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Swiss Federation Charter of 1291

     Mutual Assistance

     Judges to be Inhabitants

     Punishments for Crimes

     Powers of Judges 

     Resolution of Strife between Confederates

Geneva: Laws, Franchises and Freedoms

Right to Security

Right to be Governed by Freely Elected Persons

Right to Protection of Property

Freedom from Unlawful Seizure 

Right to Bail






In the alpine region of what is now known as Switzerland, men from three small valleys agreed in 1291 to resist having outside judges imposed on them, to assume authority to punish major criminals, and to assist each other in case of attack. The men were from the free community of the Valley of Schwyz, from the Valley of Uri (both under the jurisdiction of the German King rather than local nobles), and from the Valley of Unterwalden (partially under the control of local nobles, including the Habsburg family).


The Habsburgs were rapidly gaining in power and were intent on exercising their real or pretended claims to property in these Forest districts, as they were be called. In 1244 they built the castle of New Habsburg by Lake Lucerne to enforce their argument. This was destroyed a few years later by men from Schwyz, Sarnen and Lucerne. There was evidently a history of bad feeling between the Forest districts and the Habsburgs.


The Habsburg Rudolf became Emperor in 1273 of the remains of the Roman empire. He gained the Duchy of Austria in 1282. From the Abbey of Murbach in Alsace, he bought the rights over the town of Lucerne and the abbey estates in Unterwalden. This threatened the other Forest Districts with closure of their communication with the outside world via Lake Lucerne. When Rudolf died on July 15 1291, the men of the three valleys moved quickly to form the Everlasting League for mutual defense, signing their treaty on August 1, 1291.


The men of these valleys were used to meeting together each year to discuss the farming of their area according to agreed on rules and methods. This formed the basis for subsequent political meetings, or Landsgemeinde. The first recorded meeting of the Schwyz Landesgemeinde was in 1294. By 1309, the other two valleys had been granted rights that put them in the same political status as that of the free community of Schwyz. This was the beginning of the democratic, republican form of government in Europe, with rejection of royal and aristocratic privileges and assignment of specific rights to the citizenry.


While this equivalency of status made political integration easier, trouble came when Schwyz attacked the Abbey of Einsiedeln in a quarrel over rights to pasture. The new Habsburg emperor, Frederick, demanded restoration of all his family’s rights in the valleys and sought to enforce his demand in 1315 with 15-20,000 Austrian troops under his brother Leopold. The Forest League hurriedly made alliances with Arth, Glarus, Interlaken and Urseren for aid in defending its boundaries. By raising a force of 1,300-1,500 confederates and using the high ground at Morgarten, they were able to rout the Austrians and drive them into the lake. The agreement of 1291 was renewed, with the addition of the proviso that none of the three districts was to recognize a new lord without the advice and consent of the rest.


From then on, while land rights of the Habsburgs were recognized, they no longer had political or juridical rights. Louis of France recognized the League in 1316. Lucerne joined the federation in 1332, Zurich in 1351, Zug in 1352, and Glarus and Bern in 1353. Other areas formed links or alliances with the confederation in the following century.


The name Switzerland (Sweicz) had been applied to the three Forest cantons in 1320, and was extended to the confederation as a whole in 1352, later receiving the spelling "Schweiz". It became the official name for the Confederation in 1803, although from about 1452 the people were referred to as Suisses or Swiss.


In 1479 the Confederation renounced allegiance to the Emperor. In the following century most members renounced allegiance to the Pope. After internal battles over religion, a peace was negotiated in 1529 instituting the principal of religious freedom. Initially, this allowed the majority of each parish to decide the religion of that parish. After further battles, the agreement was modified in 1531 to allow Roman Catholic minorities in each parish to conduct their own services.


In the period up to this time, various movements towards greater rights for citizens were also taking place in individual valleys and cities. In Geneva in the Eleventh Century, the burghers pursued emancipation by taking advantage of the rivalry of the local count and bishop. The count relinquished government of the city state to the bishop in 1124. In 1162 the prince-bishop became directly responsible to the emperor when Geneva was declared independent within the empire. The citizen’s demands for emancipation continued. Bishop Aimon de Quart recognized municipal institutions in 1309. In 1387 Bishop Adhemar Fabri ratified the Charter of Customs, Laws, Franchises, and Freedoms of the city, which curtailed his power significantly.


The following material contains the Treaty of 1291 and extracts from the Geneva Charter of 1387. The original of the Treaty did not have numbered paragraphs. For the Geneva agreement, the original paragraph number is given at the end of each extract.



Swiss Federation Charter


1291 In the name of God –Amen. Honor and the public well-being are promoted when leagues are concluded for the proper establishment of quiet and peace.



Mutual Assistance


1   Therefore, know all men, that the people of the valley of Uri, the democracy of the valley of Schwyz, and the community of the Lower Valley of Unterwalden, seeing the malice of the age, in order that they may better defend themselves, and their own, and better preserve them in proper condition, have promised in good faith to assist each other with aid, with every counsel and every favor, with person and goods, within the valley and without, with might and main, against one and all, who may inflict upon any one of them any violence, molestation or injury, or may plot any evil against their persons or goods.


