"He rush'd against the Austrian hand" - the Battle of Sempach in 1386

13 July 1386: Men of the Cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden, part of the Old Swiss Confederacy, decisively defeated Leopold III of Austria in the Battle of Sempach, 40 miles southwest of Zurich. 

“The Austrian met-at-arms stood fast, / So close their spears they laid; /It chafed the gallant Winkelreid, / Who to his comrades said — // "I have a virtuous wife at home, / A wife and infant son; / I leave them to my country's care,— / This field shall soon be won. // "These nobles lay their spears right thick, / And keep full firm array, / Yet shall my charge their order break, / And make my brethren way." // He rush'd against the Austrian hand, / In desperate career, / And with his body, breast, and hand, / Bore down each hostile spear. // Four lances splinter'd on his crest, / Six shiver'd in his side; / Still on the serried files he press'd — / He broke their ranks, and died.” (Sir Walter Scott “The Battle of Sempach”)

Swiss painter Konrad Grob’s late Romantic imagination of the “Death of Arnold von Winkelried during the battle of Sempach 1386” (1894)

The cities of the Old Swiss Confederacy had shown their former Habsburg overlords what’s what since the late 13th century, most notably at the Battle of Morgarten 70 years earlier, one of the events that damaged the image of the mounted knight as superior force on the battlefield and the superiority of feudal nobility over commoners forever, especially if the commoners were armed with long pointy sticks and fought in close ranks. Memorable battle like Morgarten, Courtrai and Stirling Bridge did indeed herald the end of the Middle Ages. However, in 1386, internal strife among the House of Habsburg gave Leopold III a focus on his south-western German domains and areas that belong to Switzerland today but were firmly or re-established Habsburgian lands 700 years ago, like the city of Basel. Obviously wanting to bring the central Swiss cities under his rule again, he marched on Zurich early in in the year with an army of his liegemen and mercenaries hired with money he gained from pawning his northern Italian cities.

A 16th century image of the Battle of Sempach by an unknown artist

Actually believing Leopold was about to attack Zurich, the Swiss confederates who wanted to oppose him gathered their army there, while the Austrians moved further south towards Lucerne. The Swiss burghers realised their mistake and hurried to the Southwest and Lake Sempach where Leopold had camped his army. What followed is one of the worst documented but myth-enshrouded battles of the late Middle Ages. Leopold’s knights did not charge the Swiss pikemen on horseback or something similarly dumb, but, as legend has it, they probably did not dismount and set up a firm defensive line which would have been a very sensible thing to do. They must have formed something of an information, though, since the common notion, often repeated, is that Arnold von Winkelried (or “Winkelreid” to Sir Walter) sacrificed himself by breaking the tight Austrian lines in the manner described by Scott and earlier Swiss sources from the 15th and 16th century. 18th and 19th century legend has it that the lightly armoured burghers followed into the breach made by Winkelried and slaughter the Austrians who allegedly couldn’t move in their heavy armour in the summer heat – which is basically nonsense unless the Austrians went to battle wearing their jousting equipment. Very probably, the Swiss surprised Leopold and slaughtered him and his men before they could mount a solid defence. The legendary figure of Arnold von Winkelried, however, inspired the Swiss along with William Tell and freedom fighters all over Europe – up to the point that the Polish Romantic Juliusz Słowacki stated that Poland is the “Winkelried of Nations. Whatever exactly happened on 9 July 1386 on the shores of Lake Sempach, Leopold III was killed in battle, his army soundly defeated and the Swiss made an important further step towards independence of their Old Swiss Confederacy (Eidgenossenschaft) that lasted until 1798 and the wars of the French Revolution.

Robert Zünd (1827 - 1909): "Bei der Sempacher Schlachtkapelle" (near the battle chapel of Sempach, 1867) in 1473, the Swiss built a small memorial church, Schlachtkapelle, allegedly on the spot where Duke Leopold fell