Then, throwing his glove to the ground, he charged him who should raise it to bear it to Peter, King of Aragon, to whom, as his nearest relative, he bequeathed all his claims. The glove was raised by Henry, Truchsess von Waldberg, who found in it the seal ring of the unfortunate wearer. Thence-forth he bore in his arms the three black lions of the Stauffen.
In a minute more the fatal axe of the executioner descended, and the head of the last heir of the Hohenstauffens rolled upon the scaffold. His friend, Frederick, followed him to death, nor was the bloodthirsty Charles satisfied until almost every Ghibelline in his hands had fallen by the hand of the executioner.
Enzio, the unfortunate son of Frederick who was held prisoner by the Bolognese, was involved in the fate of his unhappy nephew. On learning of the arrival of Conradin in Italy he made an effort to escape from prison, which would have been successful but for an unlucky accident. He had arranged to conceal himself in a cask, which was to be borne out of the prison by his friends, but by an unfortunate chance one of his long, golden locks fell out of the air-hole which had been made in the side of the cask, and revealed the stratagem to his keepers.
During his earlier imprisonment Enzio had been allowed some alleviation, his friends being permitted to visit him and solace him in his seclusion; but after this effort to escape he was closely confined, some say, in an iron cage, until his death in 1272.
Thus ended the royal race of the Hohenstauffen, a race marked by unusual personal beauty, rich poetical genius, and brilliant warlike achievements, and during whose period of power the mediaeval age and its institutions attained their highest development.
As for the ruthless Charles of Anjou, he retained Apulia, but lost his possessions in Sicily through an event which has become famous as the "Sicilian Vespers." The insolence and outrages of the French had so exasperated the Sicilians that, on the night of March 30, 1282, a general insurrection broke out in this island, the French being everywhere assassinated. Constance, the grand-daughter of their old ruler, and Peter of Aragon, her husband, were proclaimed their sovereigns by the Sicilians, and Charles, the son of Charles of Anjou, fell into their hands.
Constance was generous to the captive prince, and on hearing him remark that he was happy to die on a Friday, the day on which Christ suffered, she replied,—
"For love of him who suffered on this day I will grant thee thy life."
He was afterwards exchanged for Beatrice, the daughter of the unhappy Helena, whose sons, the last princes of the Hohenstauffen race, died in the prison in which they had lived since infancy.
THE TRIBUNAL OF THE HOLY VEHM.
The ideas of law and order in mediaeval Germany were by no means what we now understand by those terms. The injustice of the strong and the suffering of the weak were the rule; and men of noble lineage did not hesitate to turn their castles into dens of thieves. The title "robber baron," which many of them bore, sufficiently indicates their mode of life, and turbulence and outrage prevailed throughout the land.
But wrong did not flourish with complete impunity; right had not entirely vanished; justice still held its sword, and at times struck swift and deadly blows that filled with terror the wrong-doer, and gave some assurance of protection to those too weak for self-defence. It was no unusual circumstance to behold, perhaps in the vicinity of some baronial castle, perhaps near some town or manorial residence, a group of peasants gazing upwards with awed but triumphant eyes; the spectacle that attracted their attention being the body of a man hanging from the limb of a tree above their heads.
Such might have been supposed to be some act of private vengeance or bold outrage, but the exulting lookers-on knew better. For they recognized the body, perhaps as that of the robber baron of the neighboring castle, perhaps that of some other bold defier of law and justice, while in the ground below the corpse appeared an object that told a tale of deep meaning to their experienced eyes. This was a knife, thrust to the hilt in the earth. As they gazed upon it they muttered the mysterious words, "Vehm gericht," and quickly dispersed, none daring to touch the corpse or disturb the significant signal of the vengeance of the executioners.
But as they walked away they would converse in low tones of a dread secret tribunal, which held its mysterious meetings in remote places, caverns of the earth or the depths of forests, at the dread hour of midnight, its members being sworn by frightful oaths to utter secrecy. Before these dark tribunals were judged, present or absent, the wrong-doers of the land, and the sentence of the secret Vehm once given, there was no longer safety for the condemned. The agents of vengeance would be put upon his track, while the secret of his death sentence was carefully kept from his ears. The end was sure to be a sudden seizure, a rope to the nearest tree, a writhing body, the signal knife of the executioners of the Vehm, silence and mystery.
Such was the visible outcome of the workings of this dreaded court, of whose sessions and secrets the common people of the land had exaggerated conceptions, but whose sudden and silent deeds in the interest of justice went far to repress crime in that lawless age. We have seen the completion of the sentence, let us attend a session of this mysterious court.
Seeking the Vehmic tribunal, we do not find ourselves in a midnight forest, nor in a dimly-lighted cavern or mysterious vault, as peasant traditions would tell us, but in the hall of some ancient castle, or on a hill-top, under the shade of lime-trees, and with an open view of the country for miles around. Here, on the seat of justice, presides the graf or count of the district, before him the sword, the symbol of supreme justice, its handle in the form of the cross, while beside it lies the Wyd, or cord, the sign of his power of life or death. Around him are seated the Schoeffen, or ministers of justice, bareheaded and without weapons, in complete silence, none being permitted to speak except when called upon in the due course of proceedings.
The court being solemnly opened, the person cited to appear before it steps forward, unarmed and accompanied by two sureties, if he has any. The complaint against him is stated by the judge, and he is called upon to clear himself by oath taken on the cross of the sword. If he takes it, he is free. "He shall then," says an ancient work, "take a farthing piece, throw it at the feet of the court, turn round and go his way. Whoever attacks or touches him, has then, which all freemen know, broken the king's peace."
This was the ancient custom, but in later times witnesses were examined, and the proceedings were more in conformity with those of modern courts. If sentence of death was passed, the criminal was hanged at once on the nearest tree. The minor punishments were exile and fine. If the defendant refused to appear, after being three times cited, the sentence of the Vehm was pronounced against him, a dreadful sentence, ending in,—
"And I hereby curse his flesh and his blood; and may his body never receive burial, but may it be borne away by the wind, and may the ravens and crows, and wild birds of prey, consume and destroy him. And I adjudge his neck to the rope, and his body to be devoured by the birds and beasts of the air, sea, and land; but his soul I commend to our dear Lord, if He will receive it."
These words spoken, the judge cast forth the rope beyond the limits of the court, and wrote the name of the condemned in the book of blood, calling on the princes and nobles of the land, and all the inhabitants of the empire, to aid in fulfilling this sentence upon the criminal, without regard to relationship or any ties of kindred or affection whatever.
The condemned man was now left to the work of the ministers of justice, the Schoeffen of the court. Whoever should shelter or even warn him was himself to be brought before the tribunal. The members of the court were bound by a terrible oath, to be enforced by death, not to reveal the sentence of the Holy Vehm, except to one of the initiated, and not to warn the culprit, even if he was a father or a brother. Wherever the condemned was found, whether in a house, a street, the high-road, or the forest, he was seized and hanged to the nearest tree or post, if the servants of the court could lay hands on him. As a sign that he was executed by the Holy Vehm, and not slain by robbers, nothing was taken from his body, and the knife was thrust into the ground beneath him. We may further say that any criminal taken in the act by the Vehmic officers of justice did not need to be brought before the court, but might be hanged on the spot, with the ordinary indications that he was a victim to the secret tribunal.
A citation to appear before the Vehm was executed by two Schoeffen, who bore the letter of the presiding count to the accused. If they could not reach him because he was living in a city or a fortress which they could not safely enter, they were authorized to execute their mission otherwise. They might approach the castle in the night, stick the letter, enclosing a farthing piece, in the panel of the castle gate, cut off three chips from the gate as evidence to the count that they had fulfilled their mission, and call out to the sentinel on leaving that they had deposited there a letter for his lord. If the accused had no regular dwelling-place, and could not be met, he was summoned at four different cross-roads, where was left at the east, west, north, and south points a summons, each containing the significant farthing coin.
It must not be supposed that the administration of justice in Germany was confined to this Vehmic court. There were open courts of justice throughout the land. But what were known as Freistuhls, or free courts, were confined to the duchy of Westphalia. Some of the sessions of these courts were open, some closed, the Vehm constituting their secret tribunal.
Though complaints might be brought and persons cited to appear from every part of Germany, a free court could only be held on Westphalian ground, on the red earth, as it was entitled. Even the emperor could not establish a free court outside of Westphalia. When the Emperor Wenceslas tried to establish one in Bohemia, the counts of the empire decreed that any one who should take part in it would incur the penalty of death. The members of these courts consisted of Schoeffen, nominated by the graf, or presiding judge, and composed of ordinary members and the Wissenden or Witan, the higher membership. The initiation of these members was a singular and impressive ceremony. It could only take place upon the red earth, or within the boundaries of Westphalia. Bareheaded and ungirt, the candidate was conducted before the tribunal, and strictly questioned as to his qualifications to membership. He must be free-born, of Teutonic ancestry, and clear of any accusation of crime.
This settled, a deep and solemn oath of fidelity was administered, the candidate swearing by the Holy Law to guard the secrets of the Holy Vehm from wife and child, father and mother, sister and brother, fire and water, every creature on whom rain falls or sun shines, everything between earth and heaven; to tell to the tribunal all offences known to him, and not to be deterred therefrom by love or hate, gold, silver, or precious stones. He was now intrusted with the very ancient password and secret grip or other sign of the order, by which the members could readily recognize each other wherever meeting, and was warned of the frightful penalty incurred by those who should reveal the secrets of the Vehm. This penalty was that the criminal should have his eyes bound and be cast upon the earth, his tongue torn out through the back of his neck, and his body hanged seven times higher than ordinary criminals. In the history of the court there is no instance known of the oath of initiation being broken. For further security of the secrets of the Vehm, no mercy was given to strangers found within the limits of the court. All such intruders were immediately hung.
