The Swiss have a reputation of avoiding war with their neighbors, and sectarian strife among themselves. That, of course, was not always the case. During the pre-Reformation period, the Swiss routinely hired themselves out as mercenaries to neighboring states. It is not surprising, therefore, that when religious divisions arose, bloodshed would soon follow. In this frank assessment of the unwise actions of the Protestant cantons, William Boekestein tells the story of Ulrich Zwingli, and how the Protestant defeat led, ironically, to a peace that has lasted nearly five centuries.
This article is adapted from William Boekestein’s forthcoming biography on Ulrich Zwingli which is scheduled to appear in EP Books’ Bitesize Biographies series.
By their cruel and ill-advised embargo ag-ainst the catholic Swiss states, Zurich and the Swiss Protestants had be-come their own worst enemies. Their folly would result in a tragic civil war, the death of the “third man of the Reformation,” and in the temporary crippling of the Swiss evangelical movement.
Beginning in 1516 with the budding reformatory preaching of Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), tensions had been increasing between those Swiss states which had clung to the old Catholic faith and those who had embraced evangelical piety. In 1529, the two sides had narrowly escaped war. But the peace that followed was uneasy. Since May 15, 1531, a loose Protestant league of states had imposed severe trade restrictions on the Forest Cantons—their catholic counterparts. Forced by the loss of their livelihoods, the prospect of starvation, love for their faith, and recent wavering of some Protestant states, the hardy men of the Forest Cantons rallied for war. Both sides knew the stakes were high. Either the Swiss reformation would continue to gain momentum and, perhaps, swell throughout the confederacy, or it would be checked by means of force.
As the pace toward conflict quickened, additional troops, in the pope’s pay, marched toward Switzerland and the Forest Cantons secured all the passes through which Zurich allies would have to march to offer support. Having prepared for war, the catholic states then did…nothing. The Zurich council, deceived by the lack of any discernable sign of imminent war, retracted its orders to gather the militia amid pleas for inaction from other reformed cities. Zurich, so ready to engage the enemy two years earlier, was now paralyzed. As certain signs began to suggest, this was a deadly mistake.
On October 4, a young boy from the catholic canton of Zug, found his way across the border into Protestant Kappel. He carried with him two loaves of bread. Perhaps unknown to himself, his father had agreed to send the sign of two loaves if an army was approaching. Kappel immediately dispatched a warning to Zurich. The warning was ignored. Four days later an ambassador from the Forest Cantons arrived in Zurich with a final offer of peace. The offer was refused. On October 9, 1531 the five catholic states declared war against Zurich. Around this time another messenger arrived with reports of military maneuvers in nearby Lucerne. The message was met with unwarranted inactivity. The Zurich council summoned commander in chief Hans Rudolf Lavater (1492– 1557). Instead of rallying an army, Lavater sent a single spy to Zug.
As Lavater’s informant discovered, an angry and fierce catholic army, 8,000 strong, had descended on the grounds of Kappel—the same place where peace prevailed in the summer of 1529. That evening, an abbot from a neighboring monastery heard of the advance and sent news to Zurich. The message from the abbot took an entire day to arrive in Zurich, a mere eleven miles to the North. The Zurich council met, but concluded that the reports contained mere rumors of war. The councilmen satisfied each other by sending two decorated soldiers to Kappel before adjourning the meeting and retiring to sleep. The sleep was short. With new reports of invasion arriving through the night, the council was forced to assemble in the pre-dawn hours the next day. An old and wise Zuricher urged the council to immediately send an army to Zug while simultaneously gathering reinforcements to join them post-haste. Again the council hesitated.
