Early history of Switzerland

Early history of Switzerland
History of Switzerland
Coat of Arms of Switzerland
This article is part of a series
Early history
Roman era (200 BC–400)
Alemannia · Burgundy (400–900)
Swabia · Burgundy (900–1300)
Old Swiss Confederacy
Growth (1291–1516)
Reformation (1516–1648)
Ancien Régime (1648–1798)
Transitional period
Napoleonic era (1798–1814)
Restoration (1814–1847)
Modern history
Federal state (1848)
World Wars (1914–1945)
Military history

Switzerland Portal
v · d · e

The early history of Switzerland begins with the earliest settlements up to the beginning of Habsburg rule, which in 1291 gave rise to the independence movement in the central cantons of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden and the Late Medieval growth of the Old Swiss Confederacy.



Archeological evidence from the Wildkirchli cave in Appenzell suggests that hunter-gatherers settled in the lowlands north of the Alps by the late Paleolithic.[1] In the Neolithic period, the area was relatively densely populated, as is attested to by the many archeological findings from that period. Remains of pile dwellings have been found in the shallow areas of many lakes.

In Neolithic Europe, the Swiss plateau was dominated by the Linear Pottery culture from the 5th millennium BC; it lay on the south-western outskirts of the Corded Ware horizon in the 3rd millennium BC, evolving into the early Bronze Age Beaker culture. Artefacts dated to the 5th millennium BC were discovered at the Schnidejoch in 2003 to 2005.[2] The first Indo-European settlement likely dates to the 2nd millennium, at the latest in the form of the Urnfield culture from c. 1300 BC. The Swiss plateau lay in the western part of the pre- or proto-Celtic Halstatt culture).,[3] evolving into the Celtic La Tène culture[4] from the 5th century BC. In the 1st century BC (late La Tène), the Swiss plateau was occupied by the Helvetii in the west and by the Vindelici in the east, while the Alpine parts of eastern Switzerland were inhabited by the Raetians.

Roman era

Switzerland during the Roman era

In 58 BCE, the Helvetii tried to evade migratory pressure from Germanic tribes by moving into Gaul, but were stopped and defeated at Bibracte (near modern-day Autun) by Julius Caesar's armies and then sent back. In 15 BCE, Tiberius and Drusus conquered the Alps, and the region became integrated into the Roman Empire[5]: the Helvetii settlement area became part first of Gallia Belgica and later of the province of Germania Superior, while the eastern part was integrated into the Roman province of Raetia.

The following 300 years saw extensive Roman settlement, including the construction of a road network and the founding of many settlements and cities. The center of Roman occupation was at Aventicum (Avenches), other cities were founded at Arbor Felix (Arbon), Augusta Raurica (Kaiseraugst near Basel), Basilea (Basel), Curia (Chur), Genava (Genève), Lousanna (Lausanne), Octodurum (Martigny, controlling the pass of the Great St. Bernard), Salodurum (Solothurn), Turicum (Zürich) and other places. Military garrisons existed at Tenedo (Zurzach) and Vindonissa (Windisch).[5]

The Romans also developed the Great St. Bernard Pass beginning in the year 47, and in 69 part of the legions of Vitellius used it to traverse the Alps. The passes were expanded from dirt trails to narrow paved roads.[5] Between 101 and 260, the legions moved out of the region, allowing trade to expand. In Raetia, roman culture and language became dominant.[5] Nearly 2000 years later, some of the population of Graubünden still speak Romansh which is descended from Vulgar Latin.

In 259, Alamanni tribes overran the Limes and caused widespread devastation of Roman cities and settlements. The Roman empire managed to reestablish the Rhine as the border, and the cities on Swiss territory were rebuilt. However, it was now a frontier province, and consequently the new Roman cities were smaller and much more fortified.

Christianization and post-Roman era

In the late Roman period in the 3rd and 4th centuries, the Christianization of the region began. Legends of Christian martyrs such as Felix and Regula in Zürich probably are based on events that occurred during the persecution of Christians under Diocletian around 298. While the story of the Theban Legion, which was martyred near Saint Maurice-en-Valais in Valais, figures into the histories of many towns in Switzerland.[5]

The first bishoprics were founded in the 4th and 5th centuries in Basel (documented in 346), Martigny (doc. 381, moved to Sion in 585), Geneva (doc. 441), and Chur (doc. 451). There is evidence from the 6th century for a bishopric in Lausanne, which maybe had been moved from Avenches.

With the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Germanic tribes moved in. Burgundians settled in the Jura, the Rhône valley and the Alps south of Lake Geneva; while in the north, Alamannic settlers crossed the Rhine in 406 and slowly assimilated the Gallo-Roman population, or made it retreat into the mountains. Burgundy became a part of the Frankish kingdom in 534; two years later, the dukedom of Alemannia followed suit.

The Burgundy kings furthered the Christianization through newly founded monasteries, e.g. at Romainmôtier or St. Maurice in the Valais in 515. In the Alaman part, only isolated Christian communities continued to exist; the Germanic faith including the worship of Wuodan was prevalent. The Irish monks Columbanus and Gallus re-introduced Christian faith in the early 7th century. The Bishopric of Konstanz also was founded at that time.

Early Middle Ages

Alemannia and Upper Burgundy around AD 1000
  Upper Burgundy

Under the Carolingian kings, the feudal system proliferated, and monasteries and bishopries were important bases for maintaining the rule. The Treaty of Verdun of 843 assigned the western part of modern Switzerland (Upper Burgundy) to Lotharingia, ruled by Lothair I, and the eastern part (Alemannia) to the eastern kingdom of Louis the German that would become the Holy Roman Empire. The boundary between Alamania, ruled by Louis, and western Burgundy, ruled by Lothar, ran along the lower Aare, turning towards the south at the Rhine, passing west of Lucerne and across the Alps along the upper Rhône to Saint Gotthard Pass.

Louis the German in 853 granted his lands in the Reuss River valley to the monastery of St Felix and Regula in Zürich (modern day Fraumünster) of which his daughter Hildegard was the first abbess.[6] According to legend this occurred after a stag bearing an illuminated crucifix between his antlers appeared to him in the marshland outside the town, at the shore of Lake Zürich. However, there is evidence that the monastery was already in existence before 853. The Fraumünster is across the river from the Grossmünster, which according to legend was founded by Charlemagne himself, as his horse fell to his knees on the spot where the martyrs Felix and Regula were buried.

When the land was granted to the monastery, it was exempt from all feudal lords except the king and later the Holy Roman Emperor (a condition known as Imperial immediacy or in German: Reichsfreiheit or Reichsunmittelbarkeit). The privileged position of the abbey (reduced taxes and greater autonomy) encouraged the other men of the valley to put themselves under the authority of abbey. By doing so they gained the advantages of the Imperial immediacy and grew used to the relative freedom and autonomy.[6] The only source of royal or imperial authority was the advocalus or vogt of the abbey which was given to one family after another by the emperor as a sign of trust.

In the 10th century, the rule of the Carolingians waned: Magyars destroyed Basel in 917 and St. Gallen in 926, and Saracenes ravaged the Valais after 920 and sacked the monastery of St. Maurice in 939. The Conradines (von Wetterau) started a long time rule over Swabia during this time. Only after the victory of king Otto I over the Magyars in 955 in the Battle of Lechfeld were the Swiss territories reintegrated into the empire.

High Middle Ages

Dominions around AD 1200:
     Savoy      Zähringer      Habsburg      Kyburg

King Rudolph III of the Arelat kingdom (r. 9931032) gave the Valais as his fiefdom to the Bishop of Sion in 999, and when Burgundy and thus also the Valais became part of the Holy Roman Empire in 1032, the bishop was also appointed count of the Valais. The Arelat mostly existed on paper throughout the 11th to 14th centuries, its remnants passing to France in 1378, but without its Swiss portions, Bern and Aargau having come under Zähringer and Habsburg rule already by the 12th century, and the County of Savoy was detached from the Arelat just before its dissolution, in 1361.

The dukes of Zähringen founded many cities, the most important being Freiburg in 1120, Fribourg in 1157, and Bern in 1191. The Zähringer dynasty ended with the death of Berchtold V in 1218, and their cities subsequently thus became independent, while the dukes of Kyburg competed with the house of Habsburg over control of the rural regions of the former Zähringer territory. When the house of Zähringen died out in 1218 the office of Vogt over the Abbey of St Felix and Regula in Zurich was granted to the Habsburgs, however it was quickly revoked.[6]

The rise of the Habsburg dynasty gained momentum when their main local competitor, the Kyburg dynasty, died out and they could thus bring much of the territory south of the Rhine under their control. Subsequently, they managed within only a few generations to extend their influence through Swabia in south-eastern Germany to Austria.

Under the Hohenstaufen rule, the alpine passes in Raetia and the St. Gotthard Pass gained importance. Especially the latter became an important direct route through the mountains. The construction of the "Devil’s Bridge" (Teufelsbrücke) across the Schöllenenschlucht in 1198 led to a marked increase in traffic on the mule track over the pass. Frederick II accorded the Reichsfreiheit to Schwyz in 1240[6] in the Freibrief von Faenza in an attempt to place the important pass under his direct control, and his son and for some time co-regent Henry VII had already given the same privileges to the valley of Uri in 1231 (the Freibrief von Hagenau). Unterwalden was de facto reichsfrei, since most of its territory belonged to monasteries, which had become independent even earlier in 1173 under Frederick I "Barbarossa" and in 1213 under Frederick II. The city of Zürich became reichsfrei in 1218.

While some of the "Forest Communities" (Waldstätten, i.e. Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden) were reichsfrei the Habsburgs still claimed authority over some villages and much of the surrounding land. While Schwyz was reichsfrei in 1240, the castle of Neu Habsburg was built in 1244 to help control Lake Lucerne and restrict the neighboring Forest Communities.[6] In 1245 Frederick II was excommunicated by Pope Innocent IV at the Council of Lyon. When the Habsburgs took the side of the pope, some of the Forest Communities took Frederick's side. At this time the castle of Neu Habsburg was attacked and damaged.[6] When Frederick failed against the Pope, those who had taken his side were threatened with excommunication and the Habsburgs gained additional power. In 1273 the rights to the Forest Communities were sold by a cadet branch of the Habsburgs to the head of the family, Rudolf I. A few months later he became King of the Romans, a title that would become Holy Roman Emperor. Rudolph was therefore the ruler of all the reichsfrei communities as well as the lands that he ruled as a Habsburg.

He instituted a strict rule in his homelands and raised the taxes tremenduously to finance wars and further territorial acquisitions. As king, he finally had also become the direct liege lord of the Forest Communities, which thus saw their previous independence curtailed. On the April 16, 1291 Rudolph bought all the rights over the town of Lucerne and the abbey estates in Unterwalden from Murbach Abbey in Alsace. The Forest Communities saw their trade route over Lake Lucerne cut off and feared losing their independence. When Rudolph died on July 15, 1291 the Communities prepared to defend themselves. On August 1, 1291 a Everlasting League was made between the Forest Communities for mutual defense against a common enemy.[6]

In the Valais, increasing tensions between the bishops of Sion and the Counts of Savoy led to a war beginning in 1260. The war ended after the Battle at the Scheuchzermatte near Leuk in 1296, where the Savoy forces were crushed by the bishop's army, supported by forces from Bern. After the peace of 1301, Savoy kept only the lower part of the Valais, while the bishop controlled the upper Valais.


  1. ^ Wildkirchli in German, French and Italian in the online Historical Dictionary of Switzerland.
  2. ^ Associated Press (2006-01-18). "5000 Jahre alter Pfeilbogen im Berner Oberland gefunden" (in German). NZZ. http://www.nzz.ch/2006/01/18/vm/newzzEILL9E47-12.html. Retrieved 2008-11-14.  In a later NZZ article (21 August 2008), the date is revised to c.4500BC instead of c.3000BC (German)
  3. ^ N. Müller-Scheeßel, Die Hallstattkultur und ihre räumliche Differenzierung. Der West- und Osthallstattkreis aus forschungsgeschichtlicher Sicht (2000)
  4. ^ La Tène Site description(French)
  5. ^ a b c d e Encyclopedia Britannica Online: Roman Switzerland accessed November 13, 2008
  6. ^ a b c d e f g "Switzerland". Encyclopædia Britannica. 26. 1911. pp. 247. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/1911_Encyclop%C3%A6dia_Britannica/Switzerland/History/Origins. Retrieved 2008-11-12. 


External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • History of Switzerland — Since 1848, the Swiss Confederation has been a federal state of relatively autonomous cantons, some of which have a history of confederacy that goes back more than 700 years, arguably putting them among the world s oldest surviving republics. For …   Wikipedia

  • Modern history of Switzerland — History of Switzerland This article is part of a series Early history …   Wikipedia

  • Military history of Switzerland — History of Switzerland This article is part of a series Early history …   Wikipedia

  • Switzerland — Swiss redirects here. For other uses, see Swiss (disambiguation). Swiss Confederation redirects here. For Swiss Confederacy, see Old Swiss Confederacy. This article is about the country. For other uses, see Switzerland (disambiguation). Swiss… …   Wikipedia

  • History of Berne — From her inauspicious beginnings as a Celtic settlement in pre Roman Central Europe, the city of Berne grew to become an aristocratic city republic and a major power in the Old Swiss Confederacy. During her heyday in the late Middle Ages and the… …   Wikipedia

  • Switzerland in the Napoleonic era — History of Switzerland This article is part of a series Early history …   Wikipedia

  • History of the Netherlands — This article is part of a series Early History …   Wikipedia

  • History of Hungary — This article is part of a series Prehistory …   Wikipedia

  • History of Austria — This article is part of a series Early History …   Wikipedia

  • Switzerland — • A confederation in the central part of Western Europe, made up of twenty two cantons, three of which are divided into half cantons Catholic Encyclopedia. Kevin Knight. 2006. Switzerland     Switzerland …   Catholic encyclopedia

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.