The number of the Schoeffen, or members of the free courts, was very great. In the fourteenth century it exceeded one hundred thousand. Persons of all ranks joined them, princes desiring their ministers, cities their magistrates, to apply for membership. The emperor was the supreme presiding officer, and under him his deputy, the stadtholder of the duchy of Westphalia, while the local courts, of which there were one or more in each district of the duchy, were under the jurisdiction of the grafs or counts of their districts.
The Vehm could consider criminal actions of the greatest diversity, cases of mere slander or defamation of character being sometimes brought before it. Any violation of the ten commandments was within its jurisdiction. It particularly devoted itself to secret crimes, such as magic, witchcraft, or poisoning. Its agents of justice were bound to make constant circuits, night and day, with the privilege, as we have said, if they caught a thief or murderer in the act, or obtained his confession, to hang him at once on the nearest tree, with the knife as signal of their commission.
Of the origin of this strange court we have no certain knowledge. Tradition ascribes it to Charlemagne, but that needs confirmation. It seems rather to have been an outgrowth of an old Saxon system, which also left its marks in the systems of justice of Saxon England, where existed customs not unlike those of the Holy Vehm.
Mighty was the power of these secret courts, and striking the traditions to which they have given rise, based upon their alleged nocturnal assemblies, their secret signs and solemn oaths, their mysterious customs, and the implacable persistency with which their sentences sought the criminal, pursuing him for years, and in whatever corner of the empire he might take refuge, while there were none to call its ministers of justice to account for their acts if the terrible knife had been left as evidence of their authority.
Such an association, composed of thousands of men of all classes, from the highest to the lowest,—for common freemen, mechanics, and citizens shared the honor of membership with knights and even princes,—bound together by a band of inviolable secrecy, and its edicts carried out so mysteriously and ruthlessly, could not but attain to a terrible power, and produce a remarkable effect upon the imagination of the people. "The prince or knight who easily escaped the judgment of the imperial court, and from behind his fortified walls defied even the emperor himself, trembled when in the silence of the night he heard the voices of the Freischoeffen at the gate of his castle, and when the free count summoned him to appear at the ancient malplatz, or plain, under the lime-tree, or on the bank of a rivulet upon that dreaded soil, the Westphalian or red ground. And that the power of those free courts was not exaggerated by the mere imagination, excited by terror, nor in reality by any means insignificant, is proved by a hundred undeniable examples, supported by records and testimonies, that numerous princes, counts, knights, and wealthy citizens were seized by these Schoeffen of the secret tribunal, and, in execution of its sentence, perished by their hands."
An institution so mysterious and wide-spread as this could not exist without some degree of abuse of power. Unworthy persons would attain membership, who would use their authority for the purpose of private vengeance. This occasional injustice of the Vehmic tribunal became more frequent as time went on, and by the end of the fifteenth century many complaints arose against the free courts, particularly among the clergy. Civilization was increasing, and political institutions becoming more developed, in Germany; the lords of the land grew restive under the subjection of their people to the acts of a secret and strange tribunal, no longer supported by imperial power. Alliances of princes, nobles, and citizens were made against the Westphalian courts, and their power finally ceased, without any formal decree of abrogation.
In the sixteenth century the Vehm still possessed much strength; in the seventeenth it had grown much weaker; in the eighteenth only a few traces of it remained; at Gehmen, in Muenster, the secret tribunal was only finally extinguished by a decree of the French legislature in 1811. Even to the present day there are peasants who have taken the oath of the Schoeffen, whose secrecy they persistently maintain, and who meet annually at the site of some of the old free courts. The principal signs of the order are indicated by the letters S.S.G.G., signifying stock, stein, gras, grein (stick, stone, grass, tears), though no one has been able to trace the mysterious meaning these words convey as symbols of the mystic power of the ancient Vehm gericht.
WILLIAM TELL AND THE SWISS PATRIOTS.
"In the year of our Lord 1307," writes an ancient chronicler, "there dwelt a pious countryman in Unterwald beyond the Kernwald, whose name was Henry of Melchthal, a wise, prudent, honest man, well to do and in good esteem among his country-folk, moreover, a firm supporter of the liberties of his country and of its adhesion to the Holy Roman Empire, on which account Beringer von Landenberg, the governor over the whole of Unterwald, was his enemy. This Melchthaler had some very fine oxen, and on account of some trifling misdemeanor committed by his son, Arnold of Melchthal, the governor sent his servant to seize the finest pair of oxen by way of punishment, and in case old Henry of Melchthal said anything against it, he was to say that it was the governor's opinion that the peasants should draw the plough themselves. The servant fulfilled his lord's commands. But as he unharnessed the oxen, Arnold, the son of the countryman, fell into a rage, and striking him with a stick on the hand, broke one of his fingers. Upon this Arnold fled, for fear of his life, up the country towards Uri, where he kept himself long secret in the country where Conrad of Baumgarten from Altzelen lay hid for having killed the governor of Wolfenschiess, who had insulted his wife, with a blow of his axe. The servant, meanwhile, complained to his lord, by whose order old Melchthal's eyes were torn out. This tyrannical action rendered the governor highly unpopular, and Arnold, on learning how his good father had been treated, laid his wrongs secretly before trusty people in Uri, and awaited a fit opportunity for avenging his father's misfortune."
Such was the prologue to the tragic events which we have now to tell, events whose outcome was the freedom of Switzerland and the formation of that vigorous Swiss confederacy which has maintained itself until the present day in the midst of the powerful and warlike nations which have surrounded it. The prologue given, we must proceed with the main scenes of the drama, which quickly followed.
As the story goes, Arnold allied himself with two other patriots, Werner Stauffacher and Walter Fuerst, bold and earnest men, the three meeting regularly at night to talk over the wrongs of their country and consider how best to right them. Of the first named of these men we are told that he was stirred to rebellion by the tyranny of Gessler, governor of Uri, a man who forms one of the leading characters of our drama. The rule of Gessler extended over the country of Schwyz, where in the town of Steinen, in a handsome house, lived Werner Stauffacher. As the governor passed one day through this town he was pleasantly greeted by Werner, who was standing before his door.
"To whom does this house belong?" asked Gessler.
Werner, fearing that some evil purpose lay behind this question, cautiously replied,—
"My lord, the house belongs to my sovereign lord the king, and is your and my fief."
"I will not allow peasants to build houses without my consent," returned Gessler, angered at this shrewd reply, "or to live in freedom as if they were their own masters. I will teach you better than to resist my authority."
So saying, he rode on, leaving Werner greatly disturbed by his threatening words. He returned into his house with heavy brow and such evidence of discomposure that his wife eagerly questioned him. Learning what the governor had said, the good lady shared his disturbance, and said,—
"My dear Werner, you know that many of the country-folk complain of the governor's tyranny. In my opinion, it would be well for some of you, who can trust one another, to meet in secret, and take counsel how to throw off his wanton power."
This advice seemed so judicious to Werner that he sought his friend Walter Fuerst, and arranged with him and Arnold that they should meet and consider what steps to take, their place of meeting being at Ruetli, a small meadow in a lonely situation, closed in on the land side by high rocks, and opening on the Lake of Lucerne. Others joined them in their patriotic purpose, and on the night of the Wednesday before Martinmas, in the year 1307, each of the three led to the place of meeting ten others, all as resolute and liberty-loving as themselves. These thirty-three good and true men, thus assembled at the midnight hour in the meadow of Ruetli, united in a solemn oath that they would devote their lives and strength to the freeing of their country from its oppressors. They fixed the first day of the coming year for the beginning of their work, and then returned to their homes, where they kept the strictest secrecy, occupying themselves in housing their cattle for the winter and in other rural labors, with no indication that they cherished deeper designs.
During this interval of secrecy another event, of a nature highly exasperating to the Swiss, is said to have happened. It is true that modern critics declare the story of this event to be solely a legend and that nothing of the kind ever took place. However that be, it has ever since remained one of the most attractive of popular tales, and the verdict of the critics shall not deter us from telling again this oft-repeated and always welcome story.
We have named two of the many tyrannical governors of Switzerland, the deputies there of Albert of Austria, then Emperor of Germany, whose purpose was to abolish the privileges of the Swiss and subject the free communes to his arbitrary rule. The second named of these, Gessler, governor of Uri and Schwyz, whose threats had driven Werner to conspiracy, occupied a fortress in Uri, which he had built as a place of safety in case of revolt, and a centre of tyranny. "Uri's prison" he called this fortress, an insult to the people of Uri which roused their indignation. Perceiving their sullenness, Gessler resolved to give them a salutary lesson of his power and their helplessness.
On St. Jacob's day he had a pole erected in the market-place at Altdorf, under the lime-trees there growing, and directed that his hat should be placed on its top. This done, the command was issued that all who passed through the market-place should bow and kneel to this hat as to the king himself, blows and confiscation of property to be the lot of all who refused. A guard was placed around the pole, whose duty was to take note of every man who should fail to do homage to the governor's hat.
