Last week I wrote that I was heading to the Swiss city of Thun to check out the castle in which my ancestor Christian Stauffer (1579 -1671) was imprisoned in 1644. It took a few extra days (two hangover-induced travel delays) but I made it on Monday and today I visited the nearby town of Eggiwil. I’ll get to the Eggiwil story in a separate post, but first I want to set the record straight lest you got the impression that old Christian Stauffer must have been a pretty bad dude to be locked up in a cold stone tower.
Note: Christian’s life and times are well documented and much of what I am reporting here has been researched and published by others, albeit with fewer snarky editorial comments.
The Christian Stauffer that I am descended from was born in 1579 at Luchsmatt Farm near Eggiwil, Bern, Switzerland. He was the son of Niclaus Stauffer and Cathrina Leeman. Around 1600 he married Adelheid Opplinger and together they had 13 children. This wasn’t unusual for the era but it does raise the question, “Where did he find time to be a badass?”
Well, apparently G20 protest observers aren’t the only ones to find themselves locked up on pretty flimsy evidence and/or the whim of a police chief or elected official. You see Christian was an Anabaptist preacher and they weren’t particularly popular around Bern in the 1640s. Chris and the more famous ne’er-do-wells Ulli Zaugg and Ulli Neuhaus (who have statues erected in Zurich in their honour) were rounded up during the Taufer Jagen (Baptist Hunt) and dragged off to the castle in Thun where they were held in the south tower.
It’s not clear how long Chris and the boys spent in jail but it wasn’t too long. They were apparently released on the promise to stop preaching! With a court order hanging over their heads, the Anabaptists as they were known, kept a low profile for the next 30 years. However, on May 3, 1671 the magistrate of nearby Signau received orders to seize the Anabaptists of Eggiwil and deliver them to the prison in Bern.
The story gets a bit murky at this point but some historians believe that 12 of the wealthiest residents of Eggiwil volunteered to go to jail in their place. Apparently this was allowed as long as the people being locked up were better off than those who were actually wanted. The fact that a dozen rich citizens volunteered to go to jail for the local preachers says a lot about both parties, doesn’t it?
On October 16, 1671, the Reformed pastor of Eggiwill reported to the authorities in Bern that the Anabaptists had left the area on their own accord. They simply walked away from their land and many of their possessions which were eventually confiscated as payment of a new “emigration tax.” The one-percenters were subsequently released from jail.
Documents on file in Germany show that Valentine Hutwohl, a Mennonite Minister in the Pfalz, reported to his superiors on December 14, 1671 that 450 Anabaptists from Bern had just arrived in his area. Here’s what he passed up the chain of command: “These are scattered among the fellow believers throughout the region over a twelve-mile territory. Among these you will find those who need canes, being 70, 80, and 90 years old. On the whole they need clothing sorely; they didn’t take more along than what they had on their backs. With little bedding, we don’t know how to keep them warm. Some amongst us have seven, eight or nine living with them. When you speak of their property, they sigh, wishing that they had their houses and farm land here as before.”
Although Christian died shortly after reaching Germany, his family resided in the area for another 30 years before things got tense and once again they decided to hit the road. This time they made their way to Rotterdam where they boarded the ‘William and Mary’ bound for the New World.
A large number of Christian’s adult children and their families settled in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Within a few decades most had become prosperous millers, merchants or farmers. All was apparently well until the end of the American Revolution when most of the Stauffers and their interwoven families opted to leave the newly formed United States and show their allegiance to the British Crown who had offered to guarantee their exemption from military service. This went over well with the pacifist Mennonites and once again they are on the move.
In 1798 a young buck by the name of Peter Reesor was supplied with a fresh horse and dispatched to Upper Canada to check out the scene. It’s not clear how he found his way into a tavern in York (Toronto), as his father would not have approved, but he did and before striking out for Pennsylvania he cut a deal with a retired British Army Officer. He got the deed to 500 acres of land and the army officer got Peter’s horse and saddle. When the officer went to saddle up the horse, he asked for the bridle. Peter replied that it wasn’t part of the agreed upon deal and “a deal is a deal.” He walked the 500 miles back to Pennsylvania with the bridle over his shoulder.
Two years later the Reesor and Stauffer families, among others, made their way north in a convoy of covered wagons pulled by oxen. It took seven weeks to cut their way though the bush, often stopping to take the wheels off the wagons and cross rivers as there were few if any bridges. Once they arrived in Upper Canada (as Ontario was known at the time) the Reesors settled in the area that would become Reesorville (later renamed Markham) and the Stauffer clan headed seven miles north to what eventually became Stouffville. (Most of the Stauffers changed their name to Stouffer).
My grandfather, David Lewis Stouffer, was born on the land that Abraham Stouffer settled in 1803 and I grew up about one block south of the home in which my grandfather was born. He lived his entire life within 2km of the town centre. Aside from a brief stint in Toronto where she worked in a factory during WWII, my mother lived her entire life in Stouffville as well. It wasn’t until my generation that the majority of the Stouffer descendants opted to leave the area as adults.
