On August 1, Switzerland commemorates the signing of what is generally considered to be the founding document of the Swiss Confederation, the Federal Charter of 1291 (Bundesbrief von 1291). It is believed that approximately on this date, representatives from the cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Nidwalden met on the Rütli meadow and pledged allegiance to help each other resist any threat of violence or injustice. In addition, the document contained civil and criminal procedure rules.
It wasn’t until 1889 though, that the Swiss government, the Swiss Federal Council, named August 1, 1291 as the founding day of the Swiss Confederation. The Federal Council suggested to the Swiss parliament, the Swiss Federal Assembly, that from 1891 and henceforth August 1 should be celebrated as Swiss National Day. In 1899, the Swiss Federal Council officially made August 1 the National Day of the Swiss Confederation. On September 1993, a referendum approved the day as an official public holiday. The result of the referendum was codified in article 110, paragraph 3 of the Swiss Constitution (former article 116bis) which provides that “August 1 is the National Day of the Swiss Confederation…equivalent to a Sunday”.
Original Text of the Federal Charter of 1291
Excerpts from the original document in Latin read as follows:
In nomine Domini, Amen. […] Noverint igitur universi, quod homines vallis Uraniae, universitasque vallis de Switz, ac communitas hominum Intramontanorum vallis inferioris, malitiam temporis attendentes, ut se, et sua magis defendere valeant, et in statu debito melius conservare, fide bona promiserunt, invicem sibi assistere, auxilio, consilio, quolibet ac favore, personis et rebus, infra valles et extra, toto posse, toto nisu, contra omnes ac singugulos, qui eis, vel alicui de ipsis, aliquam intulerint violentiam, molestiam, aut iniuriam, in personis et rebus malum quodlibet machinando…
In the name of God, Amen. […] In view of the troubled circumstances of this time, the people and communities of Uri, Schwyz and Nidwalden promise to assist each other by every means possible against one and all who may inflict on them or their property violence or injustice within their valleys and without.
The story of the meeting of three confederates from the cantons Uri, Schwyz and Nidwalden on the Rütli meadow by Lake Lucerne who pledge allegiance to each other is known to every Swiss schoolchild. It is prominently featured in Friedrich Schiller‘s story of William Tell, who revolted against the Habsburg rule. William Tell was forced to shoot an apple off his son’s head with his crossbow for refusing to bow to a hat symbolizing the bailiff sent by the Habsburg emperor. He succeeded thereby saving both his and his son’s life, but later assassinated the bailiff with a second crossbow bolt. According to the legend, the assassination of the unjust ruler sparked a revolution and led to the formation of the Swiss Confederation.
The legend of William Tell and the founding of the Swiss Confederation were first mentioned by the historian Aegidius Tschudi in his book “Chronicon Helveticum“, who claimed that the pledge of allegiance on the Rütli meadow took place on November 8, 1307. This date, which is also inscribed on the monument of William Tell in the city of Altdorf, was not questioned for a long time, even though there was no documentary evidence to back it up. August 1, 1291 was not discussed, because the Federal Charter had been lost and was not rediscovered until 1758 in the state archives of the canton of Schwyz. Since then, the exact date of the founding of the Swiss Confederation was disputed and the question was not settled until the Swiss Federal Council decided to commemorate the national day on August 1, 1291.
Even though August 1 is now celebrated as Swiss National Day every year, it is still questioned as the founding date of the Swiss Confederation. Some point to the fact that the Federal Charter itself makes reference to an earlier alliance. (“… and to this end have sworn a solemn oath to uphold this agreement in confirmation and renewal of a more ancient accord.“). Nonetheless, the Federal Charter of 1291 has enormous cultural and historical value for Switzerland. The Museum of the Swiss Charters of Confederation shows how it fits into the overall context of Swiss history and the cherished values of cultural diversity, democracy, freedom, and independence. The Federal Charter of 1291 is seen as the embodiment of those values, even if it might not be the founding document of the Swiss Confederation.