Sunday, June 22, 2008

Morat: Triumph of Free Will

“The idea of America endures. Our destiny remains our choice.  And tonight, more than two centuries later, it’s because of our people that our future is hopeful, our journey goes forward, and the state of our union is strong.”
President Barack H. Obama in his State of Union Address, Jan. 25, 2011 (added on the following day).

Today, Jun. 22, in 1476, the Swiss Confederation won a decisive battle against Charles II, Duke of Burgundy, known as the Bold. This account of the event is mainly based on the Freiburger Geschichtsblaetter, vol. 60 (1976). A good summary is available on the web here. A formidable depiction of the battle can be found here. Charles II was a highly educated feudal lord with a penchant for war as a tool to fulfill his territorial ambitions. This renaissance ruler oversaw a wide swath of land across Western Europe from the shores of the North Sea to the shores of the Mediterranean. The wealthy Swiss cities on the Eastern borders of his realm infringed upon his zone of influence and also promised a good additional source of income for his treasury. From adolescence, the Duke was unrelenting in his effort to keep the wealthy cities of the low lands on the North Sea under his control. A campaign to subdue wealthy Swiss cities was an eastward extension of this policy.

In January 1476, Charles marched an army of about 28,000 professional soldiers equipped with the most advanced artillery of his time toward Western Switzerland. The region around Lake Geneva was under the rule of the Count of Savoy who was allied with the Duke. On February 8, the troupes crossed the Jura mountains into Switzerland and soon attacked the town of Yverdon on the banks of Lake Neuchâtel. The town had been occupied by the Swiss Confederation in the preceding year. Now the occupiers abandoned their position, burning down everything behind them. They withdrew to the fortress at nearby Grandson with the Duke's men in hot pursuit. The Duke ordered a siege. On February 21, the Confederates surrendered on promise of free conduct. As the men filed across the drawbridge disarmed, they were taken to a mighty tree nearby and hanged one next to the other from its branches. The fortress has survived intact and houses the municipal administration today. The tree also survived. It is huge with numerous massive, horizontal branches. There is easily space for a score of bodies on each. Contemporary depictions of the despicable act show rows of corpses strung up like chicken on a line. Reportedly, a total of 412 men were strung up in the tree within 4 hours.

In retaliation, the Confederates surprised the Duke's army in the vicinity of Grandson on February 27 and captured a good part of the artillery. Most importantly, they happened upon the Duke's treasure of legendary riches. Its bounty was so exorbitant that the looters fought over their shares for a number of years. A peace treaty was needed to put the quarrels aside for once and all.

The gruesome end of the Confederates at Grandson sent a clear message to the towns in the region. Commonly, the burghers avoided armed conflict. Negotiating an agreement with the aggressors, even if it was costly, was often less disastrous than battle. Moreover, the burghers in West Switzerland did not care whether they paid taxes to some feudal lord or the city of Berne which dominated the region. Moreover, the francophonic locals felt more comfortable with the French culture of the Duke than with the Teutonic culture of the Swiss Confederates. Many small towns would have immediately switched sides in the face of the ducal forces, had the conditions of surrender seemed decent and fair. But, the horrible events at Grandson proved to the burghers that they could not expect benevolence from the Duke.

The second Burgundian thrust into Confederate territory started in June with a regrouped army of 21,000 men from fields above the city of Lausanne. On the march to the city of Berne, the army reached the town of Morat on the banks of the lake with the same name. The Burgundians began to lay siege on June 9.

The Bernese government had preempted a negotiated surrender of the town by sending the experienced commander Adrian of Bubenberg to oversee the local garrison. He ascertained that the burghers resolve did not falter in the bombardment of the Burgundian artillery. They had to hold out until the very end which was close on June 22. The Duke's heavy artillery had been persistently pounding the town's defenses. The wall and a tower had already crumpled in on the northern side three days earlier, but the defenders had repulsed the enemy's advance through the breach after eight hours of fighting. Now, it was only a question of time, until other breaches were wide enough for a final assault.

Bubenberg had written desperate pleas for help to Berne. The members of the Swiss Confederation were gathering an army to confront the Burgundians, with the Bernese constantly reminding the others of the oaths of mutual support they had sworn. This was no easy feat. The Swiss Confederation was not directed by a ruler, but was led by consensus. Plenty rivalry existed between regions and towns. Heated debates were raging whether it was wise or profitable enough to come to the rescue of the Bernese. Some compatriots felt it best to stay out of a conflict that did not affect them directly. In Zurich, the final decision to join the cause fell only days before the battle. Once it was made, 4,000 soldiers force-marched the 70 miles from Zurich to Morat in three days. Six-hundred did not arrive. During the night of June 22, the Zurichois united with the 25,000 Confederates and allies from Alsace and Lorraine that were already assembled behind a forest about 3 miles from the Duke's positions. Now, the Swiss outnumbered the Burgundians.

The Confederates had found in the Southern German Herter of Hertenegg an expert military leader for their endeavor. With the help of the Swiss captains, he managed to expediently whip the diverse lot into an attack formation that was classic in his time. The men were divided into a 5,000-strong avantguard, a 10,000-strong bulk and, arguably, a rear guard made of the rest of the troupes. The three battle groups were to enter the battle field in close succession. The avant guard was supported by 1,100 cavalry deployed on their left. Avantguard and bulk were to advance tightly packed in arrow formation with lancers wearing body armor on the flanks protecting the less armored helbard bearers in the middle from enemy projectiles.

Jockeying for the best positions and the most valiant jobs lasted into the morning. Promotions were handed out. The arguing went on. But the Swiss could not wait any longer. The militia men did not have any provisions. Hertenegg and 500 men rode to the forest's edge to view the enemy positions. Meanwhile, deployment for battle continued in the forest, though heavy rain fell.

The Duke's soldiers had been expecting the Swiss for days. They knew the location where they would emerge from the forest. The Duke's planners had set up a palisade fence and other fortifications to corral the Swiss militia men into a trap in the shape of an L with the short stroke, that is the line of artillery, pointing upwards and the long stroke, that is the line of archers, pointing sideways. On arrival the Swiss would be annihilated in a hail of arrows from the front and cannon fire from the right side. The enemy's left side opposite the artillery was left open for the charge of 2,100 cavalry, waiting behind the lines ready to mop up.

The Burgundians had been lying in their battle positions for several hours on this day and for hours on end on the days before. As on the other days, the enemy did not seem to attack. The weather was abysmal and lunchtime approached. The officers decided to stand most troupes down. At this very moment, the rain stopped and sun broke through the clouds. The Swiss avantguard advanced. The bulk of the force followed on their heals. The men poured against the Burgundian fortifications and were welcomed by arrows and artillery. Though only skeleton crews were at hand, the Burgundian army unleashed dense clouds of projectiles. Despite, the fiercely determined Swiss avant guard managed to breach and circumvent the fortifications within an hour. The cannon fell silent. The bulk of the Swiss force spilled like an avalanche through the breaches toward the Burgundian camps ringing the town. The Burgundians did not have a chance to ready themselves. Disarray and mayhem ensued. The Duke's officers tried to organize a counter offensive. The line faltered. The men took flight. A complete route unfolded. The Swiss succeeded in surrounding the fleeing troupes on three sides. The fourth side was taken by the lake. Countless Burgundian soldiers drowned or were drowned in a desperate attempt to flee across the water. It is said that a third of the Duke's army perished. The Duke and his immediate household escaped narrowly.

Louis Braun, Schlacht bei Murten, 1893
Lore has it that at the day's end, the Confederate contingent from the city of Fribourg sent a messenger home with a branch from a linden tree to announce the victory. The distance is about 11 miles. There are two steep grades on the way and a final 0.7-mile ascend through Fribourg toward downtown. The branch of the tree was supposedly planted in front of City Hall in memory of the great battle. A massive linden actually stood there until about 30 years ago. Sadly, it succombed to pollution. But, for 75 years the messenger's feat has been commemorated by a run held on the first Sunday in October.

Tens of thousands of people from all over the world attend. Olympic medalists cover the distance in a bit more than 40 minutes. Morat looks very much the same today as it did at the time of the battle. Ramparts and towers survived.

Charles the Bold was a military man to the hilt whose confidence in battle was strengthened by several successes at young age. He was an involved leader and said to be popular with the soldiers. At the height of his Swiss campaign, he slept in battle dress until his limbs swell and he could not walk. He involved himself deeply and directly even in small affairs to the point that his commanding officers loathed his interference. On the downside, his inability to accept advice and his mistrust of those who were not members of his immediate household may have impeded effective leadership.

Yet, the strategy Charles used at Morat was consistent with the military thinking of his time. History had proved that victory belonged to those who picked the location of the fight and could prepare the battle field to their advantage. This commonly outweighed the disadvantage of having to wait for the enemy. The Duke commanded the best weapons of his time. He had introduced innovative battle formations combining different types of soldiers into fighting units in which they could complement each other. His standing army consisted of experienced professionals and practiced regularly. After the battle, the foreign military observers present and the Duke himself blamed the debacle on ill timing. Had everybody been on their battle stations, the Swiss would have perished for certain.

However, it can be argued that the Burgundian soldiers, most of whom were contracted, were no match against the independently-minded militia. The Swiss were bound only by their determination to win. Otherwise they were free to take any decisions they saw fit in the field.

The Duke's greatest flaw may have been his own inflexibility in judging the Swiss. This renaissance man fatefully stood on the threshold between the old and the new. He embodied the contradictions of a modern minded leader who loved technical innovation, but could not grasp the novelty in his enemy's mindset. The Swiss militia may have used crude, antiquated strategies on the battle field. Yet, they were motivated by a consensus solidly forged by communal deliberation. Common people making own decisions of this magnitude had no place in the feudal system. Charles II was a proponent of the God-given order in which he and his kind were entitled to all worldly decisions. Granting commoners too much freedom would bring only chaos. The Duke's subjects were rewarded as long as they gladly played the roles he assigned them in fulfillment of God's will. He saw it as his duty to severely punish those who rebelled against this order. Change was not acceptable.

At the time, the victory of the Swiss Confederates sent a profound signal across Europe. Like any other victory of commoners against feudal lords, this one proved that anyone could prevail, if they were free to use their abilities to the fullest. Success against the odds was possible, when the like-minded exercised solidarity and broadly shouldered the burden of action. The example of the Swiss Confederates demonstrated that anyone with resolve, unrestrained by feudal bondage and station, could take destiny in their own hand, take advantage of their abilities and use them to improve their circumstance of life. The events at Morat were at the beginning of a movement that would eventually lead to the Declaration of Independence and the Storming of the Bastille 300 years later. The persistent determination of the common people to free themselves from the feudal yoke precipitated the standard of living and the freedoms we enjoy today.

  • In his post on today entitled "Draft of Declaration of Independence named subjects, not citizens", Rob Beschizza describes in detail how Library of Congress researchers using hyperspectral imaging recently discovered an important change in Thomas Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence. He first wrote "subjects", smudged out the wet ink, and replaced the word with "citizens". This small, willful change constitutes such an extraordinary example for the sea change in zeitgeist in Jefferson's time, reflecting the end of feudalism and the beginnings of modern society. It is yet another prove that free will exists (07/03/10).


  1. The Wikipedia link writes it was Charles I not Charles II. Which was it?

  2. The German wikipedia names him Charles 1er as well. Interestingly, the French wikipedia does not note a suffix, and most sources refer to him only as "le Téméraire" aka "the Bold". This surname is a posthumous attribute. In his lifetime, he was commonly known as "le Hardi". Charles was a member of the Valois dynasty. The founder of this dynasty, his great-great-great-greatgrandfather, was Charles de Valois (1270 -1375). In the line of succession, Charles the Bold was the second with this name,