At seven A.M., October 10, the council was interrupted by the passionate plea of a reformed minister who had come from Kappel. “The enemy is approaching. Will our lords of Zurich…wish to give us up to slaughter?” The reports of calamity soon began to resemble those which brought heartache to Job. It was nearly the case that while one reporter was speaking, another bearer of bad news arrived. The two soldiers, sent earlier by the council, dispatched a messenger back to Zurich: “The Five Cantons are advancing. War is upon us!” At long last, as a man who flees his burning house only when it is nearly consumed, the council began to act, sending to Kappel less than 1,000 men followed by a half-dozen heavy guns. But even this effort was compromised as the commander of the unit had a brother in the opposing army. The commander naturally inclined toward caution.
In a panic, commander Lavater hastily summoned a council of war. Present were a few senior advisors, military captains, and Zurich’s famous pastor who was increasingly called upon as an advisor in matters of state. Lavater urged that the best hope of saving the city was to bypass the approval of the council, sound the alarm bell, and raise a second army. His advisors were more conservative. “We must take this suggestion to the councils,” they insisted. By the time the smaller, and then the full councils had convened, and after much debating, the alarm bell pealed through the city and was repeated from every tower in the canton. By this time night was fast approaching. A call to arms was quickly issued to Zurich’s more distant allies. But it was too late.
The next morning only 700 men—disorganized and exhausted from travel and sleeplessness—gathered to march to Kappel. “Whenever I think of the undisciplined affair,” wrote Zwingli’s close friend and colleague Oswald Myconius, “I am pierced through as by swords.” Among the soldiers was the celebrated pastor who had earlier written to the bishop of Constance, “It will be false and impious and sacrilegious for priests to engage in warfare…” James Goode describes the last time Zwingli and his wife Anna saw each other. The meeting took place in the square between the parsonage and the church amid a small company of soldiers preparing to deploy.
His wife came forth to bid him good-bye. Unable to repress her feelings she burst into tears, her children joining with her in weeping, clinging in the meanwhile to their father’s garments so as to detain him, if possible, from danger. ‘The hour is come,’ he says to her, ‘that separates us. Let it be so. The Lord wills.’ He then gave her a parting embrace…pressed his children to his heart and tore himself away. As he rode with the soldiers around the corner of the street, he looked back and she waved him a last good-bye.1
Perhaps Zwingli recalled a prayer he had penned more than a decade earlier. “Will’st Thou however that death take me in the midst of my days, so let it be! Do what Thou wilt; me nothing lacks. Thy vessel am I; To make or break altogether.”
Others had already departed without taking the oath, and without proper orders. In all the confusion, they marched well out of the way of the mounting battle. Under ideal circumstances Zurich could have assembled an army of at least 15,000 but in the wake following the earlier Kappell treaty, the Zurich army was greatly reduced in numbers and readiness.
The next morning, 3,500 Zurichers faced nearly twice as many opponents. The forces of the Five Cantons began to march toward the small, under-armed, ill-prepared Zurich army which had only recently positioned itself around some old ruins after a five hour march. At noon the Zurichers read the enemy’s declaration of war. An hour later, the first balls flew from the barrels of the Five Cantons’ guns. As the light exchange of fire began to decline around four o’clock, Zurich reinforcements arrived and both sides began to prepare camp for the evening. Had they, indeed, halted the fight, the outcome might have been different. But one energetic catholic soldier, Jon Jauch, perceived the folly of not advancing against the far smaller army. Without orders, Jauch charged “all true Confederates” to follow him in a surprise attack. The confederates snuck among the trees, just a stone’s throw from their opponents, focused their rifles, and began the slaughter. The attack decided the battle. The full army of the Forest Cantons, seeing that the battle was pitched, commenced the lop-sided fight in earnest. The Zurich army scattered.
The battle of October 11, 1531, lasted only a few hours; the real fighting took less than one. Over 500 of the best men of Zurich, including twenty-six councilmen, were cut down in battle. Their opponents lost around 100 men. But it was the Zurich ministers who bore the brunt of the attack. Twenty-five pastors were cut down as heretics by their catholic enemies. Among the dying left on the battlefield lay the forty-seven year old theologian, minister of Zurich, and reformer of Switzerland. Not far away from Zwingli lay the body of his adopted son.
