Mayor Ulrich Varnbüler, builder of Chateau Weinstein, and his counter-part Abbot Ulrich Rösch
By Pius G. Nideröst
(The article appeared in the Jahrbuch Unser Rheintal, 1984, St. Gallen)
(With appreciation and thanks to Siegfried Rennert for his excellent translation)
Chateau Weinstein -- Engraving by Sulzberger in "Ambühl's History of the Rhine Valley"
The Weinstein Chateau in Marbach belongs to a group of manor houses in the Rhine valley, which in former times were owned mainly by non-residents, most of all by families from the city of St. Gallen. This country estate with its vineyards was owned by the Varnbüler family for about 200 years. The name of Weinstein -- similar to the name of Rebstein -- can be derived from its location in the midst of sloping vineyards.
The Varnbüler family, which originally came from the small village of Farnbühl in the Appenzell Stein, had already got their citizens' rights from the city of St. Gallen as early as the 14th century. Already Hans (Varnbüler) -- the father of the later mayor -- had earned great respect, and thus created the good reputation of the family. He was in several official positions, among them the office of the guild master of tailors. Ulrich, who was born around 1440, followed in the footsteps of his father as a dealer in cloth and guild master. He got married to Agnes Beeli from Belfort, who came from an old and noble family from Graubünden. They had two sons: the older one, Hans, was born in 1466, and was later to become the Mayor of Lindau. The younger one, Ulrich, who was born in 1474, was later to become the chief officer of the Reichskammer-gericht (Reich's Court of Law). Their father was at first a member of the Wider Council. Soon after he was to become a member of the Inner Council, in which -- among other positions -- he held the important office of the City Architect. Finally, early in December 1480, he climbed up to the highest position within the Magistrate: he became the Mayor of St. Gallen. From then on -- over a stretch of 9 years -- he always held the top offices of the city, keeping to the the turns, as fixed by law. Near Grandson [place name] he was the leader of the St. Gallen troop contingent that was involved in the most courageous attack of the Swiss vanguard. Also his financial situation could easily compare with that of the most respected and wealthiest citizens of the city. His house was located in that part of the city which was considered to be the noblest, i.e. on the Speisergasse-Marktgasse corner. Beyond this he became the heir of the Weinstein estate, which he inherited from his father.
A genealogical study about the Varnbüler family already mentions one Hans Varnbüler zu Weinstein as early as 1375. In 1417 another Varnbüler of the same name sealed a document in this very place.
However, it is uncertain whether at that time the estate had already got a stone or brick-work house standing on it. It was Mayor Ulrich Varnbüler who built a castle-like manor house on the vineyard property in the year 1479, after returning home from the Burgundy Wars with rich booty. How often must he -- who, from his residence in the confined city, could just look across the narrow lane and see nothing but the line of houses on the other side -- then have enjoyed, from his higher outlook, the almost unrestricted sights of the wide Rhine Valley below his feet! Now the proud landlord could receive his guests in his manor house and enjoy its idyllic surroundings -- at the same time treating them to a delicious wine grown and produced in his own vineyard. Last but not least, the busy tradesman and member of the Magistrate may also have come to these rural surroundings just for rest and recreation. A day came, however, when his fate was to change dramatically, and he -- who for a long time seemed to be really haunted by good luck -- had to flee his home. From his exile he had to fight for a permission to return home, and also for his property in the Rhine Valley. To make the reasons easier to understand, the political situation during these years must be looked at a bit more closely. This will open one's eyes to a time that, in the Eastern parts of Switzerland, was full of tensions and unrest.
By the middle of the 15th century, the monastery and the city of St. Gallen, as well as the Canton of Appenzell had become places that were seeking closer contacts with the Swiss Confederacy. It must, however, be seen that the monastery had lost much of its power and influence long before. The Canton of Appenzell gained independence in the battle-field, and the city of St. Gallen succeeded in cutting its ties with the monastery step by step, thanks to the high living standard and wealth of its citizens. The production of linen cloth, which was already booming in the 14th century, was a very rich source of income, and this was not to change for a very long time.
The leading politicians of this city, first of all Ulrich Varnbüler, were however very far from being satisfied with what they had achieved. The growing power and influence of the Swiss Confederacy, mainly that of the cities, was apt to stimulate the strong desire of this very ambitious and versatile man to reach a similar political influence also for the city of his fathers. But the influence of Zürich, Bern, or Lucern was based on large territories belonging to them, with all their strong military facilities. This is the reason why Varnbüler was striving to get into the possession of such terrritories for his own city, too. Logically, this could be nothing else than the lands of the monastery around the city. Already as early as 1445, the very wasteful abbot Kaspar von Breitenlandenberg, who was loading heavy debts on the monastery, had promised to grant legal recognition to the independence of the city. Moreover he even tried to sell the rights he had for a large part of the monastery's lands. The Convention, however, refused to seal this contract, and as a result it was declared null and void by the Confederacy. St. Gallen only won in the first disputed case, i.e. at a price of 8,000 guilders it was granted complete independence from the monastery. But from then on, it was declared as their first and foremost aim by a group of citizens to purchase this property from the abbot at the very first opportunity, in spite of all problems.
