Federal Charter of 1291

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Federal Charter of 1291
Original title(in German) Bundesbrief
(in French) Pacte fédéral
(in Italian) Patto confederale
Date effectiveEarly August 1291
PurposeUnion of three cantons in what is now central Switzerland

The Federal Charter or Letter of Alliance (German: Bundesbrief) documents the Eternal Alliance or League of the Three Forest Cantons (German: Ewiger Bund der Drei Waldstätten), the union of three cantons in what is now central Switzerland. It is dated in early August 1291 and initiates the current 1 August Swiss National Day. This agreement, in Latin, cites a previous (lost or most likely not existent in written form) similar pact. It is currently exhibited at the Museum of the Swiss Charters of Confederation in Schwyz.[1]


This inaugural confederation grew through a long series of accessions to modern Switzerland. The Alliance was concluded between the people of the alpine areas of 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" (and in English as "Confederates").

The charter was set up as a canon for judicature and defence purposes (only two of seven paragraphs address foreign dangers), probably prompted by the death of Rudolf I of Habsburg on 15 July 1291 to ensure legal certainty.

Date and context[edit]

The authenticity of the letter used to be disputed as a supposed modern forgery but modern historians now agree that it is certainly a product of the 14th century: In 1991, the parchment was radiocarbon dated to between 1252 and 1312 (with a certainty of 85%).[2] The document is thus certainly not a late forgery tied to the emergence of the modern federal state in 1848. It should rather be seen in the context of chapter 15 of the Golden Bull of 1356, where Charles IV outlawed any conjurationes, confederationes, and conspirationes, meaning in particular the city alliances (Städtebünde), but also other communal leagues that had sprung up through the communal movement in medieval Europe. It should be mentioned that it was very common to produce documents only when needed in this period; agreements were made by word of mouth (which is still a legal form of contract in Switzerland today), which means the date of any documents was subject to "moving" through time to meet the purpose of the document.

The abovementioned museum shows the following additional charters:

  • 1315: Federal Charter of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden 9 December 1315
  • 1332: Charter of the City of Lucerne with Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden
  • 1352: Charter with Glarus
  • 1352: Charter with Zug
  • 1451: Contract with St. Gallen Abbey and Zurich, Lucerne and Schwyz and Glarus
  • 1454: Eternal Contract for St. Gallen with Zurich, Bern, Lucerne and Schwyz, Zug and Glarus
  • 1464: Contract of Rapperswil with the abovementioned
  • 1481: Contract of Freiburg und Solothurn
  • 1501: Contract with Basel of which the number of copies is known to be 11, corresponding to the 11 seals.[3]
  • 1501: Contract with Schaffhausen
  • 1513: Contract with Appenzell

Modern reception[edit]

The charter of 1291 became important in the historiography of Switzerland only in the late 19th century. Previously, the date of the foundation of the Confederacy was traditionally given as 1307 (Aegidius Tschudi); this is still the year inscribed on the Tell Monument, commissioned in 1895. The idea of the charter of 1291 representing the founding document of the Confederacy was first suggested in a report by the Federal Department of Home Affairs of 21 November 1889, in the context of a proposed combined celebration of the 700th anniversary of the foundation of Bern and the 600th anniversary of the Confederacy in 1891. Celebration of a national holiday on 1 August based on the date on the document was first suggested in 1899 (although it was introduced officially only in 1994).

The idea to build a dedicated national monument housing the foundational documents of the Confederacy was first proposed in 1891 by federal councillors Emil Welti and Carl Schenk. This plan was revisited in 1915 during the preparation of the 600th anniversary celebration for the Battle of Morgarten, but its realisation was delayed due to World War I. After the war, the canton of Schwyz requested federal support for the project, which was granted in 1928. Designed by Joseph Beeler in 1933, the Bundesbriefarchiv (Federal Charter Archive) was opened in 1936. In 1979/80, the exhibition hall was renovated, and restoration work was carried out on the 21 banners and flags displayed in the museum. In 1998/99, the exhibition was re-arranged. In the meantime, the institution changed its name to Bundesbriefmuseum (Museum of the Swiss Charters of Confederation).[4]

See also[edit]


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