In June 1712 the “Klostervogt” of Magdenau was executed. He had certainly aggravated the conflict between the denominations. Illustration by Marco Heer.
In June 1712 the “Klostervogt” of Magdenau was executed. He had certainly aggravated the conflict between the denominations. Illustration by Marco Heer.

Off with his head!

On 9 June 1712, Christoph Lieber lost his head. A prominent Catholic Klostervogt (abbey bailiff), Lieber was one of the reasons why the conflict between the Swiss denominations flared up again at the beginning of the 18th century.

Andrej Abplanalp

Andrej Abplanalp

Historian and communications chief of the Swiss National Museum.

On 9 June 1712, Christoph Lieber was beheaded in Liechtensteig. The Vogt (bailiff) of Magdenau Monastery was a thorn in the side of the Reformed Church. Lieber, also known as Lüber, a devout Catholic and confidant of the prince-abbot of St Gallen, crusaded for the Catholic faith in Toggenburg, which at the time was mostly Reformed. His pro-Catholic agitation provoked the Reformed Church, and fuelled the conflict between the monastery of St Gallen and its mostly Protestant subject peoples – a conflict which had been smouldering for a number of years. The conflict that would eventually cost Lieber his head had begun two centuries earlier. After the Second War of Kappel, in which the Protestants suffered a crushing defeat in 1531, a fragile balance seemed to develop between the denominations in the Old Swiss Confederacy. But as the years and decades passed, the Protestants became stronger and stronger, both economically and militarily. And as their power grew, fantasies of vengeance for the humiliation of 1531 resurfaced. A massive intensification of denominational conflicts in the 17th century helped to further feed these fantasies.
In October 1531, Protestants and Catholics met in battle in Kappel. The Protestants suffered a crushing defeat.
In October 1531, Protestants and Catholics met in battle in Kappel. The Protestants suffered a crushing defeat. ETH Library Zurich
The situation finally boiled over in 1698. The prince-abbot of St Gallen, Leodegar, wanted to build a road over the Ricken Pass to give him a more direct route to the Catholics in neighbouring Schwyz. This would have made the prince-abbot more independent of powerful, Protestant Zurich, and it would also have enabled him to put on a show of his own might for the Toggenburgers: he demanded that the people of Wattwil build the road through their territory at their own expense. But instead of a rise in status and a new road, Leodegar accomplished the opposite. There was strong opposition to the prince-abbot and his policies. A “paltry road project” in a Toggenburg municipality ignited a nationwide religious conflict that dragged on for years, and would end up changing the face of the Confederation.
Leodegar Bürgisser, prince-abbot of St Gallen Monastery, in an 18th-century painting.
Leodegar Bürgisser, prince-abbot of St Gallen Monastery, in an 18th-century painting. Wikimedia
The resolute “no” to Leodegar’s road emboldened the Protestant Toggenburg communities to take things even further. They tentatively formed their own government, and began to take matters into their own hands. That didn’t sit well with the prince-abbot. And when Bern and Zurich placed Protestant Toggenburg under their protection in 1707, it was the last straw for Leodegar in St Gallen. Not on my watch, he thought to himself, and launched a counteroffensive. Under the leadership of Christoph Lieber and with the help of various priests, Leodegar succeeded in enticing a number of Toggenburg communities into his fold. This, in turn, was a step too far for the Protestants. They were particularly antagonised by the Catholic “chief schemer” Christoph Lieber, who deftly orchestrated the Catholics’ subversive activities in the valleys and villages. In April 1712, Protestant troops occupied the monasteries of Magdenau and Neu St Johann and took Christoph Lieber prisoner.
Magdenau Monastery is on the list of items of cultural heritage of national significance.
Magdenau Monastery is on the list of items of cultural heritage of national significance. ETH Library Zurich
And the Protestant military campaign continued to rumble on. The town of Wil – the prince-abbot’s official seat – and the monastery of St Gallen were also attacked and captured. By now, it was not only Protestant Toggenburgers that were involved; troops from Zurich and Bern were also in action. The five Catholic cantons of Uri, Schwyz, Unterwalden, Lucerne and Zug sided with the prince-abbot, and invaded the county of Baden and the Freiamt territories. In doing so, they blocked the route between Bern and Zurich. Of course, the inevitable happened: in May 1712, Protestant and Catholic troops faced off in what is now Aargau. In the Second War of Villmergen, also known as the Toggenburg War or the Swiss Civil War of 1712, the army of the Catholic cantons was utterly crushed. Under pressure from a number of neutral towns such as Basel, Glarus and Solothurn, peace negotiations began in Aarau in June. Finally, on 11 August 1712, the fourth Peace was concluded in Aarau.
Letter from Christoph Lieber to the abbot of St Gallen Monastery, 31 May 1712.
Letter from Christoph Lieber to the abbot of St Gallen Monastery, 31 May 1712. Stiftsarchiv St. Gallen, R28, F8, Nr. 119
Christoph Lieber didn’t live to see the agreement in Aarau. His head rolled on 9 June 1712. In his last letter to the abbot of St Gallen, the Klostervogt reaffirmed his loyalty to the Catholic faith: “I die honestly, and faithful to my Lord’s righteousness and for the sake of the Catholic religion.” In this letter, he also asked that his family be taken care of. Christoph Lieber’s final wish was granted. Magdenau Monastery looked after his surviving relatives. However, the Fourth Peace of Aarau shifted the balance of power between Catholics and Protestants in favour of the latter. Would the Klostervogt from Toggenburg have wanted to know that? Probably not…

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