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History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation.
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§ 46. The Second War of Cappel. 1531.


Egli: Die Schlacht von Cappel, 1531. Zürich, 1873. Comp. the Lit. quoted § 42.


The political situation of Switzerland grew more and more critical. The treaty of peace was differently understood. The Forest Cantons did not mean to tolerate Protestantism in their own territory, and insulted the Reformed preachers; nor would they concede to the local communities in the bailiwicks (St. Gall, Toggenburg, Thurgau, the Rheinthal) the right to introduce the Reformation by a majority vote; while the Zürichers insisted upon both, and yet they probibited the celebration of the mass in their own city and district. The Roman Catholic Cantons made new disloyal approaches to Austria, and sent a deputation to Charles V. at Augsburg which was very honorably received. The fugitive abbot of St. Gall also appeared with an appeal for aid to his restoration. The Zürichers were no less to blame for seeking the foreign aid of Hesse, Venice, and France. Bitter charges and counter-charges were made at the meetings of the Swiss Diet.280280    Bluntschli (who was a Protestant of Zurich) thinks that Zwingli and Zürich were upon the whole more to blame. He says, l.c. I. 334: "Zwar hatte darin Zwingli ein richtiges politisches Princip ausgesprochen, dass im wirklichen ernsten Conflict zwischen der innern Berechtigung und dem äussern, formellen Recht am Ende dieses jener weichen müsse. Aber er hatte dieses Princip weder richtig angewendet; denn ein solcher Widerspruch lag in dem eidgenössischen Bundesrecht denn doch nicht oder lange nicht in dem angegebenen Masse vor, noch waren die Mittel, welche er vorschlug, um ein vermeintlich besseres, weil natürlicheres Recht herzustellen, zu rechtfertigen. Und musste ein gerechter Mann zugeben, dass die Fünf Orte auch ihre Stellung nicht rein erhielten von Missbrauch, so war doch nicht zu läugnen, dass damals auf Seite der Städte und insbesondere Zürichs der Missbrauch ihrer Stellung in eidgenössischen Dingen grösser war, dass somit die Städte sich durchaus nicht eigneten, als Vertreter der ’göttlichen Gerechtigkeit und Strafe’ die Fünf Orte von ihren hergebrachten Rechten zu entsetzen. Auch in der auswärtigen Politik verliess Zwingli nun die Grundsätze des eidgenössischen Rechtes, die er selber vorher mit Nachdruck vertheidigt hatte. Er ging in reformatorischem Eifer Verbindungen ein und nahm an politischen Planen Theil, welche den Frieden und selbst die Existenz der Eidgenossenschaft gefährden mussten."

The crisis was aggravated by an international difficulty. Graubünden sent deputies to the Diet with an appeal for aid against the Chatelan of Musso and the invasion of the Valtellina by Spanish troops. The Reformed Cantons favored co-operation, the Roman Catholic Cantons refused it. The expedition succeeded, the castle of Musso was demolished, and the Grisons took possession of the Valtellina (1530–32).

Zwingli saw no solution of the problem except in an honest, open war, or a division of the bailiwicks among the Cantons according to population, claiming two-thirds for Zürich and Bern. These bailiwicks were, as already remarked, the chief bone of contention. But Bern advocated, instead of war, a blockade of the Forest Cantons. This was apparently a milder though actually a more cruel course. The Waldstätters in their mountain homes were to be cut off from all supplies of grain, wine, salt, iron, and steel, for which they depended on their richer Protestant neighbors.281281    Zürich was charged by Bern with an excess of passion, Bern by Zürich with an excess of prudence. In the language of Zwingli:—
   "Bern klagt: Zürich ist zu hitzig,

   Zürich klagt: Bern ist zu witzig ."
Zwingli protested. "If you have a right," he said in the pulpit, "to starve the Five Cantons to death, you have a right to attack them in open war. They will now attack you with the courage of desperation." He foresaw the disastrous result. But his protest was in vain. Zürich yielded to the counsel of Bern, which was adopted by the Protestant deputies, May 15, 1531.

The decision of the blockade was communicated to the Forest Cantons, and vigorously executed, Zürich taking the lead. All supplies of provision from Zürich and Bern and even from the bailiwicks of St. Gall, Toggenburg, Sargans, and the Rheinthal were withheld. The previous year had been a year of famine and of a wasting epidemic (the sweating sickness). This year was to become one of actual starvation. Old men, innocent women and children were to suffer with the guilty. The cattle was deprived of salt. The Waldstätters were driven to desperation. Their own confederates refused them the daily bread, forgetful of the Christian precept, "If thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him to drink; for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head. Be not overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good" (Rom. 12:20, 21).

