The Battle of Morgarten – background and meaning

On 15 November 1315 Duke Leopold of Habsburg, arriving from Zug, advanced on Sattel through the Ägeri Valley with his troops, some of them on horseback. Near the southern end of Lake Ägeri – at Morgarten – they were ambushed and, although superior in number, put to flight by Schwyz fighters. What later came to be portrayed as the first "battle for freedom" by the Forest Cantons against foreign bailiffs was more likely to be, at the time, part of an inheritance dispute involving the Counts of Rapperswil, Einsiedeln monastery's former bailiffs.

Causes of the Battle of Morgarten
Disagreement surrounds the exact circumstances leading up to the battle, and historical research is ongoing. Alongside known motives – the Marchenstreit conflict between Einsiedeln Monastery and Schwyz and Thronstreit dispute involving the ruling elite – current research has also unearthed the Adelsstreit, a conflict involving the nobility.

This long-running dispute over borders and resources between the Schwyz valley dwellers and Einsiedeln Monastery is traditionally seen as the main catalyst for the Battle of Morgarten.

Einsiedeln Monastery – around 1300 a strongly positioned enterprise with interests across the whole region – was, for economic reasons, moving away from a subsistence model that merely served to meet its needs, and repositioning itself as a major cattle farming operation, an altogether more lucrative proposition. It could make money from sales to up-and-coming towns in the Mittelland region and the economic region of Upper Italy, which was becoming increasingly urbanised. The monastery was undergoing pioneering restructuring in a bid to boost its economic performance. On its own as well as common land, it established special Schweighof farms devoted to animal husbandry on a large scale and managed by tenant farmers.

These tenants cared little for the traditional grazing conventions of the "little farmers", i.e. Schwyz farmers and other stockherders within the gravitational pull of Einsiedeln. The questioning of established farming practices carried for both sides a potential for conflict. For small-scale farmers, modernisation represented a root-and-branch transformation of their modus operandi, which was focused principally on small herds. Large herds required the amalgamation of grazing zones, while small producers were relegated to marginal areas. The driving out of traditional farming practices from common land by the intensive livestock practices of large-scale tenant farmers led to considerable unrest in farming communities. The seeds for conflict had been sown. The monastery backed the interests of its tenants in these disputes, while the Schwyz farmers took to involving the Schwyz people in what was, essentially, a local quarrel. Matters came to a head on 6 January 1314 with an assault by Schwyz forces on Einsiedeln Monastery. The monastery was plundered and monks taken prisoner and brought back to Schwyz. This sacking of the monastery was the spectacular culmination of a trend that had seemingly started as minor disagreements over grazing rights, developed into organised cattle stealing, and become transformed into a clearly political-motivated outbreak of violence against the monastery.

One possible underlying contributory factor in whose context the battle might have been fought was the so-called Thronstreit dispute of 1314/15, which involved the throne. Following the demise of Heinrich VII, the electoral princes were unable to agree who should take his place on the German throne, a situation which resulted in 1314 in the dual elevation of Ludwig the Bavarian (House of Wittelsbach) and Frederick the Fair (House of Habsburg), brother of Duke Leopold.

Since receiving the Reichsunmittelbarkeit ("imperial immediacy" or charter of freedom) from King Frederick II in 1240, Schwyz always took care to have the privilege confirmed by each newly crowned king; it supported Ludwig the Bavarian. It was hoping to have the charter confirmed or renewed, since it provided it with substantial control over its own affairs. Against this background, Morgarten became the venue for a conflict that split the entire kingdom. The year following the Battle of Morgarten, King Ludwig the Bavarian renewed the charter of "imperial immediacy" of 1240 – quite possibly in gratitude for what Schwyz had accomplished.

Dispute between nobles. The Battle of Morgarten took place almost two years after the sacking of Einsiedeln Monastery by Schwyz. While earlier historiography speaks of an attempt by the Habsburgs to carry out a reprisal against the people of Schwyz, later research points to a demonstration of dominance as the main motive for Leopold's venture. The attack on Einsiedeln represented a direct challenge to his role as Protectorate of Einsiedeln Monastery; it impugned his reputation.

Nevertheless Werner of Homberg, since 1309 Sheriff of the Forest Cantons, also had hereditary title to the jurisdiction over Einsiedeln Monastery. As the most important political actor in the region, he had since 1313 gone to great lengths to consolidate his position in Central Switzerland, and thus worked closely with the region's leading local groups. At this time Count Werner was evidently seeking an important role in shaping the politics of the region, and the aforementioned jurisdiction served as a substantial basis for exerting his influence. In specific terms, Morgarten was a thus feud between nobles, a dispute between Sheriff Werner of Homberg and the sovereign Habsburg prince, and about their claims to jurisdiction over the proprietorship of Einsiedeln Monastery. The exercise of rule in the Middle Ages required a personal presence. This was especially true in disputes about land. Following the sacking of Einsiedeln Monastery by Schwyz in January 1314, Habsburg saw himself obliged to underscore his claim to dominion over the resources and inhabitants of Einsiedeln by making his presence felt there. Ägeri Valley, then in the possession of Einsiedeln Monastery, appeared the best place to pass through. Habsburg wanted his venture to send out a clear signal to the people of Schwyz, their Sheriff, Werner of Homberg and the Abbot of Einsiedeln that the right to rule over them was his. He had to be shown that the Habsburg promises of protection could be relied on.

