Arnold Winkelried at Sempach

THE comprehensive view which is obtained from the various peaks of the Rigi affords the best possible introduction to the study of Swiss history. Almost every spot celebrated in the annals of the early Confederation or hallowed by its traditions is visible from this height; and when not actually visible can readily be located with the help of a map. Of course the eye rests first upon the matchless snow mountains rearing their crests upon the horizon in an unbroken phalanx; but when you look down and examine the country lying near the base of the Rigi, historical points without end disclose themselves. Here is the Lake of Ægeri, where the battle of Morgarten was fought and won; on this side lies the village of Schwyz, from which the whole Confederation derives its name; in another direction, half hidden amongst the trees, is the chapel erected where William Tell is supposed to have shot Gessler from ambush ; and in the distance faint indications of the city of Zürich and of the castle of Habsburg may be discovered.

There are two places, however, seen from the Rigi which concern us especially in treating of Arnold Winkelried and the battle of Sempach. Look out upon the rolling land of forest and meadow to the northwest, and you will notice three small lakes imbedded in the hills. The most westerly of the three is the Lake of Sempach, near which the battle of that name took place, more than five hundred years ago. Then turn towards the southwest and examine the canton of Unterwalden, which occupies the southern shore of the Lake of Lucerne. You will perceive that the canton is divided into two natural sections by a range of mountains extending back from the Stanzerhorn to the snow-clad peak of the Titlis. The fact that a great forest formerly covered part of this range caused the two valleys to be called respectively Obwalden (Above-the-Forest) and Nidwalden (Below-the-Forest). In the latter division is situated a village of great antiquity, Stans, the home of the Winkelried family. It lies a mile or two from the water’s edge, and is easily distinguishable from the Rigi-Kulm.

The traveler will not find much of interest in the village itself. At the eastern extremity stands an ancient stone house, which, although known locally as the Winkelried homestead, was more likely the property of the Counts of Habsburg, and in the little arsenal is shown a coat of mail which is said to have been the hero’s own, but with no better reason than popular say-so. A modern marble group, by Schlöth, in the village square is the most prominent object and show-piece of Stans. It represents Arnold Winkelried in the act of pressing the Austrian spears into his breast and holding them down, while a second figure from the ranks of the Confederates pushes forward to take advantage of the gap thus created in the Austrian line. The latter warrior swings on high a rude weapon much used by the early Swiss, which consists of a club ending in a massive knob with spikes protruding in every direction, so as to suggest the facetious name of “ morning star.”

Fortunately, the evidence concerning the ancestry of Winkelried, unlike that of William Tell, reposes upon a solid foundation. As long ago as 1854 Dr. Hermann von Liebenau, whose services in the cause of Swiss historical research have been invaluable, published a genealogical record of the family from contemporary documents covering the period between 1248 and 1534. The knights of Winkelried appear at intervals, according to Von Liebenau’s investigations, occupying positions of honor and trust amongst the families of lesser nobles which Unterwalden possessed from very early times. In 1367, nineteen years before the battle of Sempach, the name of a man Erni Winkelried was affixed as witness to a deed of transfer, Erni being the local diminutive of Arnold. The same name, whether representing the same person or not is unknown, but with the particle von added, occurs again three years after the battle, and without the von thirty-one years after, when one Erni Winkelried is mentioned as Landammann of Unterwalden.

The existence of a man Arnold Winkelried at about the time of the battle is, therefore, an established fact; the only points questioned by historical critics are whether this Arnold Winkelried was present at Sempach, and whether he performed the act of heroism popularly attributed to him, — two questions which will be considered later in this article.

After their signal victory over Duke Leopold of Austria at Morgarten, the Confederates had not lapsed into inactivity, but had gradually incorporated their neighbors into their league. In 1332 the town of Lucerne concluded a perpetual alliance with them, thus completing the circle around the Lake of Lucerne, which now began to be called the Lake of the Four Forest States. This enlarged union was held firmly together by mutual commercial interests, and by a common fear and hatred of Habsburg-Austria, the greatest land-owning and office-holding family in the whole region. Twenty years elapsed, when the Confederation, as though to make up for lost time, added four more members in rapid succession : in 1351 Zürich, the powerful industrial city of eastern Switzerland, and in 1352 the land community of Glarus, the town and country districts of Zug, and finally the martial city of Bern, in western Switzerland, — all more or less harassed by Habsburg-Austria, and working out their independence in opposition to that power. Many conflicts had marked the growth of these several communities into sovereign bodies. A harrowing, desultory warfare had been waged sullenly for years, but it was evident that a decisive conflict between the Confederation and the ducal house could no longer be averted; that two expanding forces trying to occupy the same territory must eventually come into open collision.