On the Sunday following, a peasant of Uri, William Tell by name, who, as we are told, was one of the thirty-three sworn confederates, passed several times through the market-place at Altdorf without bowing or bending the knee to Gessler's hat. This was reported to the governor, who summoned Tell to his presence, and haughtily asked him why he had dared to disobey his command.
"My dear lord," answered Tell, submissively, "I beg you to pardon me, for it was done through ignorance and not out of contempt. If I were clever, I should not be called Tell. I pray your mercy; it shall not happen again."
The name Tell signifies dull or stupid, a meaning in consonance with his speech, though not with his character. Yet stupid or bright, he had the reputation of being the best archer in the country, and Gessler, knowing this, determined on a singular punishment for his fault. Tell had beautiful children, whom he dearly loved. The governor sent for these, and asked him,—
"Which of your children do you love the best?"
"My lord, they are all alike dear to me," answered Tell.
"If that be so," said Gessler, "then, as I hear that you are a famous marksman, you shall prove your skill in my presence by shooting an apple off the head of one of your children. But take good care to hit the apple, for if your first shot miss you shall lose your life."
"For God's sake, do not ask me to do this!" cried Tell in horror. "It would be unnatural to shoot at my own dear child. I would rather die than do it."
"Unless you do it, you or your child shall die," answered the governor harshly.
Tell, seeing that Gessler was resolute in his cruel project, and that the trial must be made or worse might come, reluctantly agreed to it. He took his cross-bow and two arrows, one of which he placed in the bow, the other he stuck behind in his collar. The governor, meanwhile, had selected the child for the trial, a boy of not more than six years of age, whom he ordered to be placed at the proper distance, and himself selected an apple and placed it on the child's head.
Tell viewed these preparations with startled eyes, while praying inwardly to God to shield his dear child from harm. Then, bidding the boy to stand firm and not be frightened, as his father would do his best not to harm him, he raised the perilous bow.
The legend deals too briefly with this story. It fails to picture the scene in the market-place. But there, we may be sure, in addition to Gessler and his guards, were most of the people of Uri, their hearts burning with sympathy for their countryman and hatred of the tyrant, their feelings almost wrought up to the point of attacking Gessler and his guards, and daring death in defence of their liberties. There also we may behold in fancy the brave child, scarcely old enough to appreciate the magnitude of his peril, but looking with simple faith into the kind eyes of his father, who stands firm of frame but trembling in heart before him, the death-dealing bow in his hand.
In a minute more the bow is bent, Tell's unerring eye glances along the shaft, the string twangs sharply, the arrow speeds through the air, and the apple, pierced through its centre, is borne from the head of the boy, who leaps forward with a glad cry of triumph, while the unnerved father, with tears of joy in his eyes, flings the bow to the ground and clasps his child to his heart.
"By my faith, Tell, that is a wonderful shot!" cried the astonished governor. "Men have not belied you. But why have you stuck another arrow in your collar?"
"That is the custom among marksmen," Tell hesitatingly answered.
"Come, man, speak the truth openly and without fear," said Gessler, who noted Tell's hesitancy. "Your life is safe; but I am not satisfied with your answer."
"Then," said Tell, regaining his courage, "if you would have the truth, it is this. If I had struck my child with the first arrow, the other was intended for you; and with that I should not have missed my mark."
The governor started at these bold words, and his brow clouded with anger.
"I promised you your life," he exclaimed, "and will keep my word; but, as you cherish evil intentions against me, I shall make sure that you cannot carry them out. You are not safe to leave at large, and shall be taken to a place where you can never again behold the sun or the moon."
Turning to his guards, he bade them seize the bold marksman, bind his hands, and take him in a boat across the lake to his castle at Kuessnach, where he should do penance for his evil intentions by spending the remainder of his life in a dark dungeon. The people dared not interfere with this harsh sentence; the guards were too many and too well armed. Tell was seized, bound, and hurried to the lake-side, Gessler accompanying.
The water reached, he was placed in a boat, his cross-bow being also brought and laid beside the steersman. As if with purpose to make sure of the disposal of his threatening enemy, Gessler also entered the boat, which was pushed off and rowed across the lake towards Brunnen, from which place the prisoner was to be taken overland to the governor's fortress.
Before they were half-way across the lake, however, a sudden and violent storm arose, tossing the boat so frightfully that Gessler and all with him were filled with mortal fear.
"My lord," cried one of the trembling rowers to the governor, "we will all go to the bottom unless something is done, for there is not a man among us fit to manage a boat in this storm. But Tell here is a skilful boatman, and it would be wise to use him in our sore need."
"Can you bring us out of this peril?" asked Gessler, who was no less alarmed than his crew. "If you can, I will release you from your bonds."
"I trust, with God's help, that I can safely bring you ashore," answered Tell.
By Gessler's order his bonds were then removed, and he stepped aft and took the helm, guiding the boat through the storm with the skill of a trained mariner. He had, however, another object in view, and had no intention to let the tyrannical governor bind his free limbs again. He bade the men to row carefully until they reached a certain rock, which appeared on the lake-side at no great distance, telling them that he hoped to land them behind its shelter. As they drew near the spot indicated, he turned the helm so that the boat struck violently against the rock, and then, seizing the cross-bow which lay beside him, he sprang nimbly ashore, and thrust the boat with his foot back into the tossing waves. The rock on which he landed is, says the chronicler, still known as Tell's Rock, and a small chapel has been built upon it.
The story goes on to tell us that the governor and his rowers, after great danger, finally succeeded in reaching the shore at Brunnen, at which point they took horse and rode through the district of Schwyz, their route leading through a narrow passage between the rocks, the only way by which they could reach Kuessnach from that quarter. On they went, the angry governor swearing vengeance against Tell, and laying plans with his followers how the runaway should be seized. The deepest dungeon at Kuessnach, he vowed, should be his lot.
He little dreamed what ears heard his fulminations and what deadly peril threatened him. On leaving the boat, Tell had run quickly forward to the passage, or hollow way, through which he knew that Gessler must pass on his way to the castle. Here, hidden behind the high bank that bordered the road, he waited, cross-bow in hand, and the arrow which he had designed for the governor's life in the string, for the coming of his mortal foe.
Gessler came, still talking of his plans to seize Tell, and without a dream of danger, for the pass was silent and seemed deserted. But suddenly to his ears came the twang of the bow he had heard before that day; through the air once more winged its way a steel-barbed shaft, the heart of a tyrant, not an apple on a child's head, now its mark. In an instant more Gessler fell from his horse, pierced by Tell's fatal shaft, and breathed his last before the eyes of his terrified servants. On that spot, the chronicler concludes, was built a holy chapel, which is standing to this day.
Such is the far-famed story of William Tell. How much truth and how much mere tradition there is in it, it is not easy to say. The feat of shooting an apple from a person's head is told of others before Tell's time, and that it ever happened is far from sure. But at the same time it is possible that the story of Tell, in its main features, may be founded on fact. Tradition is rarely all fable.
We are now done with William Tell, and must return to the doings of the three confederates to whom fame ascribes the origin of the liberty of Switzerland. In the early morning of January 1, 1308, the date they had fixed for their work to begin, as Landenberg was leaving his castle to attend mass at Sarnen, he was met by twenty of the mountaineers of Unterwald, who, as was their custom, brought him a new-year's gift of calves, goats, sheep, fowls, and hares. Much pleased with the present, he asked the men to take the animals into the castle court, and went on his way towards Sarnen.
But no sooner had the twenty men passed through the gates than a horn was loudly blown, and instantly each of them drew from beneath his doublet a steel blade, which he fixed upon the end of his staff. At the sound of the horn thirty other men rushed from a neighboring wood, and made for the open gates. In a very few minutes they joined their comrades in the castle, which was quickly theirs, the garrison being overpowered.
Landenberg fled in haste on hearing the tumult, but was pursued and taken. But as the confederates had agreed with each other to shed no blood, they suffered this arch villain to depart, after making him swear to leave Switzerland and never return to it. The news of the revolt spread rapidly through the mountains, and so well had the confederates laid their plans, that several other castles were taken by stratagem before the alarm could be given. Their governors were sent beyond the borders. Day by day news was brought to the head-quarters of the patriots, on Lake Lucerne, of success in various parts of the country, and on Sunday, the 7th of January, a week from the first outbreak, the leading men of that part of Switzerland met and pledged themselves to their ancient oath of confederacy. In a week's time they had driven out the Austrians and set their country free.
It must be admitted that there is no contemporary proof of this story, though the Swiss accept it as authentic history, and it has not been disproved. The chief peril to the new confederacy lay with Albert of Austria, the dispossessed lord of the land, but the patriotic Swiss found themselves unexpectedly relieved from the execution of his threats of vengeance. His harshness and despotic severity had made him enemies alike among people and nobles, and when, in the spring of 1308, he sought the borders of Switzerland, with the purpose of reducing and punishing the insurgents, his career was brought to a sudden and violent end.
A conspiracy had been formed against him by his nephew, the Duke of Swabia, and others who accompanied him in this journey. On the 1st of May they reached the Reuss River at Windisch, and, as the emperor entered the boat to be ferried across, the conspirators pushed into it after him, leaving no room for his attendants. Reaching the opposite shore, they remounted their steeds and rode on while the boat returned for the others. Their route lay through the vast cornfields at the base of the hills whose highest summit was crowned by the great castle of Hapsburg.
