The area of Aargau and the surrounding areas were controlled by the Helvetians, a member of the Celts, as far back as 200 BC, eventually being occupied by the Romans and then by the 6th century, the Franks. The Romans built a major settlement called Vindonissa, near the present location of Brugg.
The reconstructed Old High German name of Aargau is Argowe,
first unambiguously attested (in the spelling Argue) in 795.
The term described a territory only loosely equivalent to that of the modern canton, including the region between Aare and Reuss, including Pilatus and Napf, i.e. including parts of the modern cantons of Berne (Bernese Aargau, Emmental, parts of the Bernese Oberland),
Solothurn, Basel-Landschaft, Lucerne, Obwalden and Nidwalden, but not the parts of the modern canton east of the Reuss (Baden District), which were part of Zürichgau.
Within the Frankish Empire (8th to 10th centuries), the area was a disputed border region between the duchies of Alamannia and Burgundy. A line of the von Wetterau (Conradines) intermittently held the countship of Aargau from 750 until about 1030, when they lost it (having in the meantime taken the name von Tegerfelden).
This division became the ill-defined (and sparsely settled) outer border of the early Holy Roman Empire at its formation in the second half of the 10th century.
Most of the region came under the control of the ducal house of Zähringen and the comital houses of Habsburg and Kyburg by about 1200.
In the second half of the 13th century, the territory became divided between the territories claimed by the imperial cities of Berne, Lucerne and Solothurn and the Swiss canton of Unterwalden.
The remaining portion, largely corresponding to the modern canton of Aargau, remained under the control of the Habsburgs until the "conquest of Aargau" by the Old Swiss Confederacy in 1415.
Habsburg Castle itself, the original seat of the House of Habsburg, was taken by Berne in April 1415.
The Habsburgs had founded a number of monasteries (with some structures enduring, e.g., in Wettingen and Muri), the closing of which by the government in 1841 was a contributing factor to the outbreak of the Swiss civil war – the "Sonderbund War" – in 1847.
Under the Swiss Confederation
Switzerland in 1416, showing the part of the Aargau under Bernese control, the county of Baden and the Freie Ämter.
When Frederick IV of Habsburg sided with Antipope John XXIII at the Council of Constance, Emperor Sigismund placed him under the Imperial ban.[nb 1] In July 1414, the Pope visited Bern and received assurances from them, that they would move against the Habsburgs. A few months later the Swiss Confederation denounced the
Treaty of 1412. Shortly thereafter in 1415, Bern and the rest of the Swiss Confederation used the ban as a pretext to invade the Aargau. The Confederation was able to quickly conquer the towns of Aarau, Lenzburg, Brugg and Zofingen along with most of the Habsburg castles. Bern kept the southwest portion (Zofingen, Aarburg, Aarau, Lenzburg, and Brugg), northward to the confluence of the Aare and Reuss. The important city of Baden was taken by a united Swiss army and governed by all 8 members of the Confederation. Some districts, named the Freie Ämter (free bailiwicks) – Mellingen, Muri, Villmergen, and Bremgarten, with the countship of Baden – were governed as "subject lands" by all or some of the Confederates. Shortly after the conquest of the Aargau by the Swiss, Frederick humbled himself to the Pope. The Pope reconciled with him and ordered all of the taken lands to be returned. The Swiss refused and years later after no serious attempts at re-acquisition, the Duke officially relinquished rights to the Swiss.
Unteraargau or Berner Aargau
Districts in Bernese controlled Unteraargau
Bern's portion of the Aargau came to be known as the Unteraargau, though can also be called the Berner or Bernese Aargau. In 1514 Bern expanded north into the Jura and so came into possession of several strategically important mountain passes into the Austrian Fricktal. This land was added to the Unteraargau and was directly ruled from Bern. It was divided into seven rural bailiwicks and four administrative cities, Aarau, Zofingen, Lenzburg and Brugg. While the Habsburgs were driven out, many of their minor nobles were allowed to keep their lands and offices, though over time they lost power to the Bernese government. The bailiwick administration was based on a very small staff of officials, mostly made up of Bernese citizens, but with a few locals.
When Bern converted during the Protestant Reformation in 1528, the Unteraargau also converted. At the beginning of the 16th century a number of anabaptists migrated into the upper Wynen and Rueder valleys from Zürich. Despite pressure from the Bernese authorities in the 16th and 17th centuries anabaptism never entirely disappeared from the Unteraargau.
Bern used the Aargau bailiwicks mostly as a source of grain for the rest of the city-state. The administrative cities remained economically only of regional importance. However, in the 17th and 18th centuries Bern encouraged industrial development in Unteraargau and by the late 18th century it was the most industrialized region in the city-state. The high industrialization led to high population growth in the 18th century, for example between 1764 and 1798, the population grew by 35%, far more than in other parts of the canton. In 1870 the proportion of farmers in Aarau, Lenzburg, Kulm, and Zofingen districts was 34–40%, while in the other districts it was 46–57%.
