November 15th marks the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Morgarten, a historic clash between the militia army of the nascent Swiss Confederation and a highly trained troops of Habsburg Duke Leopold I of Austria. Fought on the banks of Lake Ägeri near the Morgarten Pass in the central Switzerland Canton of Schwyz, it was the first battle of the Confederation and their victory helped cement the cantons’ unity to form the kernel of what would become Switzerland.
The three cantons of Schwyz, Uri and Unterwalden first joined in the Eternal Alliance in 1291, just 24 years before the Battle of Morgarten. The Federal Charter of 1291 united the rural valley communities of the central Alps for the purposes of trade and defense of their property and trade routes. This was necessary because the Hapsburgs, newly risen to princely power in what is today Germany, were putting increasing pressure on the territories of the Forest Cantons. The cantons had been granted Imperial immediacy, technically the right to be ruled directly by the Holy Roman Emperor rather than by a long line of feudal lords but in practice a form of political autonomy within the empire, by the Hohenstaufen emperors and in 1308 by Henry VII of Luxembourg, King of the Germans, but the Habsburgs wanted to annex the cantons with their valuable lands and Alpine passes outright.
Territorial conflicts with the Habsburgs generated constant skirmishes and raids in the area from the 12th century until the mid-14th. One of those raids — Schwyz militia attacked Einsiedeln Abbey, a Habsburg ally, in a dispute over pasture and forest land — gave the Habsburgs the pretext to attack the cantons they coveted with a force of thousands (estimates vary from 3,000 to 22,000) including armoured cavalry. The cantons only had from 1,000 to 3,000 men in their combined militias, farmers and tradesmen who while likely experienced in fisticuffs hardly seemed a match for the mounted knights of Duke Leopold of Austria. The cantons had the advantage of intimate familiarity with the terrain, so when they found out which direction the Habsburg forces were taking, they blocked the Morgarten Pass and ambushed the Austrians from the surrounding hillside, raining rocks, boulders, tree trunks and assorted projectiles on the army trapped between a steep wooded slope on one side and the marshy lake shore on the other. The Swiss then swarmed down upon them and fought hand to hand, felling knights with halberds and taking no quarter.
One month after the Battle of Morgarten, the cantons signed the Pact of Brunnen, expanding the defensive alliance into a broader confederacy by adopting a common foreign policy. The treaty ushered in the era of the Old Swiss Confederacy as more cantons joined the Pact over the next few decades. Until the late 19th century, the Pact of Brunnen was widely considered by historians the foundation of the Swiss Confederation. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the Federal Charter became seen as Switzerland’s founding document.
As important as the Battle of Morgarten was in Swiss history, the medieval chronicles documenting it, most notably that of Franciscan monk Johannes of Winterthur written in the 1340s, are thin on factual accuracy. The exact location of the battle is unclear and no confirmed archaeological remains from the battle have been found. This Spring, archaeologists did an intensive excavation of one likely site and discovered for the first time weapons and other artifacts from the period of the Battle of Morgarten.
The cantons of Schwyz and Zug authorized the excavation with celebrations of the 700th anniversary of the battle on the horizon and out of concern for a recent spate of would-be looters scouring the site. The dig unearthed 12 silver Pfennigs dating from 1275 to the early 14th century minted by the diocese of Basel, the Fraumünster Abbey of Zurich and the cities of Solothurn and Schaffhausen. The coins were found next to two 14th century dagger blades. Archaeologists also discovered a knife scabbard, two projectile points from an arrow or crossbow bolt and an iron spur, all from the 14th century. Other artifacts like a knife and a horseshoe, can’t yet be dated with certainty but could also be from the 14th century.
These workmanlike finds are so exciting they eclipse the more precious objects — the gold head of a brooch from the 7th century and an openwork bronze disc brooch with central glass insert from 10th century — unearthed at the site. They could well prove to be the first archaeological evidence of the Battle of Morgarten. The problem is archaeologists can’t be certain the artifacts were left on the field during that specific battle. Because of all the fighting that went on in the area during the period (and before and after), the objects may have been used in another encounter or encounters.
That won’t stop the artifacts from being celebrated as significant in this anniversary year. A selection of the 14th century finds is currently on display at the Museum Burg Zug through July 31st. From August 22nd to September 30th they will be on display at the Federal Charter Museum in Schwyz.