Geneva’s Escalade : Beware of Savoyards Bringing Ladders

In Geneva, Switzerland; 9th/10th December 2017

Let us go back to the year 1602; to the days when Geneva was a wealthy little city-state, getting on with making money and becoming one of the main economic hubs of late Renaissance Europe.  Life was good in the Rome of the North – so good it was the cause of envy.

One of these enviers was the Duke of Savoy, Charles Emmanuel I.  He, like others in his family for about five hundred years, had a thing for Geneva.  The whole business goes back to when Geneva’s bishops were granted the status of ‘Prince of the Holy Roman Empire’ in 1154.  The post was held by Genevan counts, but when they died out in 1394, the House of Savoy took possession and placed its own family members into the episcopal see; a sly, but certain, way of gaining control of the city.

In 1490, the Duke of Savoy was forced to renounce the title of bishop of Geneva, and the bishops was subsequently elected in by members of the Grand Council of Geneva.  The Council basically became the local government, taking political matters into their own hands, and they didn’t like Savoy.  They tried to create an alliance with the Swiss city of Fribourg in 1519, but the Duke of Savoy responded by invading Geneva and suspending the Grand Council’s powers.

So the bishops of Geneva continued to be the minions of Savoy, and just to prove the point, Duke Charles III marched into Geneva in 1523 and had a grand ceremony which was supposed to get the population back on side.  His killer pitch was aimed at the merchants, to whom he promised great riches through trade with Brazil.  Interestingly, this didn’t go down well and only went to strengthen the pro-independence movement that was growing in the city.  Charles III was worried about a rebellion, and tried to convince the Grand Council to accept a power-sharing proposal – which was narrowly passed.  Obviously still feeling tension, Charles III wasn’t satisfied with this and subsequently tried to destroy the pro-independence faction, forcing its members to flee to Fribourg, and neatly compelling the Grand Council to acknowledge Charles III as the sovereign of Geneva in 1525.

Clearly this only made the pro-independence faction angrier.  They tried to summon up support for their cause, and somehow managed to get the support of the Genevan bishop, who had hitherto been, understandably, unsupportive of anything anti-Savoyard.  However, perhaps the bishop could tell the way the winds were blowing, because in the same month in 1526, the Grand Council voted to break away from Savoy rule.  It allied itself with the Old Swiss Confederacy and signed a treaty with Bern and Fribourg.  On March 12th, representatives of the other Swiss cantons appeared at the Grand Council and swore to protect Geneva.

This had an effect.  Charles III was not happy to have lost Geneva, but he didn’t want to antagonise the Swiss, so he employed a different, more petulant, tactic: he encouraged the destruction of goods intended for the city.  While this silliness continued, a group of pro-Charles III knights (Knights of the Spoon – named, presumably, by Monty Python) decided to try and invade Geneva for him, and in 1529 they tried to scale the city walls with ladders.

This was doomed to failure, but Charles III probably didn’t care.  He was going in for the long view and was trying to stir things up politically, firstly by getting the Swiss to abandon Geneva, and secondly by getting two powerful European rulers, Francis I of France and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, to side with him.  This is interesting, not least because these two men had a deep rivalry that was both personal and territorial, so presumably Charles III thought he could play them off each other.  And anyway, by now Charles III had a good reason to get support: Geneva had become Protestant in 1528 and had consequently been excommunicated by the Pope – which, you know, is a big deal when you don’t believe in the Pope’s authority any more.  Anyway, Charles V wrote to the Grand Council of Geneva in his own hand to ask them to re-embrace Catholicism.  Unsurprisingly, this was rejected by the council and Charles V got cross.

The Swiss at this point became concerned at the way things were going, because Charles V was not someone you annoyed.  In 1530 a delegation of five Swiss cantons turned up at the Grand Council trying to soften the nature of their alliance with Geneva.  The council didn’t got for it – clearly, since this would be laying them wide open to attack – and they became all the more determined to oppose attempts to give the city back to the Savoyards.  At this point the city had further problems, with Protestant/Catholic violence rumbling on until 1536, when the Catholics finally left, going mainly to Savoyard territories, and Genevans swore allegiance to the Lutheran faith.

