Gateway to the Classics: Historical Tales: German by Charles Morris
Historical Tales: German by  Charles Morris

Sempach and Arnold Winkelried

Seventy years had passed since the battle of Morgarten, through which freedom came to the lands of the Swiss. Throughout that long period Austria had let the liberty-loving mountaineers alone, deterred by the frightful lesson taught them in the bloody pass. In the interval the confederacy had grown more extensive. The towns of Berne, Zurich, Soleure, and Zug had joined it; and now several other towns and villages, incensed by the oppression and avarice of their Austrian masters, threw off the foreign yoke and allied themselves to the Swiss confederacy. It was time for the Austrians to be moving, if they would retain any possessions in the Alpine realm of rocks.

Duke Leopold of Austria, a successor to the Leopold who had learned so well at Morgarten how the Swiss could strike for liberty, and as bold and arrogant as he, grew incensed at the mountaineers for taking into their alliance several towns which were subject to him, and vowed not only to chastise these rebels, but to subdue the whole country, and put an end to their insolent confederacy. His feeling was shared by the Austrian nobles, one hundred and sixty-seven of whom joined in his warlike scheme, and agreed to aid him in putting down the defiant mountaineers.

War resolved upon, the Austrians laid a shrewd plan to fill the Swiss confederates with terror in advance of their approach. Letters declaring war were sent to the confederate assembly by twenty distinct expresses, with the hope that this rapid succession of threats would overwhelm them with fear. The separate nobles followed with their declarations. On St. John's day a messenger arrived from Würtemberg bearing fifteen declarations of war. Hardly had these letters been read when nine more arrived, sent by John Ulric of Pfirt and eight other nobles. Others quickly followed; it fairly rained declarations of war; the members of the assembly had barely time to read one batch of threatening fulminations before another arrived. Letters from the lords of Thurn came after those named, followed by a batch from the nobles of Schaffhausen. This seemed surely enough, but on the following day the rain continued, eight successive messengers arriving, who bore no less than forty-three declarations of war.

It seemed as if the whole north was about to descend in a cyclone of banners and spears upon the mountain land. The assembly sat breathless under this torrent of threats. Had their hearts been open to the invasion of terror they must surely have been overwhelmed, and have waited in the supineness of fear for the coming of their foes.

But the hearts of the Swiss were not of that kind. They were too full of courage and patriotism to leave room for dismay. Instead of awaiting their enemies with dread, a burning impatience animated their souls. If liberty or death were the alternatives, the sooner the conflict began the more to their liking it would be. The cry of war resounded through the country, and everywhere, in valley and on mountain, by lake-side and by glacier's rim, the din of hostile preparation might have been heard, as the patriots arranged their affairs and forged and sharpened their weapons for the coming fray.

Far too impatient were they to wait for the coming of Leopold and his army. There were Austrian nobles and Austrian castles within their land. No sooner was the term of the armistice at an end than the armed peasantry swarmed about these strongholds, and many a fortress, long the seat of oppression, was taken and levelled with the ground. The war-cry of Leopold and the nobles had inspired a different feeling from that counted upon.

It was not long before Duke Leopold appeared. At the head of a large and well-appointed force, and attended by many distinguished knights and nobles, he marched into the mountain region and advanced upon Sempach, one of the revolted towns, resolved, he said, to punish its citizens with a rod of iron for their daring rebellion.

On the 9th of July, 1386, the Austrian cavalry, several thousands in number, reached the vicinity of Sempach, having distanced the foot-soldiers in the impatient haste of their advance. Here they found the weak array of the Swiss gathered on the surrounding heights, and as eager as themselves for the fray. It was a small force, no stronger than that of Morgarten, comprising only about fourteen hundred poorly-armed men. Some carried halberds, some shorter weapons, while some among them, instead of a shield, had only a small board fastened to the left arm. It seemed like madness for such a band to dare contend with the thousands of well-equipped invaders. But courage and patriotism go far to replace numbers, as that day was to show.

