The Second War of Villmergen

Catholic Wil is bombarded on 21 May 1712 by Protestant artillery from Zurich and Bern during the Second War of Villmergen.

PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Swiss Catholics vs. Swiss Protestants

PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): Villmergen, Switzerland

OBJECTIVES: The Protestant cantons sought to restore the power they had lost as a result of the First Villmergen War.

OUTCOME: The Protestants regained control over most of Switzerland.

TREATIES: Peace of Aarau, 1712

The Land Peace of Baden, which ended the First VILLMERGEN WAR in 1656, endured until 1712, when the Catholic abbot of Saint Gall, Leodegar Bürg Isser (1640-1717), decided to help the needy Protestants of the Toggenburg build a much-needed road. This gesture of brotherly love violated the intra-canton religious unity guaranteed by the Land Peace, and although efforts at reconciliation were made, the Protestant forces of Zürich and Bern invaded and occupied the Catholic cantons of Toggenburg, Thurgau, Aargau, and Rheintal. Bernese forces met the Catholics in the Second Battle of Villmergen on July 25, and this time, in contrast to the first battle in the first war, the Protestant forces prevailed. The defeated peasantry agreed to the Peace of Aarau of 1712, which supplanted the Land Peace of Baden by guaranteeing religious toleration between Protestants and Catholics. The agreement diminished the power of the Catholic peasantry and restored it to the urban, wealthy Protestant cantons-the situation prior to the First Villmergen War.


At the beginning of 1712 the population of the Toggenburg was turning against its own leaders, and tension was rising between Catholics and Protestants. The Abbot was able to exploit the situation to re-establish his authority in several areas of the predominantly Catholic Unteramt or lower Toggenburg, where his supporters, aided by some of his own troops, had begun a military takeover. In their Easter sermons, priests incited Catholics to take up arms against his opponents, and the church bells were rung for a general mobilization.

The Toggenburgers’ response was to occupy by force two religious houses belonging to the Abbot, the convent at Magdenau and the monastery of Neu Sankt Johann, during the night of 12-13 April. This action, which may be said to have marked the outbreak of war, had been sanctioned by Zurich and Berne, who the following day issued a famous declaration  supporting the Toggenburgers. The Landrat of the Toggenburg had issued its own ‘Manifest’ the day before. The Catholic cantons produced a counter-declaration. The local militia occupying Magdenau and Neu Sankt Johann were ill-disciplined, and highly-coloured reports of their ‘excesses’ were soon circulating in the Catholic cantons, inflaming public opinion. Zurich and Berne subsequently published a denial of the rumours.

As soon as they learned of these developments, the so-called Fünf Orte or Five Cantons (Lucerne and Uri, supported by Schwyz, Unterwalden and Zug) moved to occupy the Freiamt and County of Baden. These territories stretched northwards from the borders of Lucerne down the valley of the Reuss and on to the Rhine. They formed a wedge between Zurich and Berne and, ever since the Reformation, had represented an obstacle to the union of military forces of the two most powerful Protestant cantons. It was such a union which the Five Cantons now sought to prevent. They already had a share, along with Zurich, Berne and Glarus, in the government of both territories; they were now abusing their power by invading them unilaterally.

Meanwhile Zurich had despatched troops eastwards under the command of Johann Heinrich Bodmer. (As the owner of a well-known printing firm, he is a figure of bibliographical as well as historical interest.) Their aim was to unite with the Toggenburg militia, commanded by Nabholz, and attack the town of Wil, close to the Toggenburg border, where the Abbot had concentrated his forces to support his designs on the territory. As early as 15 April both forces reached the outskirts of Wil independently, but in the small hours of the 16th Bodmer received an order from Zurich to retreat. Nabholz had no choice but to do the same.

The significance of this fiasco was not lost on the other side. In the nearby Thurgau in particular, the Catholic element of the population was jubilant. It was partly to restore its credibility in the area that Zurich embarked on a full-scale occupation of this ‘joint dependency’; at the same time it could deal a blow against the Abbot of St Gall, who enjoyed feudal rights, including that of calling up men for military service, in many Thurgau parishes. The invading forces met with little resistance; on 25 April Frauenfeld, the chief town, opened its gates to them.

Elsewhere Zurich was impatiently awaiting the arrival of Bernese reinforcements. Because the Catholics had occupied the crossings of the Reuss, the Bernese were obliged to make a detour, but on 25 April 1,400 of them forced the passage of the Aare near the Stilli (literally: the place where the river flows quietly), a few miles south of its confluence with the Rhine, and joined 2,000 of their allies. One thing immediately became apparent: the men of Berne were a far more effective fighting force than the men of Zurich. By the end of April the Bernese had also occupied Klingnau (further down the Aare), Kaiserstuhl and Zurzach (both on the Rhine); all three belonged to the Prince-Bishop of Constance, under the sovereignty of the Swiss Confederation.

The beginning of May was taken up with attempts at peace-making in which the French ambassador played a prominent part. A Diet was held in Baden but Zurich and Berne declined to attend as long as the town was occupied by Catholic troops. They also had reason to seek a speedy military resolution of the conflict. Zurich now had 20,000 of its citizens under arms; its countryside was denuded of able-bodied men; agriculture and commerce were almost at a standstill, and the longer the war lasted the greater the cost would be. In the middle of May Zurich ordered the resumption of the siege of Wil, whose garrison had been steadily reinforced and now numbered approximately 4,000. Military operations, involving both Bernese and Zurich forces, commenced on 17 May, but it was only after an artillery bombardment that began on 21 May and resumed the following morning. Trinity Sunday, that the town was compelled to surrender.

The Abbot of St Gall was at Rorschach, anxiously awaiting the outcome of events; when news of the fall of Wil reached him, he took ship across Lake Constance en route for his Swabian territory of Neuravensburg, a few miles north of Lindau. The rest of his domains were now at the mercy of the invaders. Ignoring the pleas of the Protestant free city of St Gall, whose inhabitants viewed their approach with mixed feelings, Zurich and Berne took possession of the abbey on 25 May; their troops also reached Rorschach on the 26th, only to find the population had vanished.

In the days which followed, the victors ransacked the deserted abbey ‘from the wine cellars to the belfries’, not sparing its magnificent library, which explains why some of its books are still to be seen in the Zentralbibliothek in Zurich. The librarian of Zurich, Johann Jacob Scheuchzer – whose son Johann Caspar was for a time secretary and librarian to Sir Hans Sloane, and thus played a part in building up our own collections – was embarrassed by these new acquisitions, whilst from Vienna the great Leibnitz wrote to express his concern. Fortunately, some of the library’s greatest treasures from the early Middle Ages had already been removed to safety; furthermore, Zurich later gave back some of what it had taken. The two victorious city-states also took control of all the Abbot’s sources of income, justifying their action by the need to defray the expenses of war.

Meanwhile the Protestants had scored further military successes in another theatre of war. On 22 May, the day that Wil surrendered, the Bernese captured Mellingen in the Freiamt, and thus secured an important crossing of the Reuss. The garrison had already fled. The other key crossing-place was Bremgarten, but while marching towards it the Bernese forces were ambushed in a sunken lane on a densely wooded hillside. Fighting back from a very difficult position, they managed to win a decisive victory. This was the second most important engagement of the whole war; it took place on 26 May.

With the Freiamt securely in their hands, the victorious allies turned their attention to the town of Baden. Besides being the traditional meeting place of Federal Diets, this town was a bastion of Catholicism in northern Switzerland, and yet it lay a mere fifteen miles’ journey from Zurich down the valley of the Limmat. Ever since the Middle Ages, and more particularly since the Reformation, it had been politically and economically a thorn in the side of Zurich, which now saw its opportunity to settle old scores. The town was strongly fortified, and overlooked by the castle of Stein. It was defended by a garrison of 1,000 men and sixty cannon. However, they were unable to withstand the onslaught of the heavy Zurich artillery, which had been placed under the command of an expert officer. On 31 May, when the bombardment was at its height, the Imperial Resident, Count Trautmannsdorf, demanded a cessation of hostilities so that he could leave the town in safety by boat. This was granted; the bombardment was not resumed, because the town surrendered unconditionally the following morning. There was much gloating by the other side over the fall of Baden. Its citizens were humiliated by being made to swear the oath of allegiance to Zurich and Berne – see the ‘Huldigungs-formale, abgelegt in der Kirchen der Statt Baden, von gantzer Burgerschafft daselbsten’ in manuscript no. 30* -and the town’s fortifications, symbol of its pride, were demolished with indecent haste.

The victors had now achieved their war aims, and were willing to talk peace. It was the neutral cantons that initiated the process. At first the Protestants met in Aarburg and the Catholics in nearby Olten, but it was not until the venue was changed to Aarau that discussions began in earnest on 8 June. The delegates met in three separate rooms – Zurich and Berne in one, the Five Cantons in another, and the neutrals in a third. There were three issues: the Toggenburg, the joint dependencies, and war reparations. The first had been solved de facto for the time being, and the third could perhaps be thrown into the equation of a satisfactory deal on the joint dependencies.

Negotiations dragged on for several weeks. Eventually it was agreed that the Freiamt would be divided by an east-west line; everything north of it, and also the County of Baden, would be removed from the control of the Five Cantons, whose share in the administration and, more important, the revenues would henceforth be divided between Zurich and Berne. Glarus, which had stayed neutral, would continue to enjoy an eighth share of the cake. Meanwhile a formal settlement of the Toggenburg dispute would be deferred until the Abbot of St Gall was willing to enter into meaningful negotiations.

Peace was signed on 18 July by Zurich and Berne with Lucerne and Uri. The smaller Catholic cantons delayed their approval, but it was expected to be only a matter of time. The delegates of Lucerne and Uri had repeatedly sworn ‘before God’s countenance’ that their intentions were peaceful. Zurich and Berne were relying on them to bring the others into line, and were therefore totally unprepared for what happened next.

When the people of the Five Cantons learned the terms of the peace, their indignation knew no bounds. How could they accept such humiliation, when they had not been defeated on their own territory? They were persuaded that their enemies were aiming at nothing less than the extermination of Catholicism in Switzerland. Egged on by the Papal nuncio, their priests threatened them with hell-fire and damnation if they did not defend their faith; now, if ever, was the time to trust in the God of miracles.

On 20 July a Catholic force of 4,000 fell upon the Bernese detachment guarding the bridge over the Reuss at Sins, opposite the territory of Zug. (Contemporary sources always use the name Seysser Brucke, though the spelling varies.) Heavily outnumbered, the Bernese were forced to withdraw northwards to Muri. On 22 July the men of Schwyz made a dawn raid on the territory of Zurich. Close to the south side of the lake the borders of Zurich were defended by a series of earthworks, traces of which can still be seen. The invaders carried out acts of savagery against the population as they lay in their beds, and succeeded in penetrating behind the Zurich lines. Cannon-fire could be heard in the city, fifteen miles away. By late morning the situation was critical, and was only saved for Zurich by the timely arrival of cavalry. The episode became known as the Wadenswil raid or attack on the Bellenschanze.

Meanwhile, in far-away Flanders, the French victory at Denain on 24 July saved Louis XIV from disaster, and changed the course of European history in a way that could only work to the disadvantage of the Swiss Protestants. However, the Swiss conflict reached its climax on 25 July, when the combined forces of the Five Cantons clashed with ± e Bernese close to Villmergen, the very place where the previous civil war had ended in a Catholic victory. On this occasion, after a bitterly contested day-long battle whose outcome was in doubt almost to the end, the Bernese triumphed. Three thousand of their enemies, almost a third of the total, lay dead on the field or drowned in the nearby river, and two centuries of Catholic hegemony were at an end.

Only now did Zurich dare to begin further offensive operations; on 26 July its forces invaded the territory of Zug, which signed an armistice at Blickenstorf on 28 July. Preparations were also made for the invasion of Schwyz; even the Zurich navy lent a hand by landing on the islands of Ufenau and Lutzelau; but on i August proud Schwyz, hitherto the most fanatical of the Catholic cantons, signed an armistice.

Since throwing off the Abbot’s yoke, the Toggenburgers had begun to dream of their own sovereign state, united with the neighbouring Uznach, Gaster and other territories in a Republic of Eastern Switzerland. Such a concept was nearly a hundred years ahead of its time, and received scant sympathy from the authorities in Zurich. None the less the County of Uznach, a joint dependency of Schwyz and Glarus, was invaded on 30 July in a combined operation: Zurich forces approached from the north-west, and the Toggenburgers, accompanied by Nabholz, from the north-east. An act of capitulation was signed the same day. The following day, 31 July, it was the turn of Gaster to surrender and receive a Toggenburg garrison. The Bailiwick of Gaster, with Weesen, extended up to the Lake of Walenstadt, and was likewise ruled by Schwyz and Glarus.

On the north side of Lake Zurich, towards its upper end, lay the ancient town of Rapperswil, strongly fortified and joined to the opposite shore by a bridge nearly a mile in length. The town was a joint dependency of four cantons, three of them Catholic. Often at loggerheads with Zurich in the past, it had successfully withstood a siege during the civil war of 1656. On this occasion, however, it surrendered without a shot being fired Since the Battle of Villmergen the Bernese had also entered the territory of the Five Cantons, invading Unterwalden from the south over the Brtinig Pass and Lucerne from the west and north. In the latter they occupied the monastery of Sankt Urban where they took sixty prisoners; the monks had already fled, taking all their treasures with them; doubtless these treasures included the magnificent silver reliquary of which some surviving fragments – panels by Urs Graf. By 31 July the main Bernese army was at Schwarzenbach on Lucerne soil.

The capitulation of Rapperswil on 1 August marked the complete end of hostilities. A new peace  was signed in Aarau on 9 and II August; it included the provisions of the old, but went further in favour of Zurich and Berne. The area of the Freiamt to be placed under their jurisdiction was extended; Rapperswil, together with its bridge and the strategic positions on the opposite bank, was to be subject to them; and Berne was to be admitted to the administration of further joint dependencies (principally the Thurgau and Rheintal). The Toggenburg dispute, for which ostensibly the whole war had been fought, was still not settled, because St Gall was unwilling to seek a compromise.

Further reading: Bruce Gordon, John Stevenson, Mark Greengrass, eds., The Swiss Reformation (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003); Thomas M. Lindsay, History of the Reformation: Reformation in Switzerland, France, the Netherlands, Scotland and England (Belle Fourche, S. D.: Kessinger, 2003).


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