Escalade Part One: 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.

When centuries collide - 17th century meeting 21st century in Geneva, Switzerland

When centuries collide – 17th century meeting 21st century in Geneva, Switzerland

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.

Children selling special honey to suckers like me in Geneva, Switzerland

Children selling special honey to suckers like me in Geneva, Switzerland

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.

A girl hurrying to sell more 1602 commemorative honey in Geneva, Switzerland

A girl hurrying to sell more 1602 commemorative honey in Geneva, Switzerland

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.

Police on horseback for the Escalade in Geneva, Switzerland

Police on horseback for the Escalade in Geneva, Switzerland

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.

Commemorative plaque at the spot where Isaac Mercier saved the day, Geneva, Switzerland

Commemorative plaque at the spot where Isaac Mercier saved the day, Geneva, Switzerland

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.

The first service of thanksgiving was held on the morning of the 12th December 1602, and has been held the same day ever since.  These ladies are in the Cathedral during the Escalade in  Geneva, Switzerland

The first service of thanksgiving was held on the morning of the 12th December 1602, and has been held the same day ever since.  These ladies are in the Cathedral during the Escalade in  Geneva, Switzerland

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.

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

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

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.

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

Please click here for Part Two…


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