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of the manly virtues — brave, keen, and well practiced in

There was something extraordinary in the sensation caused
by the reports of this rout of the nobles. The news flew like
wildfire in every direction, so that we find it mentioned in the
chronicles of places as far removed from the scene of battle as
Liibeck and Limburg in the far north, and an Italian city in
the south. A Swabian writer expressed the pious wish '* that
the cursed Swiss at Sentback (Sempach) might be confounded
and their descendants destroyed forever,"^ while the Confeder-
ates, on their side, made all manner of fun of the vanquished
knights, accumulating a large stock of anecdotes and war
songs upon the subject. It is related, for instance, that the
dismounted horsemen were obliged to cut off the awkward
beak-shaped points to their shoes, which were fashionable in
those days, before entering into battle, and that this is the rea-
son why a field near by is still called the Schnabelacker^ or

A further task in historical criticism remains to be accom-
plished before leaving this subject — a disagreeable duty in
many respects, for it is to examine whether Arnold Winkel-
ried did really perform the heroic act attrib«ted to him, or
whether his story is merely an interpolation, inserted by
unscrupulous chroniclers.

Fortunately, the evidence concerning the ancestry of Win-
kelried, unlike that of William Tell, reposes upon a solid foun-
dation. As long ago as 1854, Dr. Hermann von Liebenau,
whose services in the cause of Swiss historical research have
been invaluable, published a genealogical record of the family
from contemporary documents, covering the period between
1248 and 1534.

The Knights of Winkelreid appear at intervals, according to
Von Liebenau's investigations, occupying positions of honor
and trust amongst the families of lesser nobles which Unter-
walden possessed from very early times. In 1367, nineteen

1 Liebenau, T. von. Die Schlacht Wi Sempach.

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years before the battle of Sempach, the name of a man, £mi
Winkelried, was affixed as witness to a deed of transfer, £mi
being the local diminutive of Arnold. The same name, whether
representing the same person or not, cannot be determined,
but with the particle von added, occurs again three years after
the battle, and without a von thirty-one years after, when one
Erni Winkelried is mentioned as Landammann of Unterwalden.

At the eastern extremity of the village of Stans, travellers
are shown an ancient stone house which is known locally as
the Winkelried homestead, and in the little arsenal hangs a
coat-of-mail which is said to have been the hero's own. There
is no evidence of the genuineness of the relic beyond popular
say-so, while the house was more likely the property of the
Counts of Habsburg. A modem marble group, representing
Winkelried's act of heroism, stands in the village square.

The ominous silence of contemporary chronicles is urged
against the truth of the generally accepted version, for the
brave deed is not mentioned until something like half a cen-
tury after the battle, and even this date is open to the question.
The name of Winkelried does not occur in the earliest account
which has been quoted above in the description of the battle,
where he is described simply as "a trusty man amongst the Con-
federates " ; in fact, we meet the name for the first time in a
certain battle-song attributed to one Halbsuter, of Luzem, the
date of its production being also a matter in dispute, but gen-
erally conceded to be about 1476. The three stanzas which
deal with the Winkelried episode are presented here in all
their naive simplicity : —

** The nobles* force was firm,

Their order deep and broad ;

This vexed the pious guests.^

A Winkelried, he said :
' Ha I if you*ll make amends

To my poor child and wife,

1*11 do a daring deed.'

1 Referring, probably, to the fact that the men of Unterwalden were, in a sense,
military guests of Luzem, in whose territory the battle of Sempach was fought

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"*True and dear Confederates,
ni lose my life with you ;
They've closed their line of battle.
We cannot break it through ;
Hal I will force an opening,
Because to my descendants
Youll make amends forever t*

** With this he then did seize
Of spears an armful quickly ;
For them he makes a way.
His life b at an end.
Ah ! he has a lion's courage ;
His brave and manly death
Saved the Four Forest States.''^

