The Swiss Confederation 1291–1531

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Map Code: Ax01121

In the Middle Ages the Alpine valleys if Schwyz, Uri and Unterwalden, the “Forest Cantons” were populated by large numbers of free peasants who, far away from secular or ecclesiastical overlords, developed into relatively independent communities, electing their own leaders. Fiercely loyal to each other, they became wealthy through forest management and stockbreeding. In 1291 these cantons signed the Federal Charter, regarded as the founding document of the Swiss Confederation, in which they pledged to support each other and join together to resist threats and violence and laid down procedures for resolving disputes amongst signatories. Their alliance consolidated their position against the Habsburg rulers of the Holy Roman Empire and their position was reinforced by the famous victory of the Swiss infantry against the Habsburg cavalry at Morgarten in 1315. The Swiss founding cantons renewed their Everlasting League, a mutual defence agreement that effectively asserted the freedom of the cantons from feudal obligations. As the Swiss Confederation grew it united both rural and urban communities, and its status was consolidated by the growing wealth of the Swiss towns, with their far-flung commercial networks. As the towns became wealthier they acquired land and territory of their own, exercising feudal rights over their tenants. Gradually the towns joined the Confederation, seeking help and support against foreign and internal threats, such as revolutions by the guilds against the pro-Habsburg nobility. Lucerne joined in 1332, Zurich in 1351, Bern in 1353. The military force of the Confederation thwarted Habsburg advances, defeating the Swabian League and weakening the power of local pro-Habsburg nobility. The Confederation was acquiring a reputation for invincibility.

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