The Swiss at Morgarten
On a sunny autumn morning, in the far-off year 1315, a gallant band of horsemen wound slowly up the Swiss mountains, their forest of spears and lances glittering in the ruddy beams of the new-risen sun, and extending down the hill-side as far as the eye could reach. In the vanguard rode the flower of the army, a noble cavalcade of knights, clad in complete armor, and including nearly the whole of the ancient nobility of Austria. At the head of this group rode Duke Leopold, the brother of Frederick of Austria, and one of the bravest knights and ablest generals of the realm. Following the van came a second division, composed of the inferior leaders and the rank and file of the army.
Switzerland was to be severely punished, and to be reduced again to the condition from which seven years before it had broken away; such was the dictum of the Austrian magnates. With the army came Landenberg, the oppressive governor who had been set free on his oath never to return to Switzerland. He was returning in defiance of his vow. With it are also said to have been several of the family of Gessler, the tyrant who fell beneath Tell's avenging arrow. The birds of prey were flying back, eager to fatten on the body of slain liberty in Switzerland.
Up the mountains wound the serried band, proud in their panoply, confident of easy victory, their voices ringing out in laughter and disdain as they spoke of the swift vengeance that was about to fall on the heads of the horde of rebel mountaineers. The duke was as gay and confidant as any of his followers, as he proudly bestrode his noble war-horse, and led the way up the mountain slopes towards the district of Schwyz, the head-quarters of the base-born insurgents. He would trample the insolent boors under his feet, he said, and had provided himself with an abundant supply of ropes with which to hang the leaders of the rebels, whom he counted on soon having in his power.
All was silent about them as they rode forward; the sun shone brilliantly; it seemed like a pleasure excursion on which they were bound.
"The locusts have crawled to their holes," said the duke, laughingly; "we will have to stir them out with the points of our lances."
"The poor fools fancied that liberty was to be won by driving out one governor and shooting another," answered a noble knight. "They will find that the eagle of Hapsburg does not loose its hold so easily."
Their conversation ceased as they found themselves at the entrance to a pass, through which the road up the mountains wound, a narrow avenue, wedged in between hills and lakeside. The silence continued unbroken around the rugged scene as the cavalry pushed in close ranks through the pass, filling it, as they advanced, from side to side. They pushed forward; beyond this pass of Morgarten they would find open land again and the villages of the rebellious peasantry; here all was solitude and a stillness that was almost depressing.
Suddenly the stillness was broken. From the rugged cliffs which bordered the pass came a loud shout of defiance. But more alarming still was the sound of descending rocks, which came plunging down the mountain side, and in an instant fell with a sickening thud on the mail-clad and crowded ranks below. Under their weight the iron helmets of the knights cracked like so many nut-shells; heads were crushed into shapeless masses, and dozens of men, a moment before full of life, hope, and ambition, were hurled in death to the ground.
Down still plunged the rocks, loosened by busy hands above, sent on their errand of death down the steep declivities, hurling destruction upon the dense masses below. Escape was impossible. The pass was filled with horsemen. It would take time to open an avenue of flight, and still those death-dealing rocks came down, smashing the strongest armor like pasteboard, strewing the pass with dead and bleeding bodies.
And now the horses, terrified, wounded, mad with pain and alarm, began to plunge and rear, trebling the confusion and terror, crushing fallen riders under their hoofs, adding their quota to the sum of death and dismay. Many of them rushed wildly into the lake which bordered one side of the pass, carrying their riders to a watery death. In a few minutes' time that trim and soldierly array, filled with hope of easy victory and disdain of its foes, was converted into a mob of maddened horses and frightened men, while the rocky pass beneath their feet was strewn thickly with the dying and the dead.
Yet all this had been done by fifty men, fifty banished patriots, who had hastened back on learning that their country was in danger, and stationing themselves among the cliffs above the pass, had loosened and sent rolling downwards the stones and huge fragments of rock which lay plentifully there.
While the fifty returned exiles were thus at work on the height of Morgarten, the army of the Swiss, thirteen hundred in number, was posted on the summit of the Sattel Mountain opposite, waiting its opportunity. The time for action had come. The Austrian cavalry of the vanguard was in a state of frightful confusion and dismay. And now the mountaineers descended the steep hill slopes like an avalanche, and precipitated themselves on the flank of the invading force, dealing death with their halberds and iron-pointed clubs until the pass ran blood.
On every side the Austrian chivalry fell. Escape was next to impossible, resistance next to useless. Confined in that narrow passage, confused, terrified, their ranks broken by the rearing and plunging horses, knights and men-at-arms falling with every blow from their vigorous assailants, it seemed as if the whole army would be annihilated, and not a man escape to tell the tale.
Numbers of gallant knights, the flower of the Austrian, nobility, fell under those vengeful clubs. Numbers were drowned in the lake. A halberd-thrust revenged Switzerland on Landenberg, who had come back to his doom. Two of the Gesslers were slain. Death held high carnival in that proud array which had vowed to reduce the free-spirited mountaineers to servitude.
Such as could fled in all haste. The van of the army, which had passed beyond those death-dealing rocks, the rear, which had not yet come up, broke and fled in a panic of fear. Duke Leopold narrowly escaped from the vengeance of the mountaineers, whom he had held in such contempt. Instead of using the ropes he had brought with him to hang their chiefs, he fled at full speed from the victors, who were now pursuing the scattered fragments of the army, and slaying the fugitives in scores. With difficulty the proud duke escaped, owing his safety to a peasant, who guided him through narrow ravines and passes as far as Winterthur, which he at length reached in a state of the utmost dejection and fatigue. The gallantly-arrayed army which he had that morning led, with blare of trumpets and glitter of spears, with high hope and proud assurance of victory, up the mountain slopes, was now in great part a gory heap in the rocky passes, the remainder a scattered host of wearied and wounded fugitives. Switzerland had won its freedom.
The day before the Swiss confederates, apprised of the approach of the Austrians, had come together, four hundred men from Uri, three hundred from Unterwald, the remainder from Schwyz. They owed their success to Rudolphus Redin, a venerable patriot, so old and infirm that he could scarcely walk, yet with such reputation for skill and prudence in war that the warriors halted at his door in their march, and eagerly asked his advice.
"Our grand aim, my sons," said he, "as we are so inferior in numbers, must be to prevent Duke Leopold from gaining any advantage by his superior force."
He then advised them to occupy the Morgarten and Sattel heights, and fall on the Austrians when entangled in the pass, cutting their force in two, and assailing it right and left. They obeyed him implicitly, with what success we have seen. The fifty men who had so efficiently begun the fray had been banished from Schwyz through some dispute, but on learning their country's danger had hastily returned to sacrifice their lives, if need be, for their native land.
Thus a strong and well-appointed army, fully disciplined and led by warriors famed for courage and warlike deeds, was annihilated by a small band of peasants, few of whom had ever struck a blow in war, but who were animated by the highest spirit of patriotism and love of liberty, and welcomed death rather than a return to their old state of slavery and oppression. The short space of an hour and a half did the work. Austria was defeated and Switzerland was free.