of deadly conflicts between the Swiss and the house of Austria that led
the two nations for so many years to regard each other as natural and
implacable enemies. At this time Austria was governed by Duke Leopold, a man
of arrogant, passionate temper, of unscrupulous ambition, and brutal cruelty,
according to the Swiss chronicles, but who, from other accounts, does not
appear specially to have deserved this character. His hatred of the Swiss was
greatly increased by their action in opposing his brother, Frederick, in the
late contest. No sooner, indeed, were the troubles of that contest over than
he prepared to wreak his vengeance, and once for all crush the power and
independence of the Forest States, and, as he declared, "trample the audacious
rustics under his feet."

Rapidly collecting his forces, Leopold soon found himself at the head of
fifteen thousand or twenty thousand well-armed men, including a large body of
heavily equipped cavalry. These latter were then looked upon as the main
strength of an army. Most of the ancient nobility of Hapsburg, Kyburg, and
Lenzburg rallied to his banners, besides many of the lesser nobles and a
contingent from Zurich, the citizens of which, deserting their natural allies,
had formed a treaty with Austria. Against this formidable array the men of
Schwyz, Uri, and Unterwalden were only able to muster some fourteen hundred
men, who, however, made up for their want of weapons and discipline by the
geographical advantages of the country, by their patriotism, unity, and
determined bravery.

Nothing now seemed to intervene between the Swiss and imminent
destruction, when, viewing with a compassion, most rare in those days, the
impending fate of the heroic mountaineers, the powerful Count of Toggenborg
tried to negotiate a peace with the Duke. Leopold's terms, however, were so
humiliating and evidently so insincere that nothing came of these proposals.

On November 3, 1315, Leopold's army reached Baden, where a council was
held to determine upon the details of the campaign, a campaign having for its
object, as the Duke openly declared, "the extirpation of the whole race of the
people of Waldstaette." The difficulties of the enterprise now began to show
themselves, as several of Leopold's followers, being well acquainted with the
nature of the country and the characters of the inhabitants, pointed out that
both would offer a determined resistance. Finally, relying upon their numbers
and superior arms, it was settled to march on Schwyz, through the Sattel Pass
by Morgarten, making Zug the base of operations; and while a false attack
should be threatened on the side of Arth, Unterwalden should be attacked from
Lucerne, as well as by a large force under the Count of Strasburg by way of
the Bruenig. Leopold himself was to lead the main army and enter Schwyz
through the pass. Had these operations remained secret, or been carried out
successfully, the course of Swiss history would probably have been very
different from what it was; but fortunately for the cause of freedom, the
Austrian plans became known in time, and failed signally when put to the test.
According to ancient chronicles, as the Confederates were hurrying to repel
the feint from Arth, a friendly Austrian baron, named Henry of Huenenberg,
shot an arrow amid them bearing the message, "Guard Morgarten on the eve of
St. Othmar." Be this as it may, the Swiss collected their little band on the
Sattel, between which mountain and the eastern shore of the Lake of Egeri is
situated the ever-memorable Pass of Morgarten. Here, on the night of November
14th, they collected a number of loose bowlders and tree-trunks, and then,
having offered up prayers for the preservation of their country, they awaited
with resolution the coming struggle.

With the first dawn of morning the Austrian army - the first that ever
entered the country - made its appearance in the pass, headed by Duke Leopold
and his formidable cavalry. Suddenly, when the whole narrow defile was
blocked with horse and foot, thousands of heavy stones and trees hurled among
them from the neighboring heights, where the peasant band, forming the Swiss
force, lay concealed. The suddenness and vigor of this unexpected attack
quickly threw the first ranks of the invaders into confusion, and caused a
panic to seize the horses, many of which in their fright turned and trampled
down the men behind. Rapidly the panic increased as the showers of missiles
came tearing down, and soon the whole army was in a state of wild terror and
confusion - a condition greatly assisted by the slippery nature of the ground.
Then, with wild shouts, and brandishing their iron-studded clubs and their
formidable halberts and scythes, down the mountain-side rushed, with the fury
of their native avalanche, the heroic Confederates; and falling on their foes
literally slew them by thousands. Many hundreds of the Austrians perished in
the lake, the men of Zurich alone making a stand, and falling each where he
fought. Few succeeded in effecting their escape from what was little less
than a general butchery.

On that memorable day all the flower of Austria's nobility lay dead
within the country they had hoped so easily to conquer. The Duke, with a
handful of followers, alone survived, and even these were forced to undergo
many perils before they eventually arrived in safety at Winterthur. Neither
were the other attacks, under the Count of Strasburg and the forces from
Lucerne, more successful for the invaders. Both armies were repulsed with
enormous loss by the men of Unterwalden, who gave no quarter, many of their
opponents being their own countrymen from the estates of the abbey of
Interlaken. After these signal victories the Swiss, according to ancient
custom, offered up a solemn thanksgiving to almighty God for their success and
the overthrow of their enemies; and then, having laden themselves with the
spoils of the dead, they returned to their humble occupations, whence the
defence of their country and their lives had called them away. Among the
Swiss, Morgarten has always taken the first place in the long record of heroic
victories that since 1315 has made the fame of Swiss arms second to none in
Europe. This victory at once brought the Waldstaette out of their long
obscurity, and placed them in the front rank as powerful and respected states
in Switzerland.

Leopold, on his return to Austria, was so satisfied with the ability of
the audacious rustics" to defend themselves that he made no further attempt to
enter their country.

Back to Main menu

A project by History World International

World History Center