Fridolin of Säckingen and the Battle of Näfels

Switzerland - Scott #819 (1988)
Switzerland – Scott #819 (1988)

Saint Fridolin, otherwise Fridolin of Säckingen is a legendary Irish missionary, apostle of the Alamanni and founder of the Roman Catholic Säckingen Abbey on the Upper Rhine at Bad Säckingen in what is now the German state of Baden-Württemberg. He is also the patron saint of Glarus, a canton in east central Switzerland.

His oldest Vita is dated to the 10th or 11th century. Later tradition places the beginning of his mission during the reign of Clovis I (r. 509 – 511), and his death during the reign of Theudebert I (r. 533–548). The date of his death is traditionally given as March 6 in either 538 or 540. Modern historiography has tended to place the founder of Säckingen Abbey in the 7th rather than 6th century, tentatively assuming the existence of a historical Saint Fridolin under Clovis II (r. 639–657) rather than Clovis I.

Map of Switzerland
Map of Switzerland
Map of the Canton of Glarus, Switzerland
Map of the Canton of Glarus, Switzerland
Map of Old Swiss Confederacy, 1291-1797
Map of Old Swiss Confederacy, 1291-1797

According to legend, the inhabitants of the Linth Valley were converted to Christianity in the 6th century Saint Fridolin. According to the story of Saint Fridolin, St. Hilarius appeared to him in a dream, and commanded him to proceed to an island in the Rhine, in the territories of the Alamanni. In obedience to this summon, Fridolin repaired to the “Emperor” Clovis, who granted him possession of the still unknown island, and thence proceeded through Helion, Strasburg, and Coire, founding churches in every district in honor of St. Hilarius.

Reaching at last the island of Säckingen in the Rhine, he recognized in it the island indicated in the dream, and prepared to build a church there. The inhabitants of the banks of the Rhine, however, who used the island as a pasturage for their cattle, mistook Fridolin for a cattle-robber and expelled him. On his production of Clovis’s deed of gift, he was allowed to return, and to found a church and monastery on the island. He then resumed his missionary labors, founded the Scottish monastery (“Schottenstift“) in Konstanz, and extended his mission to Augsburg. He died on March 6, and was buried at Säckingen.

A Vita of Fridolin (or Fridold) was written by one Balther (Baltherus), a monk of Säckingen, ostensibly dated to the 10th century but possibly a forgery of the mid-11th century. This is the earliest extant reference to the saint. According to the Vita, Fridolin belonged to a noble family in Ireland, and at first was a missionary there. Afterwards crossing to France, he came to Poitiers, where in answer to a vision, he sought out the relics of Saint Hilarius, and built a church for them.

Balther claims to have derived his information from a biography which he discovered in the monastery of “Helera” on the Moselle — “Helera, juxta Musellae cuiusdam Fluvii litus situm” — also founded by Fridolin, and which, as he was unable to copy it for lack of parchment and ink, he had learned by heart. The monastery became a Coenobium, a community of priests, including a library. The historical evidence is found in records of a priest Hatto, towards the end of the 9th century. He made an inventory of the abandoned monastery from fear of the Normans. His list includes a Codex edged with silver and ivory, containing the Vitae of St. Fridolin, St. Hilarius, and St. Arnulphus.

Saint Fridolin depicted on the banner of Glarus, according to tradition the banner used in the Battle of Näfels (1388). On exhibit in the Freulerpalast, Näfels, Glarus.
Saint Fridolin depicted on the banner of Glarus, according to tradition the banner used in the Battle of Näfels (1388). On exhibit in the Freulerpalast, Näfels, Glarus.

No earlier author mentions Fridolin; Balther’s life does not provide historical or chronological context, and includes a great number miracles and visions. It has therefore mostly been dismissed as unhistorical. Meyer von Knonau (1878) classifies the “so-called Baltherus” and his explanation of how he had to memorize the text for lack of writing materials to replace a version lost in a raid by heathens, as entirely untrustworthy. He instead considers the Vita a forgery of the mid-11th century, i.e. with the mention of a beati Fredelini vita by Petrus Damiani in Poitiers on the occasion of the translation of Saint Hilarius.

Fridolin’s connection to Glarus is based on a later legend, a 13th-century addition to Balther’s Vita under the title de miraculis s. Fridolini. In this legend, he converted a landowner named Ursus (or Urso). On his death Ursus left his lands in the Linth valley (the later canton of Glarus), to Fridolin, who founded numerous churches dedicated to Saint Hilarius (claimed as the origin of the name “Glarus”). Ursus’s brother Landolf refused to accept the legitimacy of the gift and brought Fridolin before a court at Rankweil to prove his title. Fridolin did so by summoning Ursus from the dead to confirm the gift in person, so terrifying Landolf that he gave his lands to Fridolin as well.

The only portion of the life that can be regarded as historically tenable, is that Fridolin was an Irish missionary, who preached the Christian religion in Gaul, and founded a monastery on the island of Säckingen in the Rhine. Concerning the date of these occurrences, we have no exact information.

Each year on the first Thursday in April, Näfelser Fahrt, a pilgrimage to the site of the Battle of Näfels is held.
Each year on the first Thursday in April, Näfelser Fahrt, a pilgrimage to the site of the Battle of Näfels is held.

The existence of monasteries dedicated to Hilarius of Poitiers in Ediger-Eller, Dillersmünster, Strasbourg and Chur as well as Säckingen points to a trend of veneration of Hilarius in the 7th century, when the Alamanni were effectively Christianized. Fridolin would have been a representative of this movement. Fridolin’s own relics are venerated in Säckingen. His cult is attested from the late 9th century, although his name is missing from the list of saints by Notker Balbulus (d. 912). Petrus Damiani (c. 1060) refers to the saint as Fredelinus. Fridolin’s iconography is strongly influenced by the later Ursus legend, recorded in the 13th century, his attribute being the skeleton of Ursus. The veneration of Fridolin in Glarus can be traced to the valley having been owned by Säckingen Abbey, presumably since the 9th century.

From the 9th century, the area around Glarus was owned by Säckingen Abbey, the town of Glarus being recorded as Clarona. The Alemanni began to settle in the valley from the early 8th century. The Alemannic German language took hold only gradually, and was dominant by the 11th century.

Panoramic view of Bad Säckingen, Baden-Württemberg, Germany.
Panoramic view of Bad Säckingen, Baden-Württemberg, Germany.

Little is known about the early history of the abbey before the 9th century. On February 10, 878, the Emperor Charles the Fat gave his wife Richardis the monasteries of Säckingen, of St. Felix and of Regula in Zurich as a royal estate. This grant included extensive political rights and a large estate, which covered land in the Rhine and Frick valleys, the southern Hotzenwald, and lands in Zurich along Lake Walen and the valley of Glarus.

In 1173, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa granted rights to the Imperial bailiwick of Säckingen Abbey to Count Albert III of Habsburg. This was the foundation for the development of Habsburg territorial sovereignty over Säckingen. By 1288, the Habsburgs had claimed all the abbey’s rights.  In 1307, the abbess of Säckingen was elevated to the rank of Reichsfürst or Imperial Prince.

Lake Klöntal from Vorder Glärnisch (Glarus). Photo taken on August 30, 2006.
Lake Klöntal from Vorder Glärnisch (Glarus). Photo taken on August 30, 2006.

Glarus joined the Old Swiss Confederacy in 1352 as one of the foundational eight cantons (Acht Orte) of the period of 1353–1481. The first recorded Landsgemeinde (cantonal assembly) of Glarus took place in 1387. Habsburg attempts to reconquer the valley were repelled in the Battle of Näfels of 1388. A banner depicting Saint Fridolin was used to rally the people of Glarus at that battle. In 1395, the Glarus valley broke away from the Abbey and became independent, and from that time Glarus has used the image of Saint Fridolin on its flags and in its coat of arms.

The County of Werdenberg was annexed to Glarus in 1517. Between 1506 and 1516, the later reformer Huldrych Zwingli was priest in Glarus, but Glarus remained Catholic, and by 1564 all of Zwingli’s followers were eliminated. This, however, did not end the struggles between the Protestants and the Catholics in the area. To secure peace it was decided that each party should have its own assembly (Landsgemeinde) in 1623, and at a later stage in 1683, each side was granted the right to have its own tribunals.

Linthal, canton of Glarus, Switzerland. The Biferten glacier left of Tödi (in the clouds) is visible. Photo taken on August 16, 2006.
Linthal, canton of Glarus, Switzerland. The Biferten glacier left of Tödi (in the clouds) is visible. Photo taken on August 16, 2006.

Between 1798 and 1803 Glarus was part of the canton of Linth as established by Napoleon. In 1836 the constitution was adapted to unite the assemblies and establish a single Landsgemeinde.

In the early 1840s, after several years of failed crops and as food became scarce, much of the canton found itself deep in poverty. With more workers than available jobs, emigration to the United States of America was seen as a solution. The Glarus Emigration Society was established in 1844, which offered loans to help residents purchase land in the New World. Many of the resulting emigrants went to the state of Wisconsin, where they founded the town of New Glarus.

Säckingen Abbey
Säckingen Abbey

Between 1565 and 1575, the Säckingen Abbey buildings were renovated and expanded. Then, in 1806 the Abbey was closed. On June 12, 1806, representatives of twelve German princes met with Napoleon to form the Confederation of the Rhine. As part of the agreement, the Abbey was closed and all the Abbey’s property was transferred to the Grand Duke of Baden.

