Far away in the heart of Europe there lies a little country called Switzerland. Instead of being surrounded by the blue sea as our island is, it is surrounded and shut in on all sides by other lands. It seems wonderful that in the fierce old days, when might was right, and when great and powerful Kings and Princes swept over the world, fighting and conquering, that little Switzerland should not have been conquered and swallowed up by one or other of the great countries which lay around. But the Swiss have always been a brave and fearless people; in the very heart of Europe their country has lain for hundreds of years as safe and free as our island on the ocean waves.
Many many years ago, however, one of the great Princes of Europe did try to conquer Switzerland and take away the freedom of its people. But the people fought so bravely, that instead of being conquered, they conquered the tyrants and drove them away.
In those far-off times the countries of Europe were divided quite differently from now. The greatest ruler in Europe was the Emperor, and his empire was called the Holy Roman Empire. This Empire was divided into many states, over each of which ruled a Prince or King who owned the Emperor as "over-lord." When an Emperor died, his son did not succeed to the throne, but the Kings and Princes met together and chose another Emperor from among their number.
Switzerland was one of the countries which owned the Emperor as over-lord. But the Swiss were a free people. They had no King or Prince over them, but a Governor only, who was appointed by the Emperor.
Austria was another of the states of the great empire, and at one time a Duke of Austria was made ruler of Switzerland. Switzerland is a beautiful country, full of mountains, lakes, and valleys, and this Duke cast greedy eyes upon it, and longed to possess it for his very own.
But the Swiss would not give up their freedom; and three cantons, as the states into which Switzerland is divided are called, joined together, and swore to stand by each other, and never to submit to Austria.
Uri, Schwytz, and Unterwalden were the names of these three cantons. They were called the Forest Cantons because of the beautiful woods with which the mountainsides were covered. A little later another canton joined the three. These four cantons lie round a lake which, from that, is called the Lake of the Four Forest Cantons.
At last it happened that Albrecht, Duke of Austria, was chosen to be Emperor. He was the son of that Duke who had already been ruler of Switzerland, and he was greatly rejoiced, for he said to himself that now truly he would be lord and master of Switzerland. For although the Swiss had resisted the Duke of Austria, they would not dare to resist the Emperor, he thought. So he sent two nobles to the Swiss to talk to them, and persuade them to own him as their King.
"Promise that your country shall belong to the Duke for ever," said these nobles, "and he will care for you and love you as his children. You are not strong enough to stand against a great enemy, but he will protect you. He does not ask this of you because he wants to take your flocks and herds, but because he has heard from his father and has read in old histories what a brave people you are. Duke Albrecht loves brave men. He will lead you to battle and victory, and make you rich with spoil, and will give you great rewards, and when you do brave deeds, he will make you knights."
Some of the people of Switzerland were persuaded to belong to Austria, but the freemen and nobles, and all the people of the three cantons replied, "Say to your master, as Duke, that we will never forget what a brave leader and good Governor his father was, and we will love and respect his house for ever, but we wish to remain free. Say to him, as Emperor, that we will be true to the Empire as we have ever been. As Emperor he must content himself with that."
So the messengers went back to Albrecht and told him what the people said. When he heard the message he was very angry. He looked darkly at the nobles, biting his fingers and grinding his heel into the ground as he listened. "The proud peasants," he cried at last, "they will not yield. Then I will bend and break them. They will be soft and yielding enough when I have done with them."
But Albrecht was already quarrelling with the Princes of his Empire, who, although they had chosen him to be Emperor, now hated and despised him. So for some time Albrecht had little thought to spare for Switzerland, but he did not forgive the people, and from time to time he still tried to make them own him as their King.
Months went past and the Emperor appointed no ruler over Switzerland. At last the people, feeling that they must have a Governor, sent messengers to the Emperor, begging him to appoint a ruler, as all the Emperors before him had done.
"You desire a Governor," growled Albrecht, as the messengers stood respectfully before him. "A Governor you shall have. Go home and await his coming. Whom I send to you, him you must obey in all things."
"We have ever been a law-abiding people, your Majesty," said the messengers.
"Think you so?" said Albrecht sternly, "see to it that you are, or you shall pay for it with your lives and your goods, and your freedom will I utterly destroy."
Then, very sad at heart, the messengers turned home again.
When they had gone, Albrecht smiled grimly to himself. "They will not yield," he said, "but I will oppress them and ill-treat them until I force them to rebel. Then I will fight against them and conquer them, and at last Switzerland will be mine."
A few days later Albrecht sent for two of his friends. These friends were called Hermann Gessler and Beringer of Landenberg.
Now the Emperor Albrecht knew that these men were grim, rough, and pitiless, and therefore he chose them as rulers of Switzerland. He chose them, too, because they were Austrians, and he knew they would be hated by the Swiss.
"My lords," he said when they came, "I have long watched you and have marked the zeal and love which you have for my throne and person. I am resolved to reward you. You, Hermann Gessler, I make ruler over the Forest Cantons of Uri and Schwytz, and you, Beringer of Landenberg, I make ruler over Unterwalden.
"I have no words wherewith to thank your Majesty," said Gessler, bowing low.
"Your Majesty honours me too much," said Landenberg, bowing still lower.
"They are a wild and rebellious people to whom I send you," went on the Emperor, "they are so fierce and unruly that you must take soldiers with you to help you to enforce the laws. You will tax the people in order to pay for these soldiers. You will punish all wrongdoers severely. I will endure no rebels within my empire."
"We understand, your Majesty," said Gessler.
"Your Majesty shall be obeyed," said Landenberg. And once more bowing low, they took leave of the Emperor and, gathering together their men and horses, set out for Switzerland.
Hard and bitter days began when Gessler and Landenberg settled there. They delighted in oppressing the people. They loaded them with taxes; nothing could be either bought or sold, but the Governors claimed a great part of the money; the slightest fault was punished with long imprisonment and heavy fines. The people became sad and downcast, but still they would not yield to Austria.
"God gave us the Emperor to stand between us and our enemies," they said. "Now the Emperor has become our greatest enemy. But if we keep true to the Empire, this Emperor may die, and another, who will be kinder to us, may be chosen. If we yield to Austria, our freedom is lost for ever. Let us pray God for patience. The Emperor may soon die. Then, with a new Emperor, Austria will have no power over us."