Period III newsletter

Cathedral Basel. Photo/Foto: TES.

The Prince Bishopric of Basel after 1813

The Prince-Bishopric of Basel has experienced two major revolutions in the last five hundred years. The title of Prince-Bishopric is a consequence of the status of the Bishop in the Holy Roman Empire, of which it was part. The bishop had the high status of a prince (Reichsfürst/Fürstbischof) in this empire. He stood above dukes and counts in the hierarchy.

The first major upheaval, the Reformation in the years 1529-1530, led to the bishop’s flight to Porrentruy (present-day canton of Jura). The cathedral is still evangelical-Lutheran today. The for that time tolerant Catholic Erasmus even found his grave there in 1536. The cathedral chapter settled in Arlesheim (Canton of Basel-Landschaft) in 1678.

The Prince-Bishopric did not survive the second infringement. In 1792 the French revolutionary troops occupied the northern Catholic part (roughly the canton of Jura) and annexed it to France (in the department of Mont-Terrible). The southern Protestant part (the French-speaking part of Bern, Birseck and Laufen in Basel-Landschaft) was under the protection of the Eidgenossenschaft (especially Bern and Solothurn). It was not to be occupied until the end of 1797, just before the French invasion of the Eidgenossenschaft in 1798. The Prince-Bishopric was formally dissolved in 1803, just as Napoleon dissolved the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 and divided it into new political units. The area of the Prince-Bishopric came under the department of Haut-Rhin from 1800 onwards.

The French period ended with the entry of Austrian troops in December 1813. After that, the area of the former Prince-Bishopric was wanted by various parties. The cantons of Bern and Basel wished to divide the territory among themselves. The city of Biel aspired to have its canton with a part of this area. The principality of Neuchâtel, which formally belonged to the King of Prussia (since 1707), but also joined the Eidgenossenchaft in 1815 as a canton, claimed some areas. Also, there were plans for a new canton for the area of the former Prince-Bishopric. Not such a strange idea in itself. After all, the county of Montbéliard had the same (unfulfilled) wish. In the Catholic northern part, there were also supporters of joining France, especially in the cities of Porrentruy and Delémont.

However, these Swiss interests were of minor importance to Prussia, England, Austria and Russia in the restoration of European order and power relations. The starting point was to contain France. The kingdoms of Sardinia-Savoie and the Netherlands and the expansion of the Prussian area on the banks of the Rhine were the results. However, Switzerland did not become a kingdom, but a neutral republic of 22 (independent) cantons. This country had to be militarily as secure as possible to curb its French neighbour. For this reason, the new canton of Geneva was also assigned some French territories. These external borders of Switzerland did not change after 1815.

From a strategic point of view, the Jura and its passes had to be controlled by Switzerland, by the militarily, politically and economically strongest canton, Bern. Moreover, Bern had to be compensated for the loss of the territories of Aargau and Vaud, which had been ruled by it since the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and which had become independent cantons. Basel received the Birseck. Laufen was also assigned to Bern, Neuchâtel took control of Lignières. All this was decided at the time of and as a result of the Congress of Vienna 1814-1815 (20 March 1815) and the (peace) treaties of Paris (30 May 1814) and Turin (16 March 1816). Many publications have been devoted to this history, the main characters and the consequences.

In any case, the result would not be sustainable in Switzerland. In 1832-1833 Basel-Landschaft separated from Basel, Laufen exchanged Bern for Basel-Landschaft. In 1979 the Jura became a new canton and separated from Bern. However, the antagonisms of 1813-1815 are still alive and kicking, including in Moutiers (canton of Bern), where a significant proportion of the population seeks to join the canton of Jura. A referendum on this subject in 2019 (with a narrow majority in favour of joining the canton of Jura) was declared null and void because of procedural irregularities. The referendum will be held again.

However, the current territory of Switzerland has not changed since the Congress of Vienna and neutrality was also respected in the first half of the twentieth century marked by European (civil) wars (Source: J.-C. Rebetez, D. Bregnard (Ed.) De la crosse à la croix. L’ancien évêché de Bâle devient suisse (Congrès de Vienne – 1815), Neuchâtel 2018).