Map of the Freie Ämter, including the 1712 line dividing the Upper and Lower Freie Ämter
The rest of the Freie Ämter were collectively administered as subject territories by the rest of the Confederation. Muri Amt was assigned to Zürich, Lucerne, Schwyz, Unterwalden, Zug and Glarus, while the Ämter of Meienberg, Richensee and Villmergen were first given to Lucerne alone. The final boundary was set in 1425 by an arbitration tribunal and Lucerne had to give the three Ämter to be collectively ruled. The four Ämter were then consolidated under a single Confederation bailiff into what was known in the 15th century as the Waggental Bailiwick (German: Vogtei im Waggental). In the 16th century, it came to be known as the Vogtei der Freien Ämter. While the Freien Ämter often had independent lower courts, they were forced to accept the Confederation's sovereignty. Finally, in 1532, the canton of Uri became part of the collective administration of the Freien Ämter.
At the time of Reformation, the majority of the Ämter converted to the new faith. In 1529, a wave of iconoclasm swept through the area and wiped away much of the old religion. After the defeat of Zürich in the second Battle of Kappel in 1531, the victorious five Catholic cantons marched their troops into the Freie Ämter and reconverted them to Catholicism.
In the First War of Villmergen, in 1656, and the Toggenburg War (or Second War of Villmergen), in 1712, the Freie Ämter became the staging ground for the warring Reformed and Catholic armies. While the peace after the 1656 war did not change the status quo, the fourth Peace of Aarau in 1712 brought about a reorganization of power relations. The victory gave Zürich the opportunity to force the Catholic cantons out of the government in the county of Baden and the adjacent area of the Freie Ämter. The Freie Ämter were then divided in two by a line drawn from the gallows in Fahrwangen to the Oberlunkhofen church steeple. The northern part, the so-called Unteren Freie Ämter (lower Freie Ämter), which included the districts of Boswil (in part) and Hermetschwil and the Niederamt, were ruled by Zürich, Bern and Glarus. The southern part, the Oberen Freie Ämter (upper Freie Ämter), were ruled by the previous seven cantons but Bern was added to make an eighth.
During the Helvetic Republic (1798–1803), the county of Baden, the Freie Ämter and the area known as the
Kelleramt were combined into the canton of Baden.
County of Baden
The County of Baden was a shared condominium of the entire Old Swiss Confederacy. After the Confederacy conquest in 1415, they retained much of the Habsburg legal structure, which caused a number of problems. The local nobility had the right to hold the low court in only about one fifth of the territory. There were over 30 different nobles who had the right to hold courts scattered around the surrounding lands. All these overlapping jurisdictions caused numerous conflicts, but gradually the Confederation was able to acquire these rights in the County. The cities of Baden, Bremgarten and Mellingen became the administrative centers and held the high courts. Together with the courts, the three administrative centers had considerable local autonomy, but were ruled by a governor who was appointed by the Acht Orte every two years. After the Protestant victory at the Second Battle of Villmergen, the administration of the County changed slightly. Instead of the Acht Orte appointing a bailiff together, Zürich and Bern each appointed the governor for 7 out of 16 years while Glarus appointed him for the remaining 2 years.
The chaotic legal structure and fragmented land ownership combined with a tradition of dividing the land among all the heirs in an inheritance prevented any large scale reforms. The governor tried in the 18th century to reform and standardize laws and ownership across the County, but with limited success. With an ever-changing administration, the County lacked a coherent long-term economic policy or support for reforms. By the end of the 18th century there were no factories or mills and only a few small cottage industries along the border with Zürich. Road construction first became a priority after 1750, when Zürich and Bern began appointing a governor for seven years.
During the Protestant Reformation, some of the municipalities converted to the new faith. However, starting in 1531, some of the old parishes were converted back to the old faith. The governors were appointed from both Catholic and Protestant cantons and since they changed every two years, neither faith gained a majority in the County.
The County was the only federal condominium in the 17th century where Jews were tolerated. In 1774, they were restricted to just two towns, Endingen and Lengnau. While the rural upper class tried several times to finally expel the Jews, the financial interests of the authorities prevented this. The Jews were directly subordinate to the governor starting in 1696 when they were forced to buy a protecting and shielding letter every 16 years from the governor.
