Arnold Von Winkelried

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Arnold Von Winkelried is a legendary hero of Swiss history. The authenticity of the legend is widely debated. According to the legend, Winkelried was a Swiss soldier who was a part of the army of Old Swiss Confederacy in the Battle of Sempach against the army of Habsburg Duke, Leopold III.

The Battle of Sempach was fought on July 9, 1386. The expansion of Old Swiss Confederacy was not well received by the Habsburg rulers in Austria.

Arnold Von Winkelried

Background: Battle of Sempach started after the Swiss canton of Lucerne increased its influence by entering into pacts with villages and valleys that were under Austrian control. This greatly distressed Austria. As a result the skirmishes between the two sides started immediately. An Austrian force routed confederate forces at Meienberg. Lucerne called its confederate partners for assistance.

An armistice was called and a meeting was held in Zurich but both sides failed to reach any settlement. As a result the war intensified. Duke Leopold III gathered his troops at the city of Brugg. The positioning of Austrian army at Brugg was taken as their intention to attack Zurich. However, Austrian forces took a different route and after plundering towns of Zofingen and Willisau, reached the town of Sempach where the battle was fought on July 9, 1386.

Winkelried’s Sacrifice: On the day of battle, the Austrian pikemen presented very close ranks which could not be breached by the confederate forces for some time. The situation seemed very hopeless for the Confederates but towards the end of the battle the situation changed dramatically in favor of the Swiss. The reason for this sudden change in fortunes is debated between historians.

While some consider the hot July afternoon as the reason why the Austrian knights wearing heavy armor were rendered worn out. Others believe that the complacency on behalf of Austrians was the reason why the Swiss won the battle.

However, the Swiss historiography presents another reason for the shift in fortunes during the battle. According to the historiography accounts, A Swiss soldier, Arnold Von Winkleried sacrificed his life to change the situation of the battle. The legend has it that Winkelried cried ‘I will open a passage into the line; protect, dear countrymen and confederates, my wife and children’ and then threw himself on the pikes of the Austrian pikemen and took some of them down with him.

This created an opening for the Swiss forces to attack through. There are no details provided in these historiographic accounts about the subsequent events of the battle that led to the Austrian defeat. The legend of Winkelried first surfaced in 16th century.

It was considered authentic till 19th century but in 20th century, historians reached a consensus over it being purely a legend. However, some historians recently have declared it to be authentic.

Irrespective of the debate over its authenticity, the legend of Arnold Von Winkelried and William Tell played an important part in the formation of Swiss Federal State and it was also a symbol of Swiss independence during World War II. However, there are not many details available about Winkelried’s early life and his family.