They had gone some distance, when John of Swabia suddenly rushed upon the emperor, and buried his lance in his neck, exclaiming, "Such is the reward of injustice!" Immediately two others rode upon him, Rudolph of Balm stabbing him with his dagger, while Walter of Eschenbach clove his head in twain with his sword. This bloody work done, the conspirators spurred rapidly away, leaving the dying emperor to breathe his last with his head supported in the lap of a poor woman, who had witnessed the murder and hurried to the spot.
This deed of blood saved Switzerland from the vengeance which the emperor had designed. The mountaineers were given time to cement the government they had so hastily formed, and which was to last for centuries thereafter, despite the efforts of ambitious potentates to reduce the Swiss once more to subjection and rob them of the liberty they so dearly loved.
THE BLACK DEATH AND THE FLAGELLANTS.
The middle of the fourteenth century was a period of extraordinary terror and disaster to Europe. Numerous portents, which sadly frightened the people, were followed by a pestilence which threatened to turn the continent into an unpeopled wilderness. For year after year there were signs in the sky, on the earth, in the air, all indicative, as men thought, of some terrible coming event. In 1337 a great comet appeared in the heavens, its far-extending tail sowing deep dread in the minds of the ignorant masses. During the three succeeding years the land was visited by enormous flying armies of locusts, which descended in myriads upon the fields, and left the shadow of famine in their track. In 1348 came an earthquake of such frightful violence that many men deemed the end of the world to be presaged. Its devastations were widely spread. Cyprus, Greece, and Italy were terribly visited, and it extended through the Alpine valleys as far as Basle. Mountains sank into the earth. In Carinthia thirty villages and the tower of Villach were ruined. The air grew thick and stifling. There were dense and frightful fogs. Wine fermented in the casks. Fiery meteors appeared in the skies. A gigantic pillar of flame was seen by hundreds descending upon the roof of the pope's palace at Avignon. In 1356 came another earthquake, which destroyed almost the whole of Basle. What with famine, flood, fog, locust swarms, earthquakes, and the like, it is not surprising that many men deemed the cup of the world's sins to be full, and the end of the kingdom of man to be at hand.
An event followed that seemed to confirm this belief. A pestilence broke out of such frightful virulence that it appeared indeed as if man was to be swept from the earth. Men died in hundreds, in thousands, in myriads, until in places there were scarcely enough living to bury the dead, and these so maddened with fright that dwellings, villages, towns, were deserted by all who were able to fly, the dying and dead being left their sole inhabitants. It was the pestilence called the "Black Death," the most terrible visitation that Europe has ever known.
This deadly disease came from Asia. It is said to have originated in China, spreading over the great continent westwardly, and descending in all its destructive virulence upon Europe, which continent it swept as with the besom of destruction. The disease appears to have been a very malignant type of what is known as the plague, a form of pestilence which has several times returned, though never with such virulence as on that occasion. It began with great lassitude of the body, and rapid swellings of the glands of the groin and armpits, which soon became large boils. Then followed, as a fatal symptom, large black or deep-blue spots over the body, from which came the name of "Black Death." Some of the victims became sleepy and stupid; others were incessantly restless. The tongue and throat grew black; the lungs exhaled a noisome odor; an insatiable thirst was produced. Death came in two or three days, sometimes on the very day of seizure. Medical aid was of no avail. Doctors and relatives fled in terror from what they deemed a fatally contagious disease, and the stricken were left to die alone. Villages and towns were in many places utterly deserted, no living things being left, for the disease was as fatal to dogs, cats, and swine as to men. There is reason to believe that this, and other less destructive visitations of plague, were due to the action of some of those bacterial organisms which are now known to have so much to do with infectious diseases. This particular pestilence-breeder seems to have flourished in filth, and the streets of the cities of Europe of that day formed a richly fertile soil for its growth. Men prayed to God for relief, instead of cleaning their highways and by-ways, and relief came not.
Such was its character, what were its ravages? Never before or since has a pestilence brought such desolation. Men died by millions. At Basle it found fourteen thousand victims; at Strasburg and Erfurt, sixteen thousand; in the other cities of Germany it flourished in like proportion. In Osnabrueck only seven married couples remained unseparated by death. Of the Franciscan Minorites of Germany, one hundred and twenty-five thousand died.
Outside of Germany the fury of the pestilence was still worse; from east to west, from north to south, Europe was desolated. The mortality in Asia was fearful. In China there are said to have been thirteen million victims to the scourge; in the rest of Asia twenty-four millions. The extreme west was no less frightfully visited. London lost one hundred thousand of its population; in all England a number estimated at from one-third to one-half the entire population (then probably numbering from three to five millions) were swept into the grave. If we take Europe as a whole, it is believed that fully a fourth of its inhabitants were carried away by this terrible scourge. For two years the pestilence raged, 1348 and 1349. It broke out again in 1361-62, and once more in 1369.
The mortality caused by the plague was only one of its disturbing consequences. The bonds of society were loosened; natural affection seemed to vanish; friend deserted friend, mothers even fled from their children; demoralization showed itself in many instances in reckless debauchery. An interesting example remains to us in Boccaccio's "Decameron," whose stories were told by a group of pleasure-lovers who had fled from plague-stricken Florence.
In many localities the hatred of the Jews by the people led to frightful excesses of persecution against them, they being accused by their enemies of poisoning the wells. From Berne, where the city councils gave orders for the massacre, it spread over the whole of Switzerland and Germany, many thousands being murdered. At Mayence it is said that twelve thousand Jews were massacred. At Strasburg two thousand were burned in one pile. Even the orders of the emperor failed to put an end to the slaughter. All the Jews who could took refuge in Poland, where they found a protector in Casimir, who, like a second Ahasuerus, extended his aid to them from love for Esther, a beautiful Jewess. From that day to this Poland has swarmed with Jews.
This persecution was discountenanced by Pope Clement VI. in two bulls, in the first of which he ordered that the Jews should not be made the victims of groundless charges or injured in person or property without the sentence of a lawful judge. The second affirmed the innocence of the Jews in the persecution then going on and ordered the bishops to excommunicate all those who should continue it.
Of the beneficial results of the religious excitement may be named the earnest labors of the order of Beguines, an association of women for the purpose of attending the sick and dying, which had long been in existence, but was particularly active and useful during this period. We may name also the Beghards and Lollards, whose extravagances were to some extent outgrowths of earnest piety, and their lives strongly contrasted with the levity and luxury of the higher ecclesiastics. These societies of poor and mendicant penitents were greatly increased by the religious excitement of the time, which also gave special vitality to another sect, the Flagellants, which, as mentioned in a former article, first arose in 1260, during the excesses of bloodshed of the Guelphs of northern Italy, and thence spread over Europe. After a period of decadence they broke out afresh in 1349, as a consequence of the deadly pestilence.
The members of this sect, seeing no hope of relief from human action, turned to God as their only refuge, and deemed it necessary to propitiate the Deity by extraordinary sacrifices and self-tortures. The flame of fanaticism, once started, spread rapidly and widely. Hundreds of men, and even boys, marched in companies through the roads and streets, carrying heavy torches, scourging their naked shoulders with knotted whips, which were often loaded with lead or iron, singing penitential hymns, parading in bands which bore banners and were distinguished by white hats with red crosses.
Women as well as men took part in these fanatical exercises, marching about half-naked, whipping each other frightfully, flinging themselves on the earth in the most public places of the towns and scourging their bare backs and shoulders till the blood flowed. Entering the churches, they would prostrate themselves on the pavement, with their arms extended in the form of a cross, chanting their rude hymns. Of these hymns we may quote the following example:
"Now is the holy pilgrimage. Christ rode into Jerusalem, And in his hand he bore a cross; May Christ to us be gracious. Our pilgrimage is good and right."
The Flagellants did not content themselves with these public manifestations of self-sacrifice. They formed a regular religious order, with officers and laws, and property in common. At night, before sleeping, each indicated to his brothers by gestures the sins which weighed most heavily on his conscience, not a word being spoken until absolution was granted by one of them in the following form:
"For their dear sakes who torture bore, Rise, brother, go and sin no more."
Had this been all they might have been left to their own devices, but they went farther. The day of judgment, they declared, was at hand. A letter had been addressed from Jerusalem by the Creator to his sinning creatures, and it was their mission to spread this through Europe. They preached, confessed, and forgave sins, declared that the blood shed in their flagellations had a share with the blood of Christ in atoning for sin, that their penances were a substitute for the sacraments of the church, and that the absolution granted by the clergy was of no avail. They taught that all men were brothers and equal in the sight of God, and upbraided the priests for their pride and luxury.
These doctrines and the extravagances of the Flagellants alarmed the pope, Clement VI., who launched against the enthusiasts a bull of excommunication, and ordered their persecution as heretics. This course, at first, roused their enthusiasm to frenzy. Some of them even pretended to be the Messiah, one of these being burnt as a heretic at Erfurt. Gradually, however, as the plague died away, and the occasion for this fanatical outburst vanished, the enthusiasm of the Flagellants went with it, and they sunk from sight. In 1414 a troop of them reappeared in Thuringia and Lower Saxony, and even surpassed their predecessors in wildness of extravagance. With the dying out of this manifestation this strange mania of the middle ages vanished, probably checked by the growing intelligence of mankind.
