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century the house of Habsburg came into possession of this
office, and also acquired the stewardship (Kastvogtei) of all the
monasteries owning land in the district, except Engelberg —
Obwalden and Nidwalden came virtually under the complete
control of Habsburg, the more so as the confusion of the
period made it possible for the holders of such titles to exer-
cise almost unlimited jurisdiction.

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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 pre-
sented 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 H., 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 submit-
ted 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 per-
sistent 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 threat-
ened at any moment to engulf them. There was a natural,
inevitable antagonism between the inhabitants of the Forest


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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 con-
quering his great rival, Ottocar, King of Bohemia, at the same
time giving the lands thus obtained, Austria, Styria and Cor-
inthia to his sons as imperial fiefs. In this manner the title
of Duke of Austria became associated with the name oi

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 ecclesi-
astical 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 scat-
tered estates, which were situated partly in Luzern and in the
Forest States. Nor did the stewardship {Kastvogtet) of the
monastery of Einsiedeln and PfafFers 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 Urbarbuck^
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 sur-

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rounded 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

Rudolf of Habsburg died on the 15th of July, 1291, and
seventeen days after, on the ist 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 "Invoca-
tion" 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 commu-
nity of the mountaineers of the Lower Valley {homines vallis
Vranie^ Universitasque vallis de Switz ac communitas homi-
nutn intramontanorum vallis inferioris\ 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, molest-
ation 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

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ancient form of the league, ^ [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 com-
mon 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

5. But if dissension shall arise between any of the confed-
erates, 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 pro-
tect and defend the said criminal, he shall render satisfac-
tion 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 permis-
sion of his judge. Moreover, every man shall obey his judge,
and if necessary, must himself indicate the judge in the valley,

1 Rofening to som« previously enacted league, whose provbions are not

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before whom he ought properly to appear, ii. And if any
one rebels against a verdict, and» in consequence of his obsti-
nacy, any one of the confederates is injured, all the confeder-
ates are bound to compel the contumacious person to give

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

13. The above-written statutes, decreed for the common-
weal and health, shall endure forever, God willing. In testi-
timony 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 begin-
ning of the month of August."

A recent examination of the seals, attached to the docu-
menty 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, there-
fore, 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 sat-
isfactory, 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 unwill-
ing 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."

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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 terra.
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 par-
ticularly 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 applica-
tion 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 cen-
turies have practically verified the natve 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 Luzem. It is also to be regretted that the names of the
signers have not been handed down to us. We can only spec-
ulate as to who those patriots were, but a fortunate circum-
stance 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 Zurich,^ and the names of their representatives

' Oechsli, W. QuellenbucH. p. 50.

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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 Landam-
mann, 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 com-
mon 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 Zurich, with perhaps the
addition of the unknown Landammann of Unterwalden, may
be proclaimed the real founders of the Swiss Confederation.

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SOME years ago the announcement went abroad that the
familiar story of William Tell was not historically true;
that such a person never existed, or, if he did, could never
have played the r61e ascribed to him as founder of the Swiss
Confederation. It was discovered that when the methods of
research which Niebuhr had used with so much skill to eluci-
date the origin of Rome were applied also to the early days of
the Confederation, the episode of William Tell became a fire-
side tale, a bit of folk-lore ; valuable from a literary standpoint,
but without historical significance. Unfortunately, he had
long been regarded as a universal household friend, a prime
favorite with the children, and one who appealed also to their
elders as a singularly picturesque representative of Liberty
striving successfully against Tyranny. He had, moreover,
called forth the best powers of at least one great poet, Schiller,
and one famous musician, Rossini, so that his claim seemed to
the world established beyond question by the sanction of gen-
ius. It was natural, therefore, that this adverse report should
be received with incredulity and indignation. At first people
preferred to cling to their belief in William Tell, rather than
to sacrifice another illusion of their childhood to the all-devour-
ing, investigating spirit of the age ; the more so because they
knew little or nothing about the history of Switzerland beyond
this episode. But when the best authorities, one by one,
declared themselves against the truth of the tradition, the
conviction gradually gained ground that the old hero must be
classified as a legendary personage.
1 Appeared in '*The AUantic Monthly," November, 1890.


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The truth is, there have always been a certain number of
objectors to the accuracy of the tradition which based Swiss
liberty upon the shot of a skillful archer, but their words have
made no lasting impression upon the public mind. As early
as the beginning of the sixteenth century, Joachim von Watt,
the reformer of St. Gallen, better known under his Latinized
name of Vadianus, had spoken of the subject in his Chronicle
of the Abbots of the Monastery of St. Gallen : " Of these three
lands" [meaning the present Cantons of Uri, Schwiz, and
Unterwalden] " they tell strange things in regard to their age
and origin. ... I suspect that much is fabled, and some
again, may not be likened to the truth."^ In 1607, the writer,
Francois Guilliman, of Fribourg, who added some new details
to the story of William Tell in his history De Rebus Helveti-
orunty makes this surprising confession in a letter to a friend :
" After having maturely pondered the matter, I consider the
whole thing a mere fable, especially as I have not yet been
able to discover a writer or chronicler, more than a century
old, vho mentions it. All this seems to have been invented
to nourish hatred against Austria, The people of Uri are
not agreed amongst themselves in regard to the place where
William Tell lived ; they can give no information in regard to
his family or his descendants." Again, in 1754, Voltaire said
in his Annates de V Empire ^ ** L'kistoire de la pomme est bien
suspecte**; and in his Essai sur les Mceurs^ **Il semble qu'on
ait cru devoir omer d'une fable le berceau de la liber ti helvi-
tique**^ A momentary sensation was created in 1760 by a
pamphlet entitled Der Wilhelm Tell^ Ein Ddniscltes Mdkrgen,
which was ordered publicly to be burned by the hangman of
Canton Uri, so bitter had the controversy become. The author
was a certain Uriel Freudenberger, pastor at Ligerz, on the
Lake of Bienne, and his attack elicited a sharp retort from
Felix Balthazar, of Luzern, a Defense de Guillaume Tell,
Calm, however, was restored for a time by the authoritative

iRilliet, A. Origines. p. 311.
^Ibid. pp. 3« 2,395-

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declarations of two noted historians, Emmanuel von Haller
and Johannes von Miiller, in favor of the traditional hero»
although von Miiller, like Guilliman, privately acknowledged to
a friend that he had serious doubts of the truth of what he
wrote. Even Schiller, whose play appeared in 1804, was con-
strained to admit that in the tradition William Tell had really
no part in founding the Confederation, and he was conse-
quently obliged to resort to such expedients as his art sug-
gested, in order to make his hero the central figure of the
struggle against Austria.

The subject finally came up again when Joseph Eutych
Kopp submitted it to a thorough investigation by searching
the records of the three cantons, and publishing his results
in his Urkunden zur Geschichte der Eidgenossischen Biinde
(1835-1857), his Reichsgeschichte (1845-1858), and his Ges-
chichtsblatter aus der Schweiz (1853.)

To understand the commotion produced in Switzerland by
Kopp's exposi we must try to imagine what would be the
result in the United States if George Washington were sud-
denly declared to be a legendary character. Every one sided
for or against the truth of the tradition ; no one could remain
neutral ; but from that day to this the impression has gradu-
ally forced itself upon the minds of all who have looked into
the question that Kopp was in the main right, and that,
whatever modifications new discoveries may make necessary
in the sweeping judgment which that historian pronounced,
William Tell can never again be looked upon as the founder of
the Swiss Confederation.

Our confidence in the accuracy of the tradition is first
shaken by the fact that the great archer is not mentioned by a
single writer of the period in which he is supposed to have
lived, or even the faintest allusion made to him in the records
of that day. To begin with, therefore, we are warranted in
doubting his historical importance, if he could be so com-
pletely ignored by his contemporaries. The battle of Morgar-
ten, in 13 15, was the baptismal day of the young confederation.

