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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 11 — Protestantism in Switzerland From Its Establishment in Zurich (1525) to the Death of Zwingli (1531)

Chapter 10 — Death of Zwingli

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Forest Cantons decide on War — Assembling of their Army — Zurich dispatches 600 Hen — Tedious Debates in the Council — A Night of Terror — Morning — The Great Banner Clings to its Staff — Depression — 700 mustered instead of 4,000 — Zwingli Mounts his Steed — Parting with his Wife and Children — Omens — The Battle — Bravery of the Zurichers — Overwhelmed by Numbers — The Carnage — Zwingli Mortally Wounded — Dispatched by Camp Followers — Tidings of his Death — Grief and Dismay

IN the beginning of October the preparations of the Five Cantons for war were completed. Their Diet assembled at Brunnen, on the banks of the Lake of Lucerne; a vote was taken, and the campaign was decided upon. Straightway the passes were seized that no one might tell it in Zurich. [1]

The avalanche hung trembling on the mountain's brow; but a dead calm reigned in Zurich and the other Reformed cantons, for the rumors of war had suddenly ceased. It was the calm before the tempest.

On the 9th of October the mountain warriors assembled ill their chapels, heard mass, and then, to the number of 8,000, began their march toward the Protestant frontier. They set up their standard at Baar, between the canton of Zug and the canton of Zurich. The men of Schwytz, Uri, Zug, Unterwalden, and Lucerne hastened to assemble round it. Their ranks were swelled by soldiers from the Italian valleys, and deserters from Zurich and Bern. Another Popish host, 12,000 strong, spread themselves over the free parishes, inflicting all the horrors of war wherever they came. Tidings reached Zurich that the bolt had fallen the war was begun; the enemy was at Baar, on the road to Zurich.

On receiving this startling intelligence on the evening of the 9th, the council hastily assembled; but instead of sounding the tocsin, or calling the people to arms, they dispatched two councilors to reconnoiter, and then retired to rest.

At day-break of the 10th another messenger arrived at Zurich, confirming the intelligence of the previous day. The Great Council assembled in the morning, but still professed to doubt the gravity of the situation.

Messenger after messenger arrived; at last came one who told them that the enemy had crossed the frontier, and seized upon Hitzkylch. On hearing this, the councilors turned pale. They were alarmed at last. It was now resolved, although only after a lengthened debate, to send forward Goeldi, with 600 men and artillery. [2] This was the vanguard; the main body was to follow. Crossing the Albis, Goeldi and his men arrived at Kappel during the night. He had instructions not to engage the forces of the enemy till succors arrived.

Lavatar, the commander-in-chief of the forces of the canton, earnestly counseled a levy en masse, and the instant dispatch of a powerful body to the frontier. There followed another tedious debate in the council; the day wore away, and it was evening before the council were able to come to the determination to send an army to defend their invaded country.

The sun went down behind the Albis. The city, the lake, and the canton were wrapped in darkness; with the darkness came trembling and horror. The bells were rung to summon to arms. They had hardly begun to toll when a tempest burst forth, and swept in terrific fury over Zurich and the surrounding country. The howling of the winds, the lashing of the waves of the lake, the pealing of the steeple-bells, the mustering of the land-sturm, and the earthquake, which about nine o'clock shook the city and canton, formed a scene of terror such as had seldom been witnessed. Few eyes were that night closed in sleep. In the dwellings of Zurich there were tears, and loud wailings, and hasty and bitter partings of those who felt that they embraced probably for the last time.

The morning broke; the tempest was past and gone, the mountains, the lake, and the green acclivities of the Albis were fairer than ever. But the beauty of morning could not dispel the gloom which had settled in the hearts of the Zurichers. The great banner was hoisted on the town-hall, but in the still air it clung to its staff. "Another bad omen," said the men of Zurich, as they fixed their eyes on the drooping flag.

Beneath that banner there assembled about 700 men, where 4,000 warriors ought to have mustered. These were without, uniform, and insufficiently armed. The council had appointed Zwingli to be war-chaplain. He well knew the hazards of the post, but he did not shirk them. He pressed Anna, his wife, to his bruised and bleeding heart; tore himself from his children, and with dimmed eyes but a resolute brow went forth to mount his horse, which stood ready at the door. He vaulted into the saddle, but scarcely had he; touched it when the animal reared, and began to retreat backwards. "He will never return," said the spectators, who saw in this another inauspicious omen. [3]

The little army passed out of the gates about eleven of the forenoon. Anna followed her husband with her eyes so long as he was visible. He was seen to fall behind his troop for a few minutes, and those who were near him distinctly heard him breathing out his heart in prayer, and committing himself and the Church to God. The soldiers climbed the Albis. On arriving at "The Beech-tree" on its summit they halted, and some proposed that they' should here wait for reinforcements. "Hear ye not the sound of the cannon beneath us?" said Zwingli; "they are fighting at Kappel; let us hasten forward to the aid of our brethren." The troop precipitated its march. [4]

