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History, Struggle for Independence

Morgarten, papal guard, Habsburg dynasty, Lake of Lucerne, canton of Ticino

In 1276 Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf I of the Habsburg dynasty attempted to assert feudal rights in Switzerland, making his power a threat to the traditional liberties of the Swiss. To resist Rudolf’s aggression, representatives of the three so-called forest cantons—Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden—gathered on August 1, 1291, in a meadow above the Lake of Lucerne, and entered a league for mutual defense. This event is regarded as the birth of Switzerland. Events preceding the conflict gave rise to the story of William Tell, Switzerland’s most famous folk hero. According to legend, a villainous governor named Gessler was sent by Habsburg authorities to govern the canton of Uri. To proclaim his power, Gessler required passing locals to salute his hat, which had been placed on a pole. When Tell refused, he was arrested and ordered to shoot an arrow through an apple resting on his son’s head. After doing so, Tell was arrested again, but later escaped and killed Gessler—an event that is said to have prompted the Swiss uprising against the Habsburgs.

The first test of strength for the confederation came in 1315, when mountaineers (peasant foot soldiers) of the forest cantons confronted the superior forces of the Habsburgs and their allies. The Swiss fighters routed the Habsburg forces at Morgarten Pass in the canton of Schwyz, effectively guaranteeing the independence of the young confederacy. This victory encouraged other communities to join the confederation. The urban cantons of Lucerne, Zurich, and Bern, and the rural cantons of Glarus and Zug, made separate alliances with the three forest cantons between 1332 and 1353, establishing a series of confederations. Though lacking a coherent structure, these alliances were able to provide for the independence of every community.

In the 15th century the Swiss Confederation was strong enough to undertake a vigorous program of expansion. The Swiss captured Aargau in 1415, and from 1451 to 1466 the confederation won a series of new allies: Sankt Gallen, in 1451; Appenzell, in 1452; Schaffhausen and Stein am Rhein, in 1459; Rottweil, in 1463; and Mulhouse, in 1466. However, these areas were not granted full rights. Swiss armies defeated the armies of Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy, in 1476, and of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I in 1499. By the Treaty of Basel on September 22, 1499, Maximilian was compelled to abandon his plans to reassert control in Switzerland and recognize the unofficial independence of the Swiss. Soon afterward the confederation expanded again and by 1513 included the cantons of Fribourg, Solothurn, Basel, Schaffhausen, and Appenzell. This created a federal union of 13 cantons that continued unchanged until the French Revolution.

In the early 16th century, Swiss troops, fighting with the French, were able to annex the Italian districts and towns that later formed the canton of Ticino. Swiss fighters later sided with Italy in a campaign to drive the French from the Po Valley. The campaign initially succeeded, but French forces returned to the Po and in 1515 dealt the Swiss a crushing defeat at Maringano in northern Italy. The defeat proved to the Swiss that they could not hope to defeat their larger neighbors in battle. Soon afterward, the Swiss renounced their expansionist aims, proclaimed a neutral foreign policy, and turned to developing the country’s rich potential as a crossroads of trade routes. Since then, Switzerland’s policy of neutrality has been strictly observed.

Despite Switzerland’s withdrawal from international warfare, Swiss mercenaries—known for their great courage and skill in war—became famous throughout Europe. They continued to serve in other armies for centuries. The tradition was largely abandoned in the 18th century when Swiss fighters increasingly found themselves on opposing sides of European conflicts. The Swiss Guard, the papal guard of the Vatican in Rome, is a vestige of that era.

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