The Regicide of Eschenbach

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I too, couldn’t resist the promises of the „gravel bike“. In my endeavours to find quiet and attractive cycle routes away from heavy traffic, off-road sections are a blessing. They not only enlarge the pool of available roads to plan a bike ride but they serve as a kind of barrier for cars. You even hardly encounter any SUVs which are predestined for off-road use. Thanks to the all-terrain road bike, I’m getting acquainted with roads and lanes away from the usual routes and thereby discovering historic buildings and remains of castles who testify to the social history of the area. I was astonished when I learned on one of my bike rides into the outskirts of Lucerne that an inconspicuous wall in a meadow is a witness to a story of treason and murder with a European dimension.

My outing began on a beautiful autumn day in Lucerne and led me along the river Reuss to the north-east. The cycle path along the Reuss is a popular way to sally out of town and it connects the city with the development area around the Seetalplatz in Emmenbrücke.

Cycle Path along the river Reuss

I crossed the Kleine Emme on a cycle- and foot-bridge and followed the Reuss downstream. The backstage of Lucerne comes into view. Here, well hidden from the tourist gaze, the regional waste incinerating plant soars above the Reuss. 

The cycle path along the Reuss and the waste incinerator on the other side of the river

The cycle path in the Schiltwald was renewed and tarred last year. At the end of the newly built part, I left the official cycle route and turned left. My route led me on a gravel path through the Upper and Lower Schiltwald. Between the two parts of the forest, I met the placidly flowing Rotbach, a small stream in an area which is by now distinctively rural.

A gravel road along the stream Rotbach

As I left the Lower Schiltwald, I turned on a narrow lane and pedaled on along the Rotbach. In the immediate vicinity is a central high voltage facility in which the power line from the Nuclear Power Plant Gösgen converge with the transalpine high voltage lines over the Gotthard and Lukmanier Passes. It is all the more pleasing that such an idyllic path is hidden in the shadow of the high voltage system. 

A small path near the high voltage substation Mettlen

On this beautiful autumn day, the ripe maize fields and the sun-drenched leaves rustled in the wind. As soon as I was happily cycling, a sonorous humming reached my ear. The bucolic scenery was disturbed by the noise of the not too distant motorway. I integrated the new sound into the scene and continued to enjoy my tour. Shortly afterwards I felt a slight shiver. Somewhat puzzled, I realized that it’s probably caused by the power line above my head. The first reaction was slight indignation at this renewed disturbance of the scenic idyll but then, the sensory overall experience seemed quite fitting for a bicycle tour on the blurred border between city and countryside.

The maize field and the high voltage power line as a sensory experience

Amazed at the contradictory experience, I firstly got back on a paved road and then to a small bridge leading to the historic heart of this cycle tour. When I was planning the route, I discovered the note „Burgstelle Alt Eschenbach“ on the map and my curiosity was immediately kindled.

Between two rivulets called the Rotbach and the Winkelbach, I could make out the remains of a wall in a field. A board nearby informed me that the wall is a remnant of the historic city of Eschenbach and that this was the site of the ancestral castle of the Barons of Eschenbach.

Remnants of the town of Eschenbach and the ancestral castle of the Barons of Eschenbach

The complex included a tower house and a small town, of which today the remains of several walls, the foundation of the tower and a well are visible. After the tour, however, I’ve read in the excavation report of 1995 that the wall fragments were only rebuilt in the early 1980s on the occasion of the 600-year celebration of the city and province of Lucerne.1Rickenbach, Judith (Hg.)1995. Alt-Eschenbach: Eine spätmittelalterliche Stadtwüstung: Kantonaler Lehrmittelverlag Luzern. Archäologische Schriften Luzern, 3, S. 27-28. What historically interested viewers are seeing today are concrete shells masked with stones and historic-looking mortar. The original wall foundations are buried in the ground beneath. Yet they are silent witnesses of fateful events in the still young 14th century.

The overgrown – and rebuilt – ruins of the tower house.

When researching the Barons of Eschenbach, I was surprised to find out that they were an influential noble family in the 12th and 13th centuries. During its greatest expansion, their influence extended from Alsace to the Bernese Oberland. They donated the monastery in Kappel and it is even suspected that the founding of the city of Lucerne was due to aspirations of the Barons of Eschenbach.

The coat of arms of the Barons of Eschenbach.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the late 13th century, however, the family was already in decline and had repeatedly to sell possessions. The final loss of power came in 1308 when Walther IV of Eschenbach participated in the assassination of the Roman-German King Albert I. And so we arrived at the events of which the ruins still bear witness today.

The murder of Albert I. near Brugg
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the blood feud for the regicide, the Habsburgs razed the castle of the Eschenbach family and the surrounding town to the ground. The newly elected Emperor imposed the Imperial ban on the assassins, but Walther IV, disguised as a simple shepherd, seems to have escaped this undetected in Württemberg.

The well of the razed town of Eschenbach

While I was looking at the reconstructed remains of the castle walls, I tried to get a picture of what happened back then. Did the inhabitants of the castle and the surrounding houses knew about their fate? Were they forewarned and was there time to pack up and bring valuables to safety? Were they mad at the deed of Walther IV, or did they blame the approaching Habsburg troops for their fate? In a time when there was no motorized device for demolition, the slighting was probably a huge undertaking with many involved, which in turn wanted to be housed and cared for. An illustration from 1576 might give a rudimentary impression of what had happened. Although – painted nearly 250 years after the historical events – it should be considered with the necessary caution. Shown is the slighting of the Schnabelburg at the Albis. As a part of the possessions of the Eschenbachs this castle also fell victim to the blood revenge.