Leopold looked upon his handful of foes, and decided that it would be folly to wait for the footmen to arrive. Surely his host of nobles and knights, with their followers, would soon sweep these peasants, like so many locusts, from their path. Yet he remembered the confusion into which the cavalry had been thrown at Morgarten, and deeming that horsemen were ill-suited to an engagement on those wooded hill-sides, he ordered the entire force to dismount and attack on foot.

The plan adopted was that the dismounted knights and soldiers should join their ranks as closely as possible, until their front presented an unbroken wall of iron, and thus arrayed should charge the enemy spear in hand. Leaving their attendants in charge of their horses, the serried column of footmen prepared to advance, confident of sweeping their foes to death before their closely-knit line of spears.

Yet this plan of battle was not without its critics. The Baron of Hasenburg, a veteran soldier, looked on it with disfavor, as contrasted with the position of vantage occupied by the Swiss, and cautioned the duke and his nobles against undue assurance.

"Pride never served any good purpose in peace or war," he said. "We had much better wait until the infantry come up."

This prudent advice was received with shouts of derision by the nobles, some of whom cried out insultingly,—

"Der Hasenburg hat ein Hasenherz" ("Hasenburg has a hare's heart," a play upon the baron's name).

Certain nobles, however, who had not quite lost their prudence, tried to persuade the duke to keep in the rear, as the true position for a leader. He smiled proudly in reply, and exclaimed with impatience,—

"What! shall Leopold be a mere looker-on, and calmly behold his knights die around him in his own cause? Never! here on my native soil with you I will conquer or perish with my people." So saying, he placed himself at the head of the troops.

And now the decisive moment was at hand. The Swiss had kept to the heights while their enemy continued mounted, not venturing to face such a body of cavalry on level ground. But when they saw them forming as foot-soldiers, they left the hills and marched to the plain below. Soon the unequal forces confronted each other; the Swiss, as was their custom, falling upon their knees and praying for God's aid to their cause; the Austrians fastening their helmets and preparing for the fray. The duke even took the occasion to give the honor of knighthood to several young warriors.

The day was a hot and close one, the season being that of harvest, and the sun pouring down its unclouded and burning rays upon the combatants. This sultriness was a marked advantage to the lightly-dressed mountaineers as compared with the armor-clad knights, to whom the heat was very oppressive.

The battle was begun by the Swiss, who, on rising from their knees, flung themselves with impetuous valor on the dense line of spears that confronted them. Their courage and fury were in vain. Not a man in the Austrian line wavered. They stood like a rock against which the waves of the Swiss dashed only to be hurled back in death. The men of Lucerne, in particular, fought with an almost blind rage, seeking to force a path through that steel-pointed forest of spears, and falling rapidly before the triumphant foe.

Numbers of the mountaineers lay dead or wounded. The line of spears seemed impenetrable. The Swiss began to waver. The enemy, seeing this, advanced the flanks of his line so as to form a half-moon shape, with the purpose of enclosing the small body of Swiss within a circle of spears. It looked for the moment as if the struggle were at an end, the mountaineers foiled and defeated, the fetters again ready to be locked upon the limbs of free Switzerland.


Statue of Arnold Winkelried.

But such was not to be. There was a man in that small band of patriots who had the courage to accept certain death for his country, one of those rare souls who appear from time to time in the centuries and win undying fame by an act of self-martyrdom. Arnold of Winkelried was his name, a name which history is not likely soon to forget, for by an impulse of the noblest devotion this brave patriot saved the liberties of his native land.

Seeing that there was but one hope for the Swiss, and that death must be the lot of him who gave them that hope, he exclaimed to his comrades, in a voice of thunder,—

"Faithful and beloved confederates, I will open a passage to freedom and victory! Protect my wife and children!"

With these words, he rushed from his ranks, flung himself upon the enemy's steel-pointed line, and seized with his extended arms as many of the hostile spears as he was able to grasp, burying them in his body, and sinking dead to the ground.

His comrades lost not a second in availing themselves of this act of heroic devotion. Darting forward, they rushed over the body of the martyr to liberty into the breach he had made, forced others of the spears aside, and for the first time since the fray began reached the Austrians with their weapons.