Those Knights of the Spoon tried to invade again and even though they were supported by Charles V this time, the sudden appearance of a vast Swiss army made them abort their mission.  Five years later, the Savoyards tried again and were defeated by the Genevans at Gingins, just outside Nyon.  It is somewhat ironic that Charles III got a taste of his own medicine, because he lost practically everything when Francis I invaded Savoy in 1536 and ended up spending his life in exile.

Charles III was succeeded by Emmanuel Philibert, who tried to use diplomacy to lure the Genevans to become Savoyard.  It didn’t work but there was a type of truce between them.

In 1580 Emmanuel Philibert’s son Charles Emmanuel became Duke of Savoy, and he worked on his father’s attempts regain the Savoyard lands from the French – but he had an added ambition: he wanted to make Geneva his capital north of the Alps.  He made various attempts to take the city, which didn’t work.  Rather like Wiley Coyote, Charles Emmanuel was a glutton for punishment – and punishment he got.  But did the Duke of Savoy give up?  Certainly not.  He was determined to crush those pesky Protestants, and the Pope gave his blessing – he even made Francis de Sales the Catholic bishop of Geneva, based on his success in re-Catholicising the Chablais area of Savoy, and new plans for invasion were afoot.

In December 1602, Charles-Emmanuel I left his capital city of Turin in secret, and hid in Saint-Julien-en-Genevois, some 10kms from Geneva, while his army of about 2000 men, commanded by the Count d’Albigny, made its way towards Geneva.  Three weeks previously one of the men had measured the height of the ramparts, so they had sliding-ladders which were right for the job.  A group of men was selected to scale the walls, in a form of military attack known as escalade; they would then open the city gates to let in the rest of the troops.

It was a dark and foggy night on the 11th December; it was one of the darkest nights of the year and the moon wasn’t visible.  The Savoyards approached the city by following the River Arve, then the Rhone to Corraterie, where the noise of water and the mills covered the sound of the soldiers.  Between the Oye and Porte de la Monnaie, they stopped.  At two o’clock in the morning of the 12th December, 300 elite Savoyard soldiers, wearing black leather armour for camouflage, built up the pre-prepared ladders to climb the walls.  L’Escalade had begun.  The plan worked, and many of the Savoyards made their way over the walls and into Geneva.  The Count d’Albigny sent word to Charles Emmanuel that they were victorious and the Duke swiftly sent messengers around Europe to let everyone know the wonderful news.

However.  Two Genevan soldiers heard noises and went out onto the rampart of La Monnaie, only to come face to face with the Savoyards.  One of the soldiers fired an arquebuse and the alarm was given.  At 2:30am, the bells of Geneva’s churches started to ring, sounding an alert which brought the militia and citizens out into the streets to fight the enemy.  Dressed in their night gowns, the men and women fought with whatever weapons they had to hand, determined to defend their city.

The fighting took place from the Porte de la Monnaie to the Porte-Neuve, along the Corraterie.  The Savoyards were aiming to get to the Porte-Neuve to open the gates and let in the troops waiting at Plainpalais.  Alert to what was happening, Isaac Mercier made the decision to cut the rope that held the portcullis.  The Savoyard army outside the walls couldn’t come in, and those already in the city were killed.  Those Savoyards who attempted to flee back over the ladders had no luck, as the Genevan artillery fired at them and cut off the escape route.  The 2000 Savoyards at Plainpalais heard the noise and assumed that their men had done their job, but as they rushed to storm the city, they were bombarded by cannon-fire.

A source from Savoyard Turin documented that 72 Savoyards were killed and 120 were injured that night.  Those Savoyards who were taken prisoners were summarily hanged as bandits because the whole incident was viewed as an act of brigandry rather than a war, due to the fact that technically Savoy was ‘at peace’ with Geneva.

Eighteen Genevans died that night – all but four of them ordinary citizens out defending their families, their religion and their city.  Twenty-four people were injured but when you consider that the population of the city is estimated to have been 14,000, it is really quite extraordinary – and that’s even before you remember that they were caught unawares and in their nightgowns.