THE SWISS AT MORGARTEN
On a sunny autumn morning, in the far-off year 1315, a gallant band of horsemen wound slowly up the Swiss mountains, their forest of spears and lances glittering in the ruddy beams of the new-risen sun, and extending down the hill-side as far as the eye could reach. In the vanguard rode the flower of the army, a noble cavalcade of knights, clad in complete armor, and including nearly the whole of the ancient nobility of Austria. At the head of this group rode Duke Leopold, the brother of Frederick of Austria, and one of the bravest knights and ablest generals of the realm. Following the van came a second division, composed of the inferior leaders and the rank and file of the army.
Switzerland was to be severely punished, and to be reduced again to the condition from which seven years before it had broken away; such was the dictum of the Austrian magnates. With the army came Landenberg, the oppressive governor who had been set free on his oath never to return to Switzerland. He was returning in defiance of his vow. With it are also said to have been several of the family of Gessler, the tyrant who fell beneath Tell's avenging arrow. The birds of prey were flying back, eager to fatten on the body of slain liberty in Switzerland.
Up the mountains wound the serried band, proud in their panoply, confident of easy victory, their voices ringing out in laughter and disdain as they spoke of the swift vengeance that was about to fall on the heads of the horde of rebel mountaineers. The duke was as gay and confidant as any of his followers, as he proudly bestrode his noble war-horse, and led the way up the mountain slopes towards the district of Schwyz, the head-quarters of the base-born insurgents. He would trample the insolent boors under his feet, he said, and had provided himself with an abundant supply of ropes with which to hang the leaders of the rebels, whom he counted on soon having in his power.
All was silent about them as they rode forward; the sun shone brilliantly; it seemed like a pleasure excursion on which they were bound.
"The locusts have crawled to their holes," said the duke, laughingly; "we will have to stir them out with the points of our lances."
"The poor fools fancied that liberty was to be won by driving out one governor and shooting another," answered a noble knight. "They will find that the eagle of Hapsburg does not loose its hold so easily."
Their conversation ceased as they found themselves at the entrance to a pass, through which the road up the mountains wound, a narrow avenue, wedged in between hills and lakeside. The silence continued unbroken around the rugged scene as the cavalry pushed in close ranks through the pass, filling it, as they advanced, from side to side. They pushed forward; beyond this pass of Morgarten they would find open land again and the villages of the rebellious peasantry; here all was solitude and a stillness that was almost depressing.
Suddenly the stillness was broken. From the rugged cliffs which bordered the pass came a loud shout of defiance. But more alarming still was the sound of descending rocks, which came plunging down the mountain side, and in an instant fell with a sickening thud on the mail-clad and crowded ranks below. Under their weight the iron helmets of the knights cracked like so many nut-shells; heads were crushed into shapeless masses, and dozens of men, a moment before full of life, hope, and ambition, were hurled in death to the ground.
Down still plunged the rocks, loosened by busy hands above, sent on their errand of death down the steep declivities, hurling destruction upon the dense masses below. Escape was impossible. The pass was filled with horsemen. It would take time to open an avenue of flight, and still those death-dealing rocks came down, smashing the strongest armor like pasteboard, strewing the pass with dead and bleeding bodies.
And now the horses, terrified, wounded, mad with pain and alarm, began to plunge and rear, trebling the confusion and terror, crushing fallen riders under their hoofs, adding their quota to the sum of death and dismay. Many of them rushed wildly into the lake which bordered one side of the pass, carrying their riders to a watery death. In a few minutes' time that trim and soldierly array, filled with hope of easy victory and disdain of its foes, was converted into a mob of maddened horses and frightened men, while the rocky pass beneath their feet was strewn thickly with the dying and the dead.
Yet all this had been done by fifty men, fifty banished patriots, who had hastened back on learning that their country was in danger, and stationing themselves among the cliffs above the pass, had loosened and sent rolling downwards the stones and huge fragments of rock which lay plentifully there.
While the fifty returned exiles were thus at work on the height of Morgarten, the army of the Swiss, thirteen hundred in number, was posted on the summit of the Sattel Mountain opposite, waiting its opportunity. The time for action had come. The Austrian cavalry of the vanguard was in a state of frightful confusion and dismay. And now the mountaineers descended the steep hill slopes like an avalanche, and precipitated themselves on the flank of the invading force, dealing death with their halberds and iron-pointed clubs until the pass ran blood.
On every side the Austrian chivalry fell. Escape was next to impossible, resistance next to useless. Confined in that narrow passage, confused, terrified, their ranks broken by the rearing and plunging horses, knights and men-at-arms falling with every blow from their vigorous assailants, it seemed as if the whole army would be annihilated, and not a man escape to tell the tale.
Numbers of gallant knights, the flower of the Austrian, nobility, fell under those vengeful clubs. Numbers were drowned in the lake. A halberd-thrust revenged Switzerland on Landenberg, who had come back to his doom. Two of the Gesslers were slain. Death held high carnival in that proud array which had vowed to reduce the free-spirited mountaineers to servitude.
Such as could fled in all haste. The van of the army, which had passed beyond those death-dealing rocks, the rear, which had not yet come up, broke and fled in a panic of fear. Duke Leopold narrowly escaped from the vengeance of the mountaineers, whom he had held in such contempt. Instead of using the ropes he had brought with him to hang their chiefs, he fled at full speed from the victors, who were now pursuing the scattered fragments of the army, and slaying the fugitives in scores. With difficulty the proud duke escaped, owing his safety to a peasant, who guided him through narrow ravines and passes as far as Winterthur, which he at length reached in a state of the utmost dejection and fatigue. The gallantly-arrayed army which he had that morning led, with blare of trumpets and glitter of spears, with high hope and proud assurance of victory, up the mountain slopes, was now in great part a gory heap in the rocky passes, the remainder a scattered host of wearied and wounded fugitives. Switzerland had won its freedom.
The day before the Swiss confederates, apprised of the approach of the Austrians, had come together, four hundred men from Uri, three hundred from Unterwald, the remainder from Schwyz. They owed their success to Rudolphus Redin, a venerable patriot, so old and infirm that he could scarcely walk, yet with such reputation for skill and prudence in war that the warriors halted at his door in their march, and eagerly asked his advice.
"Our grand aim, my sons," said he, "as we are so inferior in numbers, must be to prevent Duke Leopold from gaining any advantage by his superior force."
He then advised them to occupy the Morgarten and Sattel heights, and fall on the Austrians when entangled in the pass, cutting their force in two, and assailing it right and left. They obeyed him implicitly, with what success we have seen. The fifty men who had so efficiently begun the fray had been banished from Schwyz through some dispute, but on learning their country's danger had hastily returned to sacrifice their lives, if need be, for their native land.
Thus a strong and well-appointed army, fully disciplined and led by warriors famed for courage and warlike deeds, was annihilated by a small band of peasants, few of whom had ever struck a blow in war, but who were animated by the highest spirit of patriotism and love of liberty, and welcomed death rather than a return to their old state of slavery and oppression. The short space of an hour and a half did the work. Austria was defeated and Switzerland was free.
A MAD EMPEROR.
If genius to madness is allied, the same may be said of eccentricity, and certainly Wenceslas, Emperor of Germany and King of Bohemia, had an eccentricity that approached the vagaries of the insane. The oldest son of Charles IV., he was brought up in pomp and luxury, and was so addicted to sensual gratification that he left the empire largely to take care of itself, while he gave his time to the pleasures of the bottle and the chase. Born to the throne, he was crowned King of Bohemia when but three years of age, was elected King of the Romans at fifteen, and two years afterwards, in 1378, became Emperor of Germany, when still but a boy, with regard for nothing but riot and rude frolic.
So far as affairs of state were concerned, the volatile youth either totally neglected them or treated them with a ridicule that was worse than neglect. Drunk two-thirds of his time, he now dismissed the most serious matters with a rude jest, now met his councillors with brutal fits of rage. The Germans deemed him a fool, and were not far amiss in their opinion; but as he did not meddle with them, except in holding an occasional useless diet at Nuremberg, they did not meddle with him. The Bohemians, among whom he lived, his residence being at Prague, found his rule much more of a burden. They were exposed to his savage caprices, and regarded him as a brutal and senseless tyrant.
That there was method in his madness the following anecdote will sufficiently show. Former kings had invested the Bohemian nobles with possessions which he, moved by cupidity, determined to have back. This is the method he took to obtain them. All the nobles of the land were invited to meet him at Willamow, where he received them in a black tent, which opened on one side into a white, and on the other into a red one. Into this tent of ominous hue the waiting nobles were admitted, one at a time, and were here received by the emperor, who peremptorily bade them declare what lands they held as gifts from the crown.
Those who gave the information asked, and agreed to cede these lands back to the crown, were led into the white tent, where an ample feast awaited them. Those who refused were dismissed with frowns into the red tent, where they found awaiting them the headsman's fatal block and axe. The hapless guests were instantly seized and beheaded.
This ghastly jest, if such it may be considered, proceeded for some time before the nobles still waiting learned what was going on. When at length a whisper of the frightful mystery of the red tent was borne to their ears, there were no longer any candidates for its favors. The emperor found them eagerly willing to give up the ceded lands, and all that remained found their way to the white tent and the feast.
The emperor's next act of arbitrary tyranny was directed against the Jews. One of that people had ridiculed the sacrament, in consequence of which three thousand Jews of Prague were massacred by the populace of that city. Wenceslas, instead of punishing the murderers, as justice would seem to have demanded, solaced his easy conscience by punishing the victims, declaring all debts owed by Christians to Jews to be null and void.
