Second Villmergen War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In Switzerland’s fourth and last religious war, Swiss Protestants were victorious, thus gaining constitutional equality as well as political powers commensurate with their majority status and economic wealth.

Summary of Event

The Second Villmergen War was a consequence of a Swiss religious divide that had begun in the sixteenth century. In Switzerland’s Protestant-Catholic wars of 1529 and 1531, Protestant-Catholic conflicts[Protestant Catholic conflicts] Catholic-Protestant conflicts[Catholic Protestant conflicts] Catholic armies prevailed as a result of tactical blunders by Protestant commanders. The resulting Kappel Treaty Kappel Treaty (1531) of 1531 gave the Catholic cantons (regional states) a preponderant share of power in the federal legislature, or diet. Catholic minorities in Protestant cantons, moreover, were theoretically guaranteed religious toleration, whereas no such rights were extended to religious minorities in the Catholic cantons. Protestants were also obliged to take the federal oath, “by God and the saints,” in contradiction of their beliefs. [kw]Second Villmergen War (Apr. 13-Aug. 11, 1712) [kw]War, Second Villmergen (Apr. 13-Aug. 11, 1712) [kw]Villmergen War, Second (Apr. 13-Aug. 11, 1712) Protestantism;Switzerland Religious freedom;Switzerland Villmergen War, Second (1712) [g]Switzerland;Apr. 13-Aug. 11, 1712: Second Villmergen War[0370] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Apr. 13-Aug. 11, 1712: Second Villmergen War[0370] [c]Religion and theology;Apr. 13-Aug. 11, 1712: Second Villmergen War[0370] Bürgisser, Leodegar Louis XIV

Switzerland in the eighteenth century remained a loose confederation of thirteen cantons. The Catholic faith was established in seven of the cantons, including Schwyz, Lucerne, Uri, and Fribourg. Protestants controlled four, most notably the wealthy and powerful cantons of Zurich and Berne. Joint Catholic-Protestant administrations were set up in the cantons of Glarus and Aargau. Because Aargau was strategically located between Zurich and Berne, it was especially prone to religious conflict. In addition to the thirteen cantons, a number of neighboring city-states, most notably St. Gallen and Geneva, were tied to the Swiss confederation through alliances. Switzerland’s federal diet, where unanimity or consensus was required for most important decisions, had become so weak in the previous century that it did not even hold meetings between 1663 and 1776.

Throughout the confederation, religious minorities within a given canton lived in difficult circumstances and often suffered discrimination, sometimes persecution. Social contacts between the two communities were relatively rare. Catholic cantons and cities made alliances with France and Savoy, just as Protestants sought to acquire the support of powerful states in Germany. Although Switzerland did not directly participate in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), Swiss mercenaries fought on both sides, and the conflict intensified religious suspicions and hatred in the country.

The first Villmergen War (1656) broke out as a result of Catholic authorities in Schwyz turning over several Protestants to the Inquisition and then forcing thirty-seven others to seek refuge in Zurich. After Schwyz refused to restore the property of the refugees, Zurich and Berne declared war on five of the Catholic cantons. Protestant leaders failed to coordinate their military operations, however, resulting in a Catholic victory in the key battle at Villmergen, which was a small village located in Aargau near the Zurich border. The war formally ended with the Treaty of Baden Baden, Treaty of (1656) (1656), which preserved most of the conditions under the Kappel Treaty. Since Protestants were disproportionately prosperous and represented a growing majority of the total Swiss population, they bitterly resented their continuing second-class status within the confederation.

Religious animosities in Switzerland further increased after French king Louis XIV revoked the civil rights of Protestants in 1685. As thousands of French refugees streamed into Switzerland, the resulting dislocations and disagreements threatened to produce another civil war. The situation worsened in 1697: Another national crisis occurred in that year, when Catholics in St. Gallen ignored an agreement and carried the cross upright in a religious procession. In large part, armed conflict was averted by Protestant fears that Louis XIV would come to the aid of Swiss Catholics should civil war occur. From 1701 to 1713, however, Louis’s involvement in the War of the Spanish Succession made such an intervention very unlikely, and this situation emboldened militant Protestants to consider using military force to change the status quo.

The immediate cause of the Second Villmergen War was the building of a new road connecting the Catholic canton of Schwyz with the Austrian border by way of Wattwill, a city in the region of Toggenburg, where numerous Protestant enclaves were located. Protestants throughout northeastern Switzerland objected to the project, because they thought it could be used to oppress Protestants and because of its potential interference with Zurich’s access to the Protestant portions of Glarus. The ruling Catholic abbot of St. Gallen, Leodegar Bürgisser, exercised control over a sprawling and diverse area that included Toggenburg, and he was one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the road.