And with that, the Dukes of Savoy finally accepted that they weren’t going to get Geneva and signed the Treaty of St Julien in July 1603.

You can understand that the Genevans are proud of this event.  Already in 1603 there were songs celebrating the Escalade and the day was made a holiday in 1631.  They presumably became quite rowdy, because in 1670 the Register of the Company of Pastors drew attention to the ‘unworthy’ aspect of costumed meetings and the songs of children during Escalade.  In the 18th century celebrations were totally abolished as a public event, and instead the Escalade was celebrated in private.  It was only after Geneva joined the Swiss Confederation in 1815 that the locals had fun again, holding balls and masquerades.  Children dressed up and went singing at doorways, parading through the streets and singing songs associated with the Escalade.  The tradition continues and is a bit like a less ghoulish Halloween.

The tradition of celebrating Catherine Cheynel or “Mère Royaume” also continues.  The mother of 14 children, Cheynel lived just above the La Monnaie town gate.  Apparently she was awake at two o’clock in the morning (presumably she was keeping an eye on the soup she was going to feed her enormous brood for breakfast the next day) and saw a Savoyard attacking.  She grabbed the cauldron – or marmite, as it is in French – and poured it over his head, thereby making so much noise that her neighbours woke up and were able to join in defending the city.

This has really grabbed the public’s imagination – or at least the imagination of chocolatiers around the city.  Some savvy dudes in 1881 came up with the idea of making the marmite from chocolate, covering it in patriotic Genevan flags and colours and filling it with marzipan vegetables and small firecrackers.  The tradition is that the oldest and the youngest of the family join hands over the marmite, recite the line: “Ainsi périrent les ennemis de la République” (Thus did perish the enemies of the Republic!) and break the whole thing.

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A selection of chocolate marmites for the Escalade, Geneva, Switzerland

Mine got melted by the winter sun streaming through the window before I got the chance to be patriotic.

The City of Geneva began to celebrate the Escalade in earnest in 1898 with the formation of a Geneva Patriotic Association, renamed in 1926 as the Company of 1602.  The group is in charge of the commemorations, ensuring that all is dignified and accurate, and they organise the reenactments in the town, along with the nighttime procession.  In short, everything that happens over the weekend of the Escalade, which is the weekend of, or closest to the 12th December, is thanks to the geekiness of a group of guys, who during the week do their sober jobs, and come together to look and be awesome for one weekend a year.

To make events more interesting, the Company of 1602 also come up with a theme: this year it was medicine.  A little exhibition was set up in the town hall – but every time I tried to get in, it was shut.  The theme also governs what is on the top of the commemorative pin that is sold by children around the city.  These were 5 CHF and you can see in some of my pictures that all the re-enactors are wearing them.  Mine, I lost in literally ten minutes. Rather like the Remembrance Day poppy in England, they have a death wish.

The Company also organises lots of events over the weekend, from reading out the names of the Genevan victims of 1602, to demonstrations of arquebuses.  And what a fantastic weekend it is!

Going out on the Saturday morning, before the crowds developed, was a good idea.  It was sunny, but snowing, which was slightly bizarre.  No less bizarre is the sight of people dressed in 17th century costumes, and horses going through the streets.

One of the bizarre features of the Escalade weekend is the unique opening of the Passage de Monetier, the entrance of which is on the rue du Perron.  It’s basically a narrow passage, about a hundred meters long, that leads to the back of houses, so it provides an interesting insight into the world behind the facades.

There is a little section just after you go through the entrance where they’ve got some activities set up, but I couldn’t really see what was going on, and it was extremely cold.  Then you go up some stairs and immediately go down a passageway.  You go through this bit and think “It’s narrow, but not that bad”.  You admire the buildings you pass, and then quite suddenly you’re faced with a teeny-tiny opening to go through, and you remember in panic that the guys at the entrance didn’t check your girth to make sure you’re going to make it, and then you have images of getting stuck in the damned passageway, and making it in the local newspapers where you are used as an example of the English obesity crisis.  Then you make it through, relieved that you didn’t get trapped like Pooh-Bear, and seek out the nearest mulled wine seller to calm your nerves.

