Reformation and religious conflicts (1516-1798)
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The Reformation, which began in Germany in the early sixteenth century and spread across Europe, was sparked in Switzerland by Huldrych Zwingli, a lay priest in Zürich. City after city overthrew its ecclesiastical overlords in favour of the new Protestantism: St Gallen, Basel, Biel/Bienne, Schaffhausen and, in 1528, Bern. In each place, the urban guilds were the motive force behind the overthrow, and once Catholicism had been ejected, each city government gained new power and authority over the countryside surrounding it, fuelling rural resentment. With the Church’s land around Zürich merely parcelled out to the city authorities, the rural peasantry saw no benefit from the change, and many switched support to the extreme, but largely ineffectual, Anabaptist movement, which sought the abolition of serfdom altogether. When Zwingli promulgated the controversial notion of reorganizing the Confederacy under the twin city leadership of Zürich and Bern, many Catholics from small towns and villages in central Switzerland in particular resisted strongly, feeling both their religious faith and their political voice to be under threat. Conflict broke out in 1531, in which Zwingli was killed and the Catholic forces won the right to veto in the Diet what they considered anti-rural policies.

Nonetheless, the Reformation continued to spread: with the help of Bernese forces, Geneva won its independence from Savoy in 1530, and shortly afterwards – along with Neuchâtel, Lausanne and the Vaud countryside – accepted the Reformation. In 1536, the French priest Jean Calvin settled in Geneva, establishing a rigid Protestant theocracy that spread the city’s reputation for religious zeal and tolerance Europe-wide.

The situation became further entrenched in the 1550s and 1560s, with the coalescing of the Reformation around Calvinist doctrine, and the consequent launch of the Counter-Reformation in a bid to preserve Catholic territory and reassert Catholic rights. With the support of Spain – a major world power – the Catholic cantons retained their religious identity within the Confederation (although in 1597 Appenzell split into two half-cantons, one Protestant and one Catholic), but they increasingly nurtured an inferiority complex towards the Protestant cities, which held a grip on political authority and the economy. The latter had started to take on new vitality, boosted by the presence of skilled Huguenot and Veltliner craftspeople, Protestant refugees from Catholic regimes in France and Italy.

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