The Fête L’Escalade: Geneva commemorates its defeat of the Savoyards in 1602

Never let it be said that Les Genevois (the residents of Geneva, en français) don’t know how to celebrate a military victory. Some 413 years after turning back the Savoyards in a surprise attack on the then city-state of Geneva, this town goes completely nuts! But first, a little history on the conflict itself.

Duke of Savoy

Duke of Savoy, who had the bright idea to attack Geneva. (Nice legs, though.)

When this guy pictured at right – Charles Emmanuel, the Duke of Savoy – came to the throne of the House of Savoy in 1580, he was evidently not satisfied with all that he had, and felt compelled for some reason to make Geneva his capital north of the Alps. (Geneva was not a member of the Swiss Confederation at the time, and so was not under his rule.) He also figured this was his opportunity to crush Protestantism, which was all the rage at that time in Geneva, in favor of his preferred religion, Catholicism.

Geneva city wall

The Savoyards had to first scale this to get into Geneva

After nightfall on December 11 into December 12, 1602 — the darkest night of the year — the Duke’s forces launched an attack on the city-state of Geneva, while the Duke himself rested comfortably in his castle, Chateau de Chillons, on the opposite end of Lake Geneva. The troops marched along the Arve River at night and assembled at Plainpalais, just outside the walls of Geneva, at 2 o’clock in the morning. (One thing that I find very fascinating is that even 400 years later, all of these places still exist in nearly the same condition!)

The original plan was to send in a group of commandos to scale the city’s defensive wall, open the gate door and let the other troops in. (The name “Escalade” comes from the French word for “climb”.) As you will learn shortly, this plan failed miserably. One reason for its failure that historical accounts often overlook but seems obvious to me, is that the “commandos” were dressed in suits of armor and carried very heavy swords. Here is a photo from the exhibit at the Geneva Museum of Art and History I took of the battle uniforms of the Savoyard attackers and also one of the ladders they had to scale.

Battle gear of the Savoyards…

The Savoyards wore these suits and carried these weapons. How they were able to climb a 30 foot ladder?The mystery remains.

The Savoyards wore these suits and carried these weapons.

The ladders used in the attempt to breach the city wall…

That's an awfully tall ladder to scale while wearing 80 pounds of steel and carrying another 30 pounds of sword.

That’s an awfully tall ladder to scale while wearing 80 pounds of steel and carrying another 30 pounds of sword.

Another feature of the exhibit at the Geneva Museum of Art and History is a series of 33 drawings that tell the tale of that fateful night. I thought it might be interesting and instructive to photograph a couple of the drawings that illustrate a few of the key events.  This first image depicts the attack on the city wall, as the Savoyards set their ladders and begin to climb.  According to sources, a night guard named Isaac Mercier raised the alarm, church bells were rung, and the Genevois were alerted.  (Click to enlarge image.)

Say something funny about how this isn't going to end well

Initially, things were “looking up” for the Savoyards

In the next rendering, some of the Savoyard soldiers have succeeded in breaching the City wall, but because the Genevois knew they were coming, they had time to gather their own weapons and prepare for battle.  As can be seen in this image, the Genevois in yellow is about to deliver a blow to one of the Savoyards soldiers who is justifiably tired as hell from having just climbed the 30 foot ladder in a suit of armor.

The Savoyards beginning to second guess the decision to attack Geneva

The Savoyards beginning to second guess the decision to attack Geneva

Ordinary residents of the city rallied around the cause and fought alongside their town militia. According to legend, Catherine Cheynel, a mother of 14 children, seized a large cauldron of hot soup (large enough to feed 14 children!) and dropped it on the attackers. The heavy cauldron of boiling soup – remember that it was large enough to feed 14 children! – landed on the head of a Savoyard attacker, killing him instantly. The image below captures the precise moment where the large pot nails a Savoyard soldier square on the noggin.

Pot drop

Look out below!

The Duke’s army, totalling over 2,000 men, were defeated and forced to retreat. According to information at the Museum of Art and History, the Genevois lost 18 men in the fighting, while the Savoyards had 54 killed. Thirteen of the invaders who had been taken prisoner were summarily hanged the following day. They were not treated as prisoners of war, because the Savoy had repeatedly sworn that they were at peace with Geneva. This was bad news for the 13 captured Savoy soldiers, for reasons clearly depicted in the image below.

Savoyards heads displayed on poles

This seems a bit extreme…

And it wouldn’t be a celebration without a parade. The first of those celebrations is depicted in the image below.

Celebrating victory in the streets of Geneva

Celebrating victory in the streets of Geneva

Today, the Genevois continue to celebrate this most historic event with a festival every December. One of the iconic features of the Escalade celebration that lives on is the large cauldron made of chocolate and filled with marzipan vegetables and candies wrapped in the Geneva colours of red and gold. The chocolate cauldron, of course, is in honor of Catherine Cheynel – and this bears repeating: her 14 children – who dropped the giant cauldron of boiling soup on an unsuspecting Savoyard. I took this photo of a shelf of the chocolate cauldrons at our local patisserie.

Chocolate pots for Fete d'Escalade

Chocolate pots for Fête d’Escalade

I mentioned in the introduction to this post that the town goes nuts over this celebration. I happened to be home when I heard a loud ruckus outside our apartment. I stepped out onto our balcony and watched as a parade of literally thousands of high school age kids in costumes marched (and danced) down our street. I grabbed my camera and ran out to capture some of the event, even though I confess to not knowing what it was all about initially. This is how youngsters in Geneva celebrate at the Fête d’Escalade!


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