Period II newsletter

Tarasp, Habsburg possesion in Switzerland until 1803. Tarasp, habsburgischer Besitz in der Schweiz bis 1803. Photo/foto: TES.

The Holy Roman Empire and the Swiss Confederation

In a previous contribution, the process of the sovereignty of the present Swiss Confederation has been discussed. Schwyz, Glarus, Uri and Unterwalden did not have the status of city or Reichstadt, but in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries managed to enforce de facto independence and far-reaching legal autonomy from their formal lord, the Habsburg dynasty. Cities did not exist in Grisons (apart from Chur) and Appenzell and these regions knew a similar process in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. A particular case is the municipality of Gersau, a small autonomous municipality, which until 1798 would continue to function independently as the world’s smallest republic (which Napoleon annexed to the canton of Schwyz by decree in 1798).

The relatively isolated location of these areas made political and armed supervision difficult, as the Habsburg monarchs experienced in 1315 and 1386. Besides, the prosperous Italian regions and the lucrative alpine passes raised the awareness of these Orte and their commercial possibilities. The powerful Reichsstädte (Lucerne, Bern, Zurich, Freiburg, Solothurn, Zug) also acquired far-reaching legal autonomy and conquered large areas in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries at the expense of Habsburg (Thurgau and Aargau) and Savoy (Waadt) and through acquisition.

The rather academic discussion about the time of the sovereignty by international law was discussed in general terms in a previous contribution. In any case, it is a fact that in the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, with 1501 as the climax, 13 Reichstädte and Orte joined forces in a loose alliance, which, despite religious, economic and territorial differences, has persisted. There was a stronger underlying foundation than the discussion about sovereignty. It is a fact that the highest court of the Reich (the Reichskammergericht) and imperial taxes no longer applied to the 13 members of the Eidgenossenschaft and none of the 13 members had a seat, let alone the right to vote, in the Reichstag (which was reserved for a selective group of imperial princes (Reichsfürsten), bishops, abbots, dukes). However, this does not mean that the Reich had disappeared from Swiss territory. On the contrary, in some areas, the Reich’s legislation remained law, as the case law of the Reichskammergericht was taught at the University of Basel and could be a source of law.

Apart from the quality and necessity of central legislation for traders and other cross-border activities, there was also the presence of the Holy Roman Empire through local secular and ecclesiastical rulers: the bishops of Basel, Sitten, Chur, and Konstanz were Reichsfürsten and had voting rights in the Reichstag. They owned large properties on Swiss territory as well as in areas of the Holy Roman Empire (including Alsace and Swabia). The abbot of St. Gallen Abbey also had the status of Reichsfürst and a seat in the Reichsrat. Besides, several Reichstädte of the Holy Roman Empire were allied with one or more members of the Eidgenossenschaft. (Besançon, Mulhouse, Strasbourg, Rottweil for example). There were also a few Habsburg islands (Rhäzuns until 1819, Tarasp until 1803 and Obersaxen until 1806 in Grisons) and local Reichsfreiherren (Haldenstein, Reichenau-Tamins, and Löwenstein, which were not part of Grisons until 1803). Many other noble dynasties and properties (Brandis in Maienfeld, Sax-Forstegg, Hohensax, Sargans, Rheineck, Werdenberg) were either bought by wealthy patricians from the cantons or died out, but they did not have a seat in the Reichstag. Dynasties in Swaben owned land in Switzerland, especially in Aargau and Thurgau. These often retained control over their territory and thus formed a link between the Eidgenossenschaft and the Holy Roman Empire. The Bishopric of Constance (and the Reichenau Monastery) and the county of Hohenems are two examples. There were also independent abbeys ( until 1798), Disentis, Pfäfers, Einsiedeln, Engelberg, which also belonged to the sphere of influence of the Holy Roman Empire.

Switzerland was a confederation of 13 independent cantons Until 1798 with a patchwork of pieces of the Holy Roman Empire. Napoleon ended this situation by the Helvetic Republic (1798-1803) and the Mediationsakte (1803-1813). In 1806 the Holy Roman Empire was dissolved, but Habsburg transferred Rhäzuns to the canton of Grisons only in 1819. (Source: Marquardt, Die alte Eidgenossenschaft und das Heilige Römische Reich (1350-1798), Zurich, 2007).