Swiss Victory at Morgarten over Habsburg Forces Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The victory at Morgarten over Habsburg forces on horseback by the allied Swiss infantry threatened the long-standing tradition that cavalries were militarily superior and laid the foundation for the modern Swiss Confederation.

Summary of Event

The Swiss Republic includes twenty-six districts or “cantons” not united by a common ethnic stock, language, or religion, nor by natural boundaries or ancient roots. The Roman Empire never organized the Transalpine Celts into a political entity. The Germanic invaders became the majority of a population divided into four ethnic and lingual groups—Alamanni Alemanni , Franks Franks , Italians Italy , and Romansh Romansh . [kw]Swiss Victory at Morgarten over Habsburg Forces (November 15, 1315) [kw]Morgarten over Habsburg Forces, Swiss Victory at (November 15, 1315) [kw]Habsburg Forces, Swiss Victory at Morgarten over (November 15, 1315) Swiss Republic Habsburgs, defeat of (1315) Morgarten, Battle of (1315) Switzerland;Nov. 15, 1315: Swiss Victory at Morgarten over Habsburg Forces[2660] Expansion and land acquisition;Nov. 15, 1315: Swiss Victory at Morgarten over Habsburg Forces[2660] Government and politics;Nov. 15, 1315: Swiss Victory at Morgarten over Habsburg Forces[2660] Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Nov. 15, 1315: Swiss Victory at Morgarten over Habsburg Forces[2660] Leopold I of Austria Stauffacher, Rudolf Attinghausen, Werner von Walter Fürst Tell, Wilhelm

During the breakup of Charlemagne’s empire, it would have been logical for these groups to be annexed by their German, French, and Italian neighbors, but this was forestalled by a thirteenth century central Alpine federative movement. Within the large and loose framework of the Holy Roman Empire Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, three small mountain valley “forest cantons”—Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden—bordering the shores of Lake Lucerne, formed the alliance of rebels who fought at Morgarten.

The origins of the battle and of Switzerland must be told in terms of the geography, local history, and legends of the “inner Alps.” The thirteenth century brought significant changes to these forest cantons. Construction of the Devil’s Bridge over the Schoellenen Gorge on the Reuss River opened a trade route through the central Alps. Travelers and pack animals could go from Milan via Lake Maggiore, the Saint Gotthard Pass and Lake Lucerne to the Basle road, the Rhine, and Flanders. The formerly poor and isolated forest cantons began to prosper. At the same time, an increasing power struggle in the Holy Roman Empire saw emperors, their rivals, and the greater princes ready to sell charters for lands, political and tax rights, or privileges to wealthy nobles, towns, and peasant communities. The forest cantons now had the money to join the bidding. As early as 1231, the freemen of Uri Uri purchased rent freedom from their Habsburg lord, as confirmed by imperial charter. By the 1240 Faenza Charter, the Schwyzois Schwyz sought to escape dues or taxes to their Habsburg lord by payments to the emperor, a privilege not recognized by a later (Habsburg) emperor.

Ultimately, the Habsburgs were the threat against which the forest cantons would join in alliance. This family from the northwestern foothills of the Alps increased its feudal estates until by 1290 it held land, tax, or political rights in nine Swiss cantons, stretching from the Rhine through the Saint Gotthard Pass, in addition to sovereignty over Austria and Styria. Habsburg rents, taxes, tariffs, trade controls, and over-zealous bailiffs all seemed to threaten the local rights of the central Alpine burghers and peasants.

In August of 1291, Schwyz, Uri, and Unterwalden Unterwalden signed a written alliance. This alliance largely confirmed earlier agreements for settlement of disputes and mutual defense. No particular enemy was identified and no formal declaration of sovereignty was made, but the demand for native and freeborn bailiffs and judges was clearly aimed at Habsburg lordship, and the alliance itself was inherently an act of independence. Schwyz and Uri supported an anti-Habsburg coalition that was crushed at Winterthur Winterthur, Battle of (1292) on April 12, 1292, and related disorders may have been the context for the legendary midnight oath of rebellion supposedly sworn at Rütli meadow in 1307. Oral tradition seems to have embellished the roles of actual leaders such as Rudolf Stauffacher Stauffacher, Rudolf (Stoupacher) of Schwyz, and Werner von Attinghausen Von Attinghausen, Werner and Walter Fürst Fürst, Walter of Uri.

A greater complication is the legend of Wilhelm Tell, Tell, Wilhelm (legendary) supposedly an oath-taker at Rütli, resistance leader, and warrior at Morgarten. The story of the bailiff’s hat, the apple shot from a son’s head on the tyrant’s command, the escape from the storm on Lake Lucerne, and the assassination of the bailiff sparking the war of rebellion were recorded only in the late fifteenth century “White Book of Sarnen,” polished a bit by Swiss historian Aegidius Tschudi in the sixteenth century, given historical context by Swiss historian Johannes von Müller in 1786, and popularized by Friedrich Schiller’s 1804 play and Gioacchino Rossini’s 1829 opera. Historians have pointed out that the apple story is a common northern tale, that the “Tell” version garbles actual history, that no fourteenth century chronicler mentions such a hero, and that “Tell” is really a Swiss equivalent to the legendary figures Robin Hood or Paul Bunyan. Some Swiss, however, point to verifiable portions of the context and argue that “Tell” is a possible composite of several heroes as well as an embodiment of the Swiss spirit.

