THL Isabelle de Foix

The year was 1480, give or take a year. These people didn’t keep calendars, you know. They only knew saints’ days, and no two towns could agree on when to celebrate New Year's Day. On a cold day in a region called Uri (the name is derived from an older Germanic word for "wilderness"), some villagers in a town called Altdorf gathered in the home of a prominent burgher for drinks and stories. One had a story, which had been around awhile in oral tradition but had just been written down for the first time. It was the story of a heroic marksman who, according to the story, was the finest marksman in all of Uri around 1300. After successfully shooting an apple balanced on his son’s head, the story went, he shot a representative of a hated foreign government and freed his country, Switzerland. This was a mythological character known to history as William Tell.

Even though there is no documentation for the existence of William Tell, there were many people in those parts who could have been him. They were a proud people who lived in the barren Alpine Mountains which had once been part of the Roman Empire. The original inhabitants of this country had been Celtic tribes called the Rhaetii and the Helvetii. Around 260 C.E, the land was invaded by some German tribes. The Romans, losing control of their Empire, pulled out around 400 C.E. Throughout the next few centuries the region was in such political and social chaos that there was no central government. The people of the local villages began to meet in local assemblies to make their own laws. But there was a geographical oasis in the economic desert of the medieval Alps that gave rise to serious political disputes. This was the pass of St. Gotthard, which was a path through the Alps between the German territories to the north and Italy. The dispute over the ownership of this land intensified as certain powerful individuals gained the upper hand in a social organization of Europe commonly called feudalism.

Feudalism was based on a loose-knit combination of ancient German and Roman traditions. The word itself came from the old German "vieh", meaning cow. This indicated that the cow, and the land it lived on, was the unit of wealth during this period. Since there were no centralized governments, there was no centralized coinage. Powerful people established dominion over other people who became obligated to serve them with labor on their lands in return for military protection and the right to use land to grow crops on that belonged to the "lord", the powerful man. This grew into a hierarchy of people of varying rank, from kings to dukes and counts down through barons, gentry, and, in the lowest station, the class we commonly call serfs. Everyone had to swear fealty, or loyalty, to their overlords. The lords had to promise to protect them. Unfortunately this was more often practiced in the breach than in the proper, and many peasants had their crops destroyed during wars.

By the twelfth century the Habsburgs of Austria had attained the rank of counts. In 1173 they acquired feudal rights around the pass of St. Gotthard. Unlike their feudal predecessors, the people in these small villages hadn’t had to pay feudal tolls, even though they had technically been under the rule of feudal lords for centuries. These regions were called Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden, and they were in the heart of what is now modern Switzerland. These people were so poor in the Middle Ages that they had to eke out livings by selling their services to foreigners as mercenaries sell. The mountainous terrain of Switzerland was too barren to be good farming land. The pass of St. Gotthard was the only economic advantage they had, and they cherished the business it brought to them. Some villages grew in these lands. Two of these villages were called Altdorf and Schwyz.

The Habsburgs demanded the payment of a toll for anyone using the pass. This annoyed the locals and they began to resent the heavy-handed policies of the Habsburg rulers. They wanted the payments for the pass-crossing. To them they were intruders, foreigners who took advantage of their exalted position in Austria to intimidate those with less power. The Habsburgs frowned upon the meetings of the villagers to make their own laws; only aristocrats, they felt, should be in the business of making laws. Their underlings should obey these laws and ask no questions. Needless to say the hardy mountaineers disagreed with this and were willing to pick up their pikes, lethal weapons of metal with pin-sharp ends, to defend their people from outside rule. In 1291, representatives from the area got together in a location now unknown, and a now nameless scribe wrote down a document declaring the locals a free people, mutually obligated to protect each other from the oppression of foreign rulers. This was important enough for the scribe to have written down the exact date of the signing of the treaty, 1 August 1291. The Julian calendar was rarely used but it was used for this occasion. To this day 1 August is Independence Day in Switzerland.

The original three regions of the country were Schwyz, Unterwalden, and Uri. In 1315 Swiss warriors, wielding their much-feared pikes, defeated the Habsburg army in the pass of Morgarten. Shortly after this another region, Luzern, (commonly known to us by its French name, Lucerne), petitioned to become a part of the new confederation. It was accepted as the fourth "canton" in 1332. Shortly thereafter the name of the region of Schwyz became the name of the entire political entity. It maintained a very decentralized form of government, and still does. In modern Switzerland a Swiss taxpayer pays 50% of their taxes to their town, 40% to their canton, and only 10% to the federal government in Bern.

The Habsburg threat to the independent Swiss was not ended. When the Habsburgs became Holy Roman Emperors, the country was included in the Empire. There continued to be fierce battles with their neighbors for their independence. The Habsburgs wanted to enforce full feudal rule; later on the powerful Dukes of Burgundy would try to conquer the Confederation, only to have the last Duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold, meet his death on the battlefield at the hands of the Swiss pikemen. The Swiss mercenaries went undefeated for two centuries. They finally lost a battle in northern Italy to the King of France, Francis I, in the early sixteenth century.

Meanwhile the Protestant Reformation had spread into Switzerland, led by a former Catholic priest named Uldrich Zwingli. Some of the cantons, like Zurich, became Protestant; some other cantons, including Schwyz, Uri and Unterwalden, remained Catholic. A war broke out and almost tore up the Confederation. In the end the cantons agreed to disagree about religion and the disputes died down.

Meanwhile the change in Europe’s economy from a feudal to a money economy worked greatly to Switzerland’s benefit. With the rise of towns and capitalism the Swiss were able to become prosperous with commerce in jewelry and banking. They no longer needed mercenaries to work outside of the country. However, to this day the security force at the offices of the papacy is still Swiss, and is called the Swiss Guard. Members of the Swiss Guard must be Swiss by birth and needless to say Catholic in religion.

Much of Swiss history is post-period. It became an independent country, apart from the Holy Roman Empire, in 1648. It adopted its famous neutrality status in 1812. It remains continental Europe’s oldest continuous democracy.


History of Switzerland, primary documents, Brigham Young University site

Story of William Tell, Pfadebewing, Swiss section of the Boy and Girl Scout movement site

My Switzerland, site maintained by Switzerland’s tourist industry