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Legendary soldiers, the Swiss are united by a promise to defend their lands—and excel at keeping the peace.

The defense pact that formed an alliance between rural communities in the valleys of Schwyz, Uri, and Unterwalden gradually expanded in the 14th and 15th centuries, until it finally comprised 13 cantons in the early 16th century. Their impressive military victories against the Habsburgs and the Holy Roman Empire enabled them to establish their confederation as a state independent from the imperial powers. In addition, their soldiers were recognized throughout Europe for their superior fighting skills on the battlefield.

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The Old Swiss Confederacy, or the Federation of Thirteen Cantons, was formally recognized as independent from the Holy Roman Empire by the signing of two treaties collectively known as the Peace of Westphalia (1648). Since 1513, the Federation of Thirteen Cantons had included communities situated between Lake Geneva and the Jura to the west, the Rhine and Lake Constance to the east, Lake Lugano to the south, and the initial stretches of the Rhine Rift Valley to the north. In political terms, it unified rural, urban, and ecclesiastical territories as part of a mutual defense treaty in times of war, and established the beginnings of a shared canon of criminal law. While the Treaty of Perpetual Peace signed with France in 1516 after the Battle of Marignan dramatically slowed the cantons’ expansion, it did not put an end to the Confederation's military traditions. Having gained a close-to-legendary reputation as warriors, they formed companies of mercenaries active during most of the wars of the Modern period. It is estimated that in 1701, 54,000 soldiers were serving in Swiss regiments outside the country, including 25,000 in France and 11,000 in the Dutch Republic. Sitting at a cultural crossroads between Germany, France, and Italy, the lands of the Confederation were an intellectual hotbed during the 16th century. The cities of Zürich, Bern, and Geneva had a pivotal role in the development and circulation of ideas during the Protestant Reformation.

Did you know?

The Pontifical Swiss Guard, which is still the largest armed force at the Vatican, is the direct ancestor of Swiss mercenary regiments established in the 16th century. The Swiss Guard was hired by Pope Julius II in 1506 and is still made up exclusively of Swiss citizens today.