Timeline of World History: Year by Year from Prehistory to Present Day








The Middle Ages

5th - 15th century






1 The Swiss defend themselves against the knights'
army of Duke Leopold I of Austria in the
Battle of Morgarten, book illustration, ca. 1450

In the 13th and 14th centuries, the 1 Swiss Confederation developed out of the region's defensive struggles against foreign domination. In the 16th century, it became a center of the Reformation, although large areas remained Catholic. Switzerland gained full sovereignty in the 17th century. Despite great structural and religious differences between the individual cantons, freedom from foreign domination remained a common goal. Nevertheless, it was not until after the interlude of a Helvetic Republic during the Napoleonic era and the great constitutional crisis of the Sonderbundskrieg (Special Alliance civil war) in 1847 that a unified federal state was founded.


From the Struggle for Independence to Neutrality

The Swiss Confederation developed out of local security alliances against the Habsburgs, Savoyards, and Burgundians.


In the High Middle Ages, today's Switzerland was part of the kingdom of Burgundy and—as part of the duchy of Swabia—of the kingdom of Germany. Many secular and ecclesiastical rulers held power, initially under the control of kings and dukes, but steadily increasing in autonomy. In the 13th century, the decline of the Hohenstaufens, who had reigned over Swabia, accelerated this process.

As the 3 Savoyards in the southwest and the 4 Habsburgs in the north began to dominate, cities and farm communities that sought to maintain independence allied against them.

3 Chillon Castle on Lake Geneva,
rebuilt by the Earls of Savoyen

4 The Habsburg in Aargau, residence of the
Habsburgs since the eleventh с

The original cantons of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden united in 1291 in an 2 "eternal league" (Ewiger Bund), which became the nucleus of the Old Swiss Confederation.

2 The Oath of Rutli for the foundation
of the Swiss Confederation, 1291,
painting by Henry Fusely, 18th с

Once the league had defeated the Habsburgs at Morgarten in 1315, the cities of Bern and Zurich, among others, joined the confederation by 1353. The confederation's Habsburg allies, the Burgundians under Duke Charles the Bold, were defeated in 1476 at Grandson and Morat; Charles himself fell in the Battle of Nancy in 1477. The Swiss intervened independently in the war between France and the Habsburgs in Italy.

Though they were able to take Ticino, they adopted neutrality following their defeat by the French at 5 Marignano in 1515.

Clashes still occurred with the Savoyards— who relinquished Vaud and Geneva. Switzerland was also affected by the Thirty Years' War, as was Grisons, which was not then a member of the confederacy. Switzerland's independence was universally recognized at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.

5 King Francis I of France in the Battle of Marignano,
painting by Fragonard, ca, 1836


Francis I

Francis I, also called (until 1515) Francis of Angoulême, French François d’Angoulême (born Sept. 12, 1494, Cognac, France—died March 31, 1547, Rambouillet), king of France (1515–47), the first of five monarchs of the Angoulême branch of the House of Valois. A Renaissance patron of the arts and scholarship, a humanist, and a knightly king, he waged campaigns in Italy (1515–16) and fought a series of wars with the Holy Roman Empire (1521–44).

Early years
Francis was the son of Charles de Valois-Orleáns, comte d’Angoulême, and Louise of Savoy. On the accession of his cousin Louis XII in 1498, Francis became heir presumptive and was given the Duchy of Valois. With his sister Marguerite, he was raised by his mother, who had been widowed at the age of 20 and whom he deeply revered; he knelt whenever he spoke to her. No one had as much power over him as these two women. Idolized, he grew up following his own whims, without discipline and more infatuated with chivalrous romances, songs, and violent exercise than with classical studies. He was greatly admired by the gay, young circle of his mother’s cultured court for his athletic build and the elegance of his demeanour and manners. His need for female companions stemmed from this upbringing, as did his lack of realism and his chivalrous imagination.

