The Battle Of Sempach
by Charlotte M. Yonge
Nothing in history has been more remarkable than the union of the cantons and cities of the little republic of Switzerland. Of differing races, languages, and, latterly, even religions–unlike in habits, tastes, opinions and costumes–they have, however, been held together, as it were, by pressure from without, and one spirit of patriotism has kept the little mountain republic complete for five hundred years.
Originally the lands were fiefs of the Holy Roman Empire, the city municipalities owning the Emperor for their lord, and the great family of Hapsburg, in whom the Empire became at length hereditary, was in reality Swiss, the county that gave them title lying in the canton of Aargau. Rodolf of Hapsburg was elected leader of the burghers of Zurich, long before he was chosen to the Empire; and he continued a Swiss in heart, retaining his mountaineer’s open simplicity and honesty to the end of his life. Privileges were granted by him to the cities and the nobles, and the country was loyal and prosperous in his reign.
His son Albert, the same who was slain by his nephew Johann, as before-mentioned, permitted those tyrannies of his bailiffs which goaded the Swiss to their celebrated revolt, and commenced the long series of wars with the House of Hapsburgor, as it was now termed, of Austria–which finally established their independence.
On the one side, the Dukes of Austria and their ponderous German chivalry wanted to reduce the cantons and cities to vassalage, not to the Imperial Crown, a distant and scarcely felt obligation, but to the Duchy of Austria; on the other, the hardy mountain peasants and stout burghers well knew their true position, and were aware that to admit the Austrian usurpation would expose their young men to be drawn upon for the Duke’s wars, cause their property to be subject to perpetual rapacious exactions, and fill their hills with castles for ducal bailiffs, who would be little better than licensed robbers. No wonder, then, that the generations of William Tell and Arnold Melchthal bequeathed a resolute purpose of resistance to their descendants.
It was in 1397, ninety years since the first assertion of Swiss independence, when Leopold the Handsome, Duke of Austria, a bold but misproud and violent prince, involved himself in one of the constant quarrels with the Swiss that were always arising on account of the insulting exactions of toll and tribute in the Austrian border cities. A sharp war broke out, and the Swiss city of Lucerne took the opportunity of destroying the Austrian castle of Rothemburg, where the tolls had been particularly vexatious, and of admitting to their league the cities of Sempach and Richensee.
Leopold and all the neighboring nobles united their forces. Hatred and contempt of the Swiss, as low-born and presumptuous, spurred them on; and twenty messengers reached the Duke in one day, with promises of support, in his march against Sempach and Lucerne. He had sent a large force in the direction of Zurich with Johann Bonstetten, and advanced himself with 4,000 horse and 1,400 foot upon Sempach. Zurich undertook its own defense, and the Forest cantons sent their brave peasants to the support of Lucerne and Sempach, but only to the number of 1,300, who, on the 9th of July, took post in the woods around the little lake of Sempach.
Meanwhile, Leopold’s troops rode round the walls of the little city, insulting the inhabitants, one holding up a halter, which he said was for the chief magistrate; and another, pointing to the reckless waste that his comrades were perpetrating on the fields, shouted, ‘Send a breakfast to the reapers.’ The burgomaster pointed to the wood where his allies lay hid, and answered, ‘My masters of Lucerne and their friends will bring it.’
The story of that day was told by one of the burghers who fought in the ranks of Lucerne, a shoemaker, named Albert Tchudi, who was both a brave warrior and a master-singer; and as his ballad was translated by another master-singer, Sir Walter Scott, and is the spirited record of an eyewitness, we will quote from him some of his descriptions of the battle and its golden deed.
The Duke’s wiser friends proposed to wait till he could be joined by Bonstetten and the troops who had gone towards Zurich, and the Baron von Hasenburg (i.e. hare-rock) strongly urged this prudent counsel; but–
‘O, Hare-Castle, thou heart of hare!’
Fierce Oxenstiern he cried,
‘Shalt see then how the game will fare,’
The taunted knight replied.’
‘This very noon,’ said the younger knight to the Duke, ‘we will deliver up to you this handful of villains.’
