Canton Zurich

II.   Zurich and the Old Swiss Confederacy, 1291-1523

The Old Swiss Confederacy was an alliance among the valley communities of the central Alps.  The Confederacy facilitated management of common interests and ensured peace on the important mountain trade routes.  In October 1291 the town of Zurich made an alliance with the states (cantons) of Uri and Schwyz, and in 1292 failed in an attempt to seize the Habsburg town of Winterthur to the northeast.  But in 1315 the men of Zurich fought against the Swiss Confederates at the Battle of Morgarten.

The year 1336 is significant in that it marked the admission of craftsmen to a seat of power in the town government.  Under the new constitution (the main features of which lasted until 1798) the Little Council was made up of the burgomaster and thirteen members from the Constafel (which included the old patricians and the wealthiest burghers) and the thirteen masters of the craft guilds, each of the twenty-six holding office for six months.

Meanwhile the town had been extending its rule far beyond its walls, a process which began in the 14th, and attained its height in the 15th century (1362–1467).

Old Swiss Confederation

The Old Swiss Confederacy from 1291 (dark green) to the sixteenth century (light green) and its associates (blue).
Image courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

These territorial aspirations even led Zurich to launch incursions south into what is now northern Italy up to and including the early 1500’s.

The eventual transfer of power to the guilds had been one of the aims of the burgomaster Hans Waldmann (1483–1489), who wished to make Zurich a great commercial center.  He also introduced numerous reforms, and subordinated the interests of the surrounding country districts to those of the town.  He practically ruled the Swiss Confederation, and under him Zurich became the defacto capital.  But such great changes excited opposition, and he was eventually overthrown and executed.

His main ideas were embodied, however, in the constitution of 1498, which remained in force till 1798.  It was the prominent part taken by Zurich in adopting and propagating (against the strenuous opposition of the Constafel) the principles of the growing Reformation which secured for the town its position of leadership in the Swiss Confederation.

Next:  III. The Protestant Reformation In Europe

1. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online Zurich (Switzerland)
2. Protestant Reformation
3. Swiss Diet
4. History of Zurich