The Story Behind the Lion of Lucerne

Estimated reading time 3 min

Visitors to the Swiss town of Lucerne are moved by the Lion Monument, a sculpture designed in the early 19th century.  The mortally-wounded lion’s expression is one of heart rending agony.  At the time I saw the statue, I didn’t know the story behind it, it was just something that you see when you visit this pretty Swiss town along with the covered bridge, but years later the sadness inherent in this sculpture is something I vividly remember.  So I wanted to learn the story behind the Lion of Lucerne.

The country of Switzerland has become known for its neutral status and indeed this mindset goes back over 500 years.  One of the country’s most popular saints, Nicholas of Flue, also referred to as Brother Klaus, said, “Don’t get involved in other people’s affairs.”  A former soldier, he became a hermit known for providing counsel and advice to various European figures, and is credited with preventing a civil war in Switzerland.

The neutrality of the Swiss gave them a reputation for honoring their agreements; therefore they made attractive mercenaries, soldiers who take part in armed conflicts which are not party to it based on nationality, but rather money.   Foreign governments and figures such as popes and emperors were eager to hire these disciplined Swiss as soldiers and guards.  The Swiss soldiers had much stricter codes for their units, making them compare favorably against undisciplined French soldiers, so the French royal family hired many of them.

At the time of the French Revolution there were over nine hundred Swiss Guards defending the Palace and King Louis the 16th and his family. Of these, approximately 600 were killed during the fighting trying to prevent the mob from arresting the royal family.  Those who returned to their barracks were massacred by waiting revolutionaries.  Another 100 plus died in prison of their wounds.  In the end, less than one hundred Swiss escaped from the Tuileries.

The dying lion lies upon symbols of the French monarchy and an inscription refers to the Swiss Guardsmen who were killed.  The Latin translation says, “To the loyalty and courage of the Swiss.”

To view this dramatic memorial, from the waterfront, take the Lowenstrasse or Alpenstrasse to the Löwenplatz square.  Continue uphill following Denkmalstrasse another block to the monument.

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