Surrounded by dramatic cliffs and snow-capped peaks, Lake Lucerne is one of the most scenic spots in all of Switzerland. On the lake’s shore, across from the historic lake-side resort Brunnen, lies an unassuming meadow with enormous importance to Swiss history.
In 1307, the cantons that now make up the Swiss Confederation were firmly under the control of the Holy Roman Empire. According to the White Book of Sarnen, representatives of the cantons of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden had all experienced some sort of injustice at the hands of tyrannical governors, known then as reeves, of their respective regions. United, the representatives met in the Rütli Meadow to pledge allegiance and solidarity against the reeves. This oath marked the beginning of the Old Swiss Confederacy, and the hand gesture purportedly made by the representatives during the swearing, the schwurhand, is still used in the inauguration of Germanic government officials today.
However, this history can be a bit hazy, and is all according to legend. The White Book of Sarnen was written over a century after the supposed oath, and there is no corroborated evidence that the Rütli Oath was signed the way legend has remembered it. Historians do note that several other oaths throughout the Old Confederacy were created around this same time, so it is not necessarily out of the question that the legend is true.
Regardless, the traditional signing date of the charter is now celebrated as a Swiss national holiday, and Switzerland continues to consider this spot to be the place where one of the earliest European democracies was born.
The Schiller Stone juts out from the water near the meadow. The rock stands more than 60 feet high and commemorates Friedrich Schiller, author of the famous story of William Tell. Schiller’s tale prominently features the Rütli Oath and places William Tell as one of the first signers, thereby etching the Oath’s importance into Swiss culture.
Know Before You Go
The rock can be easily seen from the water when approaching the meadow from Brunnen. The meadow is most easily accessible by boat. It is almost directly across the lake from Brunnen, or a 2-hour boat ride from Lucerne. Alternatively, you can hike in from Seelisberg. The meadow also marks the beginning of the Swiss Path, a 22-mile trail around the southern edge of the lake and back to Brunnen.