Constitution and Democracy

Canton of Nidwalden

Unterwalden, Obwalden and Nidwalden already appeared in documents in the 13th century.  Unterwalden means “in the forest” or “inter silvas”. King Henry (Heinrich) VII (1273-1313) granted the status of a free imperial city (Reichsunmittelbarket) to villages in this region in 1309.

It was highly unusual to give this right to a village of peasants. The villages were on the same footing as Strasbourg, Berne, Zurich and other cities in the Empire. It also indicates that these communities already had high independence, sufficient financial resources and military power. The Alemannic language and culture had already replaced the Gallo-Roman culture around 900.  


In the 14th century, Obwalden and Nidwalden came into being and replaced the use of Unterwalden as a political unity. They were also mentioned in the charter (Bundesbrief) of 1315, after the battle of Morgarten. 

These Orte had only one vote in the meetings (Tagsatzung) of the Eidgenossenschaft. It remained the situation until 1798 (Helvetic Republic). Obwalden and Nidwalden alternated their seats in the Tagsatzung.

The most important landowners in Nidwalden were the Murbach Monastery from the canton of Lucerne, the Engelberg Monastery and, until 1173, the Counts of Lenzburg. Habsburg became the dominant power in the thirteenth century.

Cattle breeding and trading became the most important economic activities after the opening of the Gotthard Pass around 1230.

The Landsgemeinde became a political organisation in the fourteenth century. It was abolished in 1996. Nidwalden expanded into Northern Italy and ruled these territories as subject areas or Untertanengebiete until 1798.


The canton remained catholic and a bastion of the Counter-Reformation. The canton was a member of the Sarnerbund (1830) and took part in the Sonderbundskrieg (1847).

Nidwalden also resisted the Helvetian Republic (1798-1803) and the Confederation of 1815.  Troops of the Confederation occupied Nidwalden in 1815, after which the canton consented. The territory of the Engelberg Monastery was transferred to Obwalden as a punishment.


The double key’s origin in Nidwalden’s coat of arms is probably the symbol used in the 14th century to seal documents. Another explanation is the key of St. Peter.

Nidwalden claimed to be a descendant of the Romans and the first Bishop of Rome. The warlike Pope Julius III (1443-1513) gave his blessing in 1512 as a reward for Nidwalden’s military support in his campaign in Italy. This adventure resulted in the defeat at Marignano in 1515. Thousands of Eidgenossen and Nidwalders were in dire need of the key of St. Peter after the battle.

(Source: B. Meier, Von Morgarten bis Marignano, Baden 2015;