His next act of injustice and cruelty was perpetrated in 1393, and arose from a dispute between the crown and the church. One of the royal chamberlains had caused two priests to be executed on the accusation of committing a flagrant crime. This action was resented by the Archbishop of Prague, who declared that it was an encroachment upon the prerogative of the church, which alone had the right to punish an ecclesiastic. He, therefore, excommunicated the chamberlain.
This action of the daring churchman threw the emperor into such a paroxysm of rage that the archbishop, knowing well the man he had to deal with, took to flight, saving his neck at the expense of his dignity. The furious Wenceslas, finding that the chief offender had escaped, vented his wrath on the subordinates, several of whom were seized. One of them, the dean, moved by indignation, dealt the emperor so heavy a blow on the head with his sword-knot as to bring the blood. It does not appear that he was made to suffer for his boldness, but two of the lower ecclesiastics, John of Nepomuk and Puchnik, were put to the rack to make them confess facts learned by them in the confessional. They persistently refused to answer. Wenceslas, infuriated by their obstinacy, himself seized a torch and applied it to their limbs to make them speak. They were still silent. The affair ended in his ordering John of Nepomuk to be flung headlong, during the night, from the great bridge over the Moldau into the stream. A statue now marks the spot where this act of tyranny was performed.
The final result of the emperor's cruelty was one which he could not have foreseen. He had made a saint of Nepomuk. The church, appreciating the courageous devotion of the murdered ecclesiastic to his duty in keeping inviolate the secrets of the confessional, canonized him as a martyr, and made him the patron saint of Bohemia.
Puchnik escaped with his life, and eventually with more than his life. The tyrant's wrath was followed by remorse,—a feeling, apparently, which rarely troubled his soul,—and he sought to atone for his cruelty to one churchman by loading the other with benefits. But his mad fury changed to as mad a benevolence, and he managed to make a jest of his gratuity. Puchnik was led into the royal treasury, and the emperor himself, thrusting his royal hands into his hoards of gold, filled the pockets, and even the boots, of the late sufferer with the precious coin. This done, Puchnik attempted to depart, but in vain. He found himself nailed to the floor, so weighed down with gold that he was unable to stir. Before he could move he had to disgorge much of his new-gained wealth, a proceeding to which churchmen in that age do not seem to have been greatly given. Doubtless the remorseful Wenceslas beheld this process with a grim smile of royal humor on his lips.
The emperor had a brother, Sigismund by name, a man not of any high degree of wisdom, but devoid of his wild and immoderate temper. Brandenburg was his inheritance, though he had married the daughter of the King of Hungary and Poland, and hoped to succeed to those countries. There was a third brother, John, surnamed "Von Goerlitz." Sigismund was by no means blind to his brother's folly, or to the ruin in which it threatened to involve his family and his own future prospects. This last exploit stirred him to action. Concerting with some other princes of the empire, he suddenly seized Wenceslas, carried him to Austria, and imprisoned him in the castle of Wiltberg, in that country.
A fair disposal, this, of a man who was scarcely fit to run at large, most reasonable persons would say; but all did not think so. John von Goerlitz, the younger brother of the emperor, fearing public scandal from such a transaction, induced the princes who held him to set him free. It proved a fatal display of kindness and family affection for himself. The imperial captive was no sooner free than, concealing the wrath which he felt at his incarceration, he invited to a banquet certain Bohemian nobles who had aided in it. They came, trusting to the fact that the tiger's claws seemed sheathed. They had no sooner arrived than the claws were displayed. They were all seized, by the emperor's order, and beheaded. Then the dissimulating madman turned on his benevolent brother John, who had taken control of affairs in Bohemia during his imprisonment, and poisoned him. It was a new proof of the old adage, it is never safe to warm a frozen adder.
The restoration of Wenceslas was followed by other acts of folly. In the following year, 1395, he sold to John Galcazzo Visconti, of Milan, the dignity of a duke in Lombardy, a transaction which exposed him to general contempt. At a later date he visited Paris, and here, in a drunken frolic, he played into the hands of the King of France by ceding Genoa to that country, and by recognizing the antipope at Avignon, instead of Boniface IX. at Rome. These acts filled the cup of his folly. The princes of the empire resolved to depose him. A council was called, before which he was cited to appear. He refused to come, and was formally deposed, Rupert, of the Palatinate, being elected in his stead. Ten years afterwards, in 1410, Rupert died, and Sigismund became Emperor of Germany.
Meanwhile, Wenceslas remained King of Bohemia, in spite of his brother Sigismund, who sought to oust him from this throne also. He took him prisoner, indeed, but trusted him to the Austrians, who at once set him free, and the Bohemians replaced him on the throne. Some years afterwards, war continuing, Wenceslas sought to get rid of his brother Sigismund in the same manner as he had disposed of his brother John, by poison. He was successful in having it administered to Sigismund and his ally, Albert of Austria, in their camp before Zuaym. Albert died, but Sigismund was saved by a rude treatment which seems to have been in vogue in that day. He was suspended by the feet for twenty-four hours, so that the poison ran out of his mouth.
The later events in the life of Wenceslas have to do with the most famous era in the history of Bohemia, the reformation in that country, and the stories of John Huss and Ziska. The fate of Huss is well known. Summoned before the council at Constance, and promised a safe-conduct by the Emperor Sigismund, he went, only to find the emperor faithless to his word and himself condemned and burnt as a heretic. This base act of treachery was destined to bring a bloody retribution. It infuriated the reformers in Bohemia, who, after brooding for several years over their wrongs, broke out into an insurrection of revenge.
The leader of this outbreak was an officer of experience, named John Ziska, a man who had lost one eye in childhood, and who bitterly hated the priesthood for a wrong done to one of his sisters. The martyrdom of Huss threw him into such deep and silent dejection, that one day the king, in whose court he was, asked him why he was so sad.
"Huss is burnt, and we have not yet avenged him," replied Ziska.
"I can do nothing in that direction," said Wenceslas; adding, carelessly, "you might attempt it yourself."
This was spoken as a jest, but Ziska took it in deadly earnest. He, aided by his friends, roused the people, greatly to the alarm of the king, who ordered the citizens to bring their arms to the royal castle of Wisherad, which commanded the city of Prague.
Ziska heard the command, and obeyed it in his own way. The arms were brought, but they came in the hands of the citizens, who marched in long files to the fortress, and drew themselves up before the king, Ziska at their head.
"My gracious and mighty sovereign, here we are," said the bold leader; "we await your commands; against what enemy are we to fight?"
Wenceslas looked at those dense groups of armed and resolute men, and concluded that his purpose of disarming them would not work. Assuming a cheerful countenance, he bade them return home and keep the peace. They obeyed, so far as returning home was concerned. In other matters they had learned their power, and were bent on exerting it.
Nicolas of Hussinez, Huss's former lord, and Ziska's seconder in this outbreak, was banished from the city by the king. He went, but took forty thousand men with him, who assembled on a mountain which was afterwards known by the biblical name of Mount Tabor. Here several hundred tables were spread for the celebration of the Lord's Supper, July 22, 1419.
Wenceslas, in attempting to put a summary end to the disturbance in the city, quickly made bad worse. He deposed the Hussite city council in the Neustadt, the locality of greatest disturbance, and replaced it by a new one in his own interests. This action filled Prague with indignation, which was redoubled when the new council sent two clamorous Hussites to prison. On the 30th of July Ziska led a strong body of his partisans through the streets to the council-house, and sternly demanded that the prisoners should be set free.
The councillors hesitated,—a fatal hesitation. A stone was flung from one of the windows. Instantly the mob stormed the building, rushed into the council-room, and seized the councillors, thirteen of whom, Germans by birth, were flung out of the windows. They were received on the pikes of the furious mob below, and the whole of them murdered.
This act of violence was quickly followed by others. The dwelling of a priest, supposed to have been that of the seducer of Ziska's sister, was destroyed and its owner hanged; the Carthusian monks were dragged through the streets, crowned with thorns, and other outrages perpetrated against the opponents of the party of reform.
A few days afterwards the career of Wenceslas, once Emperor of Germany, now King of Bohemia, came to an abrupt end. On August 16 he suddenly died,—by apoplexy, say some historians, while others say that he was suffocated in his palace by his own attendants. The latter would seem a fitting end for a man whose life had been marked by so many acts of tyrannous violence, some of them little short of insanity.
Whatever its cause, his death removed the last restraint from the mob. On the following day every church and monastery in Prague was assailed and plundered, their pictures were destroyed, and the robes of the priests were converted into flags and dresses. Many of these buildings are said to have been splendidly decorated, and the royal palace, which was also destroyed, had been adorned by Wenceslas and his father with the richest treasures of art. We are told that on the walls of a garden belonging to the palace the whole of the Bible was written. While the work of destruction went on, a priest formed an altar in the street of three tubs, covered by a broad table-top, from which all day long he dispensed the sacrament in both forms.
The excesses of this outbreak soon frightened the wealthier citizens, who dreaded an assault upon their wealth, and, in company with Sophia, the widow of Wenceslas, they sent a deputation to the emperor, asking him to make peace. He replied by swearing to take a fearful revenge on the insurgents. The insurrection continued, despite this action of the nobles and the threats of the emperor. Ziska, finding the citizens too moderate, invited into the city the peasants, who were armed with flails, and committed many excesses.