Duke Leopold III., nephew of the Leopold who was defeated at Morgarten, ruled over the western possessions of the Habsburg family, including those situated in what is now Switzerland. In his efforts to extend and consolidate his authority in southern Germany he had encountered the determined opposition of a coalition known as the League of the Swabian Cities. Seeing this, the Confederates hastened to ally themselves with the new league, in the hope of sweeping their hereditary enemy out of the country altogether. Had this alliance been of a firm and durable kind, the desired result might have been obtained; but it was weak and vacillating, unable, as subsequent events proved, to stand the test of actual warfare. For when, hostilities having finally broken out, the Confederates sent the customary summons to the Swabian cities, the latter attempted to withdraw from the pledge to send help, and in the end left their allies to bear the brunt of the storm alone.

In June, 1386, Leopold organized the expedition with which he hoped to deal the Confederation a death-blow. Many well-known noblemen flocked to his standard, attracted by his knightly character and by the hope of inflicting a lasting punishment upon the insolent peasants. There were the margraves of Baden and Hochberg, and the counts of HohenZollern, Nassau, and Habsburg-Lauffenburg; from Italy came the Marquis of Este with two hundred Milanese lances, and his brother-in-law, Duke Conrad of Theck. Leopold had also hired the services of several noted mercenary captains: the Duke of Lorraine; the Dutch Count of Salm ; Lord Jean de Raye, who later became Marshal of France; Lord Jean de Vergy, Sénéchal and Marshal of Burgundy; and Enguerrand de Coucy, a famous free-lance, who had fought in the French and English wars, and had once before invaded Switzerland at the head of plundering troops. It was Leopold’s plan to penetrate at once to Lucerne, the geographical centre of the Confederation, while diverting the enemy’s attention by a reconnaissance upon Zürich ; and had his force been compact and available for immediate invasion, the issue of the war might have been very different. But a great part, of his army did not reach the scene of action at all, so that only a comparatively small column made the disastrous march upon Lucerne. From the little town of Brugg, near which is perched the ancestral castle of Habsburg, Leopold advanced by way of Zofingen and Willisau to Sursee, foolishly wasting more than a week of valuable time in stopping at Willisau to punish a refractory châtelaine for her allegiance to Bern. On the 9th of July the main force finally rode along the northern shore of the Lake of Sempach, in order to reach Lucerne by way of Rothenburg.

The battle ground of Sempach, like that of Morgarten, is not situated amongst the high Alps, but in the undulating lowlands which lead up to them. A tenmile ride in the train from Lucerne and a short walk from the rustic station will take you to the gates of the miniature walled town of Sempach, a quaint survival of the Middle Ages, practically untouched by the march of time. There is, however, nothing particular to see, except the brand new and somewhat inappropriate monument erected in 1886 to commemorate the five hundredth anniversary of the battle. Take the road which climbs the hill in a northeasterly direction towards Hildisrieden. In something like half an hour you will reach an uneven plateau, where a road joins your own from the west. This is the battle ground of Sempach. A chapel stands by the wayside to mark the spot where Duke Leopold met his death; in the open field a rude pyramid of granite, surrounded by pine saplings, bears this legend : “ Hier Hat Winkelried den Seinen Eine Gasse Gemacht 1386.” To the south, across the sloping field, broken by little brooks into rough divisions, lies a tract of forest known as the Meierholz, where the Confederates lay in hiding on that eventful day, waiting for the arrival of the Austrians from Sursee.

As soon as war had been declared the various states of the Confederation had taken steps to put their frontiers into a defensive condition, Bern alone remaining inactive and preserving an expectant attitude. About fifteen hundred troops marched to Zürich to defend that city, because it was generally believed that Leopold would select it for his principal attack ; but at the last moment news came that the Austrians were advancing upon Lucerne, and the troops hastened to take up a position from which they could surprise Leopold on the march. Thus it happened that when the Austrians reached the uneven plateau which I have described above, the battle came upon them as a complete surprise, and in a locality ill suited for the evolutions of their cavalry. The majority of the knights dismounted, sent their horses and squires to one side, and stationed themselves in long and deep lines, clad in heavy armor, and holding before them the lances they were accustomed to wield on horseback. The rest, amongst whom rode Leopold himself, remained behind to act as a reserve with the contingents sent by Austria’s partisans. According to the most reliable accounts, some adventurous young noblemen, eager to win their spurs that day, straightway rushed upon the Confederates, who were drawn up in a wedgeshaped column peculiar to them, and were armed with their famous halberds and a variety of short weapons.

There can be no question that the first part of the battle proved most unfavorable to the Confederates. It appears that their short weapons were useless against the long spears which confronted them, for they could not reach the Austrians to strike them, and could at best only shatter the wooden shafts. In vain they rushed against the bristling array, in vain they attempted to break through that solid phalanx; the foremost were invariably pierced through before they could make use of their short weapons. By degrees the Austrians were pressing the Confederates off the field, and victory seemed assured to the noblemen against the peasants.

Suddenly, however, the tide of battle turned ; defeat was changed to triumph as though by a miracle. How this came about is a problem which has exercised the minds of many historians, for it is at this point that certain versions introduce the much-contested episode of Arnold Winkelried, while others ascribe the cause of this good fortune to a change of tactics adopted by the Confederates, or to the hot July sun acting upon the heavy armor in which the Austrians were encased. Probably these circumstances affected the issue of the battle to a certain extent; but it seems to me that there is room for the heroic deed of Winkelried as well. In the words of the anonymous chronicler who is the first to mention the subject: “ To this [victory] a trusty man amongst the Confederates helped us. When he saw that things were going so badly, and that the lords with their lances and spears always thrust down the foremost before they could be touched by the halberds, then did that honest man and true rush forward and seize as many spears as he could, and press them down, so that the Confederates smote off all the spears with their halberds, and so reached the enemy.” As soon as the Confederates had succeeded in breaking through the enemy’s line, and were at close quarters, whatever the manner in which this was accomplished, their short weapons at once became superior to the enemy’s long spears, and their light equipment gave them a great advantage over the knights, whose movements were hampered by heavy armor. The Austrian knights, encased in plates of iron and steel, half suffocated under heavy helmets heated by a broiling sun, their legs covered with greaves, could not long withstand the light - footed peasants. Austria’s standard was seen to sway to and fro, threatening to fall, and the cry went up, “ Austria to the rescue ! ” Then Leopold, who had been watching the fray from his post amongst the reserves, sprang forward, unmindful of his followers’ prayers, plunged into the thick of the fight to save the honor of his house, and, after a brave struggle, fell himself beneath the strokes of the victorious Confederates. Then ensued a moment of indescribable confusion, for the mounted knights, seeing their leader’s fate, fled precipitately, while the dismounted ones called aloud for their squires and horses. But alas ! they too had fled ; and thus abandoned by their friends, weak from exhaustion, and imprisoned in their armor, these warriors perished, an easy prey of the relentless peasants. When all was over, the Confederates, as was their wont, fell upon their knees to sing a Kyrie, and to thank God for their victory. Then they remained three days upon the battlefield, to gather up the spoils, to bury their dead, and to be ready to meet the enemy should they return.

Beside Leopold the Austrians mourned the loss of a host of nobles, whose names are carefully recorded in various annals, in all more than six hundred of the best blood of Swabia and the lands subject to the Habsburg family. The victors also lost some of their best leaders, notably Conrad der Frauen, the Landammann of Uri, and Peter von Gundoldingen, late Avoyer of Lucerne. Great booty in costly weapons, garments, and jewels fell into their hands, of which they could hardly understand the uses or appreciate the value. The museum of Lucerne still contains a few authenticated trophies captured in the battle, but most of the spoils were scattered about, and are of course extremely difficult to identify at this late date. It is interesting to know that, when Leopold’s body was transported to Austria from the monastery church of Königsfelden, near Brugg, where he had been temporarily laid to rest after the battle, an eye-witness of the ceremony reported that his head was covered with long reddishgold hair, and that no wound whatever was visible on his head.

In forming an estimate of the duke’s character, we must not allow ourselves to be influenced by the humiliating defeat which he sustained at Sempach. He seems to have been every inch a knight; not by any means free from the failings peculiar to his class and his age, but a man possessed of the manly virtues, brave, keen, and well practiced in arms. There was something extraordinary in the sensation caused by the reports of this rout of the nobles. The news flew like wildfire in every direction, so that, we find it mentioned in the chronicles of places as far removed from the scene of battle as Lübeck and Limburg in the far north, and an Italian city in the south. A Swabian writer expressed the pious wish “ that the cursed Swiss at Sentbach [Sempach] might be confounded, and their descendants destroyed forever,” while the Confederates, on their side, made all manner of fun of the vanquished knights, accumulating a large stock of anecdotes and war songs upon the subject. It is related, for instance, that the dismounted horsemen were obliged to cut off the awkward beakshaped points to their shoes, which were fashionable in those days, before entering into battle, and that this is the reason why a field near by is still called the Schnabelacker. or Beakfield.