Beginning in 1707, Bürgisser ordered all the men of Wattwill to work on the road. He claimed to possess the traditional right to command compulsory labor service (called the corvée). Corvée (compulsory labor service) Wattwill’s residents, however, refused, claiming that they had earlier acquired exemption from the hated corvée. A regional leader of Schwyz, Joseph Stadler, tried to support the Wattwill dissidents, but he was overthrown and executed in 1708. Pope Clement XI and Holy Roman Emperor Joseph I encouraged Bürgisser not to back down. Finally in early 1712, the abbot lost patience with Wattwill and dispatched troops to coerce the town’s men to work.

Protestant residents of Toggenburg, led by Nabholz of Zurich, rallied to the support of Wattwill. An assembly of angry Toggenburgers declared their independence from St. Gallen. Large crowds occupied three strategically located castles and two monasteries. On April 13, two Protestant cantons, Zurich and Berne, confident that Louis XIV would remain neutral, issued a declaration of war against St. Gallen. Five of the Catholic cantons as well as the allied state of Valais responded by declaring war on the side of St. Gallen. The city-states of Geneva and Neuchâtel then came to the assistance of Berne. The rest of Switzerland remained neutral.

In contrast to the previous Villmergen war, the armies of Zurich and Berne cooperated with each other in a common strategy. In addition, the Catholic cantons, because of their limited funds, were at a disadvantage in equipment and supplies. Protestant forces captured Wyl on April 22, followed by the monastery of St. Gallen. They then prevailed in battles at Mellingen on May 22 and at Bremgarten on May 26. After Protestant soldiers captured Baden on June 1, the Catholic leaders of Lucerne and Uri signaled their desire to negotiate an end to the fighting. Representatives of the cantons began negotiations at Aarau in early July, and they reached an agreement on terms favorable to the Protestants on July 18. Hundreds of soldiers, mistakenly believing that the fighting was over, began to go home, but the governments of three cantons—Schwyz, Unterwalden, and Zug—repudiated the terms of the proposed treaty and vowed to continue fighting.

The Bernese army, led by Jean de Saconay, consisted of approximately eight thousand troops, while the Catholic army had a slight numerical advantage. The Protestant army had acquired heavy artillery and additional protective armor, however. On July 25, the two armies finally faced each other in the decisive battle of the war, which took place on a plain about a mile north of Villmergen. Catholic generals, uninformed about the enemy’s artillery, ordered a frontal attack, which resulted in an overwhelming victory for the Protestants. The fighting was extremely violent. Historical records indicate that 2,000 Catholic soldiers were killed and 540 were taken prisoner, while Protestant losses totaled 206 deaths and 607 wounded. Following the battle, the Protestant army pillaged Villmergen and destroyed many of its buildings. A few days later, the three Catholic cantons signaled their willingness to accept the terms that had been negotiated at Aarau.


On August 11, 1712, the Second Villmergen War formally ended with the Treaty of Aarau. Aarau, Treaty of (1712) As a result, Catholics of Switzerland lost their dominant position in the confederation, and they were forced to accept parity with Protestants in the jointly administered territories and in federal tribunals. Berne and Zurich expanded the areas under their control and gained a greater role in the Swiss Confederation. The peace treaty further stipulated that religious differences would henceforth be arbitrated by a special tribunal having an equal number of Catholic and Protestant judges. Somewhat later, the abbot of St. Abbot finally agreed to provide political and religious freedom to the Protestants of Toggenburg.

Some conservative Swiss Catholics hoped to reverse the terms of the Treaty of Aarau. In 1715, the Catholic cantons and France entered into a secret treaty, called the Trucklibund (named after the small box in which the treaty was concealed). In the treaty, France promised to provided Swiss Catholics with armed support in the event of renewed hostilities. Despite several dangerous crises, however, Swiss leaders managed to work out a number of compromises, and within a decade the Trucklibund was almost forgotten. The preservation of the confederation through two major eighteenth century crises, the Second Villmergen War and the Trucklibund, helped prepare the way for Switzerland to evolve into a unified federation during the next century.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bonjour, Edgar, et al. A Short History of Switzerland. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1955. Remains the most widely available general history of Switzerland in English; includes very good summaries of the Villmergen Wars.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Luck, James M. History of Switzerland: From Before the Beginnings to the Days of the Present. Palo Alto, Calif.: Society for Promotion of Science and Scholarship, 1986. Provides a context for understanding the complex history and political institutions of the small country.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robertson, Ian. Switzerland. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992. Includes a useful historical summary that helps to understand the complexities of Swiss politics and culture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Steinberg, Jonathan. Why Switzerland? New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. A short introduction to the history, culture, and geography of the country that provides a context for the general reader.

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Categories: History