Acting less as a soldier than as a chaplain, Zwingli had been attending to a wounded comrade when he was struck in the head by an enemy’s stone. Upon rising he was struck again—and again. He was finally dropped to the ground by a lance. According to reports, after noticing blood leaving his body, he announced, “What matters this misfortune? They may kill the body, but they cannot kill the soul.” These were his last words.
Zwingli spent his final moments on this earth reposed beneath a pear tree. As the enemy army pursued its foes, two soldiers urged Zwingli to confess his sins to a priest or appeal to a saint for help. Twice, with his eyes fixed heavenward, Zwingli shook his head. As reports have it, soon Captain Vokinger, one of the mercenaries against whom Zwingli had so often railed, recognized his enemy by the flickering light of his torch. With the thrust of his sword and a curse on his lips he severed Zwingli’s body and soul.
The next day, Zwingli’s corpse attracted a crowd of onlookers among the victorious army. The victors declared that his body should be quartered for treason, and burnt for heresy; his ashes were mixed with dung and scattered to the wind. A rumor circulated, and was believed by Zwingli’s closest associates, that his heart had survived incineration.
News of the defeat began trickling into Zurich almost immediately. Anna Reinhardt-Zwingli had lost her husband, her first son, a brother, a son-in-law, and a brother-in-law. As the wounded soldiers hobbled home, the extent of the disaster heightened the confusion and despair of Zurich’s citizens. Certain extremists began de-manding that the surviving councilmen and ministers make reparations for the defeat with their own blood. Zwingli’s colleague Leo Jud was forced to hide for his life.
But the fighting was not yet over. Reorganized troops from both sides met two weeks later not far from Kappel. On October 24, the Catholic army attacked under the cover of darkness, killing a thousand Protestants, and sealing Zurich’s defeat. After this last bloody skirmish the catholic and reformed cantons made peace; each region was free to choose its faith. In Protestant communities—though not in catholic ones—the religious minorities were free to worship according to their consciences. The Confederation remained intact but the advance of the reformation was halted.
Reformer Johannes Oecolampadius was crushed by the death of his friend. Yet he was able to see the Lord’s chastening hand in the midst of the tragedy. “Our presumption has been punished. Let our trust be placed now on the Lord alone, and this will be an inestimable gain.” The Zurich council offered Zwingli’s friend the honor of succeeding him as minister of Zurich’s Great Minster church. Oecolampadius declined and less than two months later died of the plague. Zwingli’s successor would be the twenty-eight year old Heinrich Bullinger, whose oldest daughter would later marry Zwingli’s son Ulrich. Bullinger would hold the post in Zurich for over forty years until his death in 1575.
Zwingli’s enemies, both Catholic and Lutheran, hailed Zurich’s defeat as a sign of God’s disapprobation of the Swiss Reformation. Bullinger—who opposed the war—offered a more biblical, thoughtful, and pastoral assessment:
“The victory of truth stands alone in God’s power and will, and is not bound to person or time. Christ was crucified, and his enemies imagined they had conquered; but forty years afterwards Christ’s victory became manifest in the destruction of Jerusalem. The truth conquers through tribulation and trial. The strength of the Christians is shown in weakness … Blessed are those who die in the Lord. Victory will follow in time. A thousand years before the eyes of the Lord are but as one day. He, too, is victorious who suffers and dies for the sake of truth.”2
Oswald Myconius offered a similar appraisal. “We have learned to advance more cautiously. We hold the gospel in higher estimation, we reverence God more devoutly.”
At his untimely death, Zwingli left behind a wife and three children as well as a Swiss Reformed Church struggling for existence and direction. Only by God’s kind providence would this struggling church be the start of a world-wide reformed communion which flourishes to this day.
1 Accessed on May 12, 2014 from https://leben.us/index.php/component/content/article/46-issue-01-02/114-anna-reinhard.
2 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. 8 (Peabody, MA: Hendrikson Publishers, Inc., 1996), 189.