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History of the Neuchâtel lakeshore

Early history

The fertile and relatively accessible land along the Neuchâtel lakeshore was home to man as long ago as the Neolithic period, but the recorded history of the region begins in 998 AD with the founding of a Clunisian priory at Bevaix by monks from Payerne. At much the same time, Rodolphe III, prince of Burgundy, was building the "novum castellum" which would give Neuchâtel its name, and which he deeded to his wife Irmengard in 1011, along with other properties at Auvernier and St-Blaise.  

The kingdom of Burgundy occupied a relatively important place in Europe at the end of the first millenium, sandwiched between the Kingdom of the Franks and the Holy Roman Empire, but for reasons which remain obscure, Neuchâtel passed into the hands of the Lords of Fenis, a minor dynasty from the region of Biel, who subsequently adopted the name Neuchâtel. The first known Lord of Neuchâtel was Rodolphe, who died around 1149.  It was Rodolphe's son Ulrich II who started building the collegiate church next to the castle, but he died long before its completion a century later: it was consecrated to the Virgin Mary on 8 November 1276.

NE 1034-1895.jpg

The Lords of Neuchâtel became Counts and in 1214 accorded their subjects a franchise charter establishing their independence. After Ulrich II's death, his grandson Berthold (heir of Ulrich's deceased oldest son) inherited Neuchâtel, while a younger son, Ulrich III inherited his other lands. One of Ulrich III's sons - another Ulrich - would subsequently inherit Aaberg and Valangin.

Berthold enlarged the territories of Neuchâtel into the Val-de-Travers and Val-de-Ruz, as well as extending his influence over several lakeside villages. He and his descendants reinforced their position by marriage and political alliances until the male line of the House of Neuchâtel died out in 1395, and the earldom passed first to the House of Fribourg-en-Brisau, and then to the Hochberg dynasty.

Arms of the Counts  of Neuchâtel

Philippe de Hochberg increased the importance of Neuchâtel by his service of the French Crown, becoming Marshal of Burgundy under Louis XI and later High Chamberlain of Charles VII. His daughter Jeanne married Louis d'Orléans-Longueville, bringing Neuchâtel even more firmly under the influence of France.

Neuchâtel prospered under the Hochbergs and the House of Orléans, enjoying many of the benefits of the French Renaissance. However, at the beginning of the 16th century, the Swiss confederacy (which did not include Neuchâtel) allied itself with the Dukes of Milan to fight Milan's French enemies, and the Confederates briefly took over the administration of Neuchâtel. They returned the Earldom to Jeanne de Hochberg in 1529, leaving their cantonal coats of arms on the castle's south wall as a lasting souvenir of this brief interlude.

The Reformation

From 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church, the Reformation started spreading throughout Europe, promoted in Switzerland initially by Huldrych Zwingli. The movement reached Neuchâtel in 1529 through the French preacher Guillaume Farel, and was embraced definitively in October 1530, when the people of Neuchâtel stripped the collegiate church of its "idols". Farel's statue at the church shows him with upraised Bible trampling on the broken statues.

Neuchâtel's conversion to Protestantism caused some tensions with the d'Orléans family, who still adhered to the Catholic faith, and this would come to a head in 1625, when Henri II d'Orléans actually drew up plans to build a new town close by in order to destroy Neuchâtel's prestige. "Henripolis" was to be situated at the north-east end of the lake, and was intended to be a major trade and commercial centre. However, the project came to nothing, doomed by Bern who saw it as a direct threat.

For the House of Orléans-Longueville, Neuchâtel was a minor possession obtained by marriage, and one they rarely visited. On different occasions they considered selling it to Fribourg, Bern, Soleure and Savoie, but the negotiations failed to reach a conclusion. At the same time, in order to protect their interests in Neuchâtel, they acquired the lordships of Colombier in 1546 and - after considerably more dispute - Valangin in 1592. By this time, the territory of Neuchâtel was beginning to resemble the canton as we know it today.


Statue of Guillaume Farel at Neuchâtel

Neuchâtel under Prussia

In 1707 Marie de Nemours, Princess of Neuchâtel and the last descendant of the House of Orléans-Longueville died, leaving no direct heirs.  Several pretendants imediately laid claim to the succession of Neuchâtel, notably the Prince de Conti, who had already disputed the succession with Marie de Nemours after the death of Henri II. However, at this point the citizens of Neuchâtel appealed to the European powers to be allowed to choose their own sovereign, and a Court of the Three States was appointed, consisting of twelve members of the aristocracy and local burghers.  It was their task to choose the most worthy candidate to become Prince of Neuchâtel.

From principality to republic

L'Hôtel Du Peyrou, built between 1764 and 1771

Over twenty candidates from all over Europe put it a claim to the succession, and after due consideration the court fixed on the House of Hohenzollern, the ruling House of Prussia. Their choice was based partly on genealogical rights, but also on the fact that Friedrich I was a Protestant prince and the advantages they believed would accrue from his reign. Their choice proved to be a wise one: in general, these distant princes rarely interferred actively in Neuchâtel's affairs, and under Prussia, Neuchâtel developed and prospered.


During the 18th century, relative peace in Europe benefited trade in Neuchâtel as elsewhere, and bankers began to invest in new manufacturing industries. The villages along the lakeshore started producing lace and printed textiles known as "indiennes", while various firms opened up in the town of Neuchâtel. The town outgrew its ancient walls, and wealthy citizens built elegant residences close to the lake.