After the French invasion, on 19 March 1798, the governments of Zürich and Bern agreed to the creation of the short lived canton of Baden in the Helvetic Republic. With the Act of Mediation in 1803, the canton of Baden was dissolved. Portions of the lands of the former County of Baden now became the District of Baden in the newly created canton of Aargau. After World War II, this formerly agrarian region saw striking growth and became the district with the largest and densest population in the canton (110,000 in 1990, 715 persons per km2).
Forming the canton of Aargau
Helvetic Republic c. 1798/99, with the newly created cantons of Aargau and Baden
Swiss Confederation following the 1803 Act of Mediation, with the modern canton of Aargau formed
The contemporary canton of Aargau was formed in 1803, a canton of the Swiss Confederation as a result of the Act of Mediation. It was a combination of three short-lived cantons of the Helvetic Republic: Aargau (1798–1803), Baden (1798–1803) and Fricktal (1802–1803). Its creation is therefore rooted in the Napoleonic era. In the year 2003, the canton of Aargau celebrated its 200th anniversary.
French forces occupied the Aargau from 10 March to 18 April 1798; thereafter the Bernese portion became the canton of Aargau and the remainder formed the canton of Baden. Aborted plans to merge the two halves came in 1801 and 1802, and they were eventually united under the name Aargau, which was then admitted as a full member of the reconstituted Confederation following the Act of Mediation. Some parts of the canton of Baden at this point were transferred to other cantons: the Amt of Hitzkirch to Lucerne, whilst Hüttikon, Oetwil an der Limmat, Dietikon and Schlieren went to Zürich. In return, Lucerne's Amt of Merenschwand was transferred to Aargau (district of Muri).
The Fricktal, ceded in 1802 by Austria via Napoleonic France to the Helvetic Republic, was briefly a separate canton of the Helvetic Republic (the canton of Fricktal) under a Statthalter ('Lieutenant'), but on 19 March 1803 (following the Act of Mediation) was incorporated into the canton of Aargau.
The former cantons of Baden and Fricktal can still be identified with the contemporary districts – the canton of Baden is covered by the districts of Zurzach, Baden, Bremgarten, and Muri (albeit with the gains and losses of 1803 detailed above); the canton of Fricktal by the districts of Rheinfelden and Laufenburg (except for Hottwil which was transferred to that district in 2010).
The chief magistracy of Aargau changed its style repeatedly:
- first two consecutive Regierungsstatthalter :
- April 1798 – November 1801 Jakob Emmanuel Feer (1754–1833)
- 1802–1803 Johann Heinrich Rothpletz (1766–1833)
- Presidents of the Government Commission
- 10 March 1803 – 26 April 1803 Johann Rudolf Dolder (1753–1807)
- 26 April 1803 – 1815 a 'Small Council' (president rotating monthly)
- annual Amtsbürgermeister 1815–1831
- annual Landammänner since 1815
Jewish history in Aargau
Two separate doors (one for Jews and one for Christians) on a house in Lengnau
In the 17th century, Jews were banished from Switzerland. However, a few families were permitted to live in two villages, Endingen and Lengnau, in Aargau which became the Jewish ghetto in Switzerland. During this period, Jews and Christians were not allowed to live under the same roof, neither were Jews allowed to own land or houses. They were taxed at a much higher rate than others and, in 1712, the Lengnau community was "pillaged." In 1760, they were further restricted regarding marriages and procreation. This remained the case until the 19th century. In 1799, all special tolls were abolished, and, in 1802, the poll tax was removed. On 5 May 1809, they were declared citizens and given broad rights regarding trade and farming. They were still restricted to Endingen and Lengnau until 7 May 1846, when their right to move and reside freely within the canton of Aargau was granted. On 24 September 1856, the Swiss Federal Council granted them full political rights within Aargau, as well as broad business rights; however the majority Christian population did not abide by these new liberal laws fully. The time of 1860 saw the canton government voting to grant suffrage in all local rights and to give their communities autonomy. Before the law was enacted, it was repealed due to vocal opposition led by the Ultramonte Party. Finally, the federal authorities in July 1863, granted all Jews full rights of citizens. However, they did not receive all of the rights in Endingen and Lengn until a resolution of the Grand Council, on 15 May 1877, granted citizens' rights to the members of the Jewish communities of those places, giving them charters under the names of New Endingen and New Lengnau. The
Swiss Jewish Kulturverein was instrumental in this fight from its founding in 1862 until it was dissolved 20 years later. During this period of diminished rights, they were not even allowed to bury their dead in Swiss soil and had to bury their dead on an island called Judenäule (Jews' Isle) on the Rhine near Waldshut. Beginning in 1603, the deceased Jews of the Surbtal communities were buried on the river island which was leased by the Jewish community. As the island was repeatedly flooded and devastated, in 1750 the Surbtal Jews asked the Tagsatzung to establish the Endingen cemetery in the vicinity of their communities.