Louis XII, distrustful of Francis, did not allow him to dabble in affairs of state but sent him off at the age of 18 to the frontiers, which had been attacked in force. There, Francis learned more about warfare and, being of a sensual nature, about the licentiousness of camp life than about how to govern the state or, even more, to govern himself. Shortly before his death, Louis XII married him to Claude, his 15-year-old daughter. On Jan. 1, 1515, at the age of 20, Francis became king of France.

His quick and shrewd mind, his amazing memory, and his universal curiosity compensated for his inexperience. But, because he was outgoing and trusting and incapable of dissembling, he was always a bad politician. The pomp of the Reims coronation, the sumptuous cortege of the solemn entry into Paris, and the lavish feasts revealed his love of ceremony and also pleased the people of Paris, who had been disheartened by a long succession of morose and sickly sovereigns.

Promise of a great reign
Louis XII had left an army prepared to reconquer the Duchy of Milan. This ill-fated dream of recovering his great-grandmother Valentina Visconti’s heritage—which had been lost, retaken, then lost again—fascinated Francis in his turn. Ambitious for glory and urged on by turbulent young nobles, he made sure of peace with his neighbours, entrusted the regency to his mother, and galloped off to Italy.

At the bloody Battle of Marignano, charging at the head of his cavalry, he defeated the reportedly invincible Swiss mercenaries of Duke Massimiliano Sforza and his ally Pope Leo X. After the victory, by his own wish, he was knighted by the captain who had fought most bravely: Bayard, the most famous chevalier of his time.

The Pope received his conqueror in Bologna. Surrounded by his glittering pontifical court and by his famous artists, he dazzled Francis with concerts, banquets, and theatrical performances. The Pope offered him a Madonna by Raphael and negotiated a concordat that returned to the Pope the benefices of the rich church of France, while the nomination of prelates was assigned to the King, who was desirous of strengthening his authority over a clergy grown too acquisitive and independent.

Buoyed up by a victor’s prestige, the King spoke as a sovereign, using for the first time the formula of absolute power: “For such is our pleasure.” Prosperity permitted him to grant a princely pension to Sforza, as well as to Leonardo da Vinci and other artists who brought masterpieces to his court. He also signed a perpetual peace treaty with the Swiss and bought back Tournai from Henry VIII of England. And, as a pledge of unalterable friendship, the first-born royal child, Princess Louise, was affianced to the Habsburg prince Charles, heir to the Netherlands and, at 16, the new king of Spain.

Everything forecast a great reign. Francis I formed a brilliant and scholarly court at which poets, musicians, and learned men mingled with rough noblemen from the provinces whom idleness was making dangerous. He welcomed lovely ladies at court, saying, “A court without women is a year without spring and a spring without roses.” The arts, elegance, and chivalrous gallantry served to refine the licentious manners of the court.

The frail queen Claude, gentle and pious, bore a child each year. Francis respected her and sought her advice. In the meantime, he loved the dark-haired comtesse de Châteaubriant, without, however, foregoing nocturnal escapades with his childhood companions, who had now become his ministers and his favourites.

Francis toured France tirelessly, showing himself to people who had never seen a king. He was constantly travelling on horseback, winter and summer, whether well or ill. He became familiar with everything: men, roads, rivers, resources, and needs. During his travels, he emptied prisons, curtailed the abuses of judicial powers by the nobles, lavished largesse on the people, and provided games and processions for them, speaking to them in his grand manner, warmly and openly: “My friends, my beloved ones . . . .”

Popular, happy, the father of two sons, he was the most powerful sovereign in all Christendom when, in 1519, the German emperor Maximilian died. The election as emperor of Maximilian’s grandson Charles spelled ruin for Francis I, for Charles, who was already king of Spain, now encircled France with his possessions.