A further task in historical criticism remains to be accomplished before leaving this subject, — a disagreeable duty in many respects, for it is to examine whether Arnold Winkelried did really perform the heroic act attributed to him, or whether his story is merely an interpolation. inserted by unscrupulous chroniclers. Let me say at once that the evidence which has so far been gathered — and there is a vast pile of it already — is not conclusive either one way or the other, so that the most recent of Swiss historians are still divided in their estimate of this evidence.

There is, first, the ominous silence of contemporary chronicles, for the heroic act is not mentioned until something like half a century after the battle, and even this date is open to question. The name of Winkelried does not occur in the version which has been quoted above in the description of the course of the battle, where he is described simply as “ a trusty man amongst the Confederates ; ” in fact, we meet the name for the first time in a certain battle song attributed to one Halbsuter of Lucerne, the date of its production being also a matter in dispute, but generally conceded to be about 1476. I have translated from the rude original dialect the three stanzas which deal with the Winkelried episode, and present the result here in all its naive simplicity : —

The nobles’ force was firm,
Their order deep and broad;
This vexed the pious guests.1
A Winkelriet, he said :
“ Ha! if you’ll make amends
To my poor child and wife,
I ’ll do a daring deed.
“ True and dear Confederates,
I ’ll lose my life with you ;
They ‘ve closed their line of battle,
We cannot break it through ;
Ha ! I will force an opening,
Because to my descendants
You ’ll make amends forever! ”
With this he then did seize
Of spears an armful quickly;
For them he makes a way,
His life is at an end.
Ah! he has a lion’s courage ;
His brave and manly death
Saved the Four Forest States.

In 1538, Rudolph Gwalther,2 Zwingli’s son-in-law, tells the same story, without, however, mentioning Winkelried’s name. Two lists of those who fell in the battle have put the hero’s name on record ; but, unfortunately, they were both drawn up long after Sempach, almost two hundred years having elapsed since that event, so that their testimony is open to suspicion. In the course of this controversy, it has also transpired that five similar feats are on record in Swiss history. One historian (K. Bürkli) has gone so far as to assert that the whole story has been transferred to Sempach from the fight which occurred at Bicocca, near Milan, in 1522, where another Arnold Winkelried met his death in a similar manner ; while somebody else even maintains that Winkelried did not seize the enemy’s spears at all, but himself used a bundle of spears to break through the enemy’s ranks.

The upshot of the whole discussion seems to be somewhat as follows : —

The strictest historical research has established that a man Arnold Winkelried lived in Stans of Unterwalden at about the time of the battle of Sempach, but it is still a debatable question whether he was present at the battle. The fact that he came from a knightly family, distinguished for its warlike character, would lead one to suppose that he would not absent himself at a critical moment, such, as the day of Sempach undoubtedly was. As for the act itself, the evidence for and against seems fairly well balanced. There was, unquestionably, a wonderful turning-point in the course of the battle, and Winkelried’s act might have accomplished all that has been claimed for it ; but, on the other hand, the silence of contemporary accounts, the similarity of the feat recorded of the battle of Bicocca, and the unscrupulousness of chroniclers and balladmongers in glorifying their particular locality are arguments which must he considered to weigh heavily against the story of the patriotic self-sacrifice.

Personally, I confess to an intense enthusiasm for this heroic act, whether performed at Sempach or at Bicocca, by a Winkelried or by an unknown “trusty man amongst the Confederates.” It has in it something exceptionally noble, something classic, as though destined to fire the imagination and arouse the devotion of mankind for all time. William Tell’s disappearance from the historical stage has proved a great gain, especially by opening the way for a serious study of the origin of the Swiss Confederation. His conduct never merited the eulogisms which have always been lavished upon it; for to imperil the life of his own child by an exhibition of fancy shooting, and then to murder the tyrant from ambush, were acts which we cannot sanction unreservedly. William Tell’s story is picturesque, but Winkelried’s is heroic, unsoiled even by the semblance of self-interest. If it be destined to disappear from the pages of strict history, let it at least live in the hearts of men forever as a divine fiction.

W. D. Mc Crackan.

  1. Referring, probably, to the fact that the men of Unterwalden were, in a sense, military guests of Lucerne, in whose territory the battle of Sempach was fought.
  2. It may be interesting to know that a descendant of this Gwalther, a personal friend of the writer, is now established in business in New York.