Abbot Ulrich Rösch, the counter-part of Ulrich Varnbüler. By his own hand, the Mayor, medical doctor, historian, and reformer Vadian decorated his chronicle about the abbots of St. Gallen with small pen-and-ink drawings. They are half-length pictures of the abbots mentioned in the text, which he decorated with symbols. These symbols were used to portray the character and rank of the persons in the pictures, because he did not know any of the abbots personally and because no portraits of them were available. [translator's comment: He wanted the persons to be identified by these symbols, because no portraits of them were available at that time.] So -- in addition to miter (the liturgical headdress of a bishop) and abbot's staff -- he gave to abbot Ulrich also a sword, which was to describe him as a prelate with fighting qualities. In the text of his chronicle, Vadian describes abbot Ulrich as "wise, life-experienced, agile/expedient, and advantage-seeking."
The soul of all resistance against any kind of renouncing of the sovereign rights of abbots was the member of the Convention, Ulrich Rösch. Starting as a kitchen boy in a very subordinate position, he very soon succeeded -- on the basis of his bright intellect and of his extraordinary energy -- to attract the attention of his superiors. They gave him a chance to take lessons, and very soon he began to play the leading role among the capitulars. It was even seen in Rome that this man was the right person to reorganize the St. Gallen Abbey. So he was appointed curator of the Abbey in spite of the fact that abbot Kaspar had already arrested him for for a couple of days because of his unerring struggle for the interests of the monastery. In the year 1463, he, a baker's son from Wangen in the Allgäu (now a German province), was appointed abbot after the resignation of abbot Kaspar.
Picture of photostat copy:
In the year 1483, abbot Ulrich Rösch gave a set of rules and regulations, which was called "opening" (and is reproduced in the photostat), also to the members of the St. Margarethen Court. The abbot notes in its preface: "So jurisdiction, court, and all that is part of St. Margarethen-Höchst should belong to one man only, to the master of 'God's House' (the monastery) in St. Gallen, but the administration of the same should be the responsibility of those from Appenzell.
With unexpected energy abbot Ulrich VIII took to his work: He insisted that the rules of the order be more strictly followed, which resulted in a stricter discipline within the monastery being restored and strengthened, and also in a very economical running of the household. Moreover, this had the wanted side-effect of making available the financial means for consolidating its economic basis. Piece by piece the lands of the monastery (the St. Gallen "Fürstenland"), which were under mortgage bond, were bought back and put under the administration of the abbots, however hard the owners of these bonds were trying to prevent this. Beyond this, numerous new acquisitions were being made, as for example the county of Toggenburg. With great determination he took to fixing old claims of the monastery and to getting them recognised. The people from the "God's House," who had not felt the abbots' rule under the predecessors of Ulrich as being too hard, were reminded of their role as subjects with great determination. The oath of allegiance had to be sworn again, which had been neglected for a very long time. Taxes and levies (among them the "one tenth") were now collected regularly and put under strict control, contrary to the very lax practice of former times. Also the courts of Altstätten, Marbach, Bernang, and St. Margarethen in the Rhine valley began to feel the stricter practice of their new masters. When Altstätten and Marbach refused to submit and to swear the oath, abbot Ulrich took them to the Council in Uberlingen, that was working as an arbitrator, where he finally was declared to be in the right. It was this abbot's first and foremost aim, to solidify in writing the ruling rights of the monasteries once and for all, in what he called "openings" (St. Margarethen-Höchst in 1483, and the remaining districts in 1487). However, he had to face the resistance of the distrustful communities very frequently, as they were afraid they might get into a stronger dependance from the jurisdiction. (By the way, these lists of rights were called "openings", because from time to time they were "opened", i.e. they were made publicly known to the people, who were living on the farms). The people from Altstätten, too, took notice of the draft of their "opening" with great distrust, launched protests against certain details of it, and forced the abbot -- more or less without any success -- to a court of arbitration.
A one-Pfennig pilgrimage coin from St. Gallen with the portrait of St. Gallus. It is made of bronze, by Jakob Neuss, Augsburg. Pilgrimage-Pfennige were souvenirs of pilgrims, which they stitched to the brims of their hats. The people of St. Gallen feared that the pilgrimages to the tomb of St. Gallus might come to an end if the monastery was shifted to Mariaberg, which was one of the reasons for the destruction (Klosterbruch) of the Rohrschach monastery.
In the introduction to the "opening" for Marbach and Bernang, it can be read as follows:
"Because 'God's House' was no longer in a weak condition , it was handling things in the Rhine valley, such as forbidding things, handling legal affairs, and also wantonness and wickedness, penitence and atonement, and other things that were not found in order." (strict discipline!)