2   And in every case each community has promised to go to the aid of the other when necessary, at its own expense, as far as needed in order to withstand the attacks of evil-doers, and to avenge injuries; to this end they have sworn a solemn oath to keep this without guile, and to renew by these presents the ancient form of the league, also confirmed by an oath.


3   Yet in such a manner that every man, according to his rank, shall obey and serve his overlord as he has agreed.



Judges to be Inhabitants


4   We have also vowed, decreed and ordained in common council and by unanimous consent, that we will accept or receive no judge in the aforesaid valleys who shall have obtained his office for any price, or for money in any way whatever, or one who shall not be a native or a resident with us.


5   But if dissension shall arise between any of the confederates, the most prudent amongst the confederates shall come forth to settle the difficulty between the parties, as shall seem right to them; and whichever party rejects their verdict shall be held an adversary by the other confederates.



Punishments for Crimes


6   Furthermore, it has been established between them that he who deliberately kills another without provocation shall, if caught, lose his life, as his wicked guilt requires, unless he be able to prove his innocence of said crime. And if perchance he should escape, let him never return. Those who conceal and protect said criminal shall be banished from the valley, until they be expressly recalled by the confederates.


7   But if any one of the confederates, by day, or in the silence of the night, shall maliciously injure another by fire, he shall never again be considered a fellow-countryman. If any man protect and defend the said evil-doer, he shall render satisfaction to the one who has suffered damage.


8   Furthermore, if any one of the confederates shall steal or damage another's property, or injure him in any way, the goods of the guilty one, if recovered within the valleys, shall be seized in order to pay damages to the injured person, according to justice.



Powers of Judges


9    Furthermore, no man shall seize another's goods for debt, unless he be evidently his debtor or surety, and this shall only be done with the special permission of his judge.


10   Moreover, every man shall obey his judge, and if necessary, must himself indicate the judge in the valley before whom he ought properly to appear.


11   And if any one rebels against a verdict and, in consequence of his obstinacy, any one of the confederates is injured, all the confederates are bound to compel the culprit to give satisfaction.



Resolution of Strife between Confederates


12   But if war or discord arise amongst any of the confederates and one party of the disputants refuses to accept the verdict of the judge or to give satisfaction, the confederates are bound to defend the other party.


13   The above-written statutes, decreed for the common welfare and benefit, shall endure forever, God willing.


In testimony of which, at the request of the aforesaid parties, the present charter has been drawn up and confirmed with the seals of the aforesaid three communities and valleys. So done in the year of the Lord 1291 at the beginning of the month of August.


*Confederates (Eidgenossen: Eid = oath, Genosse = fellow, comrade )




Geneva: Laws, Franchises and Freedoms


Right to Security.


14  Every cleric and layman, whether citizen or foreigner, shall be and remain safe and in all security with all his possessions in the city and its outskirts. If, within the said limits, violence were done to anyone, the resident citizens, inhabitants and sworn men are entitled to defend the injured party by all means in their power, provided that he has agreed to recognize the jurisdiction of our Ecclesiastical Judge or of our Vidame, his Deputy. (Article 2)



Right to be Governed by Freely Elected Persons.


15  The said citizens, burghers, inhabitants and sworn men of the said city can annually establish and ordain four of their number to be Procurators and Syndics of the said city, and can invest the four elected persons with full power in all manner of things. The said four will have power to manage the affairs of the said city and of the citizens and to do everything which may further their interests. (Article 23)



Right to Protection of Property.


16  No one shall be deprived of his property, either by us or by any other person, in any manner whatsoever, without his case being heard and defended, in so far as he is willing to recognize the jurisdiction of the courts of the said city (or to go to law according to the uses and customs of the said city), subject to the rights of the lord from whom the object in dispute is held in fee or on long lease, or could be so in the future. (Article 55)



Freedom from Unlawful Seizure  


17  The possessions of a citizen, burgher, sworn man or inhabitant, cleric or layman shall not be confiscated for any crime whatsoever, nor for any other matter whatsoever, in any possible fashion, whether he has been sentenced for heinous crime or otherwise, unless this is among the cases permitted by law according to the jurisconsults' decisions. (Article 19)



Right to Bail


18  No layman, except in a criminal case, namely open larceny, manifest homicide, notorious treason and other public crimes for which persons may not be discharged on bail, shall be apprehended in the town or in its suburbs as long as he is ready to provide bail and surety; and if he is not ready so to do, and is apprehended or detained, he should not be taken to prison but kept under guard at the Court for the time being, so that he may be able to solicit sureties, if he has the power and means to obtain them; and if then he cannot have them and is take to prison, he should be freed from prison as soon as he is ready to provide a surety, and be set wholly at liberty with his belongings. (Article 10)





1-13   The Origin of the Swiss Confederation Section 1, Document Volume 1, Aarau, 1933.


14-18 The Franchise of Geneva, in Birthright of Man, Jeanne Hersch, Ed. Unesco, Paris, 1969.


History of Switzerland Website.