All for one, One for All
The Federal Charter or Letter of Alliance (in German: Bundesbrief) documents the Eternal Alliance or League Of The Three Forest Cantons (in German Ewiger Bund der Drei Waldstätten), the union of three cantons in what is now central Switzerland, formed in early August, 1291.
This inaugural confederation grew through a long series of accessions to modern Switzerland. The Alliance was concluded between areas Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden (homines vallis Uranie universitasque vallis de Switz ac communitas hominum Intramontanorum Vallis Inferioris). The participants are referred to as conspirati and (synonymously) coniurati, traditionally translated in German as “Eidgenossen”.
The league was set up as a league for defense purposes against any attacker, probably prompted by the death of Rudolf I of Habsburg on 15 July 1291. Before his death, Habsburg attempted to reinforce his claim over Schwyz and Unterwalden which meant a succession of military interventions.
The Bundesbrief is often compared to the English Magna Carta for its similar dates and circumstances, yet differs in its content. The Magna Carta of 1215AD is often thought of as the corner-stone of liberty and the chief defense against arbitrary and unjust rule in England. It is a series of concessions wrung from the unwilling King John by his rebellious barons in 1215. However, Magna Carta established for the first time a very significant constitutional principle: that the power of the king could be limited by a written grant.
Three copies of the original Bundesbrief were created; two survive; one from Schwyz which resides in its cantonal museum.
Parchment is a stiff, flat, thin material made from the prepared skin of an animal and used as a durable writing surface in ancient and medieval times.
The Bundesbrief bespeaks of reason, authority, liberty, fairness and permanence and seems the platonic ideal of a renaissance confederal document; a structure rising above the evanescent details of time. The Bundesbrief is a stepping stone in constitutional formulation history and we seek to explain its context, vernacular and epochal phenomenon. The Bundesbrief will stand preserved as it is, a bearer of a message that defies time and change and appeals to our democratic sensibilities.
Coming out of the Middle Ages (400-1500) and entering the Renaissance (1300-1700), the Swiss confereration with its Bundesbrief of 1291 led the way forward in representative democracy and self government throughout Europe. Surrounded by monarchs and powerful external forces, the people of the forest kingdom fought to establish a protective pact and organization of self rule. The Bundesbrief Society seeks to spread the news of this courageous endeavor and to also support other nations with growing interest in democracy and constitutional formulation.
The Charter of 1 August 1291
In the Name of God, Amen.
The public reputation and well-being requires confirmation of lasting pacts for peace and order.
For this reason, all the people of the valley of Uri, the people of the valley of Schwyz, and the community in the lower valley of Unterwalden, in view of the perils of this age, for their better defense and protection, have pledged one another mutual assistance, counsel, and support, both within the valleys and without—not sparing their lives, property, and entire fortunes—against anyone who commits injustice or who by force threatens life or property.
And every community pledges to come to one another’s aid as necessary, and at their own expense, to repel malicious attack and to avenge injustice; and to this end they have sworn a solemn oath to renew the ancient league. However, in so doing each man shall, according to his station, serve his overlord as is fitting and proper.
We have also vowed, decreed and ordained in common council and by unanimous consent, that we will accept or receive no judge in the aforesaid valleys, who shall have purchased his office; or one who shall not be a native or a resident among us. But if conflict arises between any of the Eidgenossen (confederates; Eid = oath, Genosse = fellow or comrade), the wisest among the confederates shall come forth to resolve the difficulty between the parties, as shall seem right to them; and whichever party rejects their verdict shall be considered an adversary by the other confederates.
Furthermore, it has been established between the confederates that anyone who deliberately kills another without provocation shall, if caught, forfeit his life as his evil deed demands, unless he is able to prove his innocence of said crime; and if by some chance is he is able to escape, then let him never return. Those who conceal and protect any such criminal shall be banished, until they be expressly recalled by the confederates.
If any confederate, by day or by stealth in the night, maliciously injures another by setting fire, he shall never again be considered a countryman. If any man protects and defends such an evil-doer, he shall render satisfaction to the injured party.
Furthermore, if any confederate shall take another’s goods or injure him in any way, the goods of the guilty party, if recovered within the territory of this league, shall be seized to pay damages to the injured party, in a just manner.
Furthermore, no man shall seize another’s goods for repayment of debt, unless he be his debtor or surety, and this step shall be taken only by special permission of his judge.
Moreover, every man shall obey his judge, and if necessary, he must himself name the judge in the valley to whom he is answerable. And if anyone rejects a verdict of the court and, as a result of his obstinacy, another confederate is harmed, the confederates are pledged to compel the offender to give satisfaction in the matter.
And if war or conflict should occur among any of the confederates, and one of the disputing parties refuses to accept the verdict of the judge or to give satisfaction, the confederates are pledged to stand with the other party.
The above-written statutes, decreed for the common welfare and benefit shall, God willing, endure forever. In testimony whereof, at the request of the aforesaid parties, this charter has been made and confirmed with the seals of the aforesaid three communities and valleys.
Done in the year of our Lord 1291, at the beginning of the month of August.
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