Local History

Neuchâtel, Palace of the Prussian King. Photo: TES.

The Canton of Neuchâtel

Bern, Zurich, and Freiburg were the dominant cantons in the sixteenth century. Three other areas, however, deserve special attention because of their unique history.

The sovereign Republic of Gersau was a small village on Lake Lucerne (Vierwaldstättersee) with 2 000 inhabitants today, which was an independent Republic until 1798.

Tarasp and Rhäzuns (canton Graubünden) belonged until 1803 resp. 1819 to the House of Habsburg.

The canton of  Neuchâtel was formally a part of the Prussian kingdom until 1856.

The Celtic tribe of Helvetii inhabited the area of Neuchâtel before the arrival of the Romans. Pile dwelling villages were built on the shores of the lake (the museum in Hauterive (Laténium) is dedicated to this).

The Roman era began after 15 BC. The area was part of the (first) Kingdom of Burgundy (463-534). The era of monasteries, abbeys and bishops began in this period.  The area was Frankish after 534, Merovingian and then the Carolingian. After the collapse and division of the Carolingian Empire (843), Neuchâtel belonged to the (second) Burgundian kingdom (888-1032).

The castle was built at this time, around 1 000. Neuchâtel means new castle (Novum Castellum in Latin, Neuenburg in German). It was a military and administrative centre of the king of Burgundy.  Written sources of 1196 mention the Count of Neuchâtel for the first time, as the feudal lord of the German emperor. The Collègiale and the church were built in this period.

Neuchâtel was part of the diocese of Lausanne and the archdiocese of Besançon. The County of Neuchâtel would acquire more and more areas and new cities were founded in the sixteenth century. The area of the present-day canton Neuchâtel dates from this period.

French (royal) family d’Orléans-Longueville inherited the County in 1503/1504. This family died out in 1707 and the (Protestant) Prussian King of the Hohenzollern dynasty (Frederick William 1, 1688-1740) acquired the County as a choice of the (Protestant) States General (Trois états).

The choice was determined by religion (Neuchâtel was Protestant since 1530). The French invasion of Napoleon (1798) led to a brief French intermezzo (the French Marshal Alexandre Berthier (1753-1815) became Prince of Neuchâtel in 1806. The Prussian king returned as formal Lord in 1814, but Neuchâtel simultaneously became a canton and member of the Eidgenossenschaft in 1815.

This particular situation ended in 1856 when the Prussian king Frederick William IV (1795-1861) renounced his rights. The last monarchy disappeared from Swiss soil. (Source: Ouvrage collectif, Histoire du Pays de Neuchâtel, Tomes 1-3, Hauterive, 1991).