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A History of Germany by Bayard Taylor

000 Austrian and Suabian knights


[Sidenote:

1386. THE BATTLE OF SEMPACH.]

There could be no more remarkable contrast than between the weakness, selfishness and despotic tendencies of the German Emperors and Electors during the fourteenth century, and the strong and orderly development of the Hanseatic League and the German Order in the North, or of the handful of free Swiss in the South.

King Wenzel (Wenczeslas in Bohemian) was only seventeen years old when his father died, but he had been well educated and already possessed some experience in governing. In fact, Karl IV.'s anxiety to secure the succession to the throne in his own family led him to force Wenzel's mind to a premature activity, and thus ruined him for life. He had enjoyed no real childhood and youth, and he soon became hard, cynical, wilful, without morality and even without ambition. In the beginning of his reign, nevertheless, he made an earnest attempt to heal the divisions of the Roman Church, and to establish peace between Count Eberhard the Whiner and the United Cities of Suabia.

In the latter quarrel, Leopold of Austria also took part. He had been appointed Governor of several of the free cities by Wenzel, and he seized the occasion to attempt to restore the authority of the Hapsburgs over the Swiss Cantons. The latter now numbered eight, the three original cantons having been joined by Lucerne, Zurich, Glarus, Zug and Berne. They had been invited

to make common cause with the Suabian cities, more than fifty of which were united in the struggle to maintain their rights; but the Swiss, although in sympathy with the cities, declined to march beyond their own territory. Leopold decided to subjugate each, separately. In 1386, with an army of 4,000 Austrian and Suabian knights, he invaded the Cantons. The Swiss collected 1,300 farmers, fishers and herdsmen, armed with halberds and battle-axes, and met Leopold at Sempach, on the 9th of July.

The 4,000 knights dismounted, and advanced in close ranks, presenting a wall of steel, defended by rows of levelled spears, to the Swiss in their leathern jackets. It seemed impossible to break their solid front, or even to reach them with the Swiss weapons. Then Arnold of Winkelried stepped forth and said to his countrymen: "Dear brothers, I will open a road for you: take care of my wife and children!" He gathered together as many spears as he could grasp with both arms, and threw himself forward upon them: the Swiss sprang into the gap, and the knights began to fall on all sides from their tremendous blows. Many were smothered in the press, trampled under foot in their heavy armor: Duke Leopold and nearly 700 of his followers perished, and the rest were scattered in all directions. It was one of the most astonishing victories in history. Two years afterwards the Swiss were again splendidly victorious at Naefels, and from that time they were an independent nation.

[Sidenote: 1389.]

The Suabian cities were so encouraged by these defeats of the party of the nobles, that in 1388 they united in a common war against the Duke of Bavaria, Count Eberhard of Wuertemberg and the Count Palatine Rupert. After a short but very fierce and wasting struggle, they were defeated at Doeffingen and Worms, deprived of the privileges for which they had fought, and compelled to accept a truce of six years. In 1389, a Diet was held, which prohibited them from forming any further union, and thus completely re-established the power of the reigning princes. Wenzel endeavored to enforce an internal peace throughout the whole Empire, but could not succeed: what was law for the cities was not allowed to be equally law for the princes. It seems probable, from many features of the struggle, that the former designed imitating the Swiss cantons, and founding a Suabian republic, if they had been successful; but the entire governing class of Germany, from the Emperor down to the knightly highwayman, was against them, and they must have been crushed in any case, sooner or later.


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