Also very much in their own interest were the measures of the abbot to adjust and simplify the methods of administration. Against payment of a moderate amount of money, the people who were "owned" by the nobles of Grimmenstein were allowed to be free. They became free "God's House" people within the court of St. Margarethen-Höchst. Also in their interest was the redemption of the Altstätten farmland from what was called the "Ehrschatz". Of long-lasting effect were the regulations and stipulations for the law applying to inheritance and transfer of goods/assets, which were introduced to the abbots' farmlands in the Rhine valley. But the standards that originated in local Common Law remained untouched for centuries. No abbot, nor any other sovereign had left such lasting imprints on the documents and chronicles of the Rhine Valley as this Ulrich VIII (Rösch). This is why only the most important things can be mentioned here. In 1473 he acquired the Rebstein Special Tribunal from the Masters of Ems -- and dissolved it, with the result that from then on the people from Rebstein had to seek their rights with the Marbach Court Tribunal. In 1486, Jacob Mangolt's widow in Constance sold him castle and dominion Blatten "called Wichenstein, with its stock", and also the lower half of the farm of Kriessern (below the church of Montlingen) with all domestics (servants), law court and all its other rights and belongings. The following lines of an anonymous poet describe this very well:
What was lost
in interest, pensions and money,
he made doubly available
for the (hands of the) monastery.
He purchased flower mills,
and he made fish-ponds,
seats of administration and farmlands.
Abbot Ulrich, who was said to have had an "innate love of calculating and judging things" succeeded to improve his own and his monastery's reputation tremendously. But still he -- called the "Red Uli because of his red hair" -- was not to live without opposition. Above all he would all the time have quarrels with the city that was surrounding his monastery.
In order to overcome these difficulties, the abbot made a plan that was to decide the disputes. First of all, in 1479 he concluded a protecting contract with the four places Zürich, Lucern, Schwyz and Glarus for the monastery's lands, on the basis of which these cities were given the right to alternately delegate a captain for two years each. They were to assist the abbot in every way possible in all wordly matters. When abbot Ulrich had strengthened his power over his territory, he was planning to get away from the confining routes through the city, which refused to concede to him a separate gate for access to his monastery. So he planned to move the monastery to Mariaberg ob (above) Rohrschach and thus to put an end to this situation. The centre of the abbot's sovereignty was to be moved from the hostile city surroundings into the places of his subjects. Convention, Pope, and Emperor agreed to this planning. Having obtained their agreement, in March 1487 the foundation stone for the new building could be laid.
It can certainly be seen that the shifting of the monastery residence, together with the central administration of the abbot's districts, was of little or no interest to the city of St. Gallen. But the pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Gallus would have had to find new ways, if the remains of the country's saint had been transferred to the monastery of Mariaberg. St. Gallen would also have had to worry about getting a dangerous competitor through the dynamic market place of Rohrschach, which was favored by the good and convenient trading routes offered by Lake Constance. And above all, there was the risk that Rohrschach might become the main port for the area, a position which until then had been held by Steinach, which belonged to the city of St. Gallen and to which it offered good profits. Could this mean that through this very ambitious abbot the fulfillment of St. Gallen's most ardent wish, to extend it's sphere of influence, was becoming more and more unlikely, while at the same time doubts were being raised about what it had already achieved? This is why these plans (of building the Mariaberg monastery) roused great irritations not only in St. Gallen, they were also apt to anger the people of Appenzell, who were afraid they might lose their administrative seat in Rheintal, which they had purchased from the Peyern von Hagenwil and which -- with the Emperor's support -- was earlier wanted by abbot Ulrich. It is true, the abbot had conceded to them a compensation on amicable terms, allowing them to keep the Rhine Valley in their possession; at that time, Ulrich Varnbüler was one of the arbiters. But when the big buildings of the monastery on their border took more and more the shape of a castle, even a fortress, they were afraid the fight about the Rhine Valley might flare up again. But it should have seemed strange to them that the abbot was building the monastery on the very brim of his sphere of influence. Might this building be planned to become a "key" to the Rhine Valley, in which abbot Ulrich was already then the most powerful land-owner and master of jurisdiction -- ready at any moment to increase both his possessions and his influence?
When the Waldkircher Bund (Waldkirch Federation) was dissolved, because the people from "God's House" and from Appenzell had withdrawn, the only thing left was to subdue the city of St. Gallen. The city which was ready for resistance ordered the houses outside its wall to be burnt down, so that the enemy should have no cover of any kind. Under the spell of these escalating events, great changes had already happened inside the walls. Less than ten weeks had elapsed since the citizens had again elected Ulrich Varnbüler as their Mayor. But now he and the people from Appenzell, who had a reputation of being perfidious, were held responsible for all the harm that came over the city. People were shouting, the enemy would come and destroy the city, if Varnbüler was not extradited to them. In a very noisy meeting, the citizens demanded a war council to be established. Very soon the Mayor found himself without any confidence, robbed of all his power and real influence. With great faint-heartedness, the man -- who had been so strong before -- was now trying to justify his policy to his citizens by the decisions of majorities, which he had always carried out. He did, however, not make any mention of the fact that the initiative had always come from his side, and that the majorities were in fact his own supporters whom he once had in large numbers. Was it not that, in former times, he just eliminated his opponents, as for example the assistant mayor Schwainberg, thus preventing any effective opposition? From his 24-year-old son Hans -- who had moved to Herisau with a rescue unit from St. Gallen, and who returned into the city after losing his allies -- he could have heard about Schwendiner's fate and drawn the conclusion that the Confederacy might demand his extradition.
So he was in a dilemma: On the one-hand he was threatened by the revenge of the Confederacy, and on the other by that of the opposition within the city. He will certainly have had in mind the tragic ending of his collegue from Zürich, because less than one year had elapsed since Hans Waldmann became a victim of the people's rage. Because the city might be encircled by the enemy's army any moment Varnbüler sent a highly respected citizen to the watch soldier at the Speiser Gate and ordered him to say that the council had decided to send a message. So when the messenger would turn up with his message box, he should not be held up and asked to "justify" but immediately be given permission to pass. So when dusk fell, Varnbüler changed his clothes, pulled a cap very much down into his face, took the message box in his hands and went to the Speiser Gate accompanied by a peasant. He could pass without any problem. By such a devious method, the mayor -- who had been a much celebrated person a short time before -- had to escape from his father city, leaving it to its fate.
The new building of the monastery in Rohrschach as it is attacked in 1489. Taken from the Lucern Chronicle In Pictures by Diebold Schilling, 1513
The Lucern Chronicle writer Diebold Schilling judges about the policy and the flight of his contemporary Ulrich Varnbüler as follows:
"The citizens of St. Gallen once had a mayor, of name Ulrich Farnbüler, and a town clerk, both of whom were very powerful in the city, and after starting the thing led the city into wrong ways. Both fled from their city in a shameful way under the cover of dark night and dense fog. From this it can be well seen that they were doing a false thing."
It should be realised that this hard judgement comes from a citizen of one of the protecting cities!
Varnbüler's escape, however, did not mean at all that there should have been no more resistance. So for two weeks the troops of the Confederacy were firing into the city without causing much damage. Finally mediators were offering their good services, and when the chances to successfully defend the city over weeks were dwindling more and more, the city finally decided to send negotiators to the St. Finden headquarters. So the "War Of The Two Ulrichs" came to an end. The armistice, among other things, called for a dissolution of the Waldkirch Federation and the banishment of Varnbüler. In the case of his return he was to be arrested and delivered to the four cities to get his deserved verdict. The city was granted the protection of its property,
"with the exception of Ulrich Varnbülers estates, in case he should have any outside the city of St. Gallen."
The people of St. Gallen did not care about that. This referred both to the castle and to the vineyard of Weinstein as well as to a house that he had just started building in Rheineck. The hard measures that were taken against Varnbüler were to have consequences and reverberations over many years.
In the Peace Treaty the city finally had to pay 14,000 guilders as indemnity. The war debts were such a heavy load for the city, that in the following year an eight-fold tax had to be levied, with the citizens having to "do hard spooling, spinning and weaving jobs," as it is described in a small rhyming poem from that time. Even harder was the loss of all properties outside the city boundaries, which meant renouncing all claims of widening the sphere of influence beyond the city walls. The regions of Oberberg, Andwil, and Steinach went into the possession of the protecting cities, which sold them to the abbot right away. For the people of Appenzell this sealed the loss of the Rhine valley, which was just as painful. Very soon, in the following year, the protecting cities first took Uri, Unterwalden, and Zug into a joint Rheintal government; then, after the Swabian War in the year 1500, Appenzell, and after the Toggenburg War in 1712, Bern was to follow. But the disloyal people of "God's House" were also hit by the punishment of the protecting cities. They had to pay 7,000 guilders as indemnity. So both allies, St. Gallen and Appenzell, had to suffer hard punishment for their blunt breach of the country's peace.
The defeated side had to concede the unrestricted building rights to the abbot; both abbot Ulrich and his successors did not move the Gallus monastery to Rohrschach, although the following abbots continued with the building, which was to be used as a school building later on. But even in our days it is -- particularly in its cross vaults -- a great monument of the later gothic art. But more important was the fate of the lands belonging to the monastery. Abbot Ulrich had to face unusual difficulties and it took all his great diplomatic skills to "hollow out" the delivery contract and to avoid renouncing (under pressure) the "God's House" lands and delivering them to the protecting cities. The desire to own these monasterial lands had been a very strong drive to enter wars. The abbot had to be satisfied with a new contract by which his rights within the monasterial lands were cut considerably. So he could certainly not enjoy the victory very much. On the other hand the princely abbey of St. Gallen could pride itself on a coherent and compact territory for a first time in its history. One day these lands were to become the offspring for a Swiss canton. The "second founder" of the monastery of St. Gallen lived to see the deeply humiliated city being shaken by an uprising, and died soon after, on March 13, 1491. In the monastery he was gratefully remembered as an excellent principal and a very prudent and cautious manager, because he had managed to bring the abbey from great darkness back to light, and to strengthen it so that it could even survive the storms of the Reformation in later times.
