Canton Schwyz

The village of Schwyz is the namesake of Switzerland and of the canton. As one of the Waldstätten Uri, Obwalden, Nidwalden (Unterwalden) or Orte, Talschaften or Landsgemeinde on Lake Lucerne (the Vierwaldstättersee), the place and its surrounding areas and municipalities achieved autonomy and sovereignty as early as the 14th century.

The canton reached its current size through conquest and acquisition around 1450. Today, Schwyz is the largest municipality and capital of the canton, which is divided into districts and municipalities.

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The Alemanni

The Alemanni emigrated to central Switzerland from the sixth century onwards. They came into contact with Gallo-Roman society, which had formed over four centuries of Roman rule (15 BC 410 AD). By the 10th century, German (Alemannic) had become the official language.

After the Franks, the Carolingians and the Duchy of Swabia, Schwyz was part of the Holy Roman Empire from the 10th century onwards.

The area was divided among many small landowners, such as the Abbey of Einsiedeln (founded in 934), and local rulers, such as the counts of Lenzburg, Kyburg, Frohburg, Rapperswil and Habsburg.

The fate of other noble families, abbeys and dioceses (including St Gallen, Chur, Konstanz), other monarchs (Wittelsbacher, Luxemburger) and the Italian city-states and duchies, including Milan, also influenced political development in central Switzerland.

Der Turm oberhalb Brüöl, um 1200

The Gotthard Pass

Until the opening of the Gotthard Pass in 1220 – 1230, Schwyz and other Orte were of no economic, political, or strategic interest to the great powers of the period. This also explains the de facto independence these Orte had early on in this inaccessible area.

Moreover, the harsh climate and the almost Spartan education of the resilient men (primarily to protect the (cattle) trade) provided a solid basis for defence and, from the 15th century onwards (until the defeat at Marignano in 1515), attack.

Haus Bethlehem (1287)

Around 1240, Emperor Friedrich II (1194-1250) of the Holy Roman Empire granted Schwyz the status of a free imperial city (Reichsunmittelbarkeit), which was remarkable for a village. After that, Schwyz quickly developed into an independent Landsgemeinde, which was not abolished until 1848.

Agriculture, animal husbandry and cattle trade were the main economic activities. After the opening of the Gotthard Pass, the emphasis increasingly shifted towards cattle trading. The mercenary business also became an increasingly important source of income.

Outlets were the cities in the region (including Zurich, Zug, Lucerne, and Bern) and Lombardia.

1291 and the Eidgenossenschaft

At the end of the 13th century and during the 14th century, Schwyz concluded several treaties with surrounding Orte and cities. The covenant of August 1291 is the most famous.

This alliance between Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden was recognised in 1891 as the official beginning of today’s Confederation. However, it was one of many treaties between towns and Orte in central Switzerland (and Western Europe).

The aim was not independence from the (Habsburg) monarch but peacekeeping, dispute resolution and agreements on cattle trade, land management, land use, forests and meadows, and legal security.

However, these Orte were already effectively independent as Landsgemeinde and were able and willing to defend this autonomy with arms.

The looting in 1314 by Schwyz of the monastery of Einsiedeln, under Habsburg protection, prompted the Battle of Morgarten in 1315.

Over the following decades, more towns and Orte joined the winners. Economic interests and cooperation came first. Lucerne (1332), Zurich (1351), Glarus and Zug (1352) and Bern (1353) concluded treaties with the Eidgenossenschaft.

There was no formal independence from the Habsburg emperor at this time. It was a loose alliance of sovereign states, and no one, including Schwyz, foresaw the Switzerland of 1848.

Governance over territories

Schwyz participated in the conquest of the Italian territories in the period 1403-1515 on the other side of the Gotthard and was one of the administrators of these (Untertanegebiete) regions (1512-1798, including the later canton of Tessin). Schwyz also participated in governing Aargau (1415), Thurgau (1460), the county of Neuchâtel (1512-1529) and some other counties, abbeys and territories.


The canton remained Catholic during the Reformation and fiercely resisted the Helvetic Republic (1798-1803) imposed by the French occupiers in 1798.

Schwyz (and the other Waldstätten) considered itself the archetype of modern direct democracy and cantonal sovereignty. It did not accept a unitary state of the Helvetic Republic, which had abolished cantons and direct democracy.

The canton further followed the history of the following confederations (1803-1813, 1815-1848 and 1848).  As a member of the Catholic Sonderbund (1845), it was even a direct cause of the 1848 Constitution after the Sonderbundskrieg of 1847.

In 1848, the canton opted for representative democracy instead of the Landsgemeinde in its cantonal constitution.

The Flag

The coat of arms of Schwyz is a red field with a white cross in the upper corner representing the crucified Jesus. This heraldry dates back to the 14th century and has been the canton’s flag since the 17th century.

(Source: B. Adler, Die Entstehung der direkten Demokratie. Das Beispiel der Landsgemeinde Schwyz 1789-1866, Zürich 2006; B. Mesmer (Red.), Geschichte der Schweiz und der Schweizer, Basel, 2006; Historisches Lexion der Schweiz, der Kanton Schwyz,