On November 15, 1315, an Austrian army of at least a few thousand men marched along the shores of Lake Ägeri in central Switzerland. It was here that they were ambushed by over a thousand Swiss farmers.
Known as the Battle of Morgarten, the events of this day have been made into legend, and is considered one of the most important moments in the formation of the nation of Switzerland. For military historians, it also for noteworthy for being a fight where simple footsoldiers defeated an army of knights, the beginning of an era where cavalry would no longer dominate the medieval battlefield.
The Battle of Morgarten, which today is marking its 700th anniversary, is also an event we know little about. As one historian notes, “Few details are known about the course of the battle. Primary sources are almost nonexistent; the chronicles offer mostly contradictory reports. Neither the exact location of the battle nor the number of combatants on either side is known. “
The battle took place between Leopold I, Duke of Austria, and the men of the Old Swiss Confederacy – an alliance of the cantons of Schwyz, Uri and Unterwalden. It seems that the conflict was triggered by a border dispute between the Benedictine monastery of Einsiedeln and the canton of Schwyz. The monastery was raided the previous year, and had called upon the Duke to protect it.
In the words of the 14th century chronicler John of Winterthur, the Austrian Duke summoned his forces, and “the men of this army came together with one purpose, to utterly subdue and humiliate those peasants who were surrounded with mountains as with walls.” Meanwhile, according to another chronicler, the jester of the Duke of Austria, on being asked what he thought of the invasion plan, replied, “You have all taken counsel how best to get into the country, but have given no explanation of how you are going to get out again!”
In her dissertation, The Swiss Way of War, Katherine Becker offers a detailed account of the events of the battle. She explains that people of Schwyz, led by Werner Stauffacher, and had prepared their defences and blocked off most of the routes into their territory so that the Austrian forces would need to come through the narrow pass of Morgarten.
On November 15th, the Duke and his forces left the city of Zug intending to attack the canton of Schwyz. One legend about the battle states that an Austrian knight, believing that his side was so superior to the Swiss peasants, actually shot an arrow to the enemy camp carrying a message saying that they would be marching through Morgarten and that the peasants should just flee.
Once scouts had reported that the Austrians were coming Werner Stauffacher ordered most of his soldiers to take cover along a wooded ridge and wait for the Duke to come along the narrow road by Lake Ägeri, where they soon found it blocked by a wall. Becker writes:
The entire vanguard was forced to halt, yet the center and rear of the army continued to move forward oblivious to the problem ahead. The result was that the entire Austrian army became locked in a bottleneck. Furious, that his march was halted, the Duke ordered the wall stormed—probably by dismounted knights, since his infantry were in the rear of the army. Just as the knights began climbing over the roadblock, a shower of boulders and tree-trunks came rolling down the slope on the knights’ right flank. The dismounted knights ran for their lives, but as Winterthur tells us they were caught like “fish in a net and were slaughtered without any resistance.” Eliminating the vanguard on the narrowest part of the pass, the attack of the forest cantons had cut down most of the aristocrats. The horses of those behind were thrown into confusion as their riders, knowing that they could not charge uphill, attempted to turn their mounts. The entire mass of knights was now pinned between two sheets of rock on the sides, and their own packed forces and a lake below them. They were thrown into panic. Then, suddenly, movement was spotted from above: a huge body of halberdiers in dense column began rolling out from the woods and down from the ridge. Swiss pelters went before them unleashing avalanches of rocks, while the powerful Swiss halberd column rammed into the Austrian flank slashing and thrusting. The moment is captured by the illustrator of Bendict Tschlachtlan’s 1493 chronicle Die Schlacht am Morgarten.
John of Winterthur describes the halberd as a very effective weapon: “Also the Swiss have in their hands death weapons, which have been called in popular speech ‘Helnbarten,’ and are very frightful. These slice like a razor and slash into pieces such strongly armed opponents.” With it they were able to launch a devastating attack against the Austrians.
John of Winterthur offers this vivid picture:
It was not a battle, but a mere butchery of Duke Leopold’s men; for the mountainfolk slew them like sheep in the shambles; no quarter was given, they cut down all without distinction. So great was the fierceness of the Confederates that scores of the Austrian foot-soldiery, when they saw the bravest knights falling helplessly, threw themselves in panic into the lake, preferring to drown rather than to be hewn about by the dreadful weapons of their enemies.
Estimates for the number of dead among the Austrians go as high as 1500 dead, and the rest were forced to flee. John of Winterthur, who was a schoolboy at the time, remembers how that very night he saw the retreating Duke, stating that “he seemed to be half-dead from extreme sorrow.”
The immediate effect of the battle was to rally the other Swiss cantons to the side of the confederacy. Becker explains that:
… politically speaking, Morgarten was a water-shed moment. Three little democratically governed peasant communities—Schwyz, Uri and Unterwalden—in the heart of Switzerland’s central valleys, had demanded independence from foreign governors, establishing it by defeating their imperial army. These “inner” or Forest Cantons laid the foundation for the Confederate militia system when they signed the Bundesbrief of 1291, and renewed it in 1314, swearing oaths of loyalty for mutual protection against any aggressor. With this agreement they created the original Confederacy. In 1315 the “Oath Brothers” were put to the test and their united effort succeeded against a powerful enemy—an Austrian Habsburg army. Their success won the confidence of other Swiss communities, several of which had fought against them at Morgarten. Among these new members to the alliance were the “outer” cantons of Zürich, Zug, Glarus, Luzern, Zürich, Fribourg, Graubünden, Bern, and others, which either joined or, in the case of Graubünden, allied with the Confederates after Morgarten.
Despite the importance of the battle to Swiss history, we know little else about it. Earlier this year archaeologists found 14th century artefacts in the Morgarten area, which might be from the battle. They include two knives, a knife scabbard, two arrows from a crossbow or bow, and a dozen coins that date from the the year 1275 to the early 14th century – click here to read more. Meanwhile, in an article just published in The Holocene, researchers examined the history of the water level of Lake Ägeri and found that it had receded between 2 and 3 metres since the time of the Battle of Morgaten. However, this has not helped them to identify the site of the battle, as they could not find a location which would be by the lake and also close enough to steep slopes.
Katherine A. Becker, The Swiss way of war: A study on the transmission and continuity of classical and military ideas and practice in medieval Europe (PhD Dissertation, Ohio State University, 2009)
Hans Delbruck, History of the Art of War, Volume 3: Medieval Warfare (Lincoln, 1982)
Kelly DeVries, Infantry Warfare in the Early Fourteenth Century: Discipline, Tactics, and Technology (Boydell, 1996)
Markus Egli et al., “Multi-methodological reconstruction of the lake level at Morgarten in the context of the history of the Swiss Confederation,” The Holocene – published online July 1, 2015
William Denison, McCrackan, The rise of the Swiss republic: a history (Boston, 1892)