Seen from this perspective, it is clear that the resistance at Morgarten was carried out by people loyal to Homberg who were seeking to thwart Duke Leopold's ambitions to control Einsiedeln. Finally, the simple desire for plunder may have been an additional motive behind the Schwyz aggression.

Course of the Battle of Morgarten
Details of the course of battle are lacking to this day, and even excavations have done little to improve the situation. What is certain is that Duke Leopold of Habsburg ran into an ambush at Morgarten on 15 November 1315. The number of combatants and dead is an open question; medieval accounts of the strength of the Habsburg contingent and the numbers killed in action are probably greatly exaggerated. The Habsburg forces would have comprised nobles on horseback walking ahead and foot soldiers from Habsburg protectorates such as Aargau, Zurich, Lucerne, Zug, Klettgau and Sundgau. They were opposed by men from the Forest Cantons, mainly Schwyz.

Aftermath of the battle: the Morgartenbrief
The Morgartenbrief (Morgarten Letter) a.k.a. Bund von Brunnen (Pact of Brunnen) is a historical treaty between Cantons Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden concluded after the Battle of Morgarten and dated 9 December 1315. It was the first to be worded in the German language rather than Latin, and the first to contain the word Eidgenosse (the expression for a confederate, i.e. a Swiss).

The treaty is primarily a reaffirmation of the promise of mutual military assistance and peacekeeping, and of the duty of obedience to the rightful overlords (a duty that can be ignored in the event of feuds with them). It also contains rules on joint action, probably aimed at keeping an eye on what the signing partners are up to. The treaty also sets out how disputes and feuds should be resolved. Arbiters should not include anyone who has bought their office, nor should they come from the same canton as the quarrelling parties. Penal measures are laid down in respect of homicide, robbery, arson, non-payment of debt and insubordination. Despite the striking resemblance of the treaty's contents to those of the pact signed in 1291, no mention is made of the latter.

The Morgartenbrief thus acted as a peace-keeping pact. The Forest Cantons were seeking to affirm their ability to maintain peaceful relations and justify their role as negotiation partners vis-a-vis "their" King, Ludwig the Bavarian.

The Morgartenbrief of 1315 may be viewed at the Museum of Swiss Charters in Schwyz.

The Morgartenbrief and its effect
Unlike that of 1291, the treaty of 1315 had an enduring effect. The Morgartenbrief was frequently transcribed or "refreshed".

For example, the "original" in the Museum of Swiss Charters is not the one signed in 1315, but a transcript that updates the contents. It was probably created after 1390.

This updating process helped the contents maintain a degree of relevance; it soon acquired more of a symbolic significance: representatives of the various communities within the Confederacy would invoke it in the event of disagreement. The aim was to recommend the exemplar of the free, earnest, virtuous, plucky and peace-loving forefather to future generations.

The Morgartenbrief exerted a major influence on an emerging federal tradition from the 15th century onwards. It comes as no surprise, then, that this document was long held to be the founding charter of the Confederation. It was only at the time of the federal commemorations of 1891 that it was separated from the 1291 treaty and made subordinate to the latter in terms of its symbolism.

Meaning of the Battle of Morgarten for an understanding of history
Until well into the 18th century the Battle of Morgarten was viewed as of primary relevance only to the people of Schwyz: from the 14th century onwards the latter had held regular services of remembrance in Morgarten to honour their compatriots killed in the confrontation. It is true that a commentator on the history of Glarus, Aegidius Tschudi, writing in the mid-16th century, described the Old Confederacy's "history of liberation" and the events at Morgarten, as well as accounts of William Tell, the Rütli Oath and the emergence of the Confederacy. But it was not until 1891 that the story of the Battle of Morgarten transmogrified into an image, relevant to the whole of Switzerland, of heroic Swiss forefathers rebelling against oppressors in the form of wicked rulers. In terms of its historical reception, emotional responses to "Morgarten" have varied according to global circumstances (First/Second World Wars, Cold War, formation of economic blocs, EU and eastward expansion), but the thread running all the way through sees the battle as emblematising a willingness to defend, bravery, a love of freedom, independence and resistance to foreign dictatorship.

Just how meaningful the Battle of Morgarten remained in 20th century Switzerland can be seen in the debate surrounding the exact location of the event. The question as to where exactly the battle took place and where, therefore, the monument commemorating it should be erected led in the early part of the century to a veritable diplomatic spat between Schwyz and Zug. The inaugural ceremony of the monument on Zug soil in 1908 was notable for the absence of the Schwyz government from the ceremony.

The actual significance of the battle does not square with the images of heroism of the ensuing centuries. The Battle of Morgarten, however, has informed the way the Swiss view themselves and has, as a consequence, no doubt fulfilled an important political function.

Author: Office of Culture SZ, Cantonal Archive ZG