The battle at Schwaderloh on April 11, 1499 (detail).
The battle in Schwaderloh on April 11, 1499 (detail). Luzerner Schilling, S 23 fol., p. 369

Showdown with the Habsburgs

In the Swabian War of 1499, the Old Swiss Confederation fought against Habsburg Austria and the Swabian League. The cruel and devastating victory of the Swiss underscored their independence within the Holy Roman Empire.

James Blake Wiener

James Blake Wiener

James Blake Wiener is a writer, PR specialist in the domain of Cultural Heritage, and a Co-Founder of "Ancient History Encyclopedia."

The Old Swiss Confederation’s refusal to join the Swabian League in 1488 CE and its rejection of the legislation passed at the Diet of Worms of 1495 CE, triggered the short, ferocious Swabian War in 1499 CE. After seven months of bloody conflict, Swiss and Austrians signed the Treaty of Basel (1499 CE), which exempted the Swiss from imperial jurisdiction and taxes. Austria thus acknowledged the Old Swiss Confederation as a de facto, independent political entity. An enduring enmity between the Swiss and Swabians would, however, continue well into and beyond the sixteenth century.
Area and sites of the Swabian War
Area and sites of the Swabian War. Wikimedia / Marco Zanoli

Prelude, Provocation & International Tensions

With Swiss power radiating outwards from the heart of Western Europe following the defeat of Burgundy during the Burgundian Wars (1474–1477 CE), many find it a curiosity that the Old Swiss Confederation did not join the ranks of emerging European powers. In truth, the Old Swiss Confederacy still lacked a coherent voice in matters of foreign affairs unless threatened by a foreign polity. Swiss patricians chose to elect a policy of armed caution and prudence until the right opportunity presented itself. With Burgundy vanquished, tensions between France and Austria simmered in the 1480s and 1490s CE over the remnants of Burgundy and territories in Italy. The Valois dynasty of France held dynastic claims to Milan and overlordship to Burgundian territories, while Habsburg Austria held Milan as a fief and sought to further integrate the recently acquired Burgundian territories into the Holy Roman Empire. Through brilliant dynastic marriages to Mary of Burgundy (1457-1482 CE), the heir of the vanquished Duke Charles “the Bold” of Burgundy (r. 1467-1477), and Bianca Maria Sforza (1472-1510), the daughter of Duke Gian Galeazzo Maria of Milan (r. 1466-1476), Emperor Maximilian I (r. 1493-1519 CE) positioned Austria as France’s chief rival for power in continental Europe. Despite their former alliance with the Swiss against Burgundy, Maximilian regarded the Old Swiss Confederation as an irritant to Austrian ambitions.
Emperor Maximilian I, 1519, painted by Albrecht Dürer. On the right, the enlarged coat of arms.
Emperor Maximilian I, 1519, painted by Albrecht Dürer. On the right, the enlarged coat of arms. Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, picture gallery
In 1488, the princely nobility in Swabian cities and states formed the "Swabian League" under the direction of Emperor Fredrick III of Austria (r. 1452-1493 CE). The growing power of the Wittlesbach dynasty in Bavaria alarmed the Habsburgs who feared that they might make an alliance with the French or the Old Swiss Confederation. Austria sent diplomatic overtures to the Old Swiss Confederation in the hope that they would join the league. Nevertheless, the Swiss believed the Swabian League was directed against them. They vehemently refused to join the Swabian League in 1488 CE, and they later ignored Maximilian’s request to adhere to a set of Imperial reforms established at the Diet of Worms in 1495 CE, which would have consolidated Austrian legal and economic powers throughout Switzerland. The fact that the Swiss extended their military agreements with Charles VIII of France (r. 1483-1498 CE) and received a great deal of income from the French crown – in the form of pensions – caused even more concern in Vienna. When the Old Swiss Confederation signed a treaty of mutual cooperation and alliance with the Three Leagues of Graubünden in 1497 CE, it worsened an already delicate situation.
Swabian nobles ride to found the Swabian League.
Swabian nobles ride to found the Swabian League. The foxtails on the spits symbolize dishonour and hypocrisy. Propagandist representation from a Swiss perspective in the Schilling Chronicle of 1513. Luzerner Schilling, S 23 fol., p. 325
Swiss perfidy and perceived arrogance annoyed the Austrians and their Swabian allies alike, who waited for the perfect moment to strike the Swiss and their allies. Swabian mercenaries – the celebrated Landsknechte – were especially eager to fight their Swiss neighbors. Swabian mercenaries competed with Swiss mercenaries for recruitment by the crown heads of Europe, and much like the Swiss, they too were skilled users of the pike and halberd.

When they start out to war they swear a solemn oath that every man who sees one of his comrades desert, or act the coward in battle, will cut him down on the spot, for they believe that the courage and persistence of warriors is greater when they, out of fear of death, do not fear death…

The Milanese Humanist Balcus on Swiss soldiers in his Descriptio Helvetia (c. 1500 CE)

Short War & Swiss Victories

In order to safeguard Austrian interests in Tyrol and Milan, Maximilian sought to project power into the great Alpine passes and along Lake Constance. This greatly unnerved those living in eastern Switzerland, and relations between the Three Leagues of Graubünden and the eastern Swiss cantons grew even closer. In early 1499 CE, Tyrolean forces took the prized Valley of Münster, which was a strategic artery between Austria and Milan. The Austrian incursion into Graubünden was quickly defeated, but not before the Austrians sacked Müstair and severely damaged the Benedictine Abbey of St. John. Open fighting broke out in an arc of war, which extended from Alsace in the west to South Tyrol in the east. Although Maximilian I had called upon German states within the Holy Roman Empire to help him come and fight the Swiss, Tyroleans and Swabians made up the majority of his troops. Maximilian I faced difficulties in assembling and paying his troops, which made a unified war effort against the Old Swiss Confederation an extraordinary difficult and costly endeavor. Swiss raids far into imperial and Swabian territories provided plenty of plunder and capital to satisfy Swiss soldiers, and after Bern’s initial reluctance to participate in the war, all ten Swiss cantons fielded men who fought together and alongside soldiers from the Three Leagues. France’s new king, Louis XII (r. 1498-1513 CE), ever eager to prevent German unity within the Holy Roman Empire, provided critical funds to the Swiss.
Troops of Lucerne, Bern and Solothurn beat an Austrian unit at Bruderholz near Basel.
Troops of Lucerne, Bern and Solothurn beat an Austrian unit at Bruderholz near Basel. Luzerner Schilling, S 23 fol., p. 362
Like Maienfeld in this illustration, many towns in Graubünden, especially those in the Upper Engadine, were destroyed at the hands of the Austrians during the war.
Like Maienfeld in this illustration, many towns in Graubünden, especially those in the Upper Engadine, were destroyed at the hands of the Austrians during the war. Luzerner Schilling, S 23 fol., p. 357
The Swiss won major six victories in rapid succession: Hard (February 1499), Bruderholz (March 1499), Schwaderloh (April 1499), Frastanz (April 1499), Calven (May 1499), and Dornach (July 1499). Unlike the celebrated battles of the Burgundian Wars, the Swabian War consisted primarily of small-scale border raids and Alpine skirmishes, which led to the sacking of villages, hamlets, and churches, and the acquisition of hard capital through looting and plunder. It was the Swiss custom to massacre fleeing troops, and the Swiss made few exceptions throughout the duration of the war. The Swiss believed they could win the war by resisting enemy attack upon the Swiss Mittelland. They maintained strategic communication lines with scouts in Jura and along the Rhine River, which kept them well-informed of Swabian and Austrian movements. Swiss fortitude and resourcefulness won international praise – even from the Austrians and Swabians – but the ferocity of the fighting led to untold losses on both sides. One estimate puts that two hundred villages were burned and twenty thousand people were killed on both sides on the Rhine River in the first six months of 1499 CE. Tens of thousands of civilians died, many because of starvation, and Switzerland, Swabia, and Tyrol swelled with refugees. Plague broke out in the regions most ravaged by the war, adding to the already staggering losses. There were additionally widespread reports of wild animals attacking the living as they had developed a taste for human flesh as a result of so many unburied corpses.

…In the capture of prisoners there is more humanity to be found among Turks and Bohemians than among the Swiss.

German Philosopher Jakob Wimpfeling (1450-1528 CE) on Swiss ruthlessness against the Swabians
The warfare of the Swiss was cruel. The troops had to swear not to take prisoners. After the battle at Constance, women and clergy collect the bodies of Constance's citizens on the battlefield.
The warfare of the Swiss was cruel. The troops had to swear not to take prisoners. After the battle at Constance, women and clergy collect the bodies of Constance's citizens on the battlefield. Luzerner Schilling, S 23 fol., p. 371

Peace of Basel and Legacy

Following the Battle of Dornach, Maximilian I realized his attempts to subdue the Swiss were doomed to failure. After seven months of intense warfare along the borders, the Austrians and Swabians were exhausted and low on arms. Swiss resistance had won the war, but the Swiss too were ready to negotiate a peace treaty. The Treaty of Basel signed on September 22, 1499 absolved the Swiss from imperial jurisdiction and taxes from Austria. The Swabian War of 1499 was to be the last major armed conflict between Switzerland and Austria. Relations between Austria and the Old Swiss Confederation returned to the status quo ante, and the Austrians accepted the territorial integrity of the Three Leagues of Graubünden as well. Maximilian dropped the traditional Habsburg claims to Swiss territories. This augmented Swiss autonomy vis-a-vis the other German states within the Holy Roman Empire. While it is true that the Swiss remained nominally part of the Holy Roman Empire, they never complied with imperial decisions ever again. The compromise worked well for the Swiss and Austrians, and European powers would recognize total Swiss independence in 1648 CE with the Treaty of Westphalia. As a result of its victories in the Swabian War, the Old Swiss Confederation admitted Schaffhausen and Basel into the confederation in 1501 CE. Cosmopolitan Basel, with its renowned university, affluent guilds, and lucrative printing industry gave the Old Swiss Confederation considerable wealth, international prestige, and increased security along the Rhine River. The Swiss also won the right to oversee high justice courts in Thurgau, and Appenzell opened negotiations to become a full member of the confederation, which was achieved in 1513 CE. The Swiss could now direct their attention southwards toward Italy.
Negotiations for the Treaty of Basel, 1499.
Negotiations for the Treaty of Basel, 1499. Luzerner Schilling, S 23 fol., p. 408
The Swabian War marked the first time that two opposing armies deployed formations of pikemen fought each other. The end result was savage, and it was a sign of things to come in the Italian Wars (1494-1559 CE). Indeed, the brutality of the Swabian War is evident in that it is called the "Swiss War" in Germany and the "War of the Engadin" in Austria. The Swabian League remained an active political force only until 1534 CE, when its members became divided over the Protestant Reformation. Nonetheless, the fierce rivalry and enmity between Swabians and Swiss would continue well into and beyond the sixteenth century, and Swabian losses in 1499 CE would inspire a new generation of fighters eager to fight the Swiss. Fortune’s wheel spun in a new direction; the Swabian forces would fight and prevail against the Swiss at the Battle of Marignano (1515 CE), the Battle of Bicocca (1521 CE), and the Battle of Pavia (1525 CE). Unknown to many is the fact that the Swabian War marked a major shift in the history of artillery. Under the command of Maximilian I, Austria would make significant advancements in unified caliber and barrel length during the war. Artillery thus became more accurate and able to cover greater distances, making war a deadlier prospect to Swiss mercenaries wielding pikes and halberds on the battlefields of Europe. These technological innovations marked the beginning of the end of the Swiss pikeman’s heyday.
Equestrian flag of the Count von Sonnenberg, booty from the Swabian War.
Shield for swordsmen, probably another piece of booty from the Swabian War.
Parts of the booty from the Swabian War can now be found in the collection of the Swiss National Museum, such as an equestrian flag of Count von Sonnenberg and a shield for swordsmen. Swiss National Museum

Further posts

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