There is an invisible line running North-South across Switzerland. Up until 1536, this was the firm frontier between two completely different cultures. To the east lay the German-speaking Swiss cantons, to the west the French-speaking territory of the Duke of Savoy. In the middle of the Duke’s territory could be found the city of Geneva.
In Mediaeval times, there was a continuous dispute as to who should govern the city of Geneva –– was it the Bishop of Geneva, the Count of Geneva or the Duke of Savoy? When one of them began to dominate affairs, the citizens would align themselves with the strongest opponent. When that opponent became too strong, the allegiance would shift again. The last Count of Geneva having died in 1401, the citizens had looked upon the Bishop of Geneva as the defender of the city’s interests. But from 1450 onwards, the Bishop was always a prince of the House of Savoy. Thus, in one way or another, Geneva was part of Savoy. The citizens themselves already had a large say in the running of the city, but they dreamt of total independence. The destiny of Geneva and Vaud would be decided in 1536.
Over many hundreds of years Geneva had become prosperous as a trading and banking centre. However, in the early sixteenth century, as a result of policies adopted by the French king, Lyon had begun to challenge much of this business. Thus, Geneva’s attention had turned towards the Swiss cantons and Germany.
At this time, the Roman Catholic Church was accused of a number of corrupt practices. After Martin Luther’s famous condemnation of these abuses in 1517, a “Reformation” began to spread across Europe using a simplified form of Christian worship. Through their contacts with Germany and the Swiss cantons, by 1519 some citizens of Geneva had already adopted the new religion. Since the Catholic Church had a reputation for mercilessly punishing “heretics”, these citizens had signed a pact of mutual protection with the city of Fribourg. When the Duke of Savoy heard about this, he tried to stamp out the followers of the new religion in Geneva. From now on, political independence and religious freedom became inseparable goals for the citizens of Geneva. In February 1526, Geneva signed a more binding protection pact with several Swiss cantons and could now count upon Swiss intervention in the event of religious persecution. The Protestant Reformation of Geneva continued.
In the autumn of 1530, the citizens of Geneva felt that another attack by the Duke of Savoy was imminent and called in Swiss troops. Berne and Fribourg intervened and obliged the Duke of Savoy to sign the Treaty of St Julien, in which it was stated that he would forfeit Vaud if he ever again threatened the religious freedom of the people of Geneva. For this service from Berne and Fribourg, Geneva received a bill for 15,000 ecus! However, the government of Berne now realised that Geneva controlled the western approaches to the Swiss Plateau. If Bernese troops held the Geneva region, no-one could ever invade from that direction.
Next, a zealous Protestant preacher, Guillaume Farel, was sent by the Bernese authorities to Geneva in October 1532. His presence caused such an outcry among the Catholic priests that he was forced to leave the city after three days. A few months later Farel returned, together with two disciples: Antoine Froment and Pierre Viret. There were riots in the city and the Bishop of Geneva, finding his position increasingly untenable, fled on 14 July 1533—never to return. The Protestant preachers forced the authorities to suspend Catholic religious services, while all “idolatrous” images were destroyed or removed from churches.
This was the break with Rome. Many Catholics loyal to the Duke of Savoy fled the city but set themselves up as armed gangs in the surrounding countryside in an attempt to starve the city into submission. (While this was a difficult time for the people of Geneva, it was equally harsh on the local peasantry who could not sell their produce!) Even though “surrounded”, the city of Geneva could still communicate with the outside world by boat via the lake. These aggressive actions were tolerated by the Duke of Savoy and therefore violated the terms of the Treaty of St Julien. Then, the Duke’s forces were called away to deal with a military crisis in northern Italy. This was the opportunity that Berne had been waiting for!
After numerous attempts to negotiate peace between Geneva and the Duke of Savoy, in January 1536 Berne wrote to all the other Swiss cantons in the following terms: “The citizens of Geneva are being persecuted by the Duke of Savoy for their Protestant faith and must be rescued from starvation. By the pact of 1526, Berne is obliged to come to Geneva’s aid.” The Bernese army was ready for action and immediately invaded the Duke of Savoy’s territory! In a few days they took possession of Morges, Rolle, Nyon, Divonne, Coppet and Gex, and reached Geneva on 2 February 1536. The “impregnable” Fort de l’Ecluse was captured and the army swept round the Lake of Geneva and the Sal?ve as far as the La Roche and Thonon. The Bernese set up their headquarters at Gex, Thonon and Ternier (nowadays an obscure backwater of St Julien-en-Genevois). The city of Geneva was free –– but isolated in a territory controlled by Berne. This time, Berne presented Geneva with a bill for 20,000 ecus!
But 1536 was also the year that Jean Calvin came to Geneva. He had been banished from Paris in 1533 because of his involvement in the Reformation. He subsequently became well known for publishing a book describing how the new Protestant religion should be practised. Because of warfare in eastern France in July 1536, Calvin was obliged to make a detour via Geneva while trying to reach Strasbourg. Farel was desperate for the help of a keen Protestant preacher and persuaded him to stay. In Geneva, Calvin was immediately recognized as an outstanding and uncompromising leader, but at first he was unable to convince the citizens to accept his severe morality and his innovatory organization of the church. Following a dispute about the way church services should be conducted, Calvin and Farel were banished from Geneva at Easter 1538. After new elections to the city council, Calvin’s sympathizers called him back in September 1541 and from this moment until his death in 1564 he was the virtual ruler of the city.
The presence of the Bernese in the Geneva region was not altogether negative. Their way of running things was strict, impartial and thorough. Everybody had to pay taxes, particularly the rich and privileged who had previously escaped this burden. Furthermore, everyone had the right of fair trial by jury. For the first time, legal documents had to be written in French (as well as Latin) so that everyone could understand them. Beggars, fortune-tellers and mystics were banned.
However, the other Swiss cantons became jealous of Berne’s influence. By 1560 the Catholic cantons of Switzerland had persuaded Berne to give Ternier, Thonon, Gex and the valley of Abondance back to the Dukes of Savoy. Nevertheless, Berne did not give up Vaud.
Despite now becoming a massive fortress, Geneva prospered during the sixteenth century and, due to Calvin’s role in spreading the new religion, this wealthy city came to be called the Protestant Rome. From this moment on, Geneva and Vaud began to consider themselves as part of Switzerland.