In the early years of the 19th century, the principality of Neuchâtel became something of a pawn on the complicated chess board of Europe, but it was the people who would have the final say in its destiny

 In 1798, the Swiss Confederation was invaded by France, under Napoléon, but Neuchâtel was spared because the French did not want to antagonise Prussia. A few years later, however, Prussia found itself in a weaker position following the defeat of Austria at the Battle of Austerlitz, and in 1805, Friedrich-Wilhelm III agreed to Napoléon's proposal to cede Neuchâtel to France and Ansbach to Bavaria in return for the Electorate of Hanover.

Napoléon accorded the principality of Neuchâtel to Marshal Alexandre Berthier, his Chief of Staff, who never actually visited the territory during his short reign. However, he showed real interest in Neuchâtel's finance and infrastructure, and was responsible for the building of several new roads linking the upper and lower parts of the principality, and a major bridge across the Serrière.

Marshall Berthier also drew up plans to develop the forests, increasing the number of wardens.  He removed the automatic right of his subjects to hunt without a permit and limited the hunting season. He ordered the enclosure of cultivated fields and banned livestock from using the fields after they had been harvested. These changes with tradition were little appreciated by his subjects, although they were becoming common practice across Europe at the time.


Berthier's least popular action in the principality was to raise a batallion of troops for Napoléon, known as the "Bataillon Berthier" or the "Bataillon des Canaris" because of their yellow uniforms. The numbers were only filled with difficulty and the citizens of Neuchâtel found it hard to accept the absence - and too often death - of their menfolk in "foreign" wars.

After the Battle of Leipzig in 1813, Napoléon's ultimate defeat began to seem inevitable and diplomatic manoeuvering began with the aim of reshaping war-torn Europe. The future of Neuchâtel was one of many points at stake, and its citizens had the firm intention of taking their own destiny in hand. The French Revolution had introduced republican ideals into the principality, and Neuchâtel approached the Swiss Confederation, asking to be included in the new Federal Pact which was then under discussion. Neuchâtel was duly admitted to the Confederation as the 21st Swiss canton in 1814, but the Vienna Congress of 1815 decided that Neuchâtel should have dual status: it approved the reorganisation of the Confederation, but at the same time decreed that Neuchâtel should be returned to Prussia, making it both principality and canton.  

Pont Alexandre near Neuchâtel by Alexandre Girardet


The period 1814-1831 represents the swan-song of the Ancien Régime in Neuchâtel: superficially, the old order had been restored with the return of the principality to Prussia, and the local government (appointed by Prussia) blocked all forms of democratic change. However, beneath the surface discontent was growing, and in 1831 armed republican sympathisers under Alphonse Bourquin briefly occupied the castle. They failed to form any kind of provisional government, and were persuaded to leave by Swiss mediators, but their attempted coup had the effect of polarising the canton into republican and royalist camps.

The overthrowing of Louis-Philippe of France in the February 1848 Revolution provided the final impetus to Neuchâtel republicans, and on 1 March, Fritz Courvoisier led troops from the upper part of the canton in their triumphant march on Neuchâtel. A republican government was installed, but royalists attempted a counter-revolution in 1856, and it was not until 1857 that Prussia finally renounced her claim on Neuchâtel.

The new republican government set in motion reforms of the educational, fiscal and justice systems under its first president, Alexis-Marie Piaget. 

The 19th century saw the arrival of industrialisation in Neuchâtel.  While the economy of the lakeside villages still depended heavily on agriculture and winegrowing, manufacturing started to grow in importance. The production of "indiennes" disappeared, but watchmaking thrived, to the benefit of the canton. In 1826, Philippe Suchard opened his chocolate factory at Serrières, and other major manufacturers included the Dubied knitting machine factory built at Couvet in 1864 and the Cortaillod electric cable company which opened in 1879.

Schools, scientific and litterary institutions were created, and the Neuchâtel Academy (later to become the university) opened in 1838. The Neuchâtel Natural History Museum, founded at the same time, is one of the oldest in Switzerland. Neuchâtel already had the oldest French-language newspaper in the world, the Feuille d'Avis de Neuchâtel, first published in 1738, but a second newspaper, L'Impartial, appeared in 1880.

After bitter in-fighting, the first railway opened in the canton in 1857 between Le Locle and La Chaux-de-Fonds, followed by a line between Neuchâtel and Le Locle in 1860. The network gradually grew to connect the canton with France, but there was no rail link with Bern until 1901.  The lakeside villages were also linked to Neuchâtel by a system of trams: initially horse-drawn, they were electrified around 1897.  Funicular railways, trolleybuses and buses would later be added to the public transport system.

Economic growth slowed with the outbreak of World War 1, as export markets became unavailable, and the depression of the 1930s was felt in Neuchâtel as elsewhere. The second half of the 20th century, however, saw renewed expansion, as more modern production methods were introduced, and the canton looked to new industries such as micro-technology.

The River Seyon, which originally flowed through the centre of Neuchâtel, had been partially diverted and covered over as early as 1839. At the end of the 20th century, motor traffic had become a major problem in Neuchâtel and along the lakeshore: with no room between town and mountain for a bypass, a tunnel under Neuchâtel was opened in 1993, relieving much of the congestion. Another series of tunels covers the new road between Neuchâtel and La Chaux-de-Fonds.

Monument de la République at Neuchâtel

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