Switzerland’s family tree
Above is a lithograph from circa 1909 (excerpt) entitled – Switzerland’s family tree. In the old Swiss Confederacy, many loyal subjects came over the centuries to take the oath of allegiance. The rebels stayed away. Swiss National Library

Does Switzerland really date back to 1291? A fresh look at the country’s origins

Young nations need long histories. In 1891, the Federal Council of Switzerland, a 43-year-old state at the time, somewhat arbitrarily decided the country went back 600 years, even assigning its foundation to a specific day, 1 August. Without delving too much into the dogma, the story goes something like this.

Kurt Messmer

Kurt Messmer

Kurt Messmer is a historian with a focus on history in public space.

There are three conditions to celebrating the founding of a state: national territory, a constitutive people, and a constitution. On that basis, the foundation of Switzerland in 1848 was cause for celebration, although women still had to wait more than a hundred years for the right to vote. So where does 1291 come into it? It started with a dead cow. A rather sombre starting point, but that’s how things were at the time in the Alpine foothills, now known as central Switzerland. It was a time of upheaval.

How a dead cow proved instrumental to the birth of the Confederacy

There goes brown Liesel, I can hear her bells, writes Friedrich Schiller in William Tell. The corpse of Liesel has lain for years in the Forum of Swiss History Schwyz. The unfortunate animal is always on display, even on the national holiday. At least the pool of blood on the floor has since been removed following protests by shocked museum visitors. Now the only visible blood is around Liesel’s throat, below the cut.
Switzerland in the Making exhibition in the Forum of Swiss History Schwyz, picture taken in 2017.
Reproduction of a cow that was killed, a specific example of vigilante justice that greatly afflicted communities up to the 14th century. Switzerland in the Making exhibition in the Forum of Swiss History Schwyz, picture taken in 2017. Swiss National Museum
In 1257, two Uri tribes were in dispute, the Izzeli and the Gruoba. Who started it? Maybe an Izzeli cut the throat of a cow belonging to the Gruoba – or was it the other way round? In any case, it didn’t stop there. Feuding led to the theft of entire herds, the destruction of harvests, the setting of houses and stables on fire, people being killed all over the place. Blood feuds. People taking the law into their own hands with unforeseeable consequences. Even in the 14th century, hundreds of people were still mired in these conflicts. Hundreds of people in the sparsely inhabited valleys and the northern Alpine foothills. There was no end in sight. Someone seen as an authority figure by both sides had to be brought in as arbiter. Enter Graf Rudolf von Habsburg, no less. Hundreds of years later, many saw him as the alter ego of that cynical tyrant Gessler. On 23 December 1257, Graf brokered a peace deal in Altdorf that was supervised by four inhabitants of Uri. However, the Izzeli failed to stick to the agreement. On 20 May 1258, Rudolf von Habsburg was asked to return. This time the terms were harsher: the Izzeli incurred a big fine, plus the ringleaders were expropriated and deemed to have no rights. People started to realise that the country could not go on like this. What was right and what was wrong could no longer be decided on a whim, instead it had to be made a matter of public record, as set out in a document.

The content and omissions of the 1291 peace document

The original document brings clarity, as in the following extract for example: Should disputes arise among any of the people bound by this oath, the most prudent among the confederates shall settle the conflict between the parties. / Anyone who intentionally slays another without provocation shall be sentenced to death unless he can prove his innocence; and those who flee shall never be allowed to return. / Anyone who injures another confederate by fire shall forever forfeit his rights as a fellow countryman. / Anyone who steals from a confederate or injures him in any other way shall be held liable for damages to the extent of his possessions in the valleys.
Agreement between the communities of the valleys of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden for a shared peace, the Federal Charter of 1291.
Joining forces to uphold security and the rule of law, a major social achievement. Communal law replaces vigilante justice, revenge and feuding. Agreement between the communities of the valleys of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden for a shared peace, the Federal Charter of 1291. The Schwyz coat of arms is missing. Museum of the Swiss Charters of Confederation
At the end of William Tell, written by Friedrich Schiller in 1804, the lovers break out in a hymn as they embrace their freedom. Bertha ‘Tis well! And to this youth I give my hand / A free Swiss maiden to a free Swiss man! / Rudenz And from this moment all my serfs are free. Schiller’s passionate intervention on behalf of freedom and the right to resist is a watershed moment, a literary moment of world class repute, and historically – with all due respect – nonsense.

Every man shall continue to serve his overlord to the best of his abilities.

Federal Charter of 1291, Article 3
Freedom and independence did not come in 1291. On the contrary: the prevailing social conditions were consolidated during a time of uncertainty. The aim was not revolution but restoration. The social hierarchy remained intact: whoever was subordinate, stayed subordinate, whoever served a master, continued to serve that master. And thus it remained for centuries. Until the Helvetic Republic of 1798 when the French marched in, most of our countrymen were subservient.

1291 or 1309? Does it really matter?

