BERN    BERNE (the French spelling remains the normal English one as well).   

  1. English: An aerial photo of Bern.

    English: An aerial photo of Bern. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    Imperial Free City;

  2. Canton (BE).

In west central Switzerland.

Now the capital of Switzerland, the city, protected by a great loop in the River Aare, was founded in 1191 by the Duke of Zähringen, the most powerful lord in the region called Little Burgundy, in the northeast of the Kingdom of Burgundy.  When the Zähringen Dukes died out in 1218, the Emperor Frederick II allowed the city its independence and it became one of the Imperial Free Cities that were emerging, particularly in the southwest of Germany.

Bern was briefly under the protection of Savoy, whose power was expanding north of Lake Geneva, 1266-7 and 1291-4, but it was far from the centre of Savoyard power.   In 1323 it temporarily allied itself with the three Forest Cantons, which had for some years been defying the Habsburgs, because Bern suspected that the senior Habsburg line was interested in acquiring the possessions of the junior branch of Habsburg-Kiburg, some of which lay near to Bern.

In 1353 the alliance became permanent, although Bern was at this time on friendly terms with the Habsburgs.   Its growing control over the valleys of the Berner Oberland aroused resentment, particularly in the Lutschine valleys, which belonged to the Abbey at Interlaken, which had come under the protection of Bern.   The valleys had the sympathy and help of some of the men of Unterwalden, who had themselves struggled for the freedom of their mountain valleys from the Habsburgs.   On the other hand, alliance with Bern would strengthen the Forest Cantons.   In return Bern expected Unterwalden to restrain its unwanted sympathies and Schwyz and Uri to encourage it to do so.

In 1382 the Count of Habsburg-Kiburg attacked the city of Solothurn, to which Bern gave its aid.   In 1384 the defeated Count, unaided by Duke Leopold, his Habsburg kinsman, was obliged to hand over Burgdorf and Thun to Bern.   Their castles, controlling the lower Emme and the outlet of the Aare from Thunersee, enhanced Bernese power.

Bern was a wealthy city.   Around it were mostly small, weak lordships, and there was no powerful prince to grab what was going for himself.  Consequently, during the 14th-17th centuries the city expanded over a considerable area, sometimes by force of arms, sometimes by receiving gifts, but mainly through money, by buying outright the rights of a lord or by holding lands in pawn from lords whose finances often did not recover enough for them to redeem their property.  The Reformation also brought opportunities, and in 1528-9 Bern acquired the territories of three secularised abbeys.   By the early 17th century much of the present Canton was held by the city, whose government was oligarchic.

The city also acquired the western part of the present Canton of Aargau from the Habsburgs in 1415 and the district around Aigle at the eastern end of Lake Geneva in 1475, while the rest of the present Canton of Vaud passed from Savoy to Bern in 1536.  Bern’s gains from Savoy in 1536 were even greater, but Gex, Ternier, and western Chablais (west, south and east of the city of Geneva) were lost in 1567.  Besides these lands under the authority of the city fathers of Bern, the city also shared in the government of some of the subject territories, which were scattered through Switzerland and were jointly ruled by two or more Confederates.   Like the other Swiss Confederates, Bern, the most powerful of them, became virtually independent in 1499 and legally so in 1648.

The creation of the Helvetic Republic in 1798 under the auspices of the French revolutionary government diminished Bern.  The commonly held subject territories were freed;  Aargau and Vaud became separate Cantons, as did the Alpine region, which became the Canton of Oberland.

English: Coat of arms of the canton of Bern (S...

English: Coat of arms of the canton of Bern (Switzerland) Français : Armoiries du canton de Berne (Suisse) Deutsch: Wappen des Kantons Bern (Schweiz) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Napoleon re-created a more federal Switzerland in 1803;  Bern regained Oberland, but neither Aargau nor the French-speaking Vaud.  The Congress of Vienna compensated Bern for its losses by giving it most of the former Bishopric of Basle.   This included the district around Biel, which had been allied to the Swiss Confederation for many years and which, though nominally remaining part of the Bishopric, had become Protestant.  The former Bishopric, apart from the region close to Biel/Bienne, became the separate Canton of  Jura in 1979 – it was French-speaking and Catholic, unlike most of the people of Bern.

East of the new Canton of Jura was the district of Laufenthal, subject to Bern in the later middle ages, German-speaking and Protestant.   It remained in Bern in 1979, though not contiguous with the rest of its territory.   In 1994 it transferred, after the holding of referendums, to Baselland.

Bern is the second Canton in precedence (after Zürich), in area (after Graubünden) and in population (after Zürich).  It occupies a substantial part of the basin of the Aare (Aar), the longest purely Swiss river, from the Oberland in the Alpine region to the Oberaargau in the northeast, via the Mittelland around the city of Bern. The Canton also includes the Emmental in the east (named from the Emme, a tributary of the Aare), the Seeland (the plain northeast of Lake Neuchâtel and the region around Lake Biel) and a part of the Jura beyond the town of Biel/Bienne.  This last part is French-speaking.

The city was one of the three Vororte (with Zürich and Lucerne) between 1815 and 1848.   They acted as headquarters for the small federal administration, in rotation and for two years at a time.   With greater authority given to the central government in the Constitution of 1848, such rotation would have been awkward, so Bern became the capital.

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