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The escalade in three stages
The last in a series of attempts by the 16 th century Dukes of Savoy to make Geneva their capital in the northern Alps, the events of the Escalade have become a symbol of the city’s independent spirit.
First stage - The Escalade of the walls
Duke Charles-Emmanuel of Savoy’s troops launch a surprise attack on Geneva during the night of Saturday 11 th December 1602, despite “a peace [he had] sworn and sworn again.” More than 2,000 infantry and cavalry had managed to reach Plainpalais, just outside the walls, following a march from Bonne et La Roche, Haute-Savoie. They carried with them individual parts measuring nearly six feet long and weighing 8 kilograms, that when assembled together could be used to scale the walls (subsequently built over by the even numbered houses of the Rue de la Corraterie).
Torn from their sleep by the sound of sentry Jacques Mercier’s arquebus firing (Mercier’s corporal François Bousezel, on his night watch is the first casualty of the attack), the citizens of Geneva seize their arms to defend their city. Gradually, the general alert is raised by the lantern-bearer, then by a shot at the Monnaie lookout and finally by the alarm rung from the Saint Pierre Cathedral, to which other bells will soon add their voices.
The whole city is involved in the fighting, not just the town militia and the professional soldiers. The most famous symbol of these combats must be the cooking pot hurled down upon an enemy soldier’s head by a certain Catherine Cheynel, wife of Pierre Royaume and now affectionately known as la Mère Royaume. And we mustn’t forget Lady Piaget, who managed to throw the keys to her house across to friendly forces so they could take the enemy from the rear.
The enemy’s plans to blow up the porte Neuve gate (using the grenadier Picot), thus opening a passage through for the bulk of their troops, fails, because of sentry Isaac Mercier’s quick thinking in dropping the portcullis. Faced with this situation and the realization the attack had failed, the Duke’s soldiers quickly retreated to their encampment before day broke.
Second stage - Church and gallows
That Sunday morning, Geneva’s citizens flock to church to praise God’s providence, led by Théodore de Bèze, rector of the Académie, and Simon Goulart, pastor of Saint Gervais church. Eighteen locals died: their bones preserved in the church of Saint Gervais. The enemy lost 54 soldiers. A total of 13 prisoners, mostly of aristocratic stock, are tried as ‘thieves and brigands’ and handed over to Tabazan, the executioner, to be hanged that same day. It was judged they could not be tried “as prisoners of war in view of the peace treaty that had been sworn and sworn again by the prince.”
Third stage - Peace and the European dimension.
The Treaty of Saint-Julien, drawn up with the help of delegates from the five Swiss cantons in summer 1603, finally puts an end to Charles-Emmanuel’s attempts to make Geneva his northern Alpine capital. Various European courts, notably those of Henri IV of France, (who had just signed the Edict of Nantes), the court of England represented first by Elizabeth I, then James I, the Elector Palatine and the Duke of Wurtemberg all exercised considerable pressure in order to seal this treaty. Charles-Emmanuel had failed in his attempt to stifle the influence of Calvin (died 1564). The Escalade was from that time onwards destined to become a symbol of the independence of Geneva, celebrated since every year.