After his escape from St. Gallen, Ulrich Varnbüler went to Innsbruck without delay, in order to see King Maximilian and to motivate him for an early intervention. Was it possible that Varnbüler could have fled, against the background of an agreement with part of his council, because they were fostering hopes that Emperor Friedrich, King Maximilian and the Swabian Federation would not drop the old and honorable Reich City of St. Gallen? So, already at the beginning of the war, messengers were sent out to Innsbruck with requests for help.
The Swabian Federation, which -- over years -- had been treated in very unfriendly and rude ways by the Swiss Confederation, was really tempted to take the side of the Waldkirch Federation and to bring lost territories back to the House of Austria. So very soon, there was quite a big army of some 10,000 soldiers standing near Lake Constance and the Rhine. But that was to be all. The capitulation of the city of St. Gallen came very fast, so that nobody could help them any more. The Emperor, who was not able to make a fast enough decision, missed the very good chance of reaching his political aims in the Swiss Confederacy.
After realising that no help could be expected, neither from the side of the Reich nor from the side of the Swabian Federation, Varnbüler moved from Innsbruck to Lindau. All the more, the refugee could now pursue his personal affairs. Very soon, in March 1490 already, he launched a petition, requesting that he should be given permission to grow wine in the Rhine valley; he would then like to come in autumn time for harvesting! Of course, he did not receive any reply to this very illusionary request. On the contrary, the authorities rather emphasized "that this man be seized." When the conditions of the Peace Treaty were published -- in which his estates in the Rhine valley were expressedly exempt from the protection of property -- he could no longer be deceived and hope that the winners might be ready to help him in any way. When finally they were going to sell the Weinstein Estate -- after giving away all the "house-plunder" to the administrators of the Rhine Valley as "house utensils" -- Engel Varnbülerin, a sister to the former mayor and a lady of the St. Gallen monastery, was the first to claim 6 buckets of wine as a lifelong pension from her father's heritage. This had to be complied with. After this, Varnbüler's wife and children made the proposal to purchase the estate at a modest price, which however was turned down. In the year 1495, the rulers in the Rhine valley sold
"our estate and house and farm together with the vines,
called Winstein, near Marbach, in the Rin (Rhine) valley"
for 500 guilders to the lawyer Dr. Christoph Winkler, who later entered the church and became a priest in Altstätten.
Emperor Maximilian I. (1459 - 1519) was son and successor to Emperor Friedrich III. who granted a letter of freedom to the people of Altstätten. A short time before the Swabian War, Maximilian had offered his helping hand in the Varnbüler affair. Weinstein had to be returned to the Varnbülers, and the Reich paid for the costs of the law suit and indemnity.
But this is getting ahead of the story. Varnbüler was still far from being a broken man who might have been satisfied with the lot of being a refugee, without courage and energy. During all these years he kept asking for permission to return home, for getting his estates back, and for indemnity. But all this man's requests hit on deaf ears, although in the Burgundy Wars he had been a most welcome ally. In Bern alone, which had taken a more friendly position towards Varnbüler's policy all the time, did his request for rehabilitation or at least for getting a hearing in a council meeting, find open ears. But instead of giving the exiled a fair chance of justification, the majority of the meeting insisted that they should better make sure about Varnbüler's ideas, position, and aims. This might have resulted in a final verdict.
In that situation the homeless was seeking his right with the Reich, which was all too ready to take up the matter of the former Mayor of St. Gallen. The more so, because asking the royal chamber court to act as the highest court of appeal in matters concerning Confederate lands, was exactly in accordance with the policy of Maximilian, who was Emperor at that time. This court, one of Maximilian's main instruments to tighten the grip of the Reich's power, was supporting Varnbüler's demands for the restitution of his estates and for the compensation of loss and damage. The citizens from St. Gallen, who were delegated to attend the law-suit and whose counter-suit had been turned down, reported from Antwerp where final judgement was passed about Varnbüler, as follows:
"Even here he is behaving like a proud man"
But Varnbüler could not really enjoy the situation, which formally had seemed to be favourable for him, for a very long time. Before he could see any kind of indemnity and before the restitution could be made, he died in 1495 or early 1496, not even 60 years old, a home-sick refugee, far away from his father's town. In his person -- according to the judgment of Dierauer -- a man of outstanding merits and honorable striving had passed away. Both his sons who -- together with their mother -- had followed their father to Lindau soon after his escape, continued in the struggle for their father's right with great resolve. Beyond all this, law became the real elixir of their lives, because Hans -- the older son -- had all his four sons trained to be doctors of law, and Ulrich -- the younger son -- was later to rise to the position of Vice Chancellor of the Reich's Chamber Court (Reichskammergericht). But the city of St. Gallen, encouraged by the unyielding Confederate council was, over many years, not ready and willing to accept the claims of the Varnbüler heirs. This was too much for the German judges. They pronounced the Reich's ban over the disobedient city, which was a heavy blow against the St. Gallen trade in linens. This hard measure was not withdrawn, not even after the intervention of a 10-people delegation from the council to the Reichstag in Lindau. In the meantime, Varnbüler's sons confiscated consignments of St. Gallen linen wherever they could get hold of them.
