Category Archives: Battle of Sempach

Halb Suter: “The Battle of Sempach”

Halb Suter was a native of Lucerne. This song was composed, probably, not far from the date of the event, 1386, and was preserved in Tschudi’s “Chronicle.”
The people of the lake districts were particularly offended by Rudolf’s practice of appointing to their courts judges from other parts of the empire. In 1291, after the death of Rudolf, three of the districts around Lake Lucerne—Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden—formed a mutual defense alliance and agreed to recognize only judges who were native to one of the three districts. This alliance became the nucleus of the Swiss Confederation. Other districts joined the Confederation and it soon came into conflict with the empire.
War between the Confederation and the empire was waged intermittently for a century, with the Confederation winning major victories at Morgarten in 1315 and at Sempach in 1386. In 1394 a truce was signed that recognized the Confederation as an autonomous state, within the Holy Roman Empire but independent of Austria and the other individual Hapsburg realms. By this date four neighboring districts had joined the Confederation.


The Battle of Sempach on July 9, 1386, the Swiss Confederation won autonomy within the Holy Roman Empire. The legend of Swiss patriot William Tell dates from this period of struggle for independence.




‘T was when among our linden-trees

The bees had housed in swarms

(And grey-haired peasants say that these

Betoken foreign arms),


Then looked we down to Willisow,

The land was all in flame;

We knew the Archduke Leopold

With all his army came.


The Austrian nobles made their vow,

So hot their heart and bold,

“On Switzer carles we’ll trample now,

And slay both young and old.”


With clarion loud, and banner proud,

From Zürich on the lake,

In martial pomp and fair array,

Their onward march they make.


Now list, ye lowland nobles all,

Ye seek the mountain strand,

Nor wot ye what shall be your lot

In such a dangerous land.


“I rede ye, shrive ye of your sins,

Before ye farther go;

A skirmish in Helvetian hills

May send your souls to woe.”


“But where now shall we find a priest

Our shrift that he may hear?”

“The Switzer priest has ta’en the field,

He deals a penance drear.


“Right heavily upon your head

He’ll lay his hand of steel;

And with his trusty partisan

Your absolution deal.”


‘T was on a Monday morning then,

The corn was steeped in dew,

And merry maids had sickles ta’en,

When the host to Sempach drew.


The stalwart men of fair Lucerne

Together have they joined;

The pith and core of manhood stern,

Was none cast looks behind.


It was the lord of Hare-castle,

And to the Duke he said,

“Yon little band of brethren true

Will meet us undismayed.”


“O Hare-castle, thou heart of hare!”

Fierce Oxenstern replied.

“Shalt see, then, how the game will fare,”

The taunted knight replied.


There was lacing then of helmets bright,

And closing ranks amain;

The peaks they hewed from their bootpoints

Might well-nigh load a wain?


And thus they to each other said,

“Yon handful down to hew

Will be no boastful tale to tell,

The peasants are so few.”


The gallant Swiss Confederates there

They prayed to God aloud,

And he displayed his rainbow fair

Against a swarthy cloud.


Then heart and pulse throbbed more and more

With courage firm and high,

And down the good Confederates bore

On the Austrian chivalry.


The Austrian Lion ‘gan to growl,

And toss his mane and tail;

And ball, and shaft, and crossbow bolt

Went whistling forth like hail.


Lance, pike, and halberd mingled there,

The game was nothing sweet;

The boughs of many a stately tree

Lay shivered at their feet.

The Austrian men-at-arms stood fast,

So close their spears they laid;

It chafed the gallant Winkelreid,

Who to his comrades said,


“I have a virtuous wife at home,

A wife and infant son;

I leave them to my country’s care,

This field shall soon be won.


“These nobles lay their spears right thick,

And keep full firm array;

Yet shall my charge their order break,

And make my brethren way.”


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 be pressed,

He broke their ranks, and died.


This patriot’s self-devoted deed

First tamed the Lion’s mood,

And the four forest cantons freed

From thralldom by his blood.


Right where his charge had made a lane,

His valiant comrades burst,

With sword, and axe, and partisan,

And hack, and stab, and thrust.


The daunted Lion ‘gan to whine,

And granted ground amain;

The Mountain Bull he bent his brows,

And gored his sides again.


Then lost was banner, spear, and shield,

At Sempach, in the flight;

The cloister vaults at Konigfield

Hold many an Austrian knight.


It was the Archduke Leopold,

So lordly would he ride,

But he came against the Switzer churls,

And they slew him in his pride.


The heifer said unto the bull,

“And shall I not complain?

There came a foreign nobleman

To milk me on the plain.


“One thrust of thine outrageous horn

Has galled the knight so sore,

That to the churchyard he is borne,

To range our glens no more.”


An Austrian noble left the stour,

And fast the flight ‘gan take;

And he arrived in luckless hour

At Sempach on the lake.


He and his squire a fisher called

(His name was Hans von Rot),

“For love, or meed, or charity,

Receive us in thy boat!”


Their anxious call the fisher heard,

And, glad the meed to win,

His shallop to the shore he steered,

And took the fliers in.


And while against the tide and wind

Hans stoutly rowed his way,

The noble to his follower signed

He should  the boatman slay.


The fisher’s back was to them turned,

The squire his dagger drew,

Hans saw his shadow in the lake,

The boat he overthrew.


He whelmed the boat, and, as they strove,

He stunned them with his oar:

“Now drink ye deep, my gentle Sirs,

You’ll ne’er stab boatman more.


“Two gilded fishes in the lake

This morning have I caught;

Their silver scales may much avail,

Their carrion flesh is naught.”


It was a messenger of woe

Has sought the Austrian land:

“Ah, gracious lady! Evil news!

My lord lies on the strand.


“At Sempach, on the battle-field,

His bloody corpse lies there.”

“Ah, gracious God!” the lady cried,

“What tidings of despair!”


Now would you know the minstrel wight

Who sings of strife so stern?

Albert the Souter is he hight,

A burgher of Lucerne.


A merry man was he, I wot,

The night he made the lay,

Returning from the bloody spot,

Where God had judged the day.