The destruction of Schnabelburg Castle on the Albis
Source: Aarau, Aargauer Kantonsbibliothek, MsWettF 16: 1, p. 137

Reflecting on these questions, I continued my bike ride. I’ve reached Inwil and a decaying, long-drawn-out factory building lay before me. It is a testimony to the rural industrialization of the early 20th century and was the production site of a local brickyard. The company still exists, but there seems to be no use for the production building anymore. A passerby informed me that the building should be demolished soon to make way for new housing.

Former production building of a brickyard in Inwil

After passing the village church, a building from the late 18th century, I cycled back into the woods. Right at the edge of the forest, I had to negotiate an enormously steep passage strewn with loose rocks. I tackled it half riding, half pushing.

The church in Inwil

The autumnal forest and the views of the Mount Pilatus and the Rigi in the distance distracted for the time being from the historical questions. But only until I reached a slope plunging down into the Reuss Valley. On the map, I could make out the site of a former castle called Iberg. It seems that there was a fortification at a strategically advantageous position high above the Reuss.

Site of the former Castle of Iberg overlooking the Reuss valley

However, I could only unearth very little about this stronghold. It was probably the seat of the former noble family of the same name. They are documented from the 12th to the 14th century. In the early 15th century, however, the castle was already described as a ruin and in the mid-17th century, the Council of Lucerne allowed to use the ruins as a quarry for rebuilding the church in Dietwil.2Reinle, Adolf 1963. Die Kunstdenkmäler des Kantons Luzern. Bd. VI: Das Amt Hochdorf. Basel: Birkhäuser, S. 219. Today, the remains of the wall can only be guessed at on closer inspection.

The wall foundations on the castle hill are overgrown and hardly visible

Below the former castle, the road meanders into the Reuss Valley. From today’s point of view, it seems strange that the construction of a nuclear power plant was once planned here. 1973, the project was even green lighted in a public ballot.3Fischer, Raffael 2014. Kein AKW an der Reuss. Das nicht realisierte Projekt eines Atomkraftwerks in Inwil. Geschichte Kultur Gesellschaft 32. S. 79–102. Nonetheless, the project petered out only a little later because of additional statutory requirements and waning support for nuclear energy. That’s why it is still possible to enjoy the unobstructed view towards the Freiamt.

The road winds in serpentines into the plain

Back in the valley, I cycled past farms, flocks of sheep, fields and quietly flowing streams.

Grazing sheep on Deitwil Common

I reached the easternmost point of my tour. In a loop to the right, I reached a railway bridge spanning the Reuss. This bridge brings me to the other side of the river. It offered me an almost romantic view of the Reuss and Pilatus in the distance.

The river Reuss with Mount Pilatus in the background

On my way back to Lucerne, I cycled at first on a narrow path on the river bank and then, from Gisikon onwards, I joined the official cycle route along the Reuss once more.

The path along the Reuss between Rotkreuz and Honau

On my way home, I let the tour pass in my mind’s eye. I thought of the rolling corn fields, the autumnal forest and the little streams that have accompanied me. I also remembered the constant noise of the motorway and the surprisingly tingling sensation as I was pedaling under the high voltage line. But mostly I was thinking of what might have driven Walther IV von Eschenbach to take part in the regicide. Was it revenge because the Barons of Eschenbach – like many other noble people at the time from what is now known as the Swiss Plateau – had to sell their possessions to the Habsburgs? Was he driven by grief over his own loss of meaning and resentment over the new powerful in the land? Did he hope for benefits from the opponents of the king, as they would one day come to power?

The cycle path along the Reuss river near Emmen

Finally, I wondered why this story of resistance and regicide has not entered our collective myths like the legend of William Tell has. The prerequisites would certainly have been there: The remains of a ruined castle as a tangible place of remembrance, well (perhaps too well?) documented actors and a possibly tragic story of exploitation, loss of power and despair. Obviously, that was certainly tried, but clues (and perhaps also a reason), why this regicide is comparatively rarely remembered, can be found in Friedrich Schiller’s play William Tell: At the very end, Tell receives a visit from a strange monk, who soon turns out to be Johann von Schwaben. Johann was the fleeced nephew and murderer of Albrecht I. Schiller has him ask Tell – from one assassin to another – for understanding and help against the Habsburg troops. However, Tell denies him both, because he – Tell – felt pushed to murder out of self-defense, while Johann had murdered out of selfish motives: “Dare you confound the crime of blood-imbrued ambition with the act forced on a father in mere self-defence?“.

Therefore, we can refer to Schiller that the story of an impoverished nobleman, who is driven to regicide by his despair and the loss of honor and power, is probably not compatible with a Swiss founding myth based on selfless peasant people striving for independence. Schiller used Albrecht’s murderers as a moral safeguard for Tell and at the same time eliminated the story of this regicide from our collective myths of the founding of Switzerland. Alas, a Johann cannot be a William.

In the end, this cycle ride was a journey to “Retroland“. It has taken me to historic sites with a modern core and to idyllic places with mechanical-electrical sensory experiences. I got to know an exciting episode of regional history that has amazing cross-regional – even Europe-wide – connections. The tour has inspired to reflect on how we remember the past, how we make use of historical events and artefacts in the present, and how, at the same time, we constantly rewrite our own history.



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