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The Swiss Before Neutrality

The Birth of the Old Swiss Confederacy

When modern Switzerland comes to mind, the words people instantly think about are probably one or the combination of the following: neutrality, banking, chocolate and watches. From a purely political point of view, it is only the first one that concerns us here, neutrality.

This reputation of neutrality is, of course, not undeserved at all, as the Swiss state largely stayed out of military conflicts in the last 500 years, but before the Swiss turned into a neutral state, there was a period during which the Swiss were rather more bellicose, and for a few hundred years in the late Medieval period they may just have been the greatest warriors of Europe.

During the Middle Ages, on paper the Swiss were part of the Holy Roman Empire. However, thanks to the remote mountainous landscape of the country, the Swiss people more often than not were quasi-independent of the feudal lords that dominated the Empire. During the reign of the Hohenstaufen Emperors, the Forest Communities Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden received further privileges from the Emperor and became the direct subjects of the Emperor, rather than that of other feudal lords( Reichsfreiheit).

These privileges became threatened after the extinction of the Hohenstaufen dynasty when the Habsburg Emperors tried to revoke the privileges of the Swiss. To be able to defend themselves better, the Forest Communities formed a League in 1291, which is viewed today as the nucleus around which the Swiss Confederacy later formed. The Swiss relationship with the Habsburgs remained strained in the following period, and famously the Swiss destroyed an Imperial Habsburg force sent to punish them at the Battle of Mortgarten in 1315.

In the middle decades of the 14th century, the initial three members of the league were joined by Bern, Zurich, Luzern, Unterwalden and Glarus, thus the number of League members grew to eight.

As the alliance expanded, the political cooperation of the cantons grew, and in their treaties like the one of Sempacherbrief the cantons agreed to a common foreign policy for example, according to which none of them was allowed to start a conflict with their neighbours unilaterally for example. The cantons steadily expanded their territory in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, and thanks to the disputes between the emperors and Habsburg dukes, they even gained more privileges, like all eight cantons becoming Reichsfreiheits.

Nonetheless, the relationships of the cantons were not always without tensions, and during the 1440s, for a brief time Zurich was expelled from the confederation and allied itself with the Habsburgs. As neither side gained a definitive upper hand, a peace treaty eventually ended the internal divisions within the confederacy, and Zurich was allowed to reenter the ranks. With their internal peace reestablished, the cantons continued to steadily expand at the expanse of the Habsburgs and smaller German entities, the Swiss also tried to expand into Italy against the Duchy of Milan, but their efforts had mixed success only.

The most sought after mercenaries of Europe

During the 1470s, the Swiss came into conflict with the powerful and rich duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold, and it was during the Burgundian Wars that the Swiss warriors really made a name for themselves. The ambitious Charles tried to create a kingdom that would stretch from the Mediterranean to the North Sea, but in his ambition he was opposed by both the Valois dynasty of France and the Austrian Habsburgs. His ambitions also led him into conflict with the Swiss, who defeated the Duke three times( Grandson, Murten and Nancy) after the conflict broke out, the final defeat at Nancy cost the duke his own life too. The Confederacy gained little territory during the conflict, as they chose to sell their gains to the French and Savoy, but the way the Swiss trounced the highly regarded Burgundian army shocked Europe, and during the decades that followed the Burgundian Wars the Swiss mercenaries became the most highly sought fighting force of Western Europe.

The Kings of France relied heavily on Swiss mercenaries as the core of their infantry during the Italian Wars that broke out in the 1490s. The French were not the only ones who sought to use the military prowess of the Swiss, and individual cantons readily accepted offers for their services. Pope Julius regarded the Swiss as the greatest soldiers of the period and unsurprisingly enlisted them as his personal guard.

Julius also allied with the Swiss against the French in the early 1510s. The Swiss for a brief period drove out the French from Northern Italy. The Swiss infantry remained as formidable as ever, and they distinguished themselves well at both their victories like Novara and even at their defeats like at Marignano. Nonetheless, despite their prowess, their defeat at Marignano forced the Swiss to retreat from Italy and most of the Thirteen Cantons( a further five were added in the late 15th and early 16th century) signed a pact of friendship with the French which lasted until 1789.

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Swiss expansion came to an end during the 16th century, but their mercenaries still remained a formidable fighting force for most of the century, and the rulers of Europe still relied on them for quite some time.

The ever loyal Swiss Guard during the French Revolution

The ever loyal Swiss Guard during the French Revolution

What made the Swiss so formidable?

Mother nature played its part in the military prowess of the Swiss, as the mountainous terrain and wild animals of the area meant that the Swiss men needed martial skills to simply stay alive in certain areas of the Confederacy.

Furthermore, the confederacy was surrounded by expansionist neighbours, and in order to be able to defend themselves, the small population needed to take up arms.

A combination of the landscape and the political realities of the high and late medieval period gave birth to a society where martial ability was highly needed and thanks to this, also appreciated.

The Swiss turned out to be a lot more practical and ruthless than their enemies too, and unlike their aristocratic enemies who believed wars should be fought dictated by rules, for the Swiss, the desire to win came first. They made good use of the terrain and ambushes were not deemed dishonourable by any means.

The cantons also adapted themselves to their needs and made good use of weapons that even in the hands of a peasant were deadly. The halberd and the pike became the main infantry weapons of the Swiss, and especially the Swiss pike formations, be it in defence or in the offence, were deadly. To effectively utilise the advantages of these weapons, the cantons trained their population, which gave birth to an armed force that was more disciplined than most contemporary European armies.

Nonetheless, despite their skill and bravery, the Swiss were eventually eclipsed in the 16th century. Unlike the Spanish, who started to employ more and more infantry soldiers armed with firearms, the Swiss kept their old organization of pikes and halberds, and this formation and method of attack with time became obsolete, as, for example, the Battle of Bicocca showed where the Swiss infantry attack was repelled by the Imperial-Spanish infantry.


The Swiss at War by Miller Douglas

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2022 Andrew Szekler

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