The Old Confederacy was created as a loose alliance of three valleys in central Switzerland: Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden. They were rebelling against the governors of the Counts of Habsburg. The sought a recovery of old rights of autonomy and not a disengagement from the German Reich.

Federal Charter and the Rütli Oath

The Federal Charter, dating from the beginning of August 1291, is the most famous of several federal charters and in traditional and popular historiography is regarded as one of the founding documents of the Swiss Confederation if not the only one. The then Federal Government was that of the local elites in the valleys of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden (or Nidwalden, as the text mentions the "lower valley"), and so these are commonly regarded as the first three or the original cantons of the subsequent Confederation. It is preserved and exhibited in the Federal Charter Museum in the town of Schwyz. The Federal Charter was basically a legal document that was intended to secure peace after the death of the German King Rudolf I († 15 July, 1291). Only two of its seven paragraphs are relevant to assistance in case of war while the vast majority of the text deals with issues of criminal and civil law.
Until about 1890, an old tradition had it that the Rütli Oath was the actual basic alliance of the old Confederates and dated it to 1307. The oath is said to have been made on the Rütliwiese (meadow) on the slopes of the Seelisberg on the left bank of Lake Lucerne. It was there that representatives of the so-called original cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden (now divided into Obwalden and Nidwalden) swore mutual support.

Similar alliances had in all likelihood already been made previously, but the Rütli Oath was the first to be documented in writing. As with the Federal Charter, it was prompted by the death of the German Emperor Rudolf of Habsburg, who had granted the Swiss relative freedom. Fearing the new ruler could want to take away those rights and freedoms, the three communities merged to form an alliance.

William Tell

The name of William Tell is associated with the events surrounding the Rütli Oath. He is supposed to have killed the wicked bailiff, Gessler, whom the Habsburg overlords had installed to manage their affairs and take away the freedoms of the local people. Considerable doubt has been cast on the authenticity of the tale, but it does reflect the concerns of Tell's contemporaries.

Consolidation and expansion

Even before the Rütli Oath, the Habsburgs, who ruled over large parts of central Switzerland, had extended their power eastwards to Austria.

But their hunger for power was by no means satisfied. They wanted to consolidate their power in the area along the Gotthard route and take back the territories they had lost. The Confederates were aware of this danger and were determined to defend themselves against the Habsburgs. At the Battle of Morgarten in 1315 a small unit of Confederate troops defeated an Austrian opposing army.

The Confederation gradually expanded during the 40 years after Morgarten. Lucerne joined the Confederation in 1332, Zurich in 1351, Glarus and b>Zug in 1352 and Bern in 1353. At this time the now familiar term "canton" had not yet been used . The members of the Confederation of 1353 were called "Orte" (places). From 1353 to 1481 the composition of the Confederation remained unchanged.

Although there were other alliances in the Habsburg Empire, the Swiss Confederation was an exception: nowhere else were there alliances comprising urban and rural areas. However, in Switzerland, the rural areas were "swallowed up" by the cities.

The victories of the Confederation

The Confederates distinguished themselves from similar leagues elsewhere in the Empire by their success in undermining rule by the nobility.

Their rebellions against the rulers - especially the Habsburgs - were not always well organised, but the members of the Confederation supported each other (besides Morgarten, also at Sempach near Lucerne in 1386 and in Näfels near Glarus in 1388).

The Habsburgs never quite recovered from their two defeats in Sempach and Näfels. The confidence of the Confederates, however, was considerably strengthened. The Battle of Sempach even produced a national hero: Arnold von Winkelried, who is said to have beaten a path through the enemy lines for the Confederates, by throwing himself into the enemy lances. No one knows for sure if this story is true or not. The only certainty is that it was first mentioned in writing (in a ballad) in 1533.

Increasing territory, static membership

For over a century no new members joined the Confederation while the territory of the Alliance increasingly grew in size.

In 1415, the Confederates conquered Aargau, which up until then was part of Austria. Most of the Aargau was then divided up between Bern, Zurich and Lucerne, with the remainder being managed as "common lordships". The same fate befell the Austrian Thurgau, which was acquired in 1460 by seven of the Confederate Places and was subsequently managed by bailiffs.

Appenzell and Toggenburg (the latter is now part of Canton St. Gallen), the monastery and city of St. Gallen, Schaffhausen, Fribourg, Biel and Solothurn came under Confederate control as so-called Associated Places.

Subjects and allies

Relations between the Confederates and the other parts of what is now Switzerland took several different forms, ranging from subjection to freedom of choice and a great deal of power.

The least amount of freedom was enjoyed by the areas administered as "common lordships". Specifically, this meant that the Confederation members took it in turns to appoint a bailiff.
The urban members of the Confederacy also had their own subjects. For example, towns in the surrounding rural areas. These subjects (Landschaft in German) often enjoyed a considerable amount of autonomy, with some even being able to appoint their own local authorities.
Other places were gradually incorporated under the terms of a Burgrecht alliance with a town, monastery or individual nobleman. In general, the ally provided troops in exchange for access to town markets. Bern used this system to extend its power westwards.
Finally, there were areas known as "Associated Places" whose status varied considerably. Some eventually joined the Confederation as full members, while others became protectorates.

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