Zwingli on Leadership

The Swiss reformer Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531) is perhaps not the most obvious candidate for the  Medieval Warfare issue III-2   theme on ‘Warrior bishops’ as he was neither a bishop nor held a political office. As the leader of the Swiss reformation in Zurich and beyond, Zwingli’s influence relied on persuasion. Only by explaining his views in conversation and in writing could he convince others. A proper warrior bishop was already doubly legitimized as both a representative of the church, the faith and God, as well as a territorial ruler. Explanations beyond appeals to his authority would only detract from his legitimacy. A warrior bishop did not need to justify his actions. Thus, we find few examples authored by warrior bishops of the kind of reflective writings penned by Zwingli.

This article will try to present Zwingli’s view on leadership by examining his  Plan zu einem Feldzug (‘Campaign Plan’), a memo he had written in 1524/5 to discuss the strategic, political and military situation of Zurich which, during the early stages of its religious reformation, was faced with a growing opposition of the defenders of the old faith from the Five Cantons and a looming civil war among the Confederates. In his memo, Zwingli presented Zurich’s strategic options and laid out the composition and armament of the armed forces of Zurich, neglecting neither artillery nor supply as well as trumpet signals of attack (“ut, mi, sol”) and retreat (“fa, ut, fa, ut, ut ut”).

The question of who should lead was new for medieval times. The medieval mind easily answered this question: It was the God-given right and duty of the ranking nobleman to lead.  In practice, faced with extraordinary talents of a commoner, rulers were willing to bend the rules, often ‘discovering’ prior unknown noble ancestry to justify a man’s promotion. A sovereign was expected to lead his troops into battle, displaying charismatic leadership. As discussed in Martin van Creveld’s classic book  Command in War , a medieval commander’s presence and bravery on the battlefield was a requirement. Knights were trained from childhood for the physical challenge of battle. Many also studied the tactical and strategic lessons offered by the Roman author Vegetius in his treatise  De re militari , popularized and adapted in Christine de Pizan’s  Le Livre des faits d’armes et de chevalerie

As neither the selection of a leader nor his aptitude were questions open for discussion, the medieval genre of mirrors for princes ( principum specula ) presented an aspiring ruler with the behaviour of an ideal king. These guidebooks, among them several works by Christine de Pizan such as  Le Livre du corps de policie , educated noblemen and kings and often prescribed what kings should or shouldn’t do, often from a scholastic perspective unhappy with the actual behaviour of kings. Their intent was to prevent leaders from acting mischievously, a task they failed to achieve as often as their modern descendants, the self-help books.

Zwingli took a different, utilitarian point of view, an approach similar to Zwingli’s contemporary Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527). Both Zwingli and Machiavelli were self-made men from respectable but not prominent families who ventured out to serve their respective cities, Zurich and Florence. Machiavelli had already been pushed out of office by the return to power of the Medici family, shortly before Huldrych Zwingli as chaplain accompanied the Glarus contingent to northern Italy in 1513 and 1515. Both Machiavelli, as a citizen of the Florentine Republic, and Zwingli, as a son of free peasants, grew up with a view of leaders who were self-made and elected. Choosing both politically and military qualified leaders for a city became an important question and was crucial for a city’s destiny. 

Machiavelli’s  Il Principe  is a manual for actual or aspiring princes on how to gain and retain power. Zwingli probably never read  Il Principe , which was published only after both Zwingli’s and Machiavelli’s death, though it circulated in manuscript form among the Florentine upper class. Despite his journeys to Italy, Zwingli looked towards Germany, not Italy, for guidance and he was not a true humanist or renaissance man in outlook. He was a theologian who wanted to restore the Christian faith by purging it from modern depravations. His revolution served a conservative goal to return to the roots, to find redemption in the afterlife. In contrast to Machiavelli’s advice to princes, Zwingli’s  Campaign Plan  was directed at the inner circle of the city government of Zurich and thus was not intended for circulation.

In the Old Swiss Confederacy, political and military leadership was inseparable. The mayors or Landammann  were expected to lead their fellow-citizens in battle, age and health permitting. A successful warrior in turn could advance his political career. His crucial role at the Battle of Murten in 1476 (also see Jean-Claude Brunner’s article on the battle in  Medieval Warfare  I-4  ) helped Hans Waldmann (1435-1489) to later become mayor of Zurich. Military leaders always posed a threat to continued civil government. Having pushed his luck too far, Hans Waldmann was tortured and beheaded. Loyalty towards the civil government was crucial in leaders. Italian style government of unruly  condottieri  was not wanted in the Old Swiss Confederacy.

Zurich was faced with a dilemma regarding its military leadership: In view of the losses incurred in the disastrous Italian Wars and the corruptive nature of foreign pensions paid for military services to military entrepreneurs, Zurich had cancelled the provision of mercenary services for the French king and prohibited its citizens in serving in foreign armies. While some were severely punished for ignoring these prohibitions, others were exempted, such as Kaspar Röist (1478-1527), substitute commander of the Pontifical Swiss Guard and son of Zurich’s mayor Marx Röist (1454-1524). The sons of Marx Röist’s brother-in-law Heinrich Göldli (1445-1514), Kaspar and Georg Göldli, would fight on opposite sides at the Second Battle of Kappel in 1531. Family connections were never far away when it came to choosing leaders. Career soldiers from Zurich were likewise asked to stay true either to their home country or their profession. Zurich needed experienced soldiers and commanders for its defence. At the same time, these military men posed a threat to civil government and civil society. The decision of Zwingli and the city council against mercenary service fatally weakened Zurich’s pool of experienced military leaders.

Zwingli’s  Campaign Plan  had been written in part to both rationalize and overcome this weakness. In his plan, Zwingli distinguished two kinds of leaders, military and religious leaders. The religious leadership was to be provided by a valiant chaplain (“dapfren christlichen predicanten”) who provided moral Christian guidance to soldiers and commanders. Zwingli would probably have remembered his own role as chaplain of the Glarus contingent during the Italian Wars. Honest and virtuous, a chaplain should offer the military commander moral support and check the common soldiers’ thirst and gluttony. Drunkenness and indiscipline were common problems of the Swiss soldiers who tended to view the military excursions abroad as opportunities to escape strict social control at home.

The military commander, according to Zwingli, should be foremost god-fearing (“gotzvörchtig”) and not selfish, acting for the common welfare, faithful to the needs of his men and care for them. The military commander should be an optimist (“ein unverzagt hertz“) and know when to hold his tongue.  Zwingli reminded his readers about the exemplary integrity and silence of the Ancient Roman Metellus Numidicus (who happened to be an opponent of Gaius Marius, whose successful military reforms ensured Rome’s glory but wounded the Roman Republic). Not quite absorbing the lessons of Roman history, Zwingli chose integrity over military prowess: if one finds a commander with Zwingli’s desired qualities who is also experienced in warfare, then one should assign him to command. Instead of an experienced but disloyal commander (“wo aber einer glych kriegens bericht, aber trüw halb nit fertig wär, neme man einen trüwen, und geb man im zuogesatzten”), one should select a loyal one and assist him with a set of advisors (the Romans called these  legates ) who will supervise his actions at all times. Zwingli thus advised the opposite of Lenin’s and Stalin’s system of political commissars: instead of experienced and politically supervised military professionals, Zwingli advocated politically safe but inexperienced commanders under supervision of military advisors.

Zwingli’s choice failed him at the Second Battle of Kappel on 11 October 1531, precisely because the pre-modern era demanded personal, charismatic leadership. In the heat of battle, there was no time for military advisors to adjust and correct the commands given. The swift flank attack at Kappel by a few battle-hardened veterans from the Five Cantons robbed Zwingli’s commander of the initiative, made Zwingli’s forces crumble and cost him his life. Indeed, Zwingli’s campaign ended not according to his plan. From a modern management perspective, competence and ethical behaviour are not substitutes but necessary complements. A leader should be both competent and of good character.

The Battle of Kappel in the 1548  chronicle  of Johannes Stumpf, based on an illustration by Hans Asper.

Sources and further reading

  • Huldrych Zwingli,  Plan zu einem Feldzug (zwischen Juli 1524 und 4. Januar 1525)  (Zurich 1525). Available at 
  • Olivier Bangerter,  La pensée militaire de Zwingli  (Bern 2003).
  • Eugen Bircher, ‘Ulrich Zwinglis militärische Auffassungen. Zum 400-jährigen Gedenktag der Zweiten Schlacht von Kappel’, in:  Allgemeine Schweizer Militärzeitschrift , vol. 77 issue 10 (1931), pp. 504-514.
  • Christian Moser & Hans Rudolf Fuhrer, D er lange Schatten Zwinglis: Zürich, das französische Soldbündnis und eidgenössische Bündnispolitik, 1500-1650   (Zurich 2009).
  • Martin Van Creveld,  Command in War  (Cambridge (MA) 1985).

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