But the decision to tear down the building of the Monastery was not made by the people of Appenzell, but rather by the city, and to be even more precise, from the very person that had been dominating its policy for many years, from Ulrich Varnbüler. What could have been more logical, than for the self-conscious Varnbüler to become the leader of the citizens, who were the abbot's enemies anyway. So he managed to gather around him a group of reliable friends, the "secret council", who were all members of the Inner Council. With the help of this group within the Inner Council Varnbüler had been able to dominate the city's affairs according to his own will and understanding -- very similar to the ways in which 40 years later Zwingli dominated the city of Zürich through the instrument of the "Secret Council".
So when they started building the Monastery at Rohrschach, this was the right and most welcome thing for Varnbüler and his followers to prevent by all means. In this situation they also tried to draw to their own side -- away from the abbey -- the "God's House" people (the monastery's) in the "Fürstenland" (the lands under mortgage bond), so as to at last reach their much coveted goal of a larger territorial state. Before this decisive step, they assured themselves of the support from the side of an old enemy of the monastery, the people of Appenzell.
Although the real goals of this secret policy were not disclosed to the people, resentments had to be aroused against the abbot, because the use of (military) power could not be excluded. In order to boost the emotions against the abbot, the Mayor and his assistant, town clerk Schenkli, used a very unfair instrument. In a very arbitrary interpretation of a former verdict, they pretended to be in the possession of documents in which the abbot had allegedly promised not to build in any other place than the city. Now Varnbüler took the first steps towards preventing the building of the monastery, at a time when it could be foreseen that the abbot would not give up the building of the monastery (which had already been started) any more. Accompanied by Landammann Hermann Schwendiner from Appenzell, he appeared before abbot Ulrich in Wil and demanded that the building of the monastery in Rohrschach be stopped and the parts that had already been completed be torn down. Of course Ulrich refused to do this, referring to the concessions he had got before. Now the two were firmly decided to solve the problem by force and began to commit the fatal act, which -- under secret cover -- they had already prepared for. They nominated a Secret Council, consisting of people from St. Gallen and Appenzell, and gave them the necessary authority. By the way, this was easy in a time in which scuffling was the order of the day. Just one small spark could trigger off heavy fighting, a situation which made it easy for the St. Gallen and Appenzell politicians to win the masses for an armed attack.
So in the morning of July 28, 1489, about 1,200 people from Appenzell and 350 from St. Gallen met in the small village of Grub, which was about one hour above the new monastery. In this very place some 600 people from the Rhine valley, who had been recruited by the Appenzell people, joined them. Within very short time, the beautiful building, which had almost been completed, was completely flattened. Anything that appeared to be of some use was robbed, and all such things as were not fire-proof were burned. The direct losses of the abbey were estimated to be in the neighborhood of 16,000 guilders.
Abbot Ulrich, who was not really the man to accept this challenge faint-heartedly and without protest, immediately got in contact with his allies, the four protecting cities. With great emphasis did he demand that all those who were guilty of the destruction should be punished accordingly and pay indemnity. Then he made them the almost unbelievable offer, that they could dispose of his monastery's lands as if they were confederate lands, so that abbot and Convention were free to improve their services for God. This proposal, which -- for us living in the 20th century -- might appear to be a well calculated withdrawal of the monastery to its original task, would for sovereign/abbot Ulrich have been the same as being defeated and giving up what had been his life's work. This could not have been his real intention. First of all, however, it was most important for him to get the protecting cities involved into his planning so that later their actual interference could not be avoided. Just wait and see.
But also Varnbüler and Schwendiner were active. They got all ten confederate states [upper classes?] involved in their cause. In this connection they accused the abbot of having planned to set up a base for the House of Austria through this solid building (like a fortress!) at Rohrschach. In the end they were able to achieve that all the places which were not allied with the abbey were working for a peaceful settlement of the conflict. Although Varnbüler was a third mayor (not active) in that year, he was the leader in all the negotiations about this matter, by order of St. Gallen. Little wonder then, that the four cities and all the other supporters of the abbot were putting all the guilt for the whole affair on him. He was held to be the main plotter who was responsible in the first place. The early success in the confederate meetings, and the prospect that another ally -- the God's House people of the "Fürstenland" -- was in sight, made both leaders feel too sure of themselves. They were less and less inclined to consider in any way the wishes of the abbot's protecting places, and refused all conciliatory proposals.
