This series has five easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: Tales of Opression.
The Hapsburg Dynasty originated in Switzerland. When Count Rudolph I became king of Germany (1273) and acquired the lands of present-day Austria, he became the next Holy Roman Emperor in every way but having the actual title. During his reign, he accepted the concerns of the Swiss communities about their freedoms within the Empire but after he died trouble began.
The formation of the Swiss confederacy may be regarded as the first combined preparation of the Swiss for that great struggle in defense of their liberties, in the history of which fact and legend, as shown in Baker’s discriminating narrative, are romantically blended.
This selection is from The Model Republic; a History of the Rise and Progress of the Swiss People by F. Grenfell Baker published in 1805. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
There can be little doubt that most of the many stories related by the Swiss of the cruelty and extortion of the Austrian bailies are wholly or in great part devoid of a historical basis of truth, as are the dates given for their occurrence. They doubtless sprang from the very natural feelings of hatred the mountaineers of the Forest State felt against a foreign master, who was probably only too ready to punish them for the part they took against him in the struggle for the imperial throne. Indeed, it was not till about two centuries after this period that any reference to the alleged cruelties of the Austrians can be found in the local records, though legends about them have been plentiful.
Many and various are the stories that have come down to our times of the oppression and licentiousness of the bailies, most of which have probably gained much color by constant repetition, even if they were not wholly created by imagination and hatred of the Austrian rule. According to these accounts, the local despots imposed exorbitant fines for trivial offences, and frequently sent prisoners to Zug and Lucerne to be tried by Austrian judges. They levied enormously increased taxes and imports on every commodity, and exacted payment in the most merciless manner; they openly violated the liberties of the people, and chose every occasion to insult and degrade them. An oft-quoted instance of their cruelty is recorded of a bailie named Landenburg, who publicly reproved a peasant for living in a house above his station. On another occasion, having fined an old and much respected laborer, named Henry of Melchi, a yoke of oxen for an imaginary offence, the Governor’s messenger jeeringly told the old man, who was lamenting that if he lost his cattle he could no longer earn his bread, that if he wanted to use a plough he had better draw it himself, being only a vile peasant. To this insult Henry’s son Arnold responded by attacking the messenger and breaking his fingers, and then, fearing lest his act should bring down some serious punishment, fled to the mountains, and left his aged father to Landenburg’s vengeance. The bailie confiscated his little property, imposed a heavy fine, and finally burned out both his eyes.
The hot irons used in this barbarous punishment, the Swiss are fond of saying, went deeper than the tyrant intended, and penetrated to the hearts and aroused the sympathies of their ancestors to perform such acts of heroism that tyranny fled in fear from the land. The conduct of Arnold, however, can hardly at this period of his life warrant the eulogies bestowed upon his memory, though he subsequently figures as one of the “Men of Ruetli.”
Landenburg lived in a castle near Sarnen, in Unterwalden, where his imperious temper, his exactions, his cruelties, and his debaucheries aroused a universal feeling of hatred among the peasants, that culminated in his expulsion and the destruction of his stronghold. The latter is popularly believed to have occurred on January 1, 1308. As the bailie left his castle to attend mass, some forty determined peasants, who had already bound themselves by oath to free their country at a solemn meeting on the steep promontory over the Lake of Lucerne known as the Ruetli, appeared before him carrying sheep, fowls, and other customary presents, and thus gained admission to the castle. No sooner were they past the gates than, drawing the weapons they had till then concealed beneath their clothes, they disarmed the guard and took possession of the fortress. Other conspirators were admitted, and the people at once rose in revolt. Landenburg, hearing while still at church of what had occurred, managed to effect his escape, and fled to Lucerne. Of the other bailies, Gessler and Wolfenschiess are believed to have excited even more hatred than their colleague Landenburg, and to have exceeded him in acts of savage cruelty and vicious living.
One example out of many similar ones will show the spirit in which the Swiss traditions have treated the memory of Wolfenschiess. On a certain day, finding that a peasant named Conrad, of Baumgarten, whose wife he had frequently tried in vain to seduce, was absent from home, Wolfenschiess entered Conrad’s house and ordered his wife to prepare him a bath, at the same time renewing with ardor his former proposals. With the cunning of her sex, the wife feigned to be willing to accede to his wishes, and on the pretence of retiring to another room to undress sped to her husband, who quickly returned and slew Wolfenschiess while he was still in the bath. After this exploit an entrance was effected into the bailies’ castle of Rotzberg by one of the conspirators, who was in the habit of paying nightly visits to a servant living in the castle, by means of a rope attached to her window, and who then admitted his companions, who were lying concealed in the moat.
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