Zwingli spent the last months before his death in anxiety and fear. His counsel had been rejected, and yet he was blamed for all these troubles. He had not a few enemies in Zürich, who undermined his influence, and inclined more and more to the passive policy of Bern. Under these circumstances, he resolved to withdraw from the public service. On the 26th of July he appeared before the Great Council, and declared, "Eleven years have I preached to you the gospel, and faithfully warned you against the dangers which threaten the confederacy if the Five Cantons—that is, those who hate the gospel and live on foreign pensions—are allowed to gain the mastery. But you do not heed my voice, and continue to elect members who sympathize with the enemies of the gospel. And yet ye make me responsible for all this misfortune. Well, I herewith resign, and shall elsewhere seek my support."

He left the hall with tears. His resignation was rejected and withdrawn. After three days he appeared again before the Great Council, and declared that in view of their promise of improvement he would stand by them till death, and do his best, with God’s help. He tried to persuade the Bernese delegates at a meeting in Bremgarten in the house of his friend, Henry Bullinger, to energetic action, but in vain. "May God protect you, dear Henry; remain faithful to the Lord Jesus Christ and his Church."

These were the last words he spoke to his worthy successor. As he left, a mysterious personage, clothed in a snow-white robe, suddenly appeared, and after frightening the guards at the gate plunged into the water, and vanished. He had a strong foreboding of an approaching calamity, and did not expect to survive it. Halley’s comet, which returns every seventy-six years, appeared in the skies from the middle of August to the 3d of September, burning like the fire of a furnace, and pointing southward with its immense tail of pale yellow color. Zwingli saw in it the sign of war and of his own death. He said to a friend in the graveyard of the minster (Aug. 10), as he gazed at the ominous star, "It will cost the life of many an honorable man and my own. The truth and the Church will suffer, but Christ will never forsake us."282282    Bullinger, III. 46 (Comp. 137): "Min Jörg (the Abbot Georg Müller of Wettingen], mich und mengen eeren man [manchen Ehrenmann] wirt es kosten, und wirt die wahrheit und Kylch [Kirche] nodt lyden; doch von Christus werdent wir nit verlassen." Another contemporary gives an account of a conversation of Dr. Joachim von Watt with some friends about the meaning of the comet’s appearance. It was published in the "Schweizerische Museum," II. 335. Vadian of St. Gall likewise regarded the comet as a messenger of God’s wrath; and the famous Theophrastus, who was at that time in St. Gall, declared that it foreboded great bloodshed and the death of illustrious men. It was then the universal opinion, shared also by Luther and Melanchthon, that comets, meteors, and eclipses were fireballs of an angry God. A frantic woman near Zürich saw blood springing from the earth all around her, and rushed into the street with the cry, "Murder, murder!" The atmosphere was filled with apprehensions of war and bloodshed. The blockade was continued, and all attempts at a compromise failed.

The Forest Cantons had only one course to pursue. The law of self-preservation drove them to open war. It was forced upon them as a duty. Fired by indignation against the starvation policy of their enemies, and inspired by love for their own families, the Waldstätters promptly organized an army of eight thousand men, and marched to the frontier of Zürich between Zug and Cappel, Oct. 9, 1531.

The news brought consternation and terror to the Zürichers. The best opportunity had passed. Discontent and dissension paralyzed vigorous action. Frightful omens demoralized the people. Zürich, which two years before might easily have equipped an army of five thousand, could now hardly collect fifteen hundred men against the triple force of the enemy, who had the additional advantage of fighting for life and home.

Zwingli would not forsake his flock in this extreme danger. He mounted his horse to accompany the little army to the battlefield with the presentiment that he would never return. The horse started back, like the horse of Napoleon when he was about to cross the Niemen. Many regarded this as a bad omen; but Zwingli mastered the animal, applied the spur, and rode to Cappel, determined to live or to die with the cause of the Reformation.

The battle raged several hours in the afternoon of the eleventh of October, and was conducted by weapons and stones, after the manner of the Swiss, and with much bravery on both sides. After a stubborn resistance, the Zürichers were routed, and lost the flower of their citizens, over five hundred men, including seven members of the Small Council, nineteen members of the Great Council of the Two Hundred, and several pastors who had marched at the head of their flocks.283283    Bullinger, III. 130, gives the names. The total number of the slain and mortally wounded Zürichers was five hundred and fourteen, while the Five Cantons lost only about eighty. The leaders of the army, Georg Göldli and Lavater, escaped, and were charged, the first with treason, the other with incompetency.



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