Central Europe around 1670.
Central Europe around 1670. From 1604, Spanish troops were allowed to pass through the Catholic cantons of the Confederation on their way to the Netherlands. Bern University Library

The "Camino Español" through Switzerland

During the Counter-Reformation, Switzerland’s Catholic cantons cultivated strong ties with Spain to counter Protestant ambitions. The “Spanish Road” – a vital artery for the Spanish war effort during the Eighty Years' War – ran directly through Switzerland for a brief period of time.

James Blake Wiener

James Blake Wiener

James Blake Wiener is a world historian, Co-Founder of World History Encyclopedia, writer, and PR specialist, who has taught as a professor in Europe and North America.

The cultural, political, and economic importance of The Spanish Golden Age wider European history cannot be underestimated. Spain controlled vast swathes of the Americas, Western Europe, Africa, and Asia – Spain’s power and prestige was the envy of all of Europe. In exploiting the natural resources of the Americas, while successfully trading with China and Japan on equal footing, the Spanish Habsburgs managed to check French ambitions in Europe, champion the interests of the Roman Catholic Church during the Protestant Reformation, and form the chief bulwark against an expansive Ottoman Empire. Briefly allies during the Italian Wars (1494-1559), the Swiss and Spanish fought against French hegemony in northern Italy. It is worth remembering too that it was a Spanish army which anhilitated Swiss pikemen in the pay of France at the Battle of Pavia in 1525, heralding the beginning of Spanish military supremacy in Europe. Spain’s unmatched might and grandeur fascinated the Swiss, and this curiosity extended in turn to Spanish politics, language, and fashion. One can discern this interest by looking at the impressive number of books published about Spain in Basel between 1527-1610: 184 titles in total.
The Battle of Pavia 1525 in a painting by Rupert Heller.
The Battle of Pavia 1525 in a painting by Rupert Heller. Erik Cornelius / Swedish National Museum
Spanish power contrasted sharply with the religious divisions and social weaknesses of the Old Confederation. In the aftermath of the two Kappel Wars of 1529 and 1531, religious plurality, according to the principle cuius regio, eius religio, facilitated a half-hearted peace. Cantons Zug, Schwyz, Lucerne, Unterwalden, Uri, Solothurn, and Fribourg retained the Catholic faith of their ancestors. Appenzell and Glarus, meanwhile, emerged as tense hotspots with mixed confessions. The fact that Protestant Zürich, Bern, Basel, and Schaffhausen held more inhabitants and greater economic wealth than all the other cantons was not lost on the Catholic Swiss. Fearing complete political and economic dominance by their Protestant neighbors, Swiss Catholics desired a foreign alliance and religious policy that would safeguard their interests and boost their economies. Austria was unsupportive, choosing instead to pursue religious neutrality and promote peace within the Holy Roman Empire. France – the traditional ally – was the obvious choice, but it was torn asunder by its own religious conflicts. Between 1562-1598, France experienced eight devastating religious civil wars. The French Wars of Religion escalated and accentuated confessional divisions within Switzerland as Swiss soldiers served both the Catholic French crown and Huguenots. As the bloody religious wars in France continued intermittently, many Swiss Catholics began to see Spain as the only reliable partner in Europe to which they could turn.
The confessional division of the Swiss Confederation around 1536 after the Reformation.
The confessional division of the Swiss Confederation around 1536 after the Reformation. Wikimedia / Marco Zanoli

Ludwig Pfyffer and the Spanish Alliance

The most powerful man in Switzerland in the second half of the sixteenth century was Ludwig Pfyffer von Altishofen of Lucerne. A staunch defender of Catholicism and a veteran of the French Wars of Religion, Pfyffer governed Lucerne first as mayor and then as chief magistrate from 1571 until his death over two decades later. Disappointed by the inability of Catholics in France to vanquish the Huguenots and concerned about the future of the Catholic cantons, Pfyffer embraced the aims and ideals of the Counter-Reformation. He welcomed the Jesuits warmly when they arrived in Lucerne, donating 30,000 guilders to help them build a college in 1574. The Jesuits and the Capuchins already had strong support and financial backing in Catholic Switzerland from Cardinal Carlo Borromeo, the ambitious archbishop of Spanish-controlled Milan. Pfyffer found a kindred spirit in the zealous cardinal, and the two worked in tandem to achieve their temporal and spiritual goals: Borromeo encouraged Pfyffer to harden his stance against heresy and unify Switzerland’s Catholic cantons through a Spanish alliance, while Pfyffer supported Borromeo in establishing the prestigious Collegium Helveticum to train the Swiss clergy in Milan. Nicknamed the “King of the Swiss,” Pfyffer’s policies had enormous ramifications with regard to military alliances, capitulations, and the recruitment of Swiss mercenaries by foreign powers. Pfyffer was the chief architect of the Golden League – later called the Borromean League – which mandated a defensive alliance between the seven Catholic cantons in 1586. Shortly thereafter, the Catholic cantons – with the exception of Francophile Solothurn – concluded an official alliance with Spain in 1587. Appenzell Innerrhoden would join this alliance in 1598, following its separation from Appenzell Ausserrhoden a year earlier.
Ludwig Pfyffer, in a painting from around 1700.
Ludwig Pfyffer, in a painting from around 1700. Gregor Meier, Merenschwand / Heidegg Castle LU
Devotional picture of Cardinal Charles Borromeo, later venerated as a saint, around 1630.
Devotional picture of Cardinal Charles Borromeo, later venerated as a saint, around 1630. Swiss National Museum
The pro-Spanish orientation of the Catholic Swiss delighted Philip II of Spain. Philip II secured a permanent embassy in the Swiss cantons by 1571, but he remained extremely cautious in strategizing how best to exercise this new influence within the Confederation. Philip II’s primary concern was the revolt in the Netherlands, which the Spanish governed as part of the Habsburg’s prized “Burgundian inheritance.” Spanish actions in the Low Countries fueled considerable unrest, causing the Eighty Years War (1566-1648). The Spanish struggled with the logistics of moving troops, mercenaries, and heavy arms to the Low Countries as Spanish ships sailing from the Atlantic ports of La Coruña, Laredo, and San Sebastián faced continual hostility from Dutch, English, and French vessels in Bay of Biscay and the English Channel. An alternative route, across the Mediterranean and over the Alps, had to be secured if the Spanish were to maintain law and order in the Low Countries. Philip II believed the Catholic Swiss could prove helpful in the establishment of such a military corridor. As he expected, Swiss attitudes towards the Dutch Revolt fell along the confessional divide. Swiss Protestants, many of whom had close commercial ties and theological affinity to Dutch Calvinists, strongly favored the rebellious Dutch. Swiss Catholics, for their part, supported the positions of Spanish administrators in Brussels and sympathized with the plight of Flemish Catholics.