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but none of the chroniclers who describe this event and the
incidents attending it have a word to say of a William Tell,
or of any one who could be mistaken for him. On the other
handy the whole tenor of these writings and of the documents
of the period is opposed to the tradition. The impres-
sion we derive from them is that the Swiss gained their
independence after a long-continued struggle, not by a sudden
rising, and through the efforts of the whole people, not at the
instigation of one man. In 1420, Konrad Justinger, of Bern,
in writing the annals of his native citjr, touched upon the
origin of the Confederation, but even he says nothing about
William Tell ; nor does Felix Hemmerlin, of Zurich, writing
upon the same subject in 1450.

In fact, it is not till about 1477, more than a century and a
half after William Tell was supposed to have lived, that we
can find any reference to him. At that date an unknown poet
brought out a ballad entitled, "Song of the Origin of the Con-
federation," in twenty-nine stanzas, nine of which seem from
internal evidence to antedate 1474. The following translation
of the four stanzas which bear upon the subject, the first to
my knowledge which has appeared in English, has been made
without any attempt at metrical correctness, the original being
extremely rough and in dialect :

** Now Ibten well, dear sirs.
How tLe league at first arose.
Nor let yourselves be wearied ;
How one from his own son
An apple from the head
Had with his hands to shoot.

«« The baUiff spake to William Tell ;
< Now look thee that thy skill fail not.

And hear my speech with care :

Hit thou it not at the first shot,

Forsooth it bodes thee little good.

And costeth thee thy life.'

** Then prayed he God both day and night
He might at first the apple hit ;
It would provoke them much I

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He had the luck, by the power of God,
That he with all his art
So skillfully could shoot.

" Hardly had he done the first shot.

An arrow did he put in his quiver :
* Had I shot down my child,

I had it in my mind —

I tell thee for the honest truth —

I would have shot thee also.' " *

Subsequent verses describe how an uproar ensues, in which
Tell enumerates the evil deeds of the bailiffs. These are then
expelled, and young and old unite in a loyal league. It will
be noticed, however, that there is no mention of the name
Gessler, of a hat set upon a pole, of the leap at the Tellsplatte,
or of the murder of the bailiflf at Kiissnacht: these details
appear in another version, dating from almost the same time.

Between 1467 and 1474, a notary at Sarnen, in the Canton
of Unterwalden, transcribed a number of traditions in the form
of a chronicle into a collection of documents, known as "The
White Book," on account of the color of its parchment bind-
ing. Here the story of William Tell is told as follows, in a
style of archaic simplicity which is not without a certain charm
of its own: "Now it happened one day that the bailifif, Gess-
ler, went to Ure [Canton Uri], and took it into his head and
put up a pole under the lime-tree in Ure, and set up a hat upon
the pole, and had a servant near it, and made a command who-
ever passed by there he should bow before the hat, as though
the lord were there ; and he who did it not, him he would pun-
ish and cause to repent heavily, and the servant was to watch
and tell of such an one. Now there was there an honest man
called Thall ; he had also sworn with Stoupacher and his fel-
lows [a reference to a conspiracy previously described in The
White Book]. Now he went rather often to and fro before it
The servant who watched by the hat accused him to the lord.
The lord went and had Thall sent, and asked him why he was
not obedient to his bidding, and do as he was bidden. Thall

J Oechsli, \V. Quellenbuch. pp. 63-64.

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spake : * It happened without malice, for I did not know that
it would vex your Grace so highly ; for were I witty, then were
I called something else, and not the Tall* [the Fool, a pun
upon his name^]. Now Tall was a good archer; he had also
pretty children. These the lord sent for, and forced Tall with
his servants that Tall must shoot an apple from the head of
one of his children ; for the lord set the apple upon the child's
head. Now Tall saw well that he was mastered, and took an
arrow and put it into his quiver ; the other arrow he took in
his hand, and stretched his crossbow, and prayed God that he

Online LibraryWilliam Denison McCrackanThe rise of the Swiss republic: A history → online text (page 7 of 32)