In 1538, Rudolf Gwalther, Zwingli's son-in-law, tells the
same story, without, however, mentioning Winkelried's name.
Two lists of those who fell in the battle have put the
hero's name on record; but, unfortunately, they were both
drawn up long after Sempach, almost two hundred years
having elapsed since that event, so that their testimony is
open to suspicion. In the course of this controversy, it has
also transpired that five similar feats are on record in Swiss
history. One historian (K. Biirkli) has gone so far as to
assert that the whole story has been transferred to Sem-
pach from the fight which occurred at Bicocca, near Milan,
in 1522, where another Arnold Winkelried met his death in
a similar manner ; while somebody else even maintains that
Winkelried did not seize the enemy's spears at all, but him-
self used a bundle of spears to break through the enemy's

The upshot of the whole discussion seems to be some-
what as follows : —

The strictest historical research has established that a
man, Arnold Winkelried, lived in Stans, of Unterwalden, at
about the time of the battle of Sempach ; but it is still a
debatable question whether he was present at the battle.

^ Oechsli, W. Quellenbuch. p. 107-108.

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The fact that he came from a knightly family, distinguished
for its warlike character, would lead one to suppose that be
would not absent himself at a critical moment, such as the day
of Sempach undoubtedly was. As for the act itself, the
evidence for and against seems fairly well balanced. There
was, unquestionably, a wonderful turning-point in the course
of the battle, and Winkelried's act might have accomplished
all that has been claimed for it; but, on the other hand,
the silence of contemporary accounts, the similarity of the
feat recorded of the battle of Bicocca, and the unscrupulous-
ness of chroniclers and ballad-mongers in glorifying their
particular locality, are arguments which must be considered
to weigh heavily against the story of the patriotic self-

One must confess to an intense enthusiasm for this heroic
act, whether performed at Sempach or at Bicocca, by a
Winkelried or by an unknown " trusty man amongst the Con-
federates." It has in it something exceptionally noble,
something classic, as though destined to fire the imagination
and arouse the devotion of mankind for all time. William
Tell's disappearance from the historical stage has proved a
great gain, especially by opening the way for a serious
study of the origin of the Swiss Confederation. His conduct
never merited the eulogisms which have always been lavished
upon it ; for to imperil the life of his own child by an exhibi-
tion of fancy shooting, and then to niurder the tyrant from
ambush, were acts which we cannot sanction unreservedly.
William Tell's story is picturesque, but Winkelried's is
heroic, unsoiled even by the semblance of self-interest. If
it be destined to disappear from the pages of strict history,
let it at least live in the hearts of men forever as a divine

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MORGARTEN and Sempach alike, though fought between
Austria and the Confederation, were in reality episodes
in a far greater contest which embraced the nobility and
peasantry of Europe in general. In the retrospect these bat-
tles are seen to be amongst those victories which have
advanced the cause of liberty and placed mankind nearer the
ideal toward which it is steadily progressing through the

But Austria's cup of humiliation was not yet full. Embold-
ened by their wonderful success, the Confederates encroached
upon the enemy's territory in all directions. A sort of armis-
tice was indeed agreed upon, a temporary cessation of hostilities,
which went by the name of the Evil Peace, because no one for
a moment dreamed that the contracting parties would adhere
strictly to its provisions. The Bernese promptly marched
against Fribourg, as they usually did when that staunch Aus-
trian rival of their^ was unprotected, and inflicted several
defeats in that quarter. Other Confederates took the little
town of Wesen as the first step toward reclaiming Glarus
altogether from the Austrian yoke. In fact, the contest was
now transferred to that unfortunate valley, which, though
united to the Confederation by a perpetual league, was still
governed by the common enemy.

At this juncture, the men of Glarus cast off the last sem-
blance of subjection to Austria in a public assembly, or
Landsgemeinde^ presided over by a Landammann elected by
themselves. A constitution (Satzungsbrief) was drawn up,


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which aimed openly at political independence from the nunnery
at Seckingen and its bailiff, the Duke of Austria. It then
received the sanction of all the Confederates except Bern,
that city still holding aloof from any joint action with the rest.