The Battle of Morgarten.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

In the Tell legend, Swiss beginnings are explained as a revolt against Habsburg injuries and insults to the self-respect of Swiss men, women, and children. In actuality, Habsburg tariffs and trade controls may have been equally important, as well as cantonal opposition in imperial politics. Certainly the immediate cause of war was the Schwyzois raid in January of 1314 on disputed properties at Einsiedeln, an abbey under Habsburg protection. The Habsburg imperial contender, Frederick the Fair, ordered an expedition to destroy the revolutionary movement.

Frederick’s brother, Duke Leopold I of Austria Leopold I of Austria , therefore prepared a comprehensive attack in November of 1315. One Habsburg army made a wide right-flank swing from Lucerne via the Entlebuch and Brunig Pass to attack Unterwalden, while ships from Lucerne crossed the lake to harass the western shores of Schwyz. Duke Leopold collected a main army of more than two thousand knights and perhaps seven thousand infantry at Zug, and on the moonlit night of November 14-15 set out for Schwyz. Perhaps the road through Arth was blocked, or perhaps Leopold sought a “back door” surprise, but in any case, on November 15, his army marched southward along the eastern shore of Lake Aegeri and then continued south with the Aegerisee swamp on their right and Morgarten heights on their left. Apparently the aim was to cross the watershed to the Steiner valley and use the fairly level ground between Steinen and Schwyz for the battle that would defeat the rebels.

The knights headed a column stretching over more than half a mile of mediocre track, an obviously vulnerable situation, but an attack by untrained peasants was clearly not expected. About a mile south of Lake Aegeri, the knights were brought up short, either by a roadblock or rough footing. The spare narratives written later do not fit the present terrain exactly, but the main effect is clear. The defenders—thirteen hundred Schwyzois, two hundred from Uri, and others from Unterwalden—emerged from the forests along Morgarten heights, rolled boulders and tree trunks down the rocky slope of the Figlenfluh, and attacked on foot. In addition to using arrows, spears, clubs, and axes, the Swiss defenders used the halberd—a combination of spear, axe, and hook—to pull armored knights off their mounts. Surprised, the Austrian cavalry tried to deploy their undoubtedly panicked horses into a combat formation, but the narrow way gave no room for this. The battle was simply a running rout. In less than two hours, more than half the knights were killed, some drowning in the swamp or in Lake Aegeri, and the Habsburg army completely scattered. Duke Leopold survived only by flight and, demoralized, abandoned the unsuccessful flank attack on Unterwald.

Significance

For Europe, the defeat of mounted knights by infantry at Morgarten, like the similar case at Courtrai in 1302, threatened the military superiority that cavalries had claimed since the Battle of Adrianople in 378. That a small force of peasants only emerging from serfdom could outmaneuver and outfight a much larger army led by mounted knights threatened the very basis of European feudalism.

As for the forest cantons, Morgarten cemented their alliance and gained them de facto independence and credibility. Lucerne joined the alliance in 1332, Zürich in 1351, Zug and Glarus in 1352, and Bern in 1353, completing the Eight Canton Federation Eight Canton Federation of the next century. In 1323, abolition of serfdom and canton government made “Switzerland” a republican exception among the feudal monarchies of Europe. The 1386 victory at Sembach followed by a treaty with Austria in 1394 effectually ended the Habsburg threat, although formal recognition by Austria came only with the 1648 Peace of Westphalia. Switzerland’s expansive wars were checked, however, when a 1516 defeat by the French at Marignano and the divisive influence of the Protestant Reformation persuaded the Swiss to abandon great-power ambitions for what became a tradition of neutrality.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bonjour, E., H. S. Offler, and G. R. Potter. A Short History of Switzerland. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1952. Scholarly overview of Swiss history that includes coverage of the Battle of Morgarten.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gabriel, Richard A., and Donald W. Boose, Jr. “The Swiss Way of War: Morgarten, Laupen, Sempach.” In The Great Battles of Antiquity: A Strategic and Tactical Guide to Great Battles That Shaped the Development of War. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. Analysis of the Battle of Morgarten from the point of view of military history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCrackan, William D. The Rise of the Swiss Republic. 2d rev. ed. New York: AMS Press, 1970. Explores the legend of Wilhelm Tell.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Martin, William. Switzerland. New York: Praeger, 1971. Comprehensive Franco-Swiss scholarship examining Switzerland as a nation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wheatcroft, Andrew. The Habsburgs: Embodying Empire. New York: Viking Press, 1995. A history of the house of Habsburg from the early eleventh century through the late twentieth century that provides insight into the Austrian reaction to the Swiss victory at Morgarten.

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