These God's House people, whose situation appeared to be quite desirable in the eyes of neighboring subjects (G. Thürer), had that far endured the strict regiment of abbot Ulrich without open protest. But now they were afraid they might have to pay new taxes because a new monastery was to be built. This was a very good opportunity for the people from St. Gallen, who availed themselves of the tensions between the God's House people and their masters as far as they could, to incite the country people to rebellion against their unliked masters. The fact that the Confederates were hesitating to take action against the destroyers of the monastery was interpreted either as a special favour or as a sign of weakness, and very soon the whole "Fürstenland" was in rebellion, with the exception of Wil and its people, who had been in support of the abbot at all times. The rebellion was led by Othmar Gerster from Lömmenschwil, who was called the Gerster Fox because of his red hair. A rural community of the God's House people held a meeting in Waldkirch, as they wanted to support the destroyers of the monastery. Varnbüler, who could feel this support, shouted in a fit of wantonness, pointing at the hesitating Confederates:
"We shall never again sit together with them!"
Now in the St. Gallen town hall a promise of mutual assistance was made, the Waldkirch Alliance, between the city of St. Gallen, the state of Appenzell, and 25 communities of the "Fürstenland." The subjects, who now had gained self-reliance, were in the belief that even if
"all the Swiss and thousand devils came with them, we would be the winners!"
Without any success the abbot addressed his God's House people in a conciliatory speech. It was too late.
Perhaps Varnbüler was fostering secret hopes that the protecting cities would not risk armed interference, because in the East the alliance of all discontent elements had been forged, representing a power that should not be underestimated. Moreover, this alliance (of three) had a good protection for its back through the Swabian Federation that was not on good terms with the (Swiss) Confederation. This means it did appear quite possible that the Confederates might not engage in this dangerous venture and try to bring order to the lands of the abbot. In this case the city of St. Gallen would have seen all its wishes fulfilled, as can be heard in the popular song of "Now let me begin to sing!"
The people from St. Gallen have reached understanding
with the people of Appenzell very fast
to get the people and lands
of the God's House under their control.
This was not to happen. But still Varnbüler could enjoy a personal triumph, when in the following election he was elected Mayor for the year 1490, which was a sort of anticipated climax in his career. This brilliant election is proof that in those days the majority of the citizens were still supporting his policy, and also agreed to what had happened so far. This time the ceremony of his inauguration became an act of general homage and a demonstration of great respect for him. His allies from Appenzell and the "Fürstenland" came to the city in masses, to attend -- together with the deputations of the citizens -- the drink of honor in the town hall. It was probable wine from Rhine valley vines that was offered by the city. The number of people participating was estimated to be about two thousand by Vadian. Ulrich Varnbüler had now reached the climax of his career.
But very soon the situation was to change against him, when -- at the beginning of the following year -- the four protecting cities started preparations for military intervention. They were fed up with the long maneuverings of the neutral sides, which was more and more changing into a support of the Waldkirch Federation. On their new propaganda tour through the main places of the Swiss Confederation, Varnbüler and the other delegates of the Waldkirch Federation could no longer dare to get too near to Lucern or Schwyz, after being sent away in Zürich and Glarus. There were already rumors that "Varnbüler and also that man of Appenzell would have had their heads cut off." But the concord between the allies also began to crumble away, and soon there was even open resistance against the leaders. So Varnbüler later complained that there were a few "hateful and envious people", who wanted to split council and community apart. The leaders of the opposition were long and old domiciled aristocratic families. Not even Landammann Schwendiner could pride himself of the full support of all the people, and -- just like his political friend -- had to count on a merciless opposition.
A message from the neutral groups, which were making another attempt to mediate, was just reaching Schwyz, when it became known that the four cities' garrison in the abbot's castle of Rohrschach had got into trouble. The messages delivered by the messengers produced exactly the opposite effect of what they wanted. Instead of answering with attempts at conciliation , the community of the Schwyz lands abruptly decided to march to St. Gallen, and three days later it was joined by Zürich, which was afraid the peasants' uprising might spread to their lands. One week later already the banners of the four cities were being moved towards the battle field.
What had happened? Probably provoked by the messengers of the four protecting cities in Wil, members of the four cities' garrison at castle Rohrschach had pulled the Egli Count of Rohrschach, who was the leader of the uprising in that area, together with two of his loyals, out of their beds and taken them to the castle. The provocation was successful, for on the following day the allies immediately took to their arms. Several hundred people from St. Gallen, Appenzell and God's House sieged and fired into the castle. Now a peaceful solution was absolutely out of reach.
