Sunday, October 02, 2005

Arnold Winkelried

Monument to Winkelried at the site of the Battle of Sempach. The inscription reads: "Here Winkelried made a path for his comrades 1386"

Christ taught "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13).

We see this vividly illustrated in the life of the Swiss hero, Arnold Winkelried. The Swiss are thought of a peaceful people today, and they are famous for remaining neutral and staying out of wars that do not concern them. However, their independence did not come to them so easily. Most people have heard of William Tell, who was a famous Swiss patriot, but here is the story of another man whose death is in many ways an image of the victory of the Cross of Christ:

[The Austrians] were drawn up in a solid compact body, presenting an unbroken line of spears, projecting beyond the wall of gay shields and polished impenetrable armour.

The Swiss were not only few in number, but armour was scarce among them; some had only boards fastened on their arms by way of shields, some had halberts, which had been used by their fathers at the battle of Morgarten, others two-handed swords and battleaxes. They drew themselves up in the form of a wedge and

"The gallant Swiss confederates then
They prayed to God aloud,
And He displayed His rainbow fair,
Against a swarthy cloud."
Then they rushed upon the serried spears, but in vain. "The game was nothing sweet ".

The banner of Lucerne was in the utmost danger, the Landamman was slain, and sixty of his men, and not an Austrian had been wounded. The flanks of the Austrian host began to advance so as to enclose the small peasant force, and involve it in irremediable destruction. A moment of dismay and stillness ensued. Then Arnold von Winkelried of Unterwalden, with an eagle glance saw the only means of saving his country, and, with the decision of a man who dares by dying to do all things, shouted aloud: "I will open a passage."

"'I have a virtuous wife at home,
A wife and infant son:
I leave them to my country's care,
The field shall yet be won!'
He rushed against the Austrian band
In desperate career,
And with his body, breast, and hand,
Bore down each hostile spear;
Four lances splintered on his crest,
Six shivered in his side,
Still on the serried files he pressed,
He broke their ranks and died!"

The very weight of the desperate charge of this self-devoted man opened a breach in the line of spears. In rushed the Swiss wedge, and the weight of the nobles' armour and length of their spears was only encumbering. They began to fall before the Swiss blows, and Duke Leopold was urged to fly. "I had rather die honourably than live with dishonour," he said. He saw his standard bearer struck to the ground, and seizing his banner from his hand, waved it over his head, and threw himself among the thickest of the foe. His corpse was found amid a heap of slain, and no less then 2000 of his companions perished with him, of whom a third are said to have been counts, barons and knights.

"Then lost was banner, spear and shield
At Sempach in the flight;
The cloister vaults at Konigsfeldt
Hold many an Austrian knight."

The Swiss only lost 200; but, as they were spent with the excessive heat of the July sun, they did not pursue their enemies. They gave thanks on the battlefield to the God of victories, and the next day buried the dead, carrying Duke Leopold and twenty-seven of his most illustrious companions to the Abbey of Konigsfeldt, where they buried him in the old tomb of his forefathers, the lords of Aargau, who had been laid there in the good old times, before the house of Hapsburg had grown arrogant with success.

As to the master-singer, he tells us of himself that

"A merry man was he, I wot,
The night he made the lay,
Returning from the bloody spot,
Where God had judged the day."

On every 9th of July subsequently, the people of the country have been wont to assemble on the battlefield, around four stone crosses which mark the spot. A priest from a pulpit in the open air gives a thanksgiving sermon on the victory that ensured the freedom of Switzerland, and another reads the narrative of the battle, and the roll of the brave 200, who, after Winkelried's example, gave their lives in the cause. All this is in the face of the mountains and the lake now lying in summer stillness, and the harvest fields whose crops are secure from marauders, and the congregation then proceed to the small chapel, the walls of which are painted with the deed of Arnold von Winkelried, and the other distinguished achievements of the confederates, and masses are sung for the souls of those who were slain. No wonder that men thus nurtured in the memory of such actions were, even to the fall of the French monarchy, among the most trustworthy soldiery of Europe.

Click here for more information on the battel of Sempach.

Click here to see a painting of Arnold Winkelried's heroic death at the battle of Sempach.