Forced by the moderate party to leave the city, Ziska led his new adherents to Mount Tabor, which he fortified and prepared to defend. They called themselves the "people of God," and styled their Catholic opponents "Moabites," "Amalekites," etc., declaring that it was their duty to extirpate them. Their leader entitled himself "John Ziska, of the cup, captain, in the hope of God, of the Taborites."
But having brought the story of the Emperor Wenceslas to an end, we must stop at this point. The after-life of John Ziska was of such stir and interest, and so filled with striking events, that we shall deal with it by itself, in a sequel to the present story.
SEMPACH AND ARNOLD WINKELRIED.
Seventy years had passed since the battle of Morgarten, through which freedom came to the lands of the Swiss. Throughout that long period Austria had let the liberty-loving mountaineers alone, deterred by the frightful lesson taught them in the bloody pass. In the interval the confederacy had grown more extensive. The towns of Berne, Zurich, Soleure, and Zug had joined it; and now several other towns and villages, incensed by the oppression and avarice of their Austrian masters, threw off the foreign yoke and allied themselves to the Swiss confederacy. It was time for the Austrians to be moving, if they would retain any possessions in the Alpine realm of rocks.
Duke Leopold of Austria, a successor to the Leopold who had learned so well at Morgarten how the Swiss could strike for liberty, and as bold and arrogant as he, grew incensed at the mountaineers for taking into their alliance several towns which were subject to him, and vowed not only to chastise these rebels, but to subdue the whole country, and put an end to their insolent confederacy. His feeling was shared by the Austrian nobles, one hundred and sixty-seven of whom joined in his warlike scheme, and agreed to aid him in putting down the defiant mountaineers.
War resolved upon, the Austrians laid a shrewd plan to fill the Swiss confederates with terror in advance of their approach. Letters declaring war were sent to the confederate assembly by twenty distinct expresses, with the hope that this rapid succession of threats would overwhelm them with fear. The separate nobles followed with their declarations. On St. John's day a messenger arrived from Wuertemberg bearing fifteen declarations of war. Hardly had these letters been read when nine more arrived, sent by John Ulric of Pfirt and eight other nobles. Others quickly followed; it fairly rained declarations of war; the members of the assembly had barely time to read one batch of threatening fulminations before another arrived. Letters from the lords of Thurn came after those named, followed by a batch from the nobles of Schaffhausen. This seemed surely enough, but on the following day the rain continued, eight successive messengers arriving, who bore no less than forty-three declarations of war.
It seemed as if the whole north was about to descend in a cyclone of banners and spears upon the mountain land. The assembly sat breathless under this torrent of threats. Had their hearts been open to the invasion of terror they must surely have been overwhelmed, and have waited in the supineness of fear for the coming of their foes.
But the hearts of the Swiss were not of that kind. They were too full of courage and patriotism to leave room for dismay. Instead of awaiting their enemies with dread, a burning impatience animated their souls. If liberty or death were the alternatives, the sooner the conflict began the more to their liking it would be. The cry of war resounded through the country, and everywhere, in valley and on mountain, by lake-side and by glacier's rim, the din of hostile preparation might have been heard, as the patriots arranged their affairs and forged and sharpened their weapons for the coming fray.
Far too impatient were they to wait for the coming of Leopold and his army. There were Austrian nobles and Austrian castles within their land. No sooner was the term of the armistice at an end than the armed peasantry swarmed about these strongholds, and many a fortress, long the seat of oppression, was taken and levelled with the ground. The war-cry of Leopold and the nobles had inspired a different feeling from that counted upon.
It was not long before Duke Leopold appeared. At the head of a large and well-appointed force, and attended by many distinguished knights and nobles, he marched into the mountain region and advanced upon Sempach, one of the revolted towns, resolved, he said, to punish its citizens with a rod of iron for their daring rebellion.
On the 9th of July, 1386, the Austrian cavalry, several thousands in number, reached the vicinity of Sempach, having distanced the foot-soldiers in the impatient haste of their advance. Here they found the weak array of the Swiss gathered on the surrounding heights, and as eager as themselves for the fray. It was a small force, no stronger than that of Morgarten, comprising only about fourteen hundred poorly-armed men. Some carried halberds, some shorter weapons, while some among them, instead of a shield, had only a small board fastened to the left arm. It seemed like madness for such a band to dare contend with the thousands of well-equipped invaders. But courage and patriotism go far to replace numbers, as that day was to show.
Leopold looked upon his handful of foes, and decided that it would be folly to wait for the footmen to arrive. Surely his host of nobles and knights, with their followers, would soon sweep these peasants, like so many locusts, from their path. Yet he remembered the confusion into which the cavalry had been thrown at Morgarten, and deeming that horsemen were ill-suited to an engagement on those wooded hill-sides, he ordered the entire force to dismount and attack on foot.
The plan adopted was that the dismounted knights and soldiers should join their ranks as closely as possible, until their front presented an unbroken wall of iron, and thus arrayed should charge the enemy spear in hand. Leaving their attendants in charge of their horses, the serried column of footmen prepared to advance, confident of sweeping their foes to death before their closely-knit line of spears.
Yet this plan of battle was not without its critics. The Baron of Hasenburg, a veteran soldier, looked on it with disfavor, as contrasted with the position of vantage occupied by the Swiss, and cautioned the duke and his nobles against undue assurance.
"Pride never served any good purpose in peace or war," he said. "We had much better wait until the infantry come up."
This prudent advice was received with shouts of derision by the nobles, some of whom cried out insultingly,—
"Der Hasenburg hat ein Hasenherz" ("Hasenburg has a hare's heart," a play upon the baron's name).
Certain nobles, however, who had not quite lost their prudence, tried to persuade the duke to keep in the rear, as the true position for a leader. He smiled proudly in reply, and exclaimed with impatience,—
"What! shall Leopold be a mere looker-on, and calmly behold his knights die around him in his own cause? Never! here on my native soil with you I will conquer or perish with my people." So saying, he placed himself at the head of the troops.
And now the decisive moment was at hand. The Swiss had kept to the heights while their enemy continued mounted, not venturing to face such a body of cavalry on level ground. But when they saw them forming as foot-soldiers, they left the hills and marched to the plain below. Soon the unequal forces confronted each other; the Swiss, as was their custom, falling upon their knees and praying for God's aid to their cause; the Austrians fastening their helmets and preparing for the fray. The duke even took the occasion to give the honor of knighthood to several young warriors.
The day was a hot and close one, the season being that of harvest, and the sun pouring down its unclouded and burning rays upon the combatants. This sultriness was a marked advantage to the lightly-dressed mountaineers as compared with the armor-clad knights, to whom the heat was very oppressive.
The battle was begun by the Swiss, who, on rising from their knees, flung themselves with impetuous valor on the dense line of spears that confronted them. Their courage and fury were in vain. Not a man in the Austrian line wavered. They stood like a rock against which the waves of the Swiss dashed only to be hurled back in death. The men of Lucerne, in particular, fought with an almost blind rage, seeking to force a path through that steel-pointed forest of spears, and falling rapidly before the triumphant foe.
Numbers of the mountaineers lay dead or wounded. The line of spears seemed impenetrable. The Swiss began to waver. The enemy, seeing this, advanced the flanks of his line so as to form a half-moon shape, with the purpose of enclosing the small body of Swiss within a circle of spears. It looked for the moment as if the struggle were at an end, the mountaineers foiled and defeated, the fetters again ready to be locked upon the limbs of free Switzerland.
But such was not to be. There was a man in that small band of patriots who had the courage to accept certain death for his country, one of those rare souls who appear from time to time in the centuries and win undying fame by an act of self-martyrdom. Arnold of Winkelried was his name, a name which history is not likely soon to forget, for by an impulse of the noblest devotion this brave patriot saved the liberties of his native land.
Seeing that there was but one hope for the Swiss, and that death must be the lot of him who gave them that hope, he exclaimed to his comrades, in a voice of thunder,—
"Faithful and beloved confederates, I will open a passage to freedom and victory! Protect my wife and children!"
With these words, he rushed from his ranks, flung himself upon the enemy's steel-pointed line, and seized with his extended arms as many of the hostile spears as he was able to grasp, burying them in his body, and sinking dead to the ground.
His comrades lost not a second in availing themselves of this act of heroic devotion. Darting forward, they rushed over the body of the martyr to liberty into the breach he had made, forced others of the spears aside, and for the first time since the fray began reached the Austrians with their weapons.
A hasty and ineffective effort was made to close the breach. It only added to the confusion which the sudden assault had caused. The line of hurrying knights became crowded and disordered. The furious Swiss broke through in increasing numbers. Overcome with the heat, many of the knights fell from exhaustion, and died without a wound, suffocated in their armor. Others fell below the blows of the Swiss. The line of spears, so recently intact, was now broken and pierced at a dozen points, and the revengeful mountaineers were dealing death upon their terrified and feebly-resisting foes.
The chief banner of the host had twice sunk and been raised again, and was drooping a third time, when Ulric, a knight of Aarburg, seized and lifted it, defending it desperately till a mortal blow laid him low.
"Save Austria! rescue!" he faltered with his dying breath.
Duke Leopold, who was pushing through the confused throng, heard him and caught the banner from his dying hand. Again it waved aloft, but now crimsoned with the blood of its defender.
The Swiss, determined to capture it, pressed upon its princely bearer, surrounded him, cut down on every side the warriors who sought to defend him and the standard.