On February 4th, 1490, the gathering of the troops from the four cities began in Wil, which was the meeting point. It was a well equipped army of some 8,000 soldiers, that moved towards Gossau. Also the people from St. Gallen, Appenzell and God's House now got under arms. When these troops were going to leave St. Gallen, Varnbüler delivered a speech demanding from them brave perseverence. But very soon discord developed and hindered an effective defense of the Waldkirch Federal Troops that were not under one joint command. When the St. Gallen squad had arrived at the Breitfeld, they were waiting for the Appenzellers in vain. They stopped behind their Letzi and declared "they would certainly not leave their Letzi". This was an answer that had a disastrous effect on the God's House people. When the enemy's impressive army was approaching Appenzell, the party had come to power that was against the policy of Landammann Schwendiner and also against war. The St. Gallen squad withdrew from the Breitfeld into the city, the God's House people also gave up their positions and were scattered to the four winds, with the result that the whole region declared its unconditional surrender.
The Swiss Confederate troops moved to Rohrschach; they avoided getting too close to the city of St. Gallen, because the garrison of the castle was to be freed, but also because they wanted to be close to the Rhine valley, which -- for the future -- they had envisaged as a land of subjects for themselves, for both military and political reasons. Very soon an Appenzell delegation, headed by the old Landammann Zidler, came and declared their readiness to conclude a peace treaty. They made concession by concession, in order to save at least the Rhine valley for themselves. But the all-too-superior enemy would not agree to it. The people from Appenzell were forced under the obligation to surrender their possessions in the Rhine valley to the four cities, together with "the big and small barrels they were keeping there". The squad that had been sent to the castle Blatten in Sargans, sad-heartedly had to be withdrawn . It had been ordered there to protect the Rhine valley against an attack of the Confederate Landvogt. Beyond this, Landammann Schwendiner was to be surrendered. Schwendiner, however, wild and dominant as he was, a man who -- with his rude behavior -- had shocked the council members quite a number of times, had fled in the meantime to escape impending prosecution. This maneuvering of the Appenzellers, who wanted to reach a separate peace, was labelled as "cunning and clandestine" by the upset people of St. Gallen. So in some places there was unhidden joy about their loss of the Rhine valley, and there was a song saying:
"They should stay behind their "Kapf" and eat sour milk for ever".
In the meantime more conflicts between the Swiss Confederacy and the Reich had accumulated. It was for example criticized that the Confederates had not agreed to the Reichs Reform, which had been resolved by the Reichstag in Worms. So both sides began to prepare for war, but the Confederates launched another faint attempt to at least settle the Varnbüler affair in a diplomatic way. It was the city of St. Gallen, that had to suffer hard damage through the confiscations, that now wanted to reach agreement at any price, and that never stopped its attempts to press the Confederates into negotiations.
A Swiss delegation that was meeting the Emperor when hunting chamois in Tyrol, reached an agreement that the sale of the Weinstein estate be renounced, and that this property was to be returned to the Varnbülers. Both the cost of the law-suit and indemnity were paid by the Emperor's treasurer after this compromise. Right after this the Swabian War broke out -- on the other side it was called Swiss War -- because Emperor and Confederates could not come any closer towards a better understanding on principal political questions.
But the fight about Weinstein had not yet come to its final conclusion yet, because abbot Gotthard was wilfully delaying the granting of a fee-tail (castle and estate) to Hans Varnbüler in Lindau who was now the owner. He, on his side, prevented St. Gallen being granted absolution from the Reich's ban, until finally the abbot gave in. From Hans Varnbüler, this possession went to his son Nikolaus, who was a professor at Tübingen, and at the same time the last owner of the Weinstein castle from the Varnbüler family. In the 1560's the estate was finally sold off. The assertion that Weinstein was in the possession of the St. Gallen tradesman Bartholome Schobinger around 1530 (which can be found several times in historic literature) is not in accordance with facts. This also includes, our presumption that Paracelsus [1493-1541, German-Swiss chemist who introduced the concept of disease to medicine] could have visited Weinstein (cf. "Our Rhine Valley", 1983) cannot be kept up.
Sources and Literature
Häne, J.: "The Destruction of the Rohrschach Monastery" (St. Gallen, 1895)
Bütler, P.:"History and Files of the Varnbüler Law Suit" (St. Gallen, 1914)
Von Arx, I.: "Stories from the St. Gallen Kanton" (St. Gallen, 1810)
Thürer, G.: "History of St. Gallen" (St. Gallen, 1953)
Schläpfer, W.: "History of Appenzell" (Appenzell, 1964)
Wyssmann, W: "History of Law of the St. Gallen Rhine Valley" (Cöthen, 1922)
Vetter, A.: "Chronicle of Altstätten and Surroundings" (Altstätten, 1923)
Gruber, E.: "History of Rebstein" (Rebstein, 1956)
Scheyer, A.: "Origin and Development of the Community of St. Margarethen (Heerbrugg, 1947)
Hardegger, J. and Wartmann, H.: "The Kriessern Court" (St. Gallen, 1878)
Ambühl, J.L.: "History of the Rhine Valley" (St. Gallen, 1805)
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