Geneva remembers fight for independence

Geneva celebrates one of its defining moments with pomp and circumstance. 2001

Geneva has this weekend marked the 400th anniversary of the Escalade, the battle that saw the Protestant city repel an invasion from the Catholic Duke of Savoy.

This content was published on December 14, 2002 - 13:51

Although little more than a skirmish, the Escalade is seen as a defining moment in Geneva's history, and celebrated accordingly.

December 12 is Geneva's Bastille Day or 4th of July, but most of the celebrations were held over the weekend.

"If the Duke of Savoy had won, we would be French or Italian today," says Patrick Mayer of the 1602 Company, which has organised most of the celebrations. "It was a minor military battle, but it was of immense importance to the fate of Geneva."

On the night of December 12, hundreds of the Duke's troops stormed the city walls, under orders to capture the Protestant stronghold, which the Duke wanted as his new northern capital.

But he had not reckoned with the resilience of Geneva's residents. At first petrified with fear, they were soon galvanised into action by the sight of valiant housewife, Mere Royaume, tossing a cauldron of scalding liquid on to the heads of the invaders.

The tale has no doubt been embellished over the years, but what is indisputable is that, by daybreak, 70 Savoy soldiers lay dead inside and outside the walls.

Eighteen Genevans lost their lives that night, but the honour and integrity of the city was intact.

More importantly, they had done it alone, without any help from the other Swiss cantons. That was enough to guarantee their independence, and a year later the city signed a peace treaty with the Duke.


The celebration marks the culmination of seven months of festivities in Geneva. As always, Sunday's traditional parade of men in armour and carrying weapons recovered from the Savoy troops are the high point of the event.

But while locals enjoy the fun, it should be remembered that the stern Protestants who used to have the upper hand in the city refused for a long time to hold any kind of open celebration.

The Escalade was remembered until the beginning of 19th century with low-key religious ceremonies at best. At times, there was not even an official commemoration for fear of disturbing the city's neighbours, and later on, its new Catholic minority.

It was only in 1902 that the anniversary became truly popular, when the first historical parade marched through Geneva. According to historians, the renewed interest in December 12 was just part of a wider trend.

The Swiss, after celebrating the 600th anniversary of the Confederation in 1891, had begun to take an interest in their past and their traditions.

It was also around the same time that they began to take measures to preserve their historical heritage. It was in this context that Geneva's inhabitants voted to save one of their old medieval towers in 1897.


The official celebrations were however long considered to be in the grip of the canton's patricians, who used it as a political platform against the strong local left-wing movements.

For a long time, both the pacifists, who objected to an official parade of men in arms - no matter how old the weapons and armour were - and the left, who believed the event was a celebration of bourgeois values they were fighting, were against the commemoration.

Some of the objections were justified. The 1602 Company, the association that is behind the official events, was long considered a sort of political club, where only the right allegiance would get you membership.

Today, the controversy has died away. The pacifists no longer have any objections, while Geneva's left now uses the Escalade's imagery for its own purposes.

The old rivalry between the city and its Savoy neighbours seems to have died off as well. Rather than compete with each other, they now prefer to collaborate and develop regional cooperation.

swissinfo, Scott Capper


The Duke of Savoy's army launched a sneak attack against Geneva on December 12, 1602.
Around 70 soldiers and 18 locals were killed during the battle which saw the Duke's troops repelled.
Widescale celebrations of the event didn't truly take off until the beginning of last century.
Geneva has been celebrating the 400th anniversary of the Escalade for seven months.

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