‘And thus they to each other said,
‘Yon handful down to hew
Will be no boastful tale to tell
The peasants are so few.’
Characteristically enough, the doughty cobbler describes how the first execution that took place was the lopping off the long-peaked toes of the boots that the gentlemen wore chained to their knees, and which would have impeded them on foot; since it had been decided that the horses were too much tired to be serviceable in the action.
‘There was lacing then of helmets bright,
And closing ranks amain,
The peaks they hewed from their boot points
Might well nigh load a wain.’
They were drawn up in a solid compact body, presenting an unbroken line of spears, projecting beyond the wall of gay shields and polished impenetrable armor.
The Swiss were not only few in number, but armor was scarce among them; some had only boards fastened on their arms by way of shields, some had halberts, which had been used by their fathers at the battle of Morgarten, others two-handed swords and battleaxes. They drew themselves up in the form of a wedge and
‘The gallant Swiss confederates then
They prayed to God aloud,
And He displayed His rainbow fair,
Against a swarthy cloud.’
Then they rushed upon the serried spears, but in vain. ‘The game was nothing sweet.’
The banner of Lucerne was in the utmost danger, the Landamman was slain, and sixty of his men, and not an Austrian had been wounded. The flanks of the Austrian host began to advance so as to enclose the small peasant force, and involve it in irremediable destruction. A moment of dismay and stillness ensued. Then Arnold von Winkelried of Unterwalden, with an eagle glance saw the only means of saving his country, and, with the decision of a man who dares by dying to do all things, shouted aloud: ‘I will open a passage.’
‘I have a virtuous wife at home,
A wife and infant son:
I leave them to my country’s care,
The field shall yet be won!’
He rushed against the Austrian band
In desperate career,
And with his body, breast, and hand,
Bore down each hostile spear;
Four lances splintered on his crest,
Six shivered in his side,
Still on the serried files he pressed,
He broke their ranks and died!’
The very weight of the desperate charge of this self-devoted man opened a breach in the line of spears. In rushed the Swiss wedge, and the weight of the nobles’ armor and length of their spears was only encumbering. They began to fall before the Swiss blows, and Duke Leopold was urged to fly. ‘I had rather die honorably than live with dishonor,’ he said. He saw his standard bearer struck to the ground, and seizing his banner from his hand, waved it over his head, and threw himself among the thickest of the foe. His corpse was found amid a heap of slain, and no less then 2000 of his companions perished with him, of whom a third are said to have been counts, barons and knights.
‘Then lost was banner, spear and shield
At Sempach in the flight;
The cloister vaults at Konigsfeldt
Hold many an Austrian knight.’
The Swiss only lost 200; but, as they were spent with the excessive heat of the July sun, they did not pursue their enemies. They gave thanks on the battlefield to the God of victories, and the next day buried the dead, carrying Duke Leopold and twenty-seven of his most illustrious companions to the Abbey of Konigsfeldt, where they buried him in the old tomb of his forefathers, the lords of Aargau, who had been laid there in the good old times, before the house of Hapsburg had grown arrogant with success.
As to the master-singer, he tells us of himself that
‘A merry man was he, I wot,
The night he made the lay,
Returning from the bloody spot,
Where God had judged the day.’
On every 9th of July subsequently, the people of the country have been wont to assemble on the battlefield, around four stone crosses which mark the spot. A priest from a pulpit in the open air gives a thanksgiving sermon on the victory that ensured the freedom of Switzerland, and another reads the narrative of the battle, and the roll of the brave 200, who, after Winkelried’s example, gave their lives in the cause. All this is in the face of the mountains and the lake now lying in summer stillness, and the harvest fields whose crops are secure from marauders, and the congregation then proceed to the small chapel, the walls of which are painted with the deed of Arnold von Winkelried, and the other distinguished achievements of the confederates, and masses are sung for the souls of those who were slain. No wonder that men thus nurtured in the memory of such actions were, even to the fall of the French monarchy, among the most trustworthy soldiery of Europe.
Charlotte Mary Yonge