Neuchatel: The Anachronistic City in Switzerland

Neuchatel is a beautiful little town in Switzerland situated on Lake Neuchatel, but it is a city. It was an anachronistic holdover from the middle ages well into the 19th century. It's feudal past almost brought newly founded Switzerland and the Kingdom of Prussia to declare war on each other in the middle of the 19th century. Today, it has a university and is a center for tourists visiting the beautiful lakeside countryside and the Jura Mountains.

The city of Neuchatel (translates into Newcastle) was first mentioned in 1011 in a deed of gift by King Rudolf III of Burgundy to his wife Queen Irmengard. In all probability, it wasn't much more than a moat guarded by a garrison. The new Royal connotation and the Queen's personal interest started the build up of a community around the fortifications. King Rudolf and Queen Irmengard died childless. By deed of will, the Kingdom of Burgundy passed to Conrad II, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire of German Nations in 1033. 

The will had been drawn up to keep the kingdom out of a war of succession, as too many equally valid claims on the throne were held by too many powerful families scattered all over Europe. It stipulate the emperor as recipient, not the person or ruling family; and it was under the proviso that the kingdom would remain independent of the empire. Emperor Conrad duly traveled to Solothurn to be crowned as King of Burgundy; at about the same time, the Counts of Neuchatel were created. They would rule the city and surrounding countryside until the late 14th century.

The counts must have been an extraordinary set of rulers, one after the other. They are commemorated to this day by the prominent Cenotaph in the La Collégiale church in the city. In every tract on history, legend, myth or story referring to the counts of Neuchatel, they are summarily called ‘the good counts of Neuchatel’. Ruling the county for 400 years, this must be a track record for goodness. The last countess died childless in 1395, and left title and lands to her nephew in Freiburg. Over 600 years later, a service of remembrance is still held every year for the counts with the government and the people attending. Most days, you will find that someone left fresh flowers at the cenotaph.

What started out with a deed of gift to a queen continued as a story of inheritances. The county of Neuchatel passed from the Counts of Freiburg, to the Margraves of Baden, the Royal House of Orleans, and finally to the Prince-Electors of Brandenburg and Kings in Prussia. The county was made a principality under the Orleans family. As the last transfer to the Prussians was done under pressure from the Swiss Confederation against 14 other contenders for the inheritance, Neuchatel was declared an independent principality (i.e. not part of Prussia) on the insistence of Louis XIV of France.

As the Counts of Neuchatel had been gifted in administering the county, all families following them into the administration shared one common policy; they just confirmed the existing laws and administration and didn’t bother too much about any details. The Counts of Chalon concluded a treaty with the Swiss Confederation in 1306, leading to Neuchatel becoming a de facto part of the Swiss Confederation without being a member of it. This finally led to the curious situation of Neuchatel becoming a member of democratic Switzerland in 1848 while still being governed by the Prussian Kings as Princes.

To this day, a Swiss citizen is not addressed as citizen, but as ‘Miteidgenosse’ (translates to ‘fellow oath taker’). After the Prussians took over, the King of Prussia was forthwith addressed as ‘our fellow oath taker’ up to his formal abdication as Prince in 1857. But it needed the good services of Emperor Napoleon III of France to bring that about without Switzerland and Prussia going to war. Things came to a head as Neuchatel’s citizens had passed a Republican constitution on becoming part of Switzerland, but Royalist elements had tried to overthrow the new government and declare Neuchatel independent.

The Principality became part of France in 1795 for a short time as the Prussian ceded their rights to it to Napoleon. But the Vienna Congress of 1815 compounded the anachronism (and made things worse) by designating it ‘a Canton of Switzerland and Prussian Principality’. When the Swiss Republics subsequently joined into the United States of Switzerland, the situation became nothing short of ridiculous.

Neuchatel is a French speaking town. By general consent, it is The French Speaking City, actually. Anybody who intends to learn properly spoken French in all its beauty is sent to Neuchatel to do so, as they speak it without a hint of accent, as opposed to French cities that all have their peculiarities and accents. Famous people associated with Neuchatel are writer Friedrich Durrenmatt, Prussian General Bernard de Gelieu, failed Hitler assassin Maurice Bavaud, and musician Robert Miles.

For further information on the city of Neuchatel you may want to go to the official homepage of the city government

Further reading