Barely had the Evil Peace expired in 1388, when the Aus-
trians renewed offensive operations by attempting to reconquer
the rebellious little land of Glarus. For this purpose the pos-
session of Wesen was necessary, as a glance at the map will
show, a stronghold guarded at that time only by a small detach-
ment of Confederates, principally from Glarus itself. In the
night of the 22d of February, the garrison was surprised, with
the connivance of a part of the inhabitants. Great indignation
was expressed throughout the land, both against those who had
planned this cowardly attack, as also against the traitorous
population of Wesen, who had given their assistance, for, with
this key in their hands, the Austrians could proceed to the con-
quest of Glarus under the most favorable circumstances. A
last attempt to come to some sort of understanding miscar-
ried, and Glarus was, therefore, exposed to an immediate

On the morning of the 9th of April, 1388, the Austrian
army, 5000 to 6000 strong in horse and foot, set out in two
columns to march up the valley and capture the chief village,
the little capital of Glarus. One would have thought so numer-
ous a host more than enough to subdue a poor and thinly
populated district, but the result at once showed the great supe-
riority of the people on foot, defending their native soil, over
the best mounted troops in search of plunder. It was but a
repetition of Morgarten and Seropach. The main body, under
Count Donat of Toggenburg, proceeded straight up the valley,
while a detachment, under Count Werdenberg-Sargans, exe-
cuted a flank movement from the Walensee over the Kerenzen
Mountain to Beglingen and Mollis.

There was no fighting until the principal force drew near
Nafels, where the valley grows considerably narrower. Here an
old Letzi^ or fortification, barred their way for a time, defended

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by a small picked body of the men of Glarus. After a fierce
struggle, the latter were obliged to yield to superior numbers,
and withdrew up the valley, giving the alarm to all the inhab-
itants as they went. So far all had gone well for the Austri-
ans, but no sooner had they forced the Letzi^ than, regardless
of discipline, they spread over the plain in search of booty,
plundering the houses, destroying the crops, and driving the
cattle together. Nothing could have been more favorable to
the men of Glarus, for it gave them just the time they needed
to recover from the shock of their first defeat, and to take up
a position of defence beyond Nafels, upon a slope at the foot
of the Rautiberg, which goes by the name of Schneisingen.
It was covered with loose, rolling stones, the debris which
time and weather had worn from the cliffs above, the whole
forming what is technically called a talus. Upon this ground
a devoted band had gathered, consisting of native men rein-
forced by a few brave fellows from Schwiz, who had probably
hastened over the Pragel Pass at the last moment. They did
not number more than 600 in all, a mere handful of men, but
all inspired by the loftiest ideal of patriotism and rendered for-
Biidable by their desperate situation.

As the Attslrians approached in loose order, they became
aware of this concentration of the enemy, firmly planted to
dispute their passage, and straightway prepared to dislodge
them. The horsemen were riding in front, according to uni-
versal practice in medieval warfare, behind them the infantry.
Without hesitation the former urged their horses up the steep
and insecure slope in the hope of driving down the defenders,
but, for their pains, received a perfect shower of large stones
which wounded many and rendered the chargers unmanageable
with fright. It was e\ndent that nothing could be accom-
plished in this manner ; the horsemen, therefore, drew back a
little, calling out to the infantry behind to make way for them.
Just as this backward movement was being carried out, while
the whole Austrian force was still retreating, and before it had
taken up a new position, the men of Glarus rushed down from

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the height, hurled themselves with the utmost violence aigainst
the disordered foe, and drove them, step by step, down the val-
ley, by the Letzit and finally over the open plain toward

Tradition has it that the Austrians arrested their flight eleven
times to make a stand against the furious onslaught of the
enraged mountaineers, and eleven times were turned back with
frightful slaughter. Then their flight developed into a mad
race to Wesen, in course of which many were drowned by the
breaking down of a bridge over the river Linth, and others
were cut down by their ruthless pursuers, as they lay wounded
and defenceless upon the battlefield. It was a barbarous age,
when quarter was neither asked nor given. As near as can be
estimated, the Austrian loss was no less than 1700 men, while
that of the victors did not exceed 54, the names of the fallen
patriots being still visible in the church at Mollis, inscribed in
golden letters.