A hasty and ineffective effort was made to close the breach. It only added to the confusion which the sudden assault had caused. The line of hurrying knights became crowded and disordered. The furious Swiss broke through in increasing numbers. Overcome with the heat, many of the knights fell from exhaustion, and died without a wound, suffocated in their armor. Others fell below the blows of the Swiss. The line of spears, so recently intact, was now broken and pierced at a dozen points, and the revengeful mountaineers were dealing death upon their terrified and feebly-resisting foes.

The chief banner of the host had twice sunk and been raised again, and was drooping a third time, when Ulric, a knight of Aarburg, seized and lifted it, defending it desperately till a mortal blow laid him low.

"Save Austria! rescue!" he faltered with his dying breath.

Duke Leopold, who was pushing through the confused throng, heard him and caught the banner from his dying hand. Again it waved aloft, but now crimsoned with the blood of its defender.

The Swiss, determined to capture it, pressed upon its princely bearer, surrounded him, cut down on every side the warriors who sought to defend him and the standard.

"Since so many nobles and knights have ended their days in my cause, let me honorably follow them," cried the despairing duke, and in a moment he rushed into the midst of the hostile ranks, vanishing from the eyes of his attendants. Blows rained on his iron mail. In the pressure of the crowd he fell to the earth. While seeking to raise himself again in his heavy armor, he cried, in his helpless plight, to a Swiss soldier, who had approached him with raised weapon,—

"I am the Prince of Austria."

The man either heard not his words, or took no heed of princes. The weapon descended with a mortal blow. Duke Leopold of Austria was dead.

The body of the slain duke was found by a knight, Martin Malterer, who bore the banner of Freiburg. On recognizing him, he stood like one petrified, let the banner fall from his hand, and then threw himself on the body of the prince, that it might not be trampled under foot by the contending forces. In this position he soon received his own death-wound.

By this time the state of the Austrians was pitiable. The signal for retreat was given, and in utter terror and dismay they fled for their horses. Alas, too late! The attendants, seeing the condition of their masters, and filled with equal terror, had mounted the horses, and were already in full flight.

Nothing remained for the knights, oppressed with their heavy armor, exhausted with thirst and fatigue, half suffocated with the scorching heat, assailed on every side by the light-armed and nimble Swiss, but to sell their lives as dearly as possible. In a short time more all was at an end. The last of the Austrians fell. On that fatal field there had met their death, at the hands of the small body of Swiss, no less than six hundred and fifty-six knights, barons, and counts, together with thousands of their men-at-arms.

Thus ended the battle of Sempach, with its signal victory to the Swiss, one of the most striking which history records, if we consider the great disproportion in numbers and in warlike experience and military equipment of the combatants. It secured to Switzerland the liberty for which they had so valiantly struck at Morgarten seventy years before.

But all Switzerland was not yet free, and more blows were needed to win its full liberty. The battle of Næfels, in 1388, added to the width of the free zone. In this the peasants of Glarus rolled stones on the Austrian squadrons, and set fire to the bridges over which they fled, two thousand five hundred of the enemy, including a great number of nobles, being slain. In the same year the peasants of Valais defeated the Earl of Savoy at Visp, putting four thousand of his men to the sword. The citizens of St. Gall, infuriated by the tyranny of the governor of the province of Schwendi, broke into insurrection, attacked the castle of Schwendi, and burnt it to the ground. The governor escaped. All the castles in the vicinity were similarly dealt with, and the whole district set free.

Shortly after 1400 the citizens of St. Gall joined with the peasants against their abbot, who ruled them with a hand of iron. The Swabian cities were asked to decide the dispute, and decided that cities could only confederate with cities, not with peasants, thus leaving the Appenzellers to their fate. At this decision the herdsmen rose in arms, defeated abbot and citizens both, and set their country free, all the neighboring peasantry joining their band of liberty. A few years later the people of this region joined the confederation, which now included nearly the whole of the Alpine country, and was strong enough to maintain its liberty for centuries thereafter. It was not again subdued until the legions of Napoleon trod over its mountain paths.

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