Arnold von Winkelried was a legendary soldier in Switzerland who lived in the 14th century. He is famous for his actions at the Battle of Sempach while fighting for the Old Swiss Confederacy in 1386. Although, some historians believe that von Winkelried is a mythical figure, many historians believe he is a real hero.
During the three years leading up to the Battle of Sempach, tensions grew between the Old Swiss Confederacy and the Austrian Hapsburg. The Old Swiss Confederacy had started to form alliances with towns previously ruled by Austria.
After the Pact of Constance in 1385, the Old Swiss Confederacy had grown to include 54 cities of Swabia including Zurich. During the same the Old Swiss Confederacy had waged various attacks on Austrian held cities such as Cham, Wolhusen, Rapperswil, and Rothenburg.
In early 1386 the city of Lucerne extended its control over several other towns held under Austrian rule including Willisau, Reichensee, Melenberg, and Sempach. These actions put the Austrians on alert and were cause for war with Lucerne.
The Austrians moved on Lucerne and destroyed their garrison in January 1386. In February both sides decided on an armistice to take place. But neither side really wanted an armistice.
The Austrians led by Duke Leopold III formed a sizable army of more than 4,000 soldiers including knights and noble men in Brugg. The force also included mercenaries from Italy and Germany.
Within a matter of months the consortium of Austrian soldiers and noblemen under Duke Leopold III declared war on the Old Swiss Confederacy.
With the Austrians army in Brugg, the Old Swiss Confederacy moved to protect Zurich. During the month of June 1386 the Austrian forces began to move on the Lucerne countryside attacking towns such as Zofingen and Willisau along the way. After the plundering of Willisau where the Austrian army destroyed corn fields, the forces moved forward to the town of Sempach.
On July 9 1386 the Old Swiss Confederacy army had marched from the Reuss River hoping to catch Duke Leopold III and push them into Lake Sempach. Just outside of Sempach, the two armies met.
The Old Swiss Confederacy consisted of 1,500 soldiers and held the high ground in the near the village of Hildisrieden. This prohibited the Austrian army from using their mounted cavalry. The nobles dismounted and proceeded on foot after the nobles altered their armor.
The Old Swiss Confederacy army decided to form ranks and attacked the nobles and knight of the Austrian army. Here is where Arnold von Winkelried comes into the picture. Legend has von Winkelried shouting out to his fellow soldiers to protect his wife and children.
Von Winkelried went on to say that he was willing to lose his life for the Old Swiss Confederacy. Then von Winkelried threw his body into the pikes of the Austrian soldiers and breached their ranks.
The Austrians were caught off guard by his valor. They had positioned nobles, mercenaries, and knights in the front line. The Austrians believed they were fighting peasants and not valiant soldiers.
Von Winkelried had created the necessary breach in the ranks to provide enough room for the Old Swiss Confederacy to attack. The Austrians had no response to the attack and lost many of their nobles and knights. Duke Leopold III was defeated and sent away in disgrace.
There are numerous mythical accounts of Arnold von Winkelried. He appears in the Swiss historiography that was written in the 16th century. But there is no real record of his birth or where he lived up to the Battle of Sempach.
There is evidence that a family named von Winkelried existed in the 14th century. In fact there was a person within the von Winkelried family that was away from Stans on foreign duty. But many historians believe that von Winkelried actions were based on the actions of numerous soldiers.
Just like the legend of William Tell, the legend of Arnold von Winkelried exists. The legend is also mentioned in contemporary works by novelists Ralph Waldo Emerson in Nature and Henry David Thoreau’s The Maine Woods.
Duke Leopold III
The Battle of Sempach
Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau