The Ritterhaus in Bubikon c. 1754.
The Ritterhaus in Bubikon c. 1754. Swiss National Museum

Bringing in the new faith by subterfuge

Not even the Order of Saint John was immune to quarrelling and intrigues. In 1528, the Zurich authorities succeeded in imposing the new Protestant faith through an intentionally wrongful arrest at the Bubikon Commandery.

Stefanie Fivian

Stefanie Fivian

Stefanie Fivian is a historian and a member of staff at the Stapferhaus.

The 1520s were a turbulent time for the city and region of Zurich, especially with regard to theological issues, which in many instances were linked to exercising or maintaining influence and power. For a long time, the authorities in Zurich had been trying to extend their area of influence and profit financially by astutely meddling in legal affairs outside their own territorial remit. This was what happened at an establishment of the Order of Saint John, the Bubikon Commandery – a medieval monastery of the Knights Hospitaller – located in the Zurich Oberland. In 1525 a new administrator, Heinrich Felder, was appointed to the Commandery and the Zurich authorities tried to get him, by way of a bogus vow when he was sworn in, to pay them higher taxes than had been agreed with the head of the Order. Felder was having none of it. He saw his role as that of agent of the head of the Order, and he was devoted to the old Catholic faith. He had little time for the new theological ideas of his age, and frequently expressed his anger about the new religious views.
Coat of arms of the Bubikon Commandery.
Coat of arms of the Bubikon Commandery. Wikimedia
So it’s hardly surprising that several years later, in early January 1528, the Zurich Council asked Felder to attend the Bern Disputation, where representatives of the new faith and adherents of the old were to meet and discuss some ambiguous points of denominational practice. Felder was expected to offer his apologies for his ideological disobedience – in other words, for remaining faithful to the old orthodox Catholic beliefs – and to publicly undertake a kind of “tuition” in the matter of correct faith. But the Bubikon Schaffner (steward) showed himself to be recalcitrant, replying to the letter from Zurich that he was unable to understand the allegations made by the mayor and the council. He had always behaved as a loyal citizen and if the people of Zurich thought otherwise, they should contact the head of the Order of Saint John – a clear message that they had no say in matters pertaining to the Commandery.
The Commandery of the Order of Saint John at Bubikon, c. 1530
The Commandery of the Order of Saint John at Bubikon, c. 1530, with the old coat of arms of the Freiherren of Toggenburg. The drawing is attributed to Johannes Stumpf, around 1530. Wikimedia
The authorities in Zurich weren’t slow to respond to this affront. Almost immediately, they accused the commander of having unlawfully removed certain items of Commandery property from the church and taken them to the Orthodox Catholic community in Rapperswil. For this crime Felder was, without further ado, imprisoned in the Wellenberg at the end of February 1528. During the subsequent investigation, Felder’s persecutors sought grounds to enable them to dismiss the objectionable steward from his post, but the three witnesses mostly reported on Felder’s dissolute and immoral lifestyle. All three stated that Felder had a taste for alcohol and also encouraged other people to drink excessively. One witness even talked about a boozy session in Rapperswil, where Felder himself continued to pour more alcohol into people who were already completely intoxicated, and then left them for the menials to deal with. The second witness also claimed that when asked why he didn’t want to go to the Bern Disputation, Felder allegedly said “he shit on the Disputation”. The third stated that Felder had thrown a measuring jug at him during a heated discussion. All three thus painted a picture of a thoroughly dishonourable man, just as the Zurich authorities would have wanted; the actual allegation of the stolen Commandery property obviously was not really the focus of the investigation.
etail of the panel painting Dreifaches Martyrium der Zürcher Stadtheiligen Felix, Regula, Exuperantius (Triple Martyrdom of the patron saints of Zurich City, Felix, Regula and Exuperantius), around 1500.
Detail of the panel painting Dreifaches Martyrium der Zürcher Stadtheiligen Felix, Regula, Exuperantius (Triple Martyrdom of the patron saints of Zurich City, Felix, Regula and Exuperantius), around 1500. After the Reformation, the painting was retouched in 1566 and the Wellenberg Tower (right) was added. Swiss National Museum
One of the witnesses was Johannes Stumpf, today known in particular as a chronicler, although at the time he played a key role as Prior of Bubikon. But instead of covering his own steward’s back, as in other Commanderies, it was in fact he who came forward again after the first witness testimonies because he had thought of more bad things about Felder that he wished to put on record. There had been bad blood between the two ever since Stumpf converted to Protestantism – despite his position as an orthodox Catholic prior in the service of the Order of Saint John. Stumpf continued to do everything in his power to oppose Felder, who stood in the way of the Reformation finally taking hold in the Commandery.
Portrait of Johannes Stumpf, chronicler and witness in the trial of Heinrich Felder. Painting by Hans Asper, 1563.
Portrait of Johannes Stumpf, chronicler and witness in the trial of Heinrich Felder. Painting by Hans Asper, 1563. Swiss National Museum
Only two of the witnesses commented on the question of the stolen goods, and their statements were brief. Laurentz Appenzeller, who was close to the Commander, testified that in the past he had been to the Schultheiss and council of Rapperswil, probably on behalf of the steward, and had taken a number of items to them for safe-keeping. This statement was supplemented by a further statement from Stumpf, who claimed that at the time of the rioting in Wädenswil, Felder had brought a number of letters, a Jahrzeitbuch (book of church records) and other things to Rapperswil.
Witness statement of Laurentz Appenzeller, 1528.
Witness statement of Laurentz Appenzeller, 1528. Staatsarchiv des Kantons Zürich
Witness statement of Johannes Stumpf, 1528.
Witness statement of Johannes Stumpf, 1528. Staatsarchiv des Kantons Zürich
This is a crucial piece of information, because the Wädenswil riots can be dated to around 1523-24 – several years before Felder’s arrest in February 1528. In his written defence, Felder himself asserted that these actions had taken place years before his arrest, and with the knowledge and consent of the authorities in Zurich. During the Wädenswil riots, fearing rampaging and looting by the rebellious subjects, he had taken the items to a place of safety, and had informed both the head of the Order of Saint John and the Zurich authorities that he had done so. The mayor of Wädenswil, Walder, who had been in office since 1524, had told him personally that he could leave the items in Rapperswil. This seems to have been true because, interestingly, shortly thereafter Felder was convicted not for the removal of the Commandery’s property, but for the throwing of the jug at one of the witnesses and for the excessive drinking in Rapperswil – both things that had not been reported earlier. The ostensible reason for Felder’s arrest was thus simply an excuse.
The Catholic town of Rapperswil around 1535.
The Catholic town of Rapperswil around 1535. Felder is said not only to have taken part in a drinking session here, but also to have unlawfully hoarded property belonging to the Commandery. Zentralbibliothek Zürich
The fact that the Zurich authorities sent their own people to the Commandery immediately following the arrest and imposed the new Protestant faith with immediate effect suggests, just like the verdict, that their intention all along was to push Felder out of office because of his religious convictions, by whatever means necessary. Ultimately, despite repeated protests the Order of Saint John had nothing with which to oppose Zurich’s actions – and a new era dawned.
The Ritterhaus in Bubikon ca. 1965.
The Ritterhaus in Bubikon ca. 1965. Björn Erik Lindroos / ETH Library

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