Rivalry with Charles V
Nineteen years old, secretive, cool-headed, and a clever politician, the Emperor had his mind set on a universal monarchy. His chief obstacle was the King of France. A mortal hatred emerged from this rivalry, leading to 27 years of savage warfare, interrupted by truces that were invariably violated. In 1520, on the Field of Cloth of Gold near Calais, where both displayed unprecedented magnificence, Francis vainly sought an alliance with Henry VIII.

Hostilities between Charles V and France began in 1521 in the north and in the Pyrenees, while the two brothers of the King’s mistress were losing Milan. The soldiers remained unpaid, and the army was disintegrating. The King, unconcerned, arose late, paid little attention to his council, and gave orders without seeing that they were carried out. Money disappeared into thin air. A few paymasters were hanged, though in vain.

In 1523 the King demanded the return to the French state, according to law, of the vast provinces that the great feudal duke Charles de Bourbon thought he had inherited from his wife. Incensed, Bourbon turned traitor and joined the Emperor’s service, claiming that the French, weary of the prodigality of their sovereign, would rise up on an appeal from him. Commanding the imperial army, he invaded Provence, was driven back near Marseille, and withdrew toward Italy. Francis I was pursuing him when he learned of the death of his wife Claude, at the age of 24, exhausted from seven pregnancies. The death of his second daughter followed soon after. Meanwhile, the English and the Germans were advancing in the north. In vain, his mother begged him to return: “Our good angel has abandoned us. Your horoscope forecasts disaster!” At the Battle of Pavia in 1525, defeated and wounded, he was taken prisoner. “Madame, to inform you of the rest of my misfortune, I have nothing left to me save my honour and my life.”

As the price for the King’s freedom, the Emperor demanded one-third of France, the renunciation of France’s claim to Italy, and restitution to Bourbon of his fiefs, with the addition of Provence. “I am resolved to endure prison for as long as God wills rather than accept terms injurious to my kingdom!” replied the King.

Imprisoned in a dismal tower in Madrid, the recluse composed melancholy poems, songs, and letters to his subjects, heartrending in their humility and their tender nobility. The mortifying defeat, the dangerous situation of his country, and the confinement aggravated his habitual migraines, the consequence of old wounds and of newly contracted syphilis. When he was struck down by an abscess in his head, his people, loyal in bad fortune as in good, prayed for him. The Archbishop of Tournon said a mass at his bedside, in the presence of his sister Marguerite, who had hastened to Madrid.

Decline and death
Although Francis finally recovered, he did not cease to suffer. His personality changed. Sudden reversals of mood, excesses of severity and clemency, inconsistencies in his statesmanship and in his personal behaviour marked him; his mind sometimes wandered.

The Emperor persisted in his exorbitant claims. Resigned to die in prison, the King abdicated in favour of his eldest son. France judged this abdication to be the worst possible move. The Dauphin was too young; the country was lost without its leader. No matter what the cost, he would have to return home. The French ambassadors, with nominal cooperation by the King, concluded the harsh Treaty of Madrid. He signed it in January 1526, declaring that the word and signature of an imprisoned knight were valueless and that it was beyond his power to dismember his kingdom. Still bedridden, he was betrothed by proxy to Eleonora, widow of the King of Portugal and sister of his jailer. The wedding was to seal the reconciliation of the two rulers and was to follow execution of the treaty. As a last condition, Francis had to deliver his two eldest sons, seven and eight years old, as hostages.

The surrendered provinces refused to divorce themselves from France. The Emperor, furious with the perjured King, held the children prisoner for four years. His army plundered Italy and captured Pope Clement VII. Francis could not openly engage in the war that was again flaring up everywhere against Charles V. Doomed to disavow his promises to his secret allies, he fled from their envoys, either going on hunting trips from forest to forest or travelling around the country, building fairylike castles that he occupied only fleetingly and founding the free and secular Collège de France. Anne, duchesse d’Étampes, “the most beautiful of learned ladies, and the most learned of beautiful ladies,” replaced Madame de Châteaubriant, more as a companion than mistress.

