Solothurn seen from the west, mid-18th century. The redoubts, which had only just been built, surround the town.
Solothurn seen from the west, mid-18th century. The redoubts, which had only just been built, surround the town. On the left is the Bieltor, in front of which the duel between Peter Julius von Sury and Peter Josef Anton Besenval took place. Zentralbibliothek Zürich

This one died at the garden fence, that one on the doorstep

An argument between two former friends from the patrician class in Solothurn was the undoing of both opponents and plunged a mother into hopeless despair.

Adrian Baschung

Adrian Baschung

Adrian Baschung is historian and director of the Museum Altes Zeughaus in Solothurn.

It was 23 October 1729, a foggy Sunday. The pious people of Solothurn had just been to Sunday mass in church and were now on their way home. Some of the people returning home noticed a middle-aged man in the main street. This man, moving unsteadily, looked around several times, noticing the whispering of passers-by, the fingers pointing at him, the glances that turned to him. The immediate pressure of the public eye of the city seemed to make the man visibly uneasy as he staggered further down the alley towards a house and stood there in front of the entrance. He grasped the bell pull, tugged nervously at it and let the handle go again. However, no sooner had the man rung the bell than he tensed up, groaned, toppled off the doorstep and dropped dead in the street, before the eyes of the horrified witnesses. This unfortunate man was Peter Julius von Sury (1689-1729) from Solothurn, scion of a regimental family, captain in French service and knight of the Order of Saint Louis. The house that von Sury had visited on that fateful autumn Sunday was inhabited by Gertrud von Besenval née von Sury. It was clear to the surrounding witnesses of the incident on that Sunday what had happened here. Peter Julius von Sury wanted to ask Gertrud von Besenval for forgiveness. Forgiveness for the death of her son six years ago.
Peter Julius von Sury drops dead in front of the house of Anton Besenval's mother, Gertrud von Besenval. Engraving from around 1858.
Peter Julius von Sury drops dead in front of the house of Anton Besenval's mother, Gertrud von Besenval. Engraving from around 1858. Zentralbibliothek Solothurn

What had happened?

Six years ago, on 17 April 1723, the Schultheiss Johann Friedrich von Roll was solemnly laid to rest. According to custom, the citizens and councillors of Solothurn gathered in the town's Franciscan church immediately after the funeral to elect a new Schultheiss, the highest political office in the town, from among their number. As was the custom, the previous Stadtvenner (second highest office with military and police administrative functions) was elected as successor to the office of Schultheiss. Thus, someone had to take the place of the Stadtvenner. Here too, according to tradition, the person who exercised the function of Seckelmeister (financial officer) was to be promoted. There was a problem here, because the office of Seckelmeister was held at that time by Peter Josef Reinhart. Reinhart came from a family that had only been working its way up the ranks of the Solothurn regimental families for a few years. Old-established patrician families in particular resented these "upstarts" who would dispute the hard-fought influential offices of their rank. Reinhart's father was already denied access to the highest offices. The same was to happen to his son. A faction around the influential Besenval family opposed the election of Peter Josef Reinhart. This faction also included the young Captain of the Guard Peter Josef Anton Besenval, son of Gertrud von Besenval, née Sury. In the run-up to these elections, Anton Besenval had agreed with his older friend Peter Julius von Sury to vote against Reinhart. However, when Peter Josef Reinhart was elected town councillor by a clear majority, the opposing faction demanded that instead of one councillor, two should be elected, in the hope of being able to elevate their candidate to office and dignity. There was resistance to this in the assembly. Peter Julius von Sury also objected to this proposal and spoke up. The young Besenval, feeling betrayed by his friend, publicly intervened:

This one could well keep quiet! He does not belong here by right and is not worthy to wear the sword at his side.

Exclamation by Anton Besenval in April 1723
When the vote was to be taken on whether to elect one or two Venner, Peter von Sury also went to the front of the church and passed the angry Anton Besenval. Besenval told von Sury that he was a "partisan", that he had changed fronts. Von Sury defended himself against the accusation, whereupon Anton Besenval launched into an insult chosen at the time:

Du Hundsfott!

Anton Besenval to Peter von Sury. The insult means "honourless guy", "coward".
That was the last straw. Sury publicly lamented this insult in the church, so that everyone present had to hear it. Besenval doubled down and loudly claimed that he had first been accused of lying by von Sury. Although many of those gathered had heard the heated exchange, these insults were not followed up. Hurt in his honour, Peter von Sury was driven out of the Franciscan church into the open air and walked, ashamed and offended, across the newly built redoubts in the direction of the western town gate. As unfortunate coincidence would have it, he met Anton Besenval there again, who was walking out of the city accompanied by the Knight of Malta Johann Leonz von Roll.
The disputed Stadtvenner election of 17 April 1723. This engraving was made in 1859, the church is therefore shown in the state after the classicist reconstruction of 1823/25.
The disputed Stadtvenner election of 17 April 1723. This engraving was made in 1859, the church is therefore shown in the state after the classicist reconstruction of 1823/25. Zentralbibliothek Solothurn
Besenval and Sury immediately continued their quarrel. Besenval should withdraw these insults, von Sury demanded. Out of the question, replied the young Besenval. The argument dangerously escalated. In today's Greibengasse, which was lined with gardens at the time, Peter Julius von Sury finally drew his sword and demanded satisfaction in a duel. Anton Besenval also drew his weapon and both opponents sparked off a heated battle. Finally, von Roll energetically intervened and separated the two combatants. Honour had been satisfied, as both had fought like true gentlemen, he told them. They should now make peace again. Then von Sury demanded that von Roll acknowledge as a witness that he had seized his opponent's rapier blade with his hand and thus had the upper hand over Besenval in this fight. Sury saw himself as the winner of this trade of honour. This infuriated Anton Besenval so much that he violently attacked von Sury again without thinking. In his distress, von Sury raised his rapier, so that Anton Besenval, as it were, threw himself into the blade. His chest pierced, Besenval sank to his knees and was caught by his companion von Roll. Peter Julius von Sury, himself surprised by the fatal outcome, set off in the direction of the city, where he was seen running away covered in blood shortly before noon.
Shortly after the duel in Solothurn 1723.
Shortly after the duel: On the right, the dying Peter Josef Anton Besenval, to whom a monk administers the last rites. On the left, Peter Julius von Sury stands as the victor. This engraving was also made in 1859, more than a hundred years after the event, and the interpretation of the events is correspondingly imaginative. Zentralbibliothek Solothurn
The Knight of Malta Johann Leonz von Roll dragged the dying Besenval into a garden and had local residents run to the nearby Capuchin monastery for help. The monastery's orderly appeared shortly afterwards. However, medical help came too late. Besenval had already lost too much blood and was so weakened that he could no longer speak. As a sign that he repented of his actions, Besenval weakly squeezed the Father's hand. He absolved him of sin and administered the last rites. Then Peter Josef Anton Besenval, aged 25, breathed his last. His body was carried to the Capuchin monastery. The news of the fatal quarrel spread like lightning. That same afternoon, the Solothurn council ordered that enquiries be made immediately and that all those involved be placed under arrest. At 3 p.m. the council had already been informed that Peter Julius von Sury had evaded the law by fleeing. Solothurn's strict prohibitions on duels or honour fights could also mean that those killed in duels could be denied a final resting place in consecrated ground until after an investigation had been carried out. However, when the council learned that Anton Besenval had repented before his death and had received the last rites, the corpse was released to the family for a Christian burial. However, before the council's decision was known, the body was secretly removed from the Capuchin monastery and hidden and guarded in a grove near the Besenval family castle, Schloss Waldegg. In this way, the body was to be removed from dishonouring trials and investigations by the authorities and brought closer to his family. Two days later, the body of Peter Josef Anton Besenval was taken from the family property to the nearby parish church of St. Niklaus and laid to rest there. Gertrud von Besenval, the deceased's inconsolable mother, escorted him, as the sorely afflicted woman had already had to do for her husband and three other sons. When she heard rumours during the funeral procession that the coffin did not contain the body of her son, she demanded that the coffin be opened before the burial. However, when she became aware of her dead child, she fell over the corpse in front of the mourners and pressed her son to her heart for the last time.
Waldegg Castle, family seat of the Besenvals, around 1780.
Waldegg Castle, family seat of the Besenvals, around 1780. Zentralbibliothek Solothurn

Banished to St. Gallen

Peter Julius von Sury managed to escape from Solothurn and was sentenced in absentia to twenty years of banishment. However, the intervention of his family and friends caused the Solothurn Council to reduce the banishment to six years. Peter von Sury spent his exile at the court of the prince abbot of St. Gall, returned home again, only to die shortly afterwards on the doorstep of the unfortunate Gertrud von Besenval. A stone picture cross in Solothurn's Greibengasse still reminds us of the place of the duel. A small picture once embedded in the cross showed the "Mater Dolorosa", Mary as the Mother of Sorrows, her heart pierced by seven blades. Below it, between the coats of arms of the Besenval and Sury families, was written in Latin: "In memory of 17 April 1723".
Memorial cross for the duel of 1723 in the Greiben, near Solothurn's old town.
Memorial cross for the duel of 1723 in the Greiben, near Solothurn's old town. Photo: Nicole Hänni

Baroque Days Solothurn

12.08.2023 20.08.2023 / Solothurn
As part of the Solothurn Baroque Days, the Museum Altes Zeughaus offers a wide range of professional and scenic guided tours, including an intensive fencing workshop. Topics include the 30-year war, the lucrative soldiering in Solothurn, duels and the decoration of fans. The Baroque Culture Festival lets you experience the "Baroque" with all your senses for a full week. For more information and tickets, visit

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