Period III newsletter

The hat of Bailiff Gessler, replica. Photo: TES, Swiss National Museum Prangins.

William Tell and the Congress of Vienna

When the Habsburg rulers of areas in central Switzerland failed to maintain peace and protect the roads, three rural communities acted and concluded a peace alliance in 1291. These alliances were rather common in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and they reflected the interest of local elites, whether rural, urban or nobility. The alliance covered a (rural or urban) territory or a network of cities. The allies agreed to help each other against aggressors, to maintain the peace and to settle (trade, business, territorial) disputes. The short-lived Swabian-, Rhenish- or Lombard leagues are a few other examples. The successful Hanseatic league of trading cities existed more than four centuries. They all disappeared in the end.

The alliance of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden gradually led to the Swiss Eidgenossenschaft and finally to the sovereign nation-state in a process that lasted for centuries. The oath was a common symbol to ratify treaties and alliances and Eidgenossenschaft means a confederation by oath. No one wanted to separate from the (divine) Habsburg lords or to separate from the Habsburgs, but it is a fact that these communities established an Alliance.

Rudolf I of Habsburg (1217-1291) became German king in 1273 but was already lord of the valleys Uri, Schwytz, and Unterwalden and other territories and cities of present-day Switzerland. The extinction of the former lords, the dukes of Zähringen, led to the Habsburg jurisdiction over these valleys, which controlled the famous St. Gotthard pass, opened in 1230. Rudolf developed new structures by establishing jurisdictions called Landvogteien (Bailiwicks) to oversee the towns and rural communities. The bailiffs were selected from loyal aristocracy and knights who were charged with safeguarding royal (tax) prerogatives and upholding peace and within their jurisdictions. The famous story of William Tell (Wilhelm Tell) who refused to greet the hat of the bailiff and became the national hero subsequently took place in this period. It is not relevant whether it happened, it is a lovely story anyway.

By the 1350s, two alternatives for organizing local political life had emerged across Europe and in Switzerland. The bottom-down approach was the administration by lords who used new bureaucratic methods to build up effective peace-keeping, judicial and tax systems. The Swiss grass-roots approach was a network of semi-autonomous rural, ecclesiastical and urban communities linked by alliances, while each ally managed its internal affairs. The Confederation or Eidgenossenschaft came to be viewed as a distinct nation after the Swabian war in 1499, regardless of its internal struggles, divisions and lack of central institutions. The thirteen cantons were still part of the Holy Roman Empire in 1501, however, although with complete exemption from imperial law and judiciary (The Reichskammergericht in Speyer/Wetzlar and the Reichshofrat in Vienna as supreme imperial courts). That did change by the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, although the treaty did not mention it as such, but the confederation acted as a sovereign state. The Peace of Westphalia was silent about this issue and just confirmed the legal exemption of the city of Basel (Art. VI IPO, signed at Osnabrück in Westphalia). Many cities kept using imperial symbolism until late into the eighteenth century, and symbolic ties like coats of arms (the double headed eagle) were not removed from buildings. Six cities, Basel, Zurich, Bern, Schaffhausen, Solothurn, and Luzern, formally announced their sovereign status “ ein freyer souveräner Stand zu sein”, in the seventheeth century, but it remains to be seen whether they meant independence and sovereignty as a nation-state in the meaning of nowadays.

A contemporary theoretical approach of sovereignty and the acts of a sovereign entity were only relevant from the perspective of the protocol. The Swiss, contrary to the formally sovereign Dutch Republic of the (Seven) United Provinces (1648), did not have a Prince-Stadholder, united standing army or States General with real powers. The Confederation was de facto sovereign and formally exempted from imperial jurisdiction, but it should take another 150 years (after the Napoleonic wars and the Congress of Vienna) to formally recognized sovereignty (and neutrality). A continued and difficult development of nation building that had started in the time of William Tell as an open end story reached its zenith by the constitution in 1848 (Source: P.H. Wilson, Heart of Europe. A History of the Holy Roman Empire, Cambridge (MA), 2016; C.H. Church, R.C. Head, A Concise History of Switzerland, Cambridge 2017; B. Marquardt, Die alte Eidgenossenschaft und das Heilige Römische Reich (1350-1798), Zürich 2007).