With an historical event, it’s important to document when it happened as reliably as possible. With historical developments, on the other hand, the exact date is less of an issue. For example, during the 12th and 13th centuries, there was an epochal upswing in cities and trade. There is no need to assign a specific time to the beginning and end of something like that. The same applies to the beginnings of the Confederacy. In 1895, the Tell Monument was inaugurated in Altdorf in the presence of the entire Federal Council. The colossal statue was revealed to thunderous applause. On the base of the monument, engraved in stone and still visible today, the founding year of the Confederacy – 1307.
Tell memorial in Altdorf by Richard Kissling (1848-1919).
1895, four years after the national government officially declared 1 August a national holiday, Uri engraves 1307 in stone as the founding year of the Confederacy, to be celebrated every 8 November. This is based on Aegidius Tschudi’s Chronicum Helveticum from the mid-16th century, which Friedrich Schiller referred to when writing the drama William Tell in 1804. Tell memorial in Altdorf by Richard Kissling (1848-1919). Wikimedia
As strange as it may seem, according to the latest research, the assertion by chronicler Aegidius Tschudi (1505-1572) and the Uri government of 1307 as the founding year is more accurate than the Federal Council’s verdict of 1291. Experts now accept, on the basis of Roger Sablonier’s work, that the Federal Charter was most likely not written in 1291 but in 1309 – and backdated. At the time this would have been considered more of an amendment due to changed circumstances than a falsification. By backdating the document, claims could be legitimised for the time following the death of King Rudolf von Habsburg in July 1291. Federal Charters were also amended in the 15th century if they no longer matched the political situation. The Federal Charter comprising at least two parts, does not fit with the historic constellation of 1291. The situation in 1309 better explains this national peace alliance.
Political, economic and social collapse in central Switzerland circa 1309.
Political, economic and social collapse in central Switzerland circa 1309. In view of the situation and the resulting uncertainty, Roger Sablonier concludes in his groundbreaking book published in 2008 that the famous document dated at the start of August 1291 was actually written in 1309. Map: Kurt Messmer
Public holidays are given specific dates. However, the Swiss national day stems from a development that occurred over a period of time. So, the beginning of the Confederacy dates back to circa 1300, whether 1291 or 1309.
Farming communities in the 13th to 15th centuries, based around the alpine area and border regions of western Europe.
Farming communities in the 13th to 15th centuries, based around the alpine area and border regions of western Europe. Geschichte der Schweiz und der Schweizer, 1982, I 159 / Thomas Küng, Chart

Not the exception but the norm

Concerning history, there are two factors to always bear in mind: a) to go into the story, as deeply as possible, b) to consider the bigger picture, as widely as possible. The wider context raises the question: was the Federal Charter, or rather: the national peace alliance of 1291/1309 a one-off?
Leagues of towns and pacts in the 13th century up to 1353.
Leagues of towns and pacts in the 13th century up to 1353. There is a dense network from Savoy over the Alps to Austria and all the way down to the Rhineland. Alliances for mutual support and to keep the peace were the norm, not the exception. The pacts between Bern, Freiburg and Murten of 1218 and between Zurich, Konstanz, Cologne, Mainz and Worms from 1254 to 1257 demonstrate that such pacts existed for decades before 1291. Geschichte der Schweiz und der Schweizer, 1982, I 182f. (emphasis by Kurt Messmer)
Before the three rural cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden attached themselves to city-cantons, they entered into an extended federation in 1327 with partners that were as renowned as they were dissimilar: with Zurich, Bern, Mainz, Worms, Speyer, Strasbourg, Basel, Freiburg, Konstanz, Lindau, Überlingen and Count Eberhard von Kyburg, with a term of two years. In contrast to this set period of time, the national peace alliance of 1291 was eternal, i.e. of unlimited duration, as was normal practice at the time. In the Old Swiss Confederacy, the cantons were not all interconnected in one federation. Lucerne and Zurich were not initially linked with Bern, they just had common partners in central Switzerland. It is thus inaccurate to talk about the organic growth of a Swiss federal tree.

Slighting of castles. Milk portion covers vs archaeology

Schiller for ever. Freedom is the prize for fighting against tyrannical officials. Their burning castles serve as blazing reminders of a victorious fight for freedom waged by the righteous rural folk around Lake Lucerne. As dramaturgically attractive as that sounds, it isn’t historically accurate.
The slighting of castles (known as the Burgenbruch) from 1291 as shown on milk portion covers in 1991
The slighting of castles (known as the Burgenbruch) from 1291 as shown on milk portion covers in 1991. The black lines show how long the castles were occupied, the white lines show how long they were lived in prior to that: the red line shows the abrupt end of the castles. Werner Meyer: 1291, 166 / Kurt Messmer
The slighting of castles from 1291 (Burgenbruch), based on archaeological findings as of 1991
The slighting of castles from 1291 (Burgenbruch), based on archaeological findings as of 1991. The archaeologists’ findings are clear: uninterrupted occupation of the castles, until the 17th century in some cases. Werner Meyer: 1291, 166 / Kurt Messmer