As for Count Werdenberg, no sooner had he ascertained
the fate of the main body, than, esteeming discretion the better
part of valor, he fled in hot haste — "and yet," remarks a
Zurich chronicler, ironically, "not a soul ran after him. "*

A year after the battle, the men of Glarus instituted an
annual pilgrimage to Nafels, which has developed in course of
time into a regular patriotic festival; a procession, on each
occasion, visits the eleven stones which mark the places where
according to tradition the Austrians rallied in vain.

In 1389, a seven-years' peace was signed at Vienna, leaving
the Confederates in undisputed possession of all the territory
they had acquired by force of arms in the recent war. But
this did not prevent the Dukes of Austria from attempting to
undermine the victorious Confederation by diplomatic means,
for, after succeeding in placing themselves at the head of a
league of imperial cities in Southern Germany, tried their old
trick of trying to win Zurich from allegiance to the Confedera-
tion, in order to incorporate that city into their own alliance.

» Dandliker, K. Geschichte. Vol. I., p. 534.

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In fact, they had already received the assent of the Zurich gov-
ernment to their proposition, when all at once a note of alarm
was heard throughout the land, and negotiations had to be
stopped. An aristocratic faction, which had inherited Brun's
philo- Austrian policy, was at the time (1393) in control of
Zurich, but when remonstrances poured in from various mem-
bers of the Confederation, and the great body of the citizens
themselves expostulated against the scandalous plan, a popular
rising took place in the city. Biirgermeister, Rudolf Schon,
and his satellites were expelled ; the assent to the league with
Austria was withdrawn ; and a thorough revision of the city
constitution undertaken in a democratic sense. This new doc-
ument was known as the Dritte Geschworene Brief.

It is difficult to understand the motive of the aristocratic
party in lending itself to proceedings which were so certain to
arouse the fury of the people, and that, too, so soon after the
Confederation had proved its ability to repulse the attacks of
Austria on every hand. Had the treacherous purpose suc-
ceeded, Zurich must inevitably have severed her connection
with the growing federal state to which she had voluntarily
bound herself by a perpetual pact.

Still burning with the sense of wrong, and impressed by
the necessity for closer union, the Confederates, one and all,
even Glarus and Bern, with the latter's principal ally, Solo-
thum, met in 1393* and signed a document, the C<yvenant of
Sempach, s(xalled because it related principally to the defects
in the military organization of the Confederates, which the
war of Sempach had betrayed. Its several provisions will be
examined in the next chapter.

Whether it was the failure to sever Zurich from the Con-
federation, or whether the utter hopelessness of further con-
quest finally impressed itself upon the Dukes of Austria, at
all events, they suddenly abandoned the position they had
maintained until now, and signed a peace for twenty years, to
last until 1415.

The war of independence was virtually over; the Eight

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States could rest from their labors. All the pretentions Aus-
tria had so long upheld, at the sacrifice of so great an outlay
in men and money, all these collapsed utterly and forever ; the
Dukes virtually acknowledged that they had been worsted in
the struggle of more than a hundred years, and were now
forced to treat as independent and sovereign the very people
they had heretofore considered in the light of subjects or

In truth a new power had arisen within the German Empire,
a warlike element formidable to the upholders of the feudal
system, but to the oppressed people an example of what
undaunted patriotism, wisely tempered, could accomplish.
To all intents and purposes the Confederation, though still
within the Empire, was from this time on no longer of it. In
Germany proper men spoke of the various States collectively
as Die Schweiz^ after Schwiz, the State which seemed to them
the most active and irreconcilable, while the Swiss them-
selves called their Confederation an Eidgenossenschaft in the
documents, showing that they were beginning to form a sepa-
rate nation.