"Since so many nobles and knights have ended their days in my cause, let me honorably follow them," cried the despairing duke, and in a moment he rushed into the midst of the hostile ranks, vanishing from the eyes of his attendants. Blows rained on his iron mail. In the pressure of the crowd he fell to the earth. While seeking to raise himself again in his heavy armor, he cried, in his helpless plight, to a Swiss soldier, who had approached him with raised weapon,—
"I am the Prince of Austria."
The man either heard not his words, or took no heed of princes. The weapon descended with a mortal blow. Duke Leopold of Austria was dead.
The body of the slain duke was found by a knight, Martin Malterer, who bore the banner of Freiburg. On recognizing him, he stood like one petrified, let the banner fall from his hand, and then threw himself on the body of the prince, that it might not be trampled under foot by the contending forces. In this position he soon received his own death-wound.
By this time the state of the Austrians was pitiable. The signal for retreat was given, and in utter terror and dismay they fled for their horses. Alas, too late! The attendants, seeing the condition of their masters, and filled with equal terror, had mounted the horses, and were already in full flight.
Nothing remained for the knights, oppressed with their heavy armor, exhausted with thirst and fatigue, half suffocated with the scorching heat, assailed on every side by the light-armed and nimble Swiss, but to sell their lives as dearly as possible. In a short time more all was at an end. The last of the Austrians fell. On that fatal field there had met their death, at the hands of the small body of Swiss, no less than six hundred and fifty-six knights, barons, and counts, together with thousands of their men-at-arms.
Thus ended the battle of Sempach, with its signal victory to the Swiss, one of the most striking which history records, if we consider the great disproportion in numbers and in warlike experience and military equipment of the combatants. It secured to Switzerland the liberty for which they had so valiantly struck at Morgarten seventy years before.
But all Switzerland was not yet free, and more blows were needed to win its full liberty. The battle of Naefels, in 1388, added to the width of the free zone. In this the peasants of Glarus rolled stones on the Austrian squadrons, and set fire to the bridges over which they fled, two thousand five hundred of the enemy, including a great number of nobles, being slain. In the same year the peasants of Valais defeated the Earl of Savoy at Visp, putting four thousand of his men to the sword. The citizens of St. Gall, infuriated by the tyranny of the governor of the province of Schwendi, broke into insurrection, attacked the castle of Schwendi, and burnt it to the ground. The governor escaped. All the castles in the vicinity were similarly dealt with, and the whole district set free.
Shortly after 1400 the citizens of St. Gall joined with the peasants against their abbot, who ruled them with a hand of iron. The Swabian cities were asked to decide the dispute, and decided that cities could only confederate with cities, not with peasants, thus leaving the Appenzellers to their fate. At this decision the herdsmen rose in arms, defeated abbot and citizens both, and set their country free, all the neighboring peasantry joining their band of liberty. A few years later the people of this region joined the confederation, which now included nearly the whole of the Alpine country, and was strong enough to maintain its liberty for centuries thereafter. It was not again subdued until the legions of Napoleon trod over its mountain paths.
ZISKA, THE BLIND WARRIOR.
Sigismund, Emperor of Germany, had sworn to put an end to the Hussite rebellion in Bohemia, and to punish the rebels in a way that would make all future rebels tremble. But Sigismund was pursuing the old policy of cooking the hare before it was caught. He forgot that the indomitable John Ziska and the iron-flailed peasantry stood between him and his vow. He had first to conquer the reformers before he could punish them, and this was to prove no easy task.
The dreadful work of religious war began with the burning of Hussite preachers who had ventured from Bohemia into Germany. This was an argument which Ziska thoroughly understood, and he retorted by destroying the Bohemian monasteries, and burning the priests alive in barrels of pitch. "They are singing my sister's wedding song," exclaimed the grim barbarian, on hearing their cries of torture. Queen Sophia, widow of Wenceslas, the late king, who had garrisoned all the royal castles, now sent a strong body of troops against the reformers. The army came up with the multitude, which was largely made up of women and children, on the open plain near Pilsen. The cavalry charged upon the seemingly helpless mob. But Ziska was equal to the occasion. He ordered the women to strew the ground with their gowns and veils, and the horses' feet becoming entangled in these, numbers of the riders were thrown, and the trim lines of the troops broken.
Seeing the confusion into which they had been thrown, Ziska gave the order to charge, and in a short time the army that was to defeat him was flying in a panic across the plain, a broken and beaten mob. Another army marched against him, and was similarly defeated; and the citizens of Prague, finding that no satisfactory terms could be made with the emperor, recalled Ziska, and entered into alliance with him. The one-eyed patriot was now lord of the land, all Bohemia being at his beck and call.
Meanwhile Sigismund, the emperor, was slowly gathering his forces to invade the rebellious land. The reign of cruelty continued, each side treating its prisoners barbarously. The Imperialists branded theirs with a cup, the Hussites theirs with a cross, on their foreheads. The citizens of Breslau joined those of Prague, and emulated them by flinging their councillors out of the town-house windows. In return the German miners of Kuttenberg threw sixteen hundred Hussites down the mines. Such is religious war, the very climax of cruelty.
In June, 1420, the threatened invasion came. Sigismund led an army, one hundred thousand strong, into the revolted land, fulminating vengeance as he marched. He reached Prague and entered the castle of Wisherad, which commanded it. Ziska fortified the mountain of Witlow (now called Ziskaberg), which also commanded the city. Sigismund, finding that he had been outgeneralled, and that his opponent held the controlling position, waited and temporized, amusing himself meanwhile by assuming the crown of Bohemia, and sowing dissension in his army by paying the Slavonian and Hungarian troops with the jewels taken from the royal palaces and the churches, while leaving the Germans unpaid. The Germans, furious, marched away. The emperor was obliged to follow. The ostentatious invasion was at an end, and scarcely a blow had been struck.
But Sigismund had no sooner gone than trouble arose in Prague. The citizens, the nobility, and Ziska's followers were all at odds. The Taborites—those strict republicans and religious reformers who had made Mount Tabor their head-quarters—were in power, and ruled the city with a rod of iron, destroying all the remaining splendor of the churches and sternly prohibiting every display of ostentation by the people. Death was named as the punishment for such venial faults as dancing, gambling, or the wearing of rich attire. The wine-cellars were rigidly closed. Church property was declared public property, and it looked as if private wealth would soon be similarly viewed. The peasants declared that it was their mission to exterminate sin from the earth.
This tyranny so incensed the nobles and citizens that they rose in self-defence, and Ziska, finding that Prague had grown too hot to hold him, deemed it prudent to lead his men away. Sigismund took immediate advantage of the opportunity by marching on Prague. But, quick as he was, there were others quicker. The more moderate section of the reformers, the so-called Horebites,—from Mount Horeb, another place of assemblage,—entered the city, led by Hussinez, Huss's former lord, and laid siege to the royal fortress, the Wisherad. Sigismund attempted to surprise him, but met with so severe a repulse that he fled into Hungary, and the Wisherad was forced to capitulate, this ancient palace and its church, both splendid works of art, being destroyed. Step by step the art and splendor of Bohemia were vanishing in this despotic struggle between heresy and the papacy.
As the war went on, Ziska, its controlling spirit, grew steadily more abhorrent of privilege and distinction, more bitterly fanatical. The ancient church, royalty, nobility, all excited his wrath. He was republican, socialist, almost anarchist in his views. His idea of perfection lay in a fraternity composed of the children of God, while he trusted to the strokes of the iron flail to bear down all opposition to his theory of society. The city of Prachaticz treated him with mockery, and was burnt to the ground, with all its inhabitants. The Bishop of Nicopolis fell into his hands, and was flung into the river. As time went on, his war of extermination against sinners—that is, all who refused to join his banner—grew more cruel and unrelenting. Each city that resisted was stormed and ruined, its inhabitants slaughtered, its priests burned. Hussite virtue had degenerated into tyranny of the worst type. Yet, while thus fanatical himself, Ziska would not permit his followers to indulge in insane excesses of religious zeal. A party arose which claimed that the millennium was at hand, and that it was their duty to anticipate the coming of the innocence of Paradise, by going naked, like Adam and Eve. These Adamites committed the maddest excesses, but found a stern enemy in Ziska, who put them down with an unsparing hand.
In 1421 Sigismund again roused himself to activity, incensed by the Hussite defiance of his authority. He incited the Silesians to invade Bohemia, and an army of twenty thousand poured into the land, killing all before them,—men, women, and children. Yet such was the terror that the very name of Ziska now excited, that the mere rumor of his approach sent these invaders flying across the borders.
But, in the midst of his career of triumph, an accident came to the Bohemian leader which would have incapacitated any less resolute man from military activity. During the siege of the castle of Raby a splinter struck his one useful eye and completely deprived him of sight. It did not deprive him of power and energy. Most men, under such circumstances, would have retired from army leadership, but John Ziska was not of that calibre. He knew Bohemia so thoroughly that the whole land lay accurately mapped out in his mind. He continued to lead his army, to marshal his men in battle array, to command them in the field and the siege, despite his blindness, always riding in a carriage, close to the great standard, and keeping in immediate touch with all the movements of the war.
Blind as he was, he increased rather than diminished the severity of his discipline, and insisted on rigid obedience to his commands. As an instance of this we are told that, on one occasion, having compelled his troops to march day and night, as was his custom, they murmured and said,—