This date is considered the founding of the old Swiss Confederation and is celebrated on National Day. On August 1st 1291 the country’s three founding cantons, Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden (now divided into Obwalden and Nidwalden), came together on the Rütli meadow on Lake Lucerne to swear the oath of the Confederation, an alliance aimed at better protecting themselves from attacks by outside forces.
Lucerne joined the Confederation on this date, followed by Zurich, Bern, Glarus and Zug in subsequent years until 1353. The Confederation then didn’t gain any new member cantons until 1481, however its territory expanded during this time when the Confederates conquered Aargau and Thurgau – until then part of Austria – and brought parts of Appenzell, St Gallen, Schaffhausen, Fribourg, Biel and Solothurn under their control as associated places.
The Confederates defeated the Burgundy army and Duke Charles the Bold – who was seen as a threat to the Confederation – in vicious battles in Grandson and Murten/Morat that gained Swiss fighters a reputation as mercenaries. From then on the Confederation made considerable money by hiring out its fighters to foreign countries, a policy that remained until the mid 19th century and is still seen in symbolic form in the Swiss Guard at the Vatican.
Solothurn and Fribourg joined the Confederation.
Basel and Schaffhausen joined the Confederation .
The Confederates lost the fight for Lombardy to the French at the bloody Battle of Marignano. In the landmark peace treaty the Swiss were granted what is now the canton of Ticino, and agreed to never again fight against the French. That battle brought the Confederates’ military expansion to an end and is seen by some as the beginning of Switzerland’s famed neutrality. As the Swiss foreign office says, history taught Switzerland to keep out of foreign conflicts. Originally “a kind of emergency stop-gap”, neutrality later became a foreign policy norm.
Swiss man Ulrich Zwingli introduced reformist ideas to Zurich and tried to spread the Reformation throughout the Confederation. Zurich became the first canton to officially adopt the Reformation in 1525. Zwingli died fighting against Catholics in 1531.
The Reformation Wall in Geneva. Photo: Geneva Tourism
Frenchman Jean Calvin arrived in Geneva – then not part of the Confederation – and promoted his reformist teachings in the following two years. The 500th anniversary of the Reformation will be celebrated in what is now known as the ‘City of Calvin’ later this year. Also in 1536, Bern conquered Vaud, which had been ruled by Savoy.
The house of Savoy tried but failed to conquer Geneva, an event celebrated each December in the Escalade festival.
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Following the Thirty Years War, in which Switzerland did not participate, the Confederation was declared independent from the Holy Roman Empire.
France invaded the Confederation under the pretext of helping Vaud drive out Bern. Bernese troops were defeated and Bern fell to the French, who abolished the old Confederation and created a centralized Helvetic Republic. New cantons were created but were not independent and had no real power.
A civil war between centralists and federalists led Napoleon to pass an Act of Mediation which restored the old cantonal system and gave six former controlled territories full cantonal status – Aargau, Graubünden, St Gallen, Thurgau, Ticino and Vaud.
After the fall of Napoleon, the cantons regained their autonomy in a Federal Treaty. At the Congress of Vienna, the new cantons of Valais, Neuchatel and Geneva joined the Swiss Confederation, and French-speaking parts of the Jura were given mainly to canton Bern, sparking a separatist movement that has continued to this day. Foreign powers recognized Switzerland’s neutrality.
Fighting between liberal cantons and conservative Catholic ones led to the creation of the Swiss Constitution. This founded the federal parliamentary system and gave a new centralized government some of the powers previously in the hands of the cantons. The old Confederation of cantons therefore changed into a federal state – 1848 is now considered the date when modern day Switzerland was created. Bern was made the capital of Switzerland and the Swiss flag we know today was official adopted. Men were granted the right to vote.
The Swiss parliament building in Bern. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP
The Swiss franc was introduced. Prior to this point the cantons had been allowed to mint their own money, causing currency chaos.
Direct democracy was introduced, giving the Swiss people to right to challenge government legislation through an optional referendum.
The popular initiative was introduced, allowing Swiss people to demand a change to the Constitution through a referendum.
Women gained the right to vote at federal level, though some cantons still hold out granting them suffrage on cantonal issues.
Switzerland’s youngest canton, Jura, was created.
Swiss voters approved a series of bilateral agreements with the EU, allowing free movement.