Certainly the results are worthy of admiration, the more
so as the democratic feelings, which had made their appear-
ance in the Swabian and Rhine cities, received their death-
blow at this very time. Only a few months after the rude
peasants of Glarus had defeated a large army of Knights at
Nafels, the league of the Swabian cities was hopelessly
crushed by Count Eberhard, of Wiirttemburg, in the battle
of Dofflingen, and soon after the Rhine cities also suc-
cumbed to a like fate. At the very time, therefore, that the
seeds of immemorial Teutonic liberties were being trampled
into the mire in Germany proper, they took root and flour-
ished in the rising Swiss Confederation. On one side the
monarchical principle was in the ascendant, on the other the
republican. With the lapse of time this fundamental differ-
ence became more and more accentuated; the two nations
grew apart, never again to be united.

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The Swiss of the fourteenth century rescued the princi-
ple of primitive democracy, which had reached them
pre-feudal times, just at the critical moment when it
threatened with extinction. All honor to them for
great service to mankind I

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OF a constitution proper, in the modem acceptation of
the term, there were, as yet, only faint traces. The
Confederation of Eight States by no means presented all
the features of a well-balanced, logical scheme of govern-
ment. It was a group of sovereign communities rather than
a nation, an organization rather than an organism, and "a
Union of the loosest kind," as Mr. Freeman says, in which the
members were neither all bound to each other nor all on an
equal footing with each other. Bern had contracted no direct
league either with Zurich or Luzern, nor Luzem with Glarus,
nor Glarus with Zug. Moreover Glarus occupied a distinctly
subordinate position toward the rest, while the Forest States
were pledged to render certain services to Zurich and Bern,
for which those cities by no means returned an equivalent.

The very charters of the different States, and their meth-
ods of home government, varied as much as possible from
each other.

Uri, Schwiz, Unterwalden, and Glarus were typical rural
communities. In time they had grown to be pure democ-
racies. The sovereign people exercised their powers directly
in open-air popular assemblies, or Landsgemeinden^ of their
own choice. Usually a council was elected to attend to the
daily needs and current business of the community, but it
was characteristic of these Landsgetneinde states that the
supreme power emanated from the people themselves, and
was only delegated to the magistrates.


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In the cities the procedure was reversed. Here the
supreme power was lodged in the chief magistrate and his
council, and distributed from above, as it were, upon the
people, with greater or less liberality, according to the
amount of privilege which the latter had wrung from their

On the whole, Zurich had made greater progress than any
of the other cities in the direction of democracy. The first,
second, and third Sworn Briefs all indicated successive
stages in the emancipation of the common people, in giving
them greater influence in the government. The power of
the aristocratic Konstaffel was steadily being curtailed to the
profit of the guilds; two Burgermeister were elected instead
of one, and to serve only half a year each ; and, finally, the
Great Council of Two Hundred, which at first was only con-
sulted on very exceptional occasions, was declared supreme,
and constituted a sort of court of last appeal.

Bern, on the other hand, was the representative of aristo-
cratic principles. Here commercial interests were always
subordinate to military and administrative needs. Hence the
guilds never acquired any prominence, but were promptly sup-
pressed by the authorities, whenever they showed signs of
vigorous growth. The chief magistrate was called Schul-
theiss ; he and the council of twelve were elected exclusively
from the ranks of the aristocracy. It was, therefore, a decided
democratic innovation when working^en were admitted to a
share in electing the Great Council of Two Hundred.

Luzem occupied a position somewhere midway between
these two cities, with the character of a conservative democ-
racy. There was a Schultheiss and council to which all citi-
zens were eligible, but guilds were here also strictly forbidden.

In Zug a distinction must be made between the city proper
and the country district, or Amt, The two together formed a
democracy after the pattern of the Forest States, but the city
had its own Schultheiss and council.

Apart from these differences in the constitutions of the

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several States, there was a further obstacle to their union. It
so happened that their boundaries were by no means every*
where contiguous, that tracts of alien lands entered between
them like wedges, or that some of them were even isolated
from the rest and completely surrounded by enemies. The
whole did not form a well-rounded, compact territory.

One may well ask, therefore, how it came to pass that so
motley a Confederation, made up of members differing so

Online LibraryWilliam Denison McCrackanThe rise of the Swiss republic: A history → online text (page 14 of 32)