The Knights Templar in Switzerland

According to Swiss history writing, the foundations for modern Switzerland date to 1291. The date being conveniently close to the dissolution of the Order of the Knights Templar many see a connection between the two in later developments. Did the Knights Templar bring their legendary treasure to Switzerland and made it as rich as it is?


Official Swiss history dates the roots of modern Switzerland to 1291. The official version cites the ‘Bundesbrief’ (Federal Charter) of that year together with the oath of mutual assistance between the counties of Schwyz, Uri, and Unterwalden as the starting point of common interests with the logical end of an independent country. This view is not only flawed but downright Victorian.


In the late 19th century, Switzerland was surrounded by countries formed on national common roots where the population in the majority shared one common language. Germany, France, and Italy claimed (wrongly) to be impersonations of their nations of common interests, common regional origins, and national identity.


In 1890, the city of Bern was preparing the celebrations for the 700 years jubilee of its founding in 1191 and decided to add on (as an afterthought) the jubilee of the founding of Switzerland in 1291. A historical row was the consequence, and as in all historical rows politics won the day over historic accuracy. Out of this, Switzerland was to get the common history it had previously lacked.


The ‘Bundesbrief’ had lain moldering in an archive in Schwyz for centuries and had been widely ignored by everybody including historians. The document is basically a list of rights and duties of the population of the three signatory cantons in their relations with each other. It makes no claim to independence of the Holy Roman Empire. It is dated at the ‘beginning of August 1291’. It was in no way a unique document and most probably just a reiteration and elucidation of earlier documents now lost. Only two points out of many deal with armed conflict, all the rest concern civil matters.


Hans Schriber (translates to John the Scribe or Writer) collected the documents and legends relevant to the Swiss Confederation in 1470. He related the story of the oath of mutual armed assistance of the three cantons and dated it to 1307. The date comfortably coincides with Phillip IV of France move against the Knights Templar.


In 1891, the date of the ‘Bundesbrief’ and the oath taking together with the legend of Wilhelm Tell were mangled into a single coherent ‘historical date’ which was subsequently accepted as the history of the origin of Switzerland. In fact, the ‘Bundesbrief’ has meanwhile been carbon-dated to the end of the 13th century. The story told by Hans Schriber might well be true and correctly dated, as the persons mentioned are historically proven to have existed at the time mentioned and no proofs have been found to change Hans Schriber’s dating. Wilhelm Tell’s legend took shape during the 15th century and contained many elements from the real life of Stauffacher, one of the oath takers.


Where would the Knights Templar fit into this set-up? To answer this question, the first look should be at what we have in information. The three cantons in the confederation were poor with a poor population. The main income was farming in a region that mainly consisted of mountains. In 1230, the Devil’s Bridge was built opening a merchant’s pass into Italy. It provided a small income as it was not a primary route. It was enough though to lift the three cantons from dirt poor to poor. The counties also were constantly overpopulated.


In 1307, King Phillip tried to have all Knights Templar in France arrested. He forced Pope Clement VII to disband the order in 1312 and had the last of his prisoners murdered in 1314.


In 1315, several hundred men from the three Swiss cantons faced the army of Duke Leopold of Habsburg made up of 2,000 knights and 9,000 foot soldiers. Leopold had set out on a punitive excursion on the behest of his brother, Duke Frederic of Austria and Styria. Together with his knights, he expected an easy little ride into Schwyz, some burning down of villages and farms, and then an easy ride back, as it was unthinkable that anybody but a knight would do battle against a knight. And the three cantons boasted no knighted local nobility.


Leopold was unaware of the fact that the Swiss had changed the rules. If the locals knew that as lowly farmers they were not allowed to touch the high and mighty knights, they didn't care. Even worse, they had devised a new weapon that indicated their full intent to point out the change of rules: the halberd. Mounted on a long pole, the halberd is designed to bring down horses, pierce through visors, hack, slash, cut, and generally work as a tin opener on knights’ armor; a fitting weapon for the nation that would eventually invent the Swiss Army Knife. In a further change of rules, the Swiss didn't take prisoners. Leopold lost more than 2,000 men that day, most of them knights, while the Swiss claim to have lost 12 men.


The main question is: Where did the Swiss get their halberd from? Or rather, where did farmers get the idea for the halberd from? It is this puzzle which makes some people believe that the Knights Templar might have had a hand in it.


It is highly unlikely that a Knight Templar or even several of them could have entered the cantons unnoticed without leaving a trace even in local legend. It is even more unlikely that a knight would have approved of the change in rules. The battle of Morgarten became a turning point in military history. Before, knights had engaged in battle contests, leaving the dying mostly to the lowly footmen, while the Swiss had entered that fray with the sole intent of winning it at all cost. This way of thinking could have been nothing but anathema to any knight.


But what historians haven’t looked into in detail is the economic fallout of King Phillip’s apprehension of the Knights Templar. There were whole industries dependent on the knights, not the least of them the smiths providing the armor to the knights. Highly skilled individuals were made welcome anywhere, and they could have arrived in cantons without making much of a stir. And a smith who knows how to build armor would certainly know how to take it apart.


There were several high commands or station posts of knightly orders located near the three counties of Schwyz, Uri, and Unterwalden, none of them of the Knights Templar. These posts were attractive employers for the poor population of a rural community. They would go there and learn useful trades, and becoming a smith was a very useful trade. Even without the influx of outside knowledge, the makings of an armor would have been known to them when returning home.


While I do not believe in the Knights Templar settling in the three counties of the Swiss Confederation, I do think it is time that historians had a closer look at the economic implications stemming from the dissolution of the order which went much farther than the knights proper. There might be a whole new interpretation of European historical events slumbering there.