The battle between the two armies had been begun at. one o'clock, and the firing had been going on for two hours when the Zurichers bearing

the "great banner" joined their comrades in the fight. [5] It seemed at first as if their junction with the van would turn the day in their favor. The artillery of Zurich, admirably served and advantageously posted, played with marked effect upon the army of the Five Cantons spread out on a morass beneath. [6] But unhappily a wood on the left flank of the Zurich army had been left unoccupied, and the mountaineers coming to the knowledge of this oversight climbed the hill, and under cover of the trees opened a murderous fire upon the ranks of their opponents. Having discharged their fire, they rushed out of the wood, lance in hand, and furiously charged the Zurichers. The resistance they encountered was equally resolute and brave. The men of Zurich fought like lions; they drove back the enemy.

The battle swept with a roar like that of thunder through the wood. The fury and heroism on both sides, the flight and the pursuit of armed men, the clash of halberds and the thunder of artillery, the shouts of combatants, and the groans of the dying, mingling in one dreadful roar, were echoed and re-echoed by the Alps till they seemed to rock the mountains and shake the earth. In their advance the Zurichers became entangled in a bog. Alas! they were fatally snared. The foe returned and surrounded them. At this moment the troop under Goeldi, a traitor at heart, fled. Those who remained fought desperately, but, being as one to eight to the men of the Five Cantons, their valor could avail nothing against odds so overwhelming. "Soon they fell thick," says Christoffel, "like the precious grain in autumn, beneath the strokes of their embittered foes, and at length were obliged to abandon the battle-field, leaving upon it more than five hundred who slept the sleep of death, or who were writhing in the agony of death-wounds." On this fatal field fell the flower of Zurich — the wisest of its councilors, the most Christian of its citizens, and the ablest of its pastors.

But there is one death that affects us more than all the others. Zwingli, though present on the field, did not draw sword: he restricted himself to his duties as chaplain. When the murderous assault was made from the forest, and many were falling around him, he stooped down to breathe a few words into the ear of a dying man. While thus occupied he was struck with a stone upon the head, and fell to the earth. Recovering in a little he rose, but received two more blows. As he lay on the ground a hostile spear dealt him a fatal stab, and the blood began to trickle from the wound.

"What matters it?" said he; "they may kill the body, but they cannot kill the soul." These were the last words he uttered. [7]

The darkness fell, the stars came out, the night was cold. Zwingli had fallen at the foot of a pear-tree, and lay extended on the earth. His hands were clasped, his eyes were turned to heaven, and his lips moved in prayer. The camp-followers were now prowling over the field of battle.

Two of them approached the place where the Reformer lay. "Do you wish for a priest to confess yourself?" said they. The dying man shook his head. "At least," said they, "call in your heart upon the Mother of God."

He signified his dissent by another shake of the head. Curious to know who this obstinate heretic was, one of them raised his head, and turned it toward one of the fires which had been kindled on the field. He suddenly let it fall, exclaiming, "Tis Zwingli!" [8] It happened that Bockinger, an officer from Unterwalden, and one of those pensioners against whom Zwingli had so often thundered, was near. The name pronounced by the soldier fell upon his ear. "Zwingli!" exclaimed he; "is it that vile heretic and traitor Zwingli?" He had hardly uttered the words when he raised his sword and struck him on the throat. Yielding to this last blow, Zwingli died (October 11, 1531). [9]

It was on the field of battle that the Reformer met death. But the cause for which he yielded up his life was that of the Reformation of the Church and the regeneration of his country. He was not less a martyr than if he had died at the stake.

When the terrible tidings reached Zurich that Zwingli was dead, the city was struck with affright. The news ran like lightning through all the Reformed cantons and spread consternation and sorrow. Switzerland's great patriot had fallen. When Ecolampadius of Basle learned that the Reformer was no more, his heart turned to stone, and he died in a few weeks. The intelligence was received with profound grief in all the countries of the Reformation. All felt that a great light had been quenched; that one of the foremost champions in the Army of the Faith had fallen, at a moment when the hosts of Rome were closing their ranks, and a terrible onset on the Truth was impending.

Zurich made peace with the Five Cantons, stipulating only for toleration. In the common parishes the Reformed faith was suppressed, the altars were set up, mass restored, and the monks crept back to their empty cells.

Luther, when told of the death of Zwingli and Ecolampadius, remembered the days he had passed with both of these men at Marburg, and was seized with so pungent a sorrow that, to use his own words, he "had almost died himself." Ferdinand of Austria heard of the victory of Kappel, but with different feelings. "At last," he thought, "the tide has turned," and in Kappel he beheld the first of a long series of victories to be achieved by the sword of Rome. He wrote to his brother, Charles V., calling upon him to come to the aid

of the Five Cantons, and beginning at the Alps, to traverse Christendom at the head of his legions, purging out heresy, and restoring the dominion of the old faith.

Zwingli had fallen; but in this same land a mightier was about to arise.

Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, October 31st, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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