Their raging hatred impelled Charles and Francis to challenge each other to a duel, which was, however, prevented. During one of the King’s relapses, his mother reached an agreement with Margaret of Austria, the Emperor’s aunt, to stop this deadly struggle. The ensuing Treaty of Cambrai softened that of Madrid. In order to get his children back, Francis had to abandon his allies, give up Italy, and pay 2,000,000 gold crowns. His foolish expenditures had emptied the treasury, and the ransom was collected only with difficulty. Finally, however, the little princes were able to attend their father’s political marriage to Eleonora in 1530.

In 1531 the King’s mother succumbed to the plague. Marguerite, having married the King of Navarre, lived at some distance. The King, grown tragically old, in 1533 presided over the marriage of his second son, Henry, to Catherine de Médicis, the niece of Clement VII.

When religious strife broke out in France, the King—tolerant, an epicurean, an admirer of the Dutch Humanist Erasmus, and patron of the great satirist Rabelais, as well as a reader of Philipp Melanchthon, the Reformer—tried to moderate the growing fanaticism. Both his sister and his mistress supported the Reformation, whereas his ministers were zealous Catholics. But the Reformers were considered republicans, and the burnings at the stake began. For five years he delayed the extermination of the Waldensian sect, only signing the order without reading it when on his deathbed.

The war with Charles V was resumed in 1536. Bereavements within the family came in quick succession. The Dauphin died at the age of 18—poisoned by Charles V, it was believed. The third son, the most dearly loved, died of the plague. One of Francis’ last diplomatic achievements was an alliance with the Turks against the Emperor.

Henry VIII, by turns friend or enemy, died in January 1547. Francis, younger by two years, still had time to found the port of Le Hâvre, to send Jacques Cartier to Canada, to reform the judicial system, and to decree the use of French in all legal documents.

Wasting away with fever, dying, he wandered from castle to castle, carried on a litter. Finally, on March 31, 1547, the knight-king died. Notwithstanding the personal afflictions of the last 20 years of his life, Francis was to his countrymen and to the succeeding generation le grand roi François.

Marcelle Vioux

Encyclopaedia Britannica




Battle of Marignano

Battle of Marignano, (Sept. 13–14, 1515), French victory over a Swiss army in the first Italian campaign of Francis I of France. Fought near the village of Marignano (modern Melegnano), 10 miles (16 km) southeast of Milan, the battle resulted in the French recovery of Milan and in the conclusion of the peace treaty of Geneva (Nov. 7, 1515) between France and the Swiss Confederation. It was a classic clash between Swiss shock infantry—halberdiers and pikemen—and French artillery and heavy cavalry. The French won, though only by a narrow margin, despite a heavy numerical advantage.

Determined to conquer the duchy of Milan, Francis I allied himself with Venice and crossed the Alps via the previously unexploited route Col de l’Argentière (Col de Larche; Maddalena). The French forces seized Novara and proceeded toward Milan, which was defended by its Swiss allies. On September 13 the Swiss advanced against the French position near Marignano and attacked across the marshy ground separating the armies but withdrew somewhat by midnight. The next day, after eight hours of inconclusive fighting, the French were reinforced by Venetian cavalry and forced the Swiss to retreat.

Encyclopaedia Britannica



William Tell

William Tell is seen as the symbolic figure of Swiss independence. According to legend, he was forced by the Habsburgs' Bailiff Gessler to shoot an apple from his son's head. He later took revenge and in so doing ignited a rebellion against the Habsburgs.

Friedrich von Schiller used the tale, which is probably fiction, as the basis for a drama, which in turn inspired Gioahino Rossini's opera of the same name.

Tell shooting the apple from his son's head,
 colored lithograph, early 20th century




William Tell

Swiss hero
German Wilhelm Tell

Swiss legendary hero who symbolized the struggle for political and individual freedom.


The historical existence of Tell is disputed. According to popular legend, he was a peasant from Bürglen in the canton of Uri in the 13th and early 14th centuries who defied Austrian authority, was forced to shoot an apple from his son’s head, was arrested for threatening the governor’s life, saved the same governor’s life en route to prison, escaped, and ultimately killed the governor in an ambush. These events supposedly helped spur the people to rise up against Austrian rule.

The classic form of the legend appears in the Chronicon Helveticum (1734–36), by Gilg Tschudi, which gives November 1307 as the date of Tell’s deeds and New Year 1308 as the date of Switzerland’s liberation. There is no evidence, however, for the existence of Tell; but the story of the marksman’s test is widely distributed in folklore. In the early Romantic era of nationalist revolutions, the Tell legend attained worldwide renown through the stirring play Wilhelm Tell (1804) by the German dramatist Friedrich von Schiller.

Encyclopaedia Britannica




Internal Development from the Reformation to the Special Alliance

The present-day Swiss federal state developed during the 19th century out of an alliance of more or less sovereign cantons.

Napoleon's Mediation Act of 1803 (Map)

The Swiss Confederation, which used the name of one of the original cantons, Schwyz, as an overall designation, was built up from the 13 old cantons, additional new cantons, and subject and allied territories, all tied to one another through a complex system of agreements and governmental relationships.

To the old cantons belong important cities such as Zurich and 7 Bern.

The new cantons were not full members of the confederation; they were tied to the confederation by alliances, but were internallv autonomous.

Among these were the principality of Neuchatel, the monastery of 9 St. Gall, the bishopric of Basel, and the city-state of Geneva.

7 View of the city center of Bern in the Middle Ages
with the tower of the minster and the cupolas of
the Bundshaus or federal state building

9 Library in the monastery of St. Gall, 18th century

There were also separate territories ruled bv the old cantons. The only common institution of the confederation was the Tagsatzung (parliament), in which the emissaries of the cantons consulted.

Religious differences overlapped with structural differences between the cantons during the Reformation.

In the 16th century, independent of each other, 6 Ulrich Zwingli and 10 John Calvin spread the ideas of the Reformation from Zurich and Geneva, respectively.

Ulrich Zwingli, painting, 16th с
10 The reformer John Calvin, French painting, 16th century

Violent confrontations took place between Protestants and Catholics during the "Wars of Kappel" in 1529 and 1531, and battles at Villmcrgen from the 16th through early 18th centuries. As neither side was able to gain an advantage, Switzerland remained divided into Catholic and Protestant cantons.

Switzerland's neutrality was respected until 1798 when Napoleon's troops invaded. Napoleon supported the liberal factions by forming a central state, the Helvetic Republic, although it was exposed from the onset to powerful internal resistance.

A compromise between the new centralism and the old federalism was brought about through Napoleon's 11 Mediation Act of 1803.

11 Napoleon Bonaparte receives a Swiss delegation and
hands over the Mediation Act, wood engraving, 19th century

The cantons regained their sovereignty after the collapse at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, bvit disagreements over a common constitution continued. In 1847, the conservative Catholic cantons founded the Sonderbund ("Special Alliance") against the liberal Protestant cantons, who held a slight majority in the Tagsatzung (federal assembly).

A 8 civil war, the Sonderbundskrieg, lasted one month, with fewer than too casualties, and ended with the defeat of the Sonderbund.

This led to the founding of the Swiss federal state in 1848, centralizing lawmaking, defense, and trade.

8 Fight in the Sonderbundskrieg,
wood engraving, 19th century



The Swiss Guards

Up until the 19th century, almost every European army employed Swiss mercenaries, as they were considered indomitable and warlike; for the Swiss, the poor mountain regions of their homeland offered few other forms oflivelihood.

Only the papal Swiss Guard at the Vatican, from 1505, has survived to this day.

Swiss Guard in the Vatican in the uniforms
designed by Michelangelo in the 16th century