As of 2010, the buildings are used by the Caritas Catholic charity as a community center.

The canton of Glarus is dominated by the deep valley of the Linth River and the smaller Sernftal on the east. Most of the area is mountainous. The highest peak in the Glarus Alps is the Tödi at 11,857 feet (3,614 meters) Other mountains include the Hausstock (10,361 feet or 3,158 meters) and the Glärnisch (9,550 feet or 2,910 meters). The canton contains part of a thrust fault that was declared a geologic UNESCO world heritage site, under the name Swiss Tectonic Arena Sardona, in 2008. Famous outcrops in the Swiss Tectonic Arena Sardona include those at Lochsite near Glarus and in a mountain cliff called Tschingelhörner between Elm and Flims (in the same cliff is a natural hole called the Martinsloch). There is also a large lake called Walensee (Lake Walen) on the north. The total area of the canton of Glarus is 264 square miles (685 km²), of which about half is considered productive. Forestry is an important branch of industry in the canton.

Monument to the Battle of Näfels
Monument to the Battle of Näfels

On March 8, 1988, Swiss Post released a 50-centime stamp featuring the Banner of St. Fridolin superimposed on part of a medieval manuscript about the Battle of  Näfels which was fought on  April 9, 1388, between Glarus with its allies, the Old Swiss Confederation (Eidgenossenschaft), and the Habsburgs. It was a decisive Glarner victory despite being outnumbered sixteen to one. The stamp commemorated the 600th anniversary of the battle and was printed using the photogravure process, perforated 12 x 11½.

The Battle of Näfels was the last battle of the Swiss-Austrian conflicts that stretched through most of the 14th Century. A few weeks after the Battle of Sempach on July 9, 1386, the Old Swiss Confederation attacked and besieged the Habsburg village of Weesen on the Walensee. The following year, Glarus rose up against the Habsburgs and destroyed Burg Windegg. Then, on March 11, 1387, the town council declared itself free of Habsburg control.

Cantonal museum in the Freulerpalast at Näfels, Switzerland. Photo taken on November 19, 2005.
Cantonal museum in the Freulerpalast at Näfels, Switzerland. Photo taken on November 19, 2005.

In response, on the night of February 21-22, 1388, an Austrian army attacked the village of Weesen and drove off the Swiss forces. At the beginning of April, two Austrian armies marched out to cut off Glarus from the rest of the Confederation. The main army, with about 5,000 men, marched toward Näfels under the command of the Graf Donat von Toggenburg and the Knight Peter von Thorberg. A second column, with about 1,500 men under the command of Graf Hans von Werdenberg-Sargans, marched over the Kerenzerberg Pass.

Map showing location of Glarus and Näfels
Map showing location of Glarus and the Battle of Näfels
Map of Näfels, Switzerland
Map of Näfels, Switzerland

On April 9, 1388, the main army, under Toggenburg and Thorberg, attacked and captured the fortifications around Näfels. The garrison, comprising about 400 Glarner troops and a few dozen troops from both Schwyz and Uri, held out for a short time, but was forced to withdraw into the hills. As they retired, the Austrian army spread out to plunder the villages and farms. The Glarners now emerged from the snow and fog to take the Austrians by surprise as they were preoccupied with looting.

Following a brief battle, the disorganized Austrians broke and fled toward Weesen, but the collapse of the bridge over the Maag or Weeser Linth dropped much of their army into the river where they drowned. Seeing the destruction of the main column, Werdenberg-Sargans’ army retreated to the village of Beglingen (now in the municipality of Mollis). The Glarner and Confederation army had about 54 men killed, who were buried at the parish church of Mollis. Habsburg losses are less well known, though are estimated to be between several hundred killed and 1,700. On November 29, 1389, the Abbot Bilgeri had about 180 bodies moved from the battle field and reburied at Rüti Abbey in the choir of the present Rüti Reformed Church.

A commemorative plaque at the Battle of Näfels memorial near Näfels. Photo taken on July 4, 2006.
A commemorative plaque at the Battle of Näfels memorial near Näfels. Photo taken on July 4, 2006.

In 1389, a seven-years’ peace was signed at Vienna, leaving the Confederation in undisputed possession of all the territory it had acquired in the recent war. In the same year, the first Näfelser Fahrt, a pilgrimage to the site of the battle was held. This pilgrimage, which still occurs, happens on the first Thursday in April and is in memory of the battle. The pilgrimage played an important role in the creation of the unified canton of Glarus.

Flag of Switzerland
Flag of Switzerland
Coat of Arms of the Canton of Glarus, Switzerland
Coat of Arms of the Canton of Glarus, Switzerland

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