Poner una pica en flandes

"To get a soldier to the Netherlands" – A Spanish expression that means “doing the impossible." It is a reference to how difficult it was to transport the Spanish armies to the Netherlands during the Eighty Years’ War.
Philip II of Spain on his throne, around 1590.
Philip II of Spain on his throne, around 1590. ETH Zurich Graphics Collection

El Camino Español de Suizos and the Global Hispanic World

Philip II had sent special emissaries to the Swiss cantons, Lorraine, and Savoy to gauge interest in allowing the passage of troops across the Alps and along the Rhine as early as 1566. The “Spanish Road,” which stretched 1,000 km from Genoa to Brussels, held the dual purpose of transporting and recruiting soldiers to the war in the Low Countries. Recruits from Spain, Naples, and Lombardy would travel through Milan, Savoy, Franche-Comté, Alsace, Lorraine, and Luxembourg en route to the Spanish Netherlands. After nearly forty years of careful discussions, the Golden League renegotiated their treaty of alliance with Spain in 1604, permitting Spanish troops to traverse the Catholic cantons under the strictest conditions. Soldiers had to travel in small groups of only 200 and remain unarmed – weapons and heavy munitions had to be sent ahead separately in specially-sized and marked boxes. The Spanish had to avoid crossing territories belonging to the Protestant cantons, Geneva, France, and Venice too. The Protestant cantons had shrewdly concluded their own alliance with France and Venice in 1602 to dissuade Spanish and Savoyard aggression. One corridor between Lombardy and Alsace ran through Domodossola, Brig, the Simplon and Furka Passes, Schwyz, Zug, Baden, and Waldshut. The more traveled route ran between Como, Bellinzona, the Gotthard Pass, Altdorf, Zug, Baden, and Waldshut. Spanish mercenaries would sometimes travel by boat across Lake Lucerne to pick up extra provisions in Lucerne, Meggen, or Küssnacht before heading to Zug. Access to the Swiss-Spanish roads over the Alps cut the time needed to get to Brussels by a week, saving the Spanish a fortune in costs. A total of six major expeditions traveled through the Confederation between 1604-1610. The most important and lasting consequence of the Swiss-Spanish road was a substantial boost to the economies of the Catholic cantons. The Spanish paid them an annual subsidy of over 33,000 escudos, and the Spanish rerouted convoys of merchandise to pass directly through Swiss territories. The need to provide so many men with food, entertainment, and accommodation stimulated urban renewal and international trade for many decades to come.
The routes of the "Camino Español" through Switzerland.
The routes of the "Camino Español" through Switzerland. elcaminoespanol.com
The assassination of Henry IV of France in 1610 and the commencement of the Thirty Years War forever altered the geopolitical calculus in Europe. Faced with crises at home and abroad, the Spanish were unable to halt the rise of France, the Dutch Republic, and Sweden. France would emerge more powerful than ever thanks to the concentrated efforts of statesmen like Maximilien de Béthune, Cardinal Richelieu, and Cardinal Mazarin. The French seizure of Alsace and Franche-Comté, and its alliances with Savoy and the Dutch Republic made it difficult for the Spanish to transport its troops by land to the Low Countries. Sensing these seismic shifts in the balance of European power, the Catholic Swiss cantons allied themselves with France as early as 1613. The renewal of the treaty of alliance between Spain and the Golden League in 1634 was mostly symbolic as French diplomatic pressure ensured that the Swiss were again firmly in their orbit. Nonetheless, the allure of Spain never quite disappeared among the Catholic Swiss. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Swiss Jesuits, Capuchins, and Benedictines evangelized throughout colonial Mexico, Cuba, and the Philippines. Generations of Swiss soldiers would seek fame and fortune in the service of Spanish armies in Europe and abroad, while Swiss merchants established successful enterprises throughout the cosmopolitan, Baroque cities of the Spanish Empire, from Naples to Mexico City, Lima to Manila. A new chapter of further diplomatic, commercial, and cultural exchange would take the Swiss deep into an interconnected, globalized Hispanic world.
Chügelipastete (replica). Lucerne’s creamy, meat-filled pastry shell was brought back by returning Swiss mercenaries from Spain.
Chügelipastete (replica). Lucerne’s creamy, meat-filled pastry shell was brought back by returning Swiss mercenaries from Spain. Wikimedia / Sandstone

Further posts