Canton of Basel-Stadt
17 April 2021
The Celtic tribe of Rauraken inhabited the region of Basel before the arrival of the Romans. The foundations of the ancient fortress lake, the murus gallus, on the hill near the Münster, next to the cathedral, can still be seen. Its location on the Rhine was important for fishing and trade.
Roman era and Alemanni
The city of Basilea remained small in Roman times. The nearby Roman colony Augusta Raurica (Augst) was a large provincial town at the time. The Augusta Raurica Museum depicts this history in detail. After the Romans left around 400, the bishop’s arrival was crucial for the town’s development.
The bishop and the prince-bishopric
Basel became the new seat of the bishop probably because of the invasions of the Germanic tribes (the Alemanni) at the end of the fourth century. The bishop previously had its seat in nearby Augusta Raurica. The hill on which the cathedral was built provided a good refuge. Until the Carolingian Empire of Charlemagne (742-814), the diocese and the city led an unremarkable existence (politically and culturally).
Two bishops stand out in this period: Waldo (740-814) and Haito (762-836), and cultural innovators and advisers to Charlemagne. In 999, the diocese would also become a secular and military power. In that year, the diocese acquires the rights of the abbey of Moutier-Grandval (a gift from Rudolf III (971-1032), the last king of Burgundy).
Around 1 000, the bishop became a vassal of the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and thus a prince, the inception of the prince-bishopric and the prince-bishopric, not to be confused with the ecclesiastical province or diocese. The (financial) involvement of Emperor Henry II (953-1024) made the construction of the Münster possible. The Sculptures of the emperor and his wife Cunegonde (980-1033) are visible in various places.
With the acquisition of St Ursanne Abbey in 1146 and through military expeditions in the 13th century, the Principality became the most potent secular power on the Upper Rhine. Its territory included today’s Jura, the Sundgau, southern Alsace, Birseck, and Birstal, and scattered possessions in the south of Germany.
In the 13th and 14th centuries, the power of wealthy citizens and guilds increased steadily. Because of its location, Basel was an important trade hub. By then, Basel was already the Holy Roman Empire’s Free State City (Reichsunmittelbarkeit).
A major earthquake in 1356 destroyed much of the city and almost all its churches.
At this time, Basel was still divided into Kleinbasel, on the right bank of the Rhine, and Grossbasel, on the left bank of the Rhine. Kleinbasel fell under the Diocese of Constance and the Archbishopric of Mainz until 1801. Grossbasel was a diocese of the Archbishopric of Besançon.
The construction of the Mittlerbrücke in 1225 marks another crucial moment. Trade and population increased rapidly. Both Basels were united in 1392.
Basel had close contacts with Alsace and Baden regions and the Confederation. In military conflicts, the city remained neutral.
Unknown artist. Dreiländermuseum Lörrach
However, in 1444 the town was the scene of the battle between French troops and the Eidgenossen (the battle of St Jacobs on the Birs, 26 August 1444).
This battle took place at the time of the Council of Basel (1431-1449). In 1460, the University of Basel was founded with the support of Pope Pius II (1405-1464). The city became a centre of publishing, printing, humanism and science. Basel remained neutral in the Burgundian Wars (1474-1477) and the Schwabenkrieg (1499).
The accession of Basel to the Eidgenossenschaft in 1501 complicated the relations between the bishop and the city. The city council and elite were the main political force after the bishop’s and the (aristocratic) chapter’s departure in 1529.
The Catholic Erasmus of Rotterdam (1467-1536) lived in Basel and was buried in the Protestant Münster in 1536.
After the fall of Napoleon, Basel joined a new confederation in 1815 with part of the territory of the Principality of Basel (the Birseck). In 1833, there was a split between Basel-Stadt and Basel-Landschaft (Baselbiet). In 1848, the new constitution gave both cantons the status of semi-canton (with one seat in the Ständerat per canton instead of two.
In 1875, the canton introduced a new constitution including the following features:
the introduction of the separation of powers, universal suffrage (for men, the introduction of women’s suffrage followed in 1966), the popular initiative and the referendum (the mandatory referendum for all constitutional amendments and the optional referendum). The Citizens’ rights go further in the canton than at the federal level.
The Grand Council (der Grosse Rat) is the legislature. The Grand Council, an institution with a tradition dating back to the Middle Ages, is elected every four years under the proportional system (Proporzsystem). The seats (200) are allocated to the parties according to the number of votes. The Government Council (Regierungsrat) is the executive. The governing council is elected according to the absolute majority system (Majorzsystem).
What distinguishes Basel-Stadt from the other cantons is that the Government Council and the Grand Council are responsible for both the canton Basel-Stadt, including the municipalities of Riehen and Bettingen and the city of Basel.
Town Hall of the City of Basel
The flag symbolises the episcopate and the diocese of Basel. What remains of the bishop is the city’s heraldry: the black bishop’s staff. The bishop’s staff is the heraldry of the canton of Basel-Stadt. This heraldry was already known in the 13th century.
In the 11th and 12th centuries, the bishop already used the red bishop’s staff to symbolise the Prince-bishopric. The red bishop’s staff was the bishop’s heraldry, still known from the flags of the Cantons Jura and Basel-Landschaft.
(Source and further information: A. Berchtold, Bâle et l’Europe. Une Histoire culturelle (Deux tombes, Lausanne 1991).
Medieval and modern Basel
Kanton Basel-Stadt, view from Ötlingen (Baden)
Laterne, Fasnacht 2023