Of limited historical significance – instrumental in establishing a community

The 1291/1309 Federal Charter is a paradox. It has two contrasting sides. The document was important in the short term as a national peace alliance, however, in the long term going into the following epoch, it was immaterial. Later documents do not refer to it, not even the significant Pact of Brunnen in 1315. The parchment even went missing for centuries. A document that no one knows about and that cannot be presented is by definition unimportant. The document did not reappear until 1760 when it was found in Schwyz and published in the Latin original with its German translation produced at the same time. The document’s role in establishing a community stands in stark contrast to its limited historical significance. In 1891, the Federal Council made it arguably the foremost source in Swiss history. In the Second World War, the document almost attained religious significance with its many unresolved questions. When the Federal Charter Archive opened in Schwyz in 1936, which was built purposely for this cult document, the display case came to be known as the altar of the Fatherland.
Main hall of the Museum of the Swiss Charters of Confederation, display case with the Federal Charter in front of the Rütlischwur picture by Walter Clénin (1897-1980)
When the Federal Charter Archive (now the Museum of the Swiss Charters of Confederation) in Schwyz was redesigned in 1980, the altar of the Fatherland was replaced by a ring-shaped display case. The message was that the Federal Charter is one document among many. Since 2014 the famous source has been on display back at the altar, acknowledged again as a unique source. The emphasis is on the history of the document’s significance during the spiritual defence of the nation. Main hall of the Museum of the Swiss Charters of Confederation, display case with the Federal Charter in front of the Rütlischwur picture by Walter Clénin (1897-1980) (extract). Museum of the Swiss Charters of Confederation Schwyz

Alternatives to 1291?

What are some possible alternative Swiss national days? If you distinguish between the inception of the Confederacy circa 1300 and its emergence in the second half of the 15th century, three alternatives arise:

22 December 1481 – emergence of the Confederacy

The Confederacy of the Eight Cantons had their first common administrative function after the conquest of Aargau in 1415. That brought them closer. However, the Zurich war from 1436 to 1450 jeopardised the union and following the Burgundian wars in 1476/77, the Burgrecht conflict between the city-cantons and rural cantons which lasted four years, brought the Confederacy to the edge of the abyss. The Stans Agreement went through five incarnations before a compromise was finally found on 22 December 1481. The sixth attempt made the crucial breakthrough. The art of the possible. Subsequently, the reformation created a schism between the reformed places and the ones that maintained their traditional beliefs. Nonetheless, the Confederacy, this loose alliance of different partners and interests endured as an administrative union as the pros outweighed the cons. Conclusion: the typical federal way of overcoming conflict through political horse trading between the cities and rural areas is de facto highly significant, however it is unsuitable as a date for the national day. The political conflicts of that time were complex and are not well known among the public.

12 April 1798 – first state, first constitution

Following the French Revolution of 1789, French troops marched into Switzerland. France dictated the constitution of the Helvetic Republic to the country on 12 April 1798 – Switzerland’s first constitution. For the first time in centuries, people were no longer born into a class, they were no longer born as subjects or as being eligible to govern. Equality is one of the great achievements in human history. At the same time, Égalité and Liberté (equality and freedom) came to Switzerland through the barrel of a gun in 1798. Conclusion: in purely historical terms, an argument can definitely be made for having this date as the Swiss national day. However, it wouldn’t go down well with the Swiss.

12 September 1848 – founding of the federal state

A constitution created in record time; two chambers that complement each other perfectly and represent at least half of the people (the men); plus a national government that adequately represents the different parts of the country. Federalism and centralism in balance, centred around the reconciliation of interests. Having come through the Sonderbund War, the Switzerland of 1848 stood out as a democracy in Europe, a continent of monarchs and princes. Conclusion: 12 September works as a possible national day. At the same time, it was preceded by an armed conflict that led to deep schisms. As a result, this historic national day lacks that important mythical side. So, even if 1291 is debatable, it’s here to stay.


The future is built on the past. A look in the rearview mirror conjures up some profound thoughts. Kurt Sigrist (*1943) from Obwalden represents Switzerland through art, as opposed to specific statements. However, by calling his inspiring creation Zeitraum (space of time), he brings together time and space, those two components that form history.
Kurt Sigrist, Zeitraum, 1980. Gotthard motorway services near Erstfeld, northbound.
Kurt Sigrist, Zeitraum, 1980, quote: A cart for a home or a home for a cart / mobile home / standing in the compass rose / open to all four compass points / facing everywhere means it can go nowhere / movement in absolute peace. Gotthard motorway services near Erstfeld, northbound. Photo: Kurt Messmer
Zeitraum as a symbol of Switzerland? A case could be made for that. The compass rose fits with the nearby Gotthard and stasis is not unusual in our country, whereas big sudden changes are. So, whoever thinks they must understand the Swiss condition, may do so. But Zeitraum also stand for openness, on all sides. The view of the white cross against a red background raises the question of what else can be seen from the other three sides: melting glaciers, the Flag of Europe, people all over the world, searching for a better life? Is the festive mood ruined after such serious questions? Not at all. However, the fact is that in the compass rose, open to all directions, we can open our eyes and see the four points of the compass. Switzerland as an opportunity and a mission.

Further posts