That’s almost a true story.

But quite seriously, if you are over a British size 16, think about how much you can breathe in and how much you value your life before going down there.  Truly you could find yourself a little trapped.  And honestly the experience isn’t worth it.

Once you come out of the passage, you’ll find that you can go up some stairs to the right.  If you go and turn left, towards the mosaic walls, and keep going, you’ll find yourself on a platform overlooking Geneva.

Here is a little encampment, with tents demonstrating crafts, and selling goods.

It wasn’t very busy around here when we visited, so there was a really tranquil, gentle atmosphere, which made it a pleasant place to just potter around.  If you like history, just seeing the people walking around in costume is wonderfully evocative – to have a scene where guys are standing around, smoking pipes and wearing those awesome helmets is enough to make me happy.

As there were going to be some re-enactments for the Escalade just outside Geneva Cathedral, we made sure we were in the Square in time.  First we were treated to a sword fight.  The man on the right was also explaining what they were doing, which was interesting, in that he was demonstrating the way that every move had a lethal counter-move which made the fights rather short.  As he said, the swashbuckling you see in films is not actually very energy-efficient, but we were given a little show of just that sort of fighting for fun.

Dang, I wish I could fence.

While we were waiting for the next part of the proceedings, two separate bands went past from different directions.  Because the town is so quiet, you could hear them coming, but it wasn’t immediately clear from where.  Then they arrived, followed by some drummers! And not just any drummers – Swiss drummers.  If any of you have seen the Top Secret Drum Corps, it was a bit like a scaled down version of that.  That perked everyone up.

But not as much as the group who came next: the arquebusiers.  This was fascinating.

Though arquebus was a loose term used to describe different types of guns, including muskets, by the late 16th century it was pretty well established that the guns had different names according to their size.  In France, muskets were differentiated from arquebuses by their size but also by whether they required a fork rest or not.

The process to load and fire the arquebus was quite long and drawn out – in ideal situations, it would take at least 20 seconds to reload and fire.  The images below show some of the main stages of the process, from getting the taper lit, to the firing.

My favourite picture is the blurry one.  It was loud when they fired.  I jumped.  The picture represents what happened in my head.

The process was repeated by each line of men about three times.  The arquebus was popular with armies because they could use this efficient system of having one line firing, with the others firing while you reloaded, thus keeping up a sustained barrage.

It was fascinating watching them and the noise was incredible.

I know there are a lot a photographs of these guys, but it was so cool, I just want to share the experience.

I wish I was an arquebusier.

Once the demonstration was over, I thought it was nice that they were happy to have children come over and look at the arquebuses close up.  The next generation of arquebusiers in the making?

We admired the nerves of arquebusiers, both old and new, because those are little bottles of gunpowder around their chests.  Apparently in the battles of the past, there was a high casualty rate from people blowing up themselves, and their friends.  Had I known that when I was watching them, I may not have positioned myself so close to them.

But who should appear next?  The pikemen!

I should just like to state that they are a lot more intimidating in person than it looks in pictures.  I speak from the experience of one of those who found themselves in the front line of their attack.

Actually, that’s wrong – they aren’t actually attacking – their role here is to protect the arquebusiers.  As you can see, the pikemen are holding their position while the arquebuses are fired.

I wish I was a pikeman.

The arqubusiers then left, and we got to see the manoeuvres of the pikemen in a different context.  But they are still unbelievably intimidating.

In formation they looked like a weirdly scary hedgehog, but it was so interesting seeing them, because you really could appreciate how difficult it is to handle the pike.  After all, it’s like an exceptionally long and wobbly javelin, that clearly requires strength and skill to be used effectively.

Respect to the pikemen.

And they had the coolest helmets.

We then were treated to a short burst of brass on the steps of the Cathedral followed by…

A review of the troops!  The different elements of the militia assembled and looked majestic together.

Bearing in mind that it was extremely cold, and the fact that we were standing around for well over an hour, it was totally worth it.  The way that each of the men took his role seriously, looked authentic, looked dedicated, was quite moving.  After all, this isn’t just a chance to dress up, like in cosplay, and enjoy being able to act differently for a day.  These men (and some women) respect the role they are playing as representatives of modern Geneva, as well as representatives of the courage of their ancestors of 1602.  The dignity of these modern Genevans is a credit to the citizens of four hundred years ago.

Since it was so cold, but we were reluctant to leave, we went into the Cathedral where the trumpeters were playing baroque music.  We sat down to a lovely concert that consisted of a lot of Handel, though I don’t know if at the start they’d had more music contemporary with 1602.  It’s hard for brass instruments to sound consistently harmonious, but the band was good, and it was wonderful to hear them.

When the concert finished, we decided it was time to go home.  Well – I had to get a vin chaud first, and honestly it was the best I’ve had this season.  It didn’t have an overly prominent spice dominating it – it was just a harmoniously blended drink.

A bit like Geneva during the Escalade – a lovely balance of old and new, young and old, warm and life-affirming.

But that’s not all.

On Sunday 10th December, Saturday’s events celebrating the Escalade are repeated, and in the evening the weekend’s celebrations reach their climax.  Over 800 people form a procession that marches through old Geneva, looking truly majestic in the dark, with flickering torchlight to guide their way.  It was raining most of the night, and I haven’t mastered the art of taking photos of moving people in the dark.  My pictures were therefore a disaster, which is a real shame because it was such an impressive sight, I really wanted to share it.

And I kept running around trying to catch up with the procession in the hope I’d get to a better spot for taking pictures.

Oh well.

The procession is made up different parts of the Genevan population:

The procession halts at certain rest spots, where there are proclamations.  The crowds listen, boo when the Savoyards are mention, cheer when Genevan victory is announced, and then everyone sings “Cé qu’è l’ainô”, a 68 stanza work (almost as epic as this blog post), written in a Franco-Provençal dialect in 1603, which celebrates the Escalade.  Fortunately, they seem to only sing two verses now, to a tune which is a strange mash-up between the British national anthem and something like “Partridge in a Pear Tree”.

We briefly went back to the Cathedral, because there was meant to be a concert, but it was running late, and because we live outside Geneva, we decided to leave it for this year.  We saw on the tv when we got home that the events were badly overrunning, so it was a good thing we left when we did.

However, there was a concert, a proclamation and a then a grand bonfire was lit, before university students danced round it in some weird ceremony.  A fine way to end the weekend.

To get the best views, you need to get to the Cathedral square at least two hours before events start.  And it’s cold in December, so bring your thermals.  And money for the vin chaud and the Mère Royaume soup that is sold in the square.

When I first discovered that I would be making my home near Geneva, I was excited about going to the Escalade.  Quite genuinely, the weekend exceeded my expectations.  I think this had a lot to do with the fact that the celebrations were very simple, dignified and sincere – and from a cultural point of view, it was great to see costumes and weapons from a period of European history that is less often celebrated than some others.  There were crowds, but it wasn’t crowded.  There is a great vibe, everything was very laid-back, and people were friendly: it all makes for a truly enjoyable weekend.  Long live Geneva!

General Information 

The tourist office has copies of the leaflet produced by the Company of 1602 which details the events of the weekend.  These are freely available from the information office and the various stands around town during the weekend.

The Company’s own website also has lots of information, but it’s only in French: www.1602.ch 

Schools in Geneva celebrate the Escalade and so it’s not surprising that there were lots of children about on both days, getting into the spirit of things.  During the demonstrations of the sword-fighting and the arquebuses, for example, children were going up and inspecting the weapons, something which the Company members seemed happy with.  I’m sure they’d have been very informative if you had any questions, so it could be very educational for children who are learning about the events of 1602.

Apart from that, there was a little area dedicated to the entertainment of children with some fairground type games, but the real interest will probably come from seeing the men on horseback going about town, and seeing and hearing the weapons in action.

How to Get There 

It is easy to walk from the Geneva train station to the old town, which is where the looming Cathedral is a centre point for events.  There are also plenty of buses and trams that can take you close to the action; more information can be found on the Geneva transport site which is available in English: www.tpg.ch

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