From the Archives: Zwingli's Death on the Battlefield of Kappel in 1531
Heinrich Bullinger succeeded Ulrich Zwingli as pastor of the Grossmünster after the latter’s death in the battle of Kappel in 1531. The following account of Zwingli’s death was written by Bullinger.
On the battlefield, not far from the line of attack, Mr. Ulrich Zwingli lay under the dead and wounded. While men were looting … he was still alive, lying on his back, with his hands together as if he was praying, and his eyes looking upwards to heaven. So some approached who did not know him and asked him, since he was so weak and close to death (for he had fallen in combat and was stricken with a mortal wound), whether a priest should be fetched to hear his confession. Thereat Zwingli shook his head, said nothing and looked up to heaven. Later they told him that if he was no longer able to speak or confess he should yet have the mother of God in his heart and call on the beloved saints to plead to God for grace on his behalf Again Zwingli shook his head and continued gazing straight up to heaven. At this the Catholics grew impatient, cursed him and said that he was one of the obstinate cantankerous heretics and should get what he deserved. Then Captain Fuckinger of Unterwalden appeared and in exasperation drew his sword and gave Zwingli a thrust from which he at once died. So the renowned Mr. Ulrich Zwingli, true minister and servant of the churches of Zurich, was found wounded on the battlefield along with his flock (with whom he remained until his death). There, because of his confession of the true faith in Christ, our only Saviour, the mediator and advocate of all believers, he was killed by a captain who was a pensioner, one of those against whom he had always preached so eloquently.
Next day, Thursday (12 October), at daybreak, the Five States fired their guns with great jubilation. They remained on the battlefield for all Thursday and Friday in accordance with the ancient custom among the Swiss that they should stay there for three days in case the enemy wanted to attack … Then they called on their followers to group forces on the Albis and sent for reinforcements from their cities and for support (which they much needed) from their allies in Valais and the south. On the same day the prisoners were invited to identify the dead while the Five States rejoiced in their success.
Above all there was tremendous joy when Zwingli’s body was found among the dead. All the morning crowds came up, everyone wanting to see Zwingli. The vituperation and insults hurled against him by many jealous people are beyond description. Mr. Bartholomew Stocker of Zug, himself a chaplain, told me after the war that he had been persuaded to see Zwingli in the company of Mr. Hansen Schonbrunner Senior who had formerly been a canon of the Fraumunster and then returned to Zug. Zwingli’s face was more like that of a living man than a corpse. Indeed he had exactly the same look as he had when preaching, which was remarkable, and Mr Schonbrunner could not keep back his tears and said ‘Had you but been of our faith I know what a stalwart Swiss you would have been. God forgive your sins.’ He then returned to Zug, having come for the sole purpose of seeing Zwingli and shortly afterwards he died.
Later that day a crowd of wild young men collected, including pensioners and mercenaries, whom Zwingli had vigorously attacked and who were equally incensed against him. They considered dividing Zwingli’s body into five parts, sending one portion to each of the Five States. Others disagreed: who would want to carry round or send forward a heretic? He should be burnt. Some of the leaders, like Schultheiss Golder and Amman Doos, came forward, saying that a dead man should be left in peace. This was not the place for action of this sort. No one could tell how it was going to be settled—some talked about the need for luck, and so on. To this the noisy gang replied that they had discussed the matter fully and they wanted some action to be taken. So injustice triumphed, and when the leaders saw that there was nothing to be done they went off.
The crowd then spread it abroad throughout the camp that anyone who wanted to denounce Zwingli as a heretic and betrayer of a pious confederation, should come on to the battlefield. There, with great contempt, they set up a court of injustice on Zwingli which decided that his body should be quartered and the portions burnt. All this was carried into effect by the executioner from Lucerne with abundance of abuse; among other things he said that although some had asserted that Zwingli was a sick man he had in fact never seen a more healthy-looking body.
They threw into the fire the entrails of some pigs that had been slaughtered the previous night and then they turned over the embers so that the pigs offal was mixed with Zwingli’s ashes. This was done close to the high road to Scheuren.
Verdicts on Zwingli from scholars and ignorant alike were varied. All those who knew him were constant in their praises. Even so there were still more who were critical either because they really did not know him or, if they had known him a little, were determined to show their resentment and spoke ill of him.
Myconius, a contemporary historian, reported in 1536 his own version of Zwingli’s death at Kappel.
Three times Zwingli was thrown to the ground by the advancing forces but in each case he stood up again. On the fourth occasion a spear reached his chin and he fell to his knees saying, “They can kill the body but not the soul.” And after these words, he fell asleep in the Lord. After the battle, when our forces had withdrawn to a stronger position, the enemy had time to look for Zwingli’s body, both his presence and his death having been quickly reported. He was found judgment was passed on him, his body was quartered and burnt to ashes. Three days after the foes had gone away Zwingli’s friends came to see if any trace of him was left, and what a miracle! In the midst of the ashes lay his heart whole and undamaged.