The Bailiff of Brunnegg: A Swiss Legend

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 Posted in 2023
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 Catagories: 📜 Folklore


A haunting snowy scene at Brunnegg Castle in Switzerland, during the harsh winter, a menacing ghostly figure of the bailiff riding on a black horse. A castle looms in the background, partially obscured by a fierce, swirling snowstorm. The landscape is eerily lit by a full moon, casting long sinister shadows. The bailiff should appear as a figure from Swiss folklore, wearing traditional, historical attire, and his face should be shrouded in mystery, a sense of foreboding and the supernatural, highlighting the legend's themes of a cursed hunt and a tragic tale.  by Ted Tschopp
"The Bailiff of Brunnegg" by Ted Tschopp

The Haunting Tale of the Bailiff's Hunt

Swiss Legends from Aargau, Volume 1

by Ernst L. Rochholz

Aarau, 1856

Page 187


The Bailiff of Brunnegg

When a change in weather is due and especially as the holy season approaches, people at the foot of Brunnegg1 hear a persistent tumult above at the castle. It is said that the bailiff2 rides out on his steed (a black horse) for a hunt. He once did this in the harshest winter with his pack of dogs3 and a retinue of attendants. Their feet froze in the cold, and then the bailiff found a poor woodcutter, killed him, and warmed his freezing feet in the opened belly of the corpse. From that moment on, a terrible snowstorm broke out, sweeping and burying them all together; none returned to the castle. The spot where the poor peasant died is still known; the hunting rider gallops up to there, and there his huntsman’s cry of “Hop-Hop!” falls silent.

Well-read people call him Gessler4 and believe he is the same man who forced Tell to shoot at his own child.


As noted by: T. Tschopp

General Information

  • Title: The Bailiff of Brunnegg
  • Author: Ernst L. Rochholz
  • Source: Swiss Legends from Aargau, Volume 1, published in 1856
  • Location: Brunnegg, Aargau, Switzerland

Plot Points

  1. Setting: Takes place at Brunnegg Castle, with an emphasis on harsh winter conditions.
  2. Main Character: The bailiff of Brunnegg, depicted as a cruel and ghostly figure.
  3. Incident: The bailiff kills a poor woodcutter to warm his feet in the man’s belly during a hunting expedition.
  4. Supernatural Elements: A terrible snowstorm ensues, believed to have buried the bailiff and his entourage.
  5. End Scene: The legend concludes with the ghostly bailiff’s hunting cries falling silent at the spot where the woodcutter died.

Beliefs about the Event

  • The story is considered a legend, blending historical characters with folklore and supernatural elements.
  • The bailiff is sometimes identified with Gessler, a figure from the William Tell saga, indicating a possible overlap of legends or a common theme of tyrannical rulers in Swiss folklore.

Cultural Context

  • Historical Backdrop: Reflects the medieval period in Switzerland, highlighting the conflicts and dynamics between local populations and ruling nobility (like the Habsburgs).
  • Themes: Explores themes of cruelty, justice, and supernatural retribution.
  • Cultural Significance: Represents a narrative of resistance against tyranny, a common theme in Swiss folklore, which contributes to Switzerland’s national identity and history.
  • Representation in Art and Literature: The story is part of Swiss cultural heritage, often depicted in literature and art, reflecting the broader theme of struggle for autonomy and freedom in Swiss history.

  1. Brunegg Castle, known as Schloss Brunegg in German, is located in the municipality of Brunegg, in the canton of Aargau, Switzerland. Constructed in the 13th century on a hill at the edge of the Jura Mountains, the castle was likely built as part of the Habsburg border defenses, along with nearby Wildegg Castle. It was occupied by Habsburg knights, including the notable Schenken von Brunegg and Gessler von Meienberg.

    In 1415, during a period of regional conflicts, Brunegg Castle was besieged by Bernese troops, but the siege was lifted following a counterattack. Subsequently, Bern conquered the Aargau region and granted the fief of the castle to the Segenser or Segesser family. From 1538 to 1798, the castle was under the control of the governor of Lenzburg.

    In 1815, the Hünerwadel family from Lