The Battle of Kappel am Albis in 1531 ended in a resounding defeat for Zurich.
The Battle of Kappel am Albis in 1531 ended in a resounding defeat for Zurich. Swiss National Museum

The Second War of Kappel

In 1531, two years after the legendary Milchsuppe (milk soup) incident, a battle took place at Kappel after all. The Protestants suffered a crushing defeat, and were forced to abandon their dreams of an exclusively Protestant Switzerland.

Andrej Abplanalp

Andrej Abplanalp

Historian and communications chief of the Swiss National Museum.

The people of Zurich are the fastest Swiss. So goes the popular cliché. But this wasn’t the case on 11 October 1531. Quite apart from the fact that in those days you couldn’t talk about ‘Swiss’ people, others were faster. The soldiers from Lucerne, for instance, or those from Uri and Schwyz. And so it came about that the people of Zurich suffered a cataclysmic defeat. Hundreds of men died, including leading Protestant agitator Huldrych Zwingli. But first things first…
The dying Zwingli in Kappel, 1531. 19th-century print.
The dying Zwingli in Kappel, 1531. 19th-century print. Swiss National Museum
The Second War was the sequel to the First War of Kappel, which had been narrowly avoided in 1529 with last-minute negotiations and a much-fabled meal, the Kappeler Milchsuppe. But two years further on in time, neither diplomacy nor cuisine helped. The differences between Catholics and Protestants were simply too great; compromise was no longer possible. And so in October 1531 hostilities erupted at Kappel am Albis. For a long time things had been looking good. While wars of religion were raging across half of Europe, the Confederation had managed, in 1529, to find a common path. The future of the fledgling Swiss nation was secured, at least in the short term. The fact that this moment failed to stretch into an epoch is mainly to do with Huldrych Zwingli. The Reformation leader from Zurich hoped to impose the new faith throughout the Confederation. He was willing to go to any lengths to achieve this, including a war. But even in the Protestant camp, this undertaking was viewed with scepticism. Bern – Zurich’s closest and most powerful ally – wanted no part of it. The Bernese had taken part in the supplies blockade (Proviantsperre) against the five Catholics towns of Lucerne, Uri, Unterwalden, Schwyz and Zug, but an armed conflict was going too far for them – at least for the moment. In addition, the city state of Bern had expansionist designs on Western Switzerland, and so always had one eye on what was going on in Romandy.
Zwingli bids farewell to his family before the Battle of Kappel am Albis in 1531. 19th-century print.
Zwingli bids farewell to his family before the Battle of Kappel am Albis in 1531. 19th-century print. Swiss National Museum
This Proviantsperre was actually a blockade on salt and grain deliveries, and was intended to force the Catholics to change their views. But it had the opposite effect. In the five towns, the measure merely added further fuel to the fire of hatred of the new faith. The gulf between the opposing viewpoints became wider and wider. Under Zwingli’s leadership, Zurich now pushed for a war of aggression, but it was alone in this venture. Bern and the other partners in the Protestant alliance – St Gallen, Basel, Schaffhausen, Biel and Mülhausen – wanted to continue negotiating. The disunity among the Protestants was the Catholics’ opportunity, and they hit Zurich hard and with little warning. On 11 October 1531, just 2,000 or so soldiers from Zurich faced off at Kappel am Albis against a vastly superior force of at least 7,000 Catholic fighters. The five towns attacked, completely routing the Protestant force. More than 500 Zurich fighters lost their lives, including Huldrych Zwingli.
Heroic defence of the flag of Zurich. Illustration dating from the 19th century.
Heroic defence of the flag of Zurich. Illustration dating from the 19th century. Zentralbibliothek Zürich
However, blame for the devastating defeat lay not only with the reluctant allies, but also with Zurich itself. The policies enacted by the city on the Limmat in the period between the two Kappel Wars didn’t help its military strength. Under a new Kriegsordnung (war order) issued in 1529, troop numbers were reduced and pay was adjusted downwards. The prohibition on mercenaries also started to have more of an impact. There was a lack of experience and knowledge of the battlefields, and a dearth of well-trained units and tactically astute officers. And there was a lack of young, bold fighters who didn’t obediently stick to plans and follow orders, instead sometimes seizing the opportunity to launch a surprise attack. The Zurich leaders underestimated the enthusiasm for combat and the impact of the art of private warfare that had made the Confederation renowned and notorious in Europe.

Surprise attack by night

The battle of Kappel was decided but the war itself went on, because now the Bernese joined in after all. Together with soldiers from St Gallen, Thurgau, Schaffhausen and Toggenburg, they soon formed a powerful combat unit. The approximately 5,000 men marched through the Reuss Valley towards Zug, pillaging and looting as they went. The troops of the five towns were hopelessly outnumbered by the Protestants, and withdrew into the surrounding hills. But they weren’t beaten yet. Quite the reverse, in fact! In a surprise night-time attack, around 700 Catholic fighters struck at the Protestant troops once again, ending the conflict that had dragged on since 1529. Interestingly, this attack by young and fierce fighters was carried out without clear agreement with the rest of the soldiers of the five towns. The fighters saw their chance, and they seized it without hesitation. It was precisely this element of reckless impulsiveness, driven by a thirst for adventure and the prospect of fame, that the Zurich fighters lacked and which led the city to agree the Zweiter Landfrieden (Second Territorial Peace) of Kappel. The Zweiter Landfrieden agreement governed relations between Catholics and Protestants until the early 18th century. While this did establish the denominational map of the German-speaking Confederation, the treaty wasn’t able to remove the animosities between the religions…
The Second Peace of Kappel of 1531, which shaped the confessional map of the Confederation.
The Zweite Kapeller Landfrieden (Second Territorial Peace of Kappel) of 1531 governed relations between Catholics and Protestants. Zurich State Archive

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