While the town of Stouffville has undergone tremendous change in the last 50, 20, even 5 years, the town of Thun, Switzerland looks much as it did in the 1640s. The castle still casts a long shadow over the main shopping area and the streets are still paved with the same stones that generations of my ancestors would have traveled over regularly. I don’t know why it took me 53 years to find my way to Thun, but I’m glad I did.
This blog’s host (WordPress) recently granted me unlimited storage of uploaded media so I’ll take advantage of it and post more photos than I have in the past. So, come along for a little tour of Schloss Thun (Thun Castle).
Here’s a map of the area. I have since been to Signau and Eggiwil, but for the purpose of this post we’ll limit the story to my time in Thun which can be found on the green train line, near the bottom of the map.
The train station in Thun also houses a tourist information office. Along with the usual assortment of pamphlets and maps, they were flogging a single souvenir: a plaster model of Schloss Thun. I decided that I could do without a 5lb piece of plaster.
The lady at the info kiosk pointed down the street and promised that it wouldn’t be too hard for “an American” to find the castle. I crossed the street, walked about 100 meters and voila. Is this scene straight out of a fairytale or what?
The ticket office also doubles as a well stocked souvenir shop. I resisted the urge to buy one of everything, opting instead for a single “pop up” greeting card. Photos are a lot easier to lug across Spain so I took a few shots of the toys and various items on sale in the shop.
Archeologists started poking around the castle grounds in 1925 in the belief that if there was a Stone Age settlement in the area, it would likely have been on the top of the hill on which the castle was later built. They were right. These tools were uncovered and they date from 3500BC! I looked but none of them were signed “Stauffer.”
These Bronze Age items were also discovered in the area. The digger blades date from 2200BC. The winged axe was found in nearby Steffisburg and it has been dated 1300BC.
This cross section of the castle shows what it looks like today with five levels. When it was built in the 1100s only the yellow section was completed. The “Knight’s Hall” that now occupies the fourth level was at that time on the 2nd level with all the space under it being one big open area for livestock and crop storage. The towers that are indicated in yellow were later extended and a 5th floor was added above the Knight’s Hall.
This was a more accurate depiction of the castle before the towers and tall roof were added in the early 1400s. Carbon dating on the wood used in much of the original structure shows that it was cut around 1156. The open area below the Knight’s Hall was converted to a granary in 1616-1620 and additional jail cells were built on the newly constructed 5th floor.
This woven pictorial carpet is made of wool and dates from the second half of the 15th century — or right around the the time that Christian was imprisoned in the castle. I was amazed that it has survived this long, and then I read the story of where it was found. Apparently it had been cut into four pieces and as late as 1883 it was being used to stop drafts on the window sills.
These red, black and white banners were flown over Thun during the Battle of Morat (also known as the Battle of Murten) in 1476. The forces led by Charles I, Duke of Burgundy, suffered heavy casualties at the hands of the Swiss Confederate army. This is said to have been the beginning of the end for the Duchy of Burgundy.
You know there’s a bit of history in the area when something like this tapestry was donated to the local church in 1300 – and it was an antique then. It was used as an altar cloth until the Reformation in 1528.
This tapestry consists of a middle piece and two side pieces displaying six medallions each. The medallions show St. Mauritius and on his left and right the four symbols of the Evangelists. The former patron of the local church is depicted as a knigh with shield, sword, lance and flag.
This leg shackle was used in the tower to keep prisoners on a short leash. I looked but couldn’t find any indication that Christian had carved his initials on it. But of course he wouldn’t do such a thing.
After looking around the first three levels, I continued further up the curved stairs to the fourth and grandest level – The Knight’s Hall. This castle was never occupied but instead served a ceremonial function and the Knight’s Hall would have been THE place to be seen in Thun. Even on a warm Spring day, it was chilly inside the 4′ thick stone walls. The 26 pine beams in the ceiling date from 1199-1200. They were originally stained reddish brown with oxen blood but today they are blackened with soot. The stone walls are covered with smooth plaster in an ochre colour that would have been popular in the Gothic period (13th/14th centuries). The concrete floor was poured over the original wooden floorboards in 1951.
The Knights’ Hall has always been used for ceremonial purposes. The curator told me of one American family with roots in Thun who had their wedding ceremony in the hall a few years ago. Many of their invited guests declined to travel all the way to Switzerland so at the last minute a call was put out to locals with the same surname. When the bride and groom arrived at the hall it was FULL of newly found relatives. It’s said they had a pretty good party!
From the Knight’s Hall you can climb one more set of stairs to the area that was built as a prison in the late 1400s. When Christian was imprissoned here in 1441, the cells were located in the four towers and used as jail cells up until 1920. Christian is said to have been imprissoned in the south tower, and that tower is one of two that are now open to the public. I climbed another few flights of stairs to check it out.
From the top level in the castle one can look straight up to the rafters. I spent the better part of an hour up there. I was the only person in the upper half of the castle for the entire hour so I took my time eating a packed lunch in the company of some sparrows who seemed happy to see me. It might also have been the fact that this was one of the warmest days of the year to date.
Here are a few more random photos that I took in and around the castle. On the way out I stopped at a washroom that has been built on the second level of an adjacent building. With a view of the entire city and the Alps in the background, it has to be one of the best views I’ve ever had from a bathroom.