In 1602, Geneva defended itself against a Savoyard attack with muskets, sabres and cooking pots.
In 1602, Geneva defended itself against a Savoyard attack with muskets, sabres and cooking pots. Illustration by Marco Heer.

The Geneva Escalade

In December 1602, the Duke of Savoy attempted to take the city state of Geneva with a surprise attack. The attack was thwarted, and the city finally became independent.

Andrej Abplanalp

Andrej Abplanalp

Historian and communications chief of the Swiss National Museum.

On the night of 12 December 1602, Geneva experienced a few restless hours. A Savoyard force of several thousand troops attacked the city. The advance party had already scaled the city walls with ladders by the time the alarm was sounded. The Savoyard soldiers were supposed to open the city gate for the rest of the troops, but they weren’t able to do so in time. The Duke of Savoy’s plan had thus been thwarted. Before sunrise, he withdrew his troops. Charles Emmanuel, who had been keeping an eye on wealthy Geneva for some time, had anticipated a simple coup de main. The defeat spelled a definitive end to the Savoyards’ dream of great power in the region, and was a humiliation for Charles Emmanuel. But the military embarrassment of that December night wasn’t the only bitter pill he had to swallow. In 1603, the Duke also had to recognise Geneva’s independence, in the Treaty of Saint Julien. This meant that his scheme to establish the city as his capital in the Alpine foothills was off the table, along with a plan to stamp out Protestantism in the region. To make sure the Savoyards adhered to the peace agreement, they were ordered not to concentrate troops or build fortresses within four miles of Geneva. In addition, the city on the Rhone was exempted from any liability to pay taxes to Savoy.
Graphic print of the Escalade, circa 1850. The text of the ‘Chanson de l’Escalade’ can be seen in the margin.
Graphic print of the Escalade, circa 1850. The text of the ‘Chanson de l’Escalade’ can be seen in the margin. The piece was composed in 1603. Swiss National Museum

Legend of the soup cauldron

Since then, Geneva has celebrated this success with a public festival called the Escalade. The name refers to the wooden ladders that the first attackers used to scale the city walls. Locals love to tell the legend of Madame Royaume, a Geneva matron who is said to have emptied a cauldron of soup over soldiers from Savoy, making a vital contribution to the city’s defence. The contents of the cauldron vary depending on who’s telling the story. Little soup cauldrons made of chocolate still commemorate this legend today at the annual celebrations. The Genevan victory delighted the city’s inhabitants, and was a considerable setback for Savoy. It was also good news for the Swiss Confederation. However, feelings differed on the question of what should happen next with the city on the Rhone. While the Reformed cities of Bern and Zurich supported the Genevans, and had even agreed to this in writing with a long-term protective alliance in place since 1584, the Catholic cities did not want Geneva to be fully incorporated into the Confederation. The denominational conflict continued to smoulder among the 13 cities, and any shift in the fragile balance was risky. So Geneva remained an allied canton and, after a brief French interlude between 1798 and 1814, became an autonomous canton only at the beginning of the 19th century.
Madame Royaume in action in a 17th-century print.
Madame Royaume in action in a 17th-century print. Wikimedia
Even before the defeat in Geneva, Savoy had lost large areas of what is now western Switzerland. For example, Duke Emmanuel Philibert had been forced to cede Vaud to Bern in 1564. So it makes sense that the aristocratic family shifted its sphere of activity towards Italy in the 17th century. But it wasn’t until 1816 that the Genevans were able to break free from Savoy completely. In the Treaty of Turin, King Victor Emmanuel (the Savoyards had by now become kings of Sardinia and Piedmont) ceded to Geneva several municipalities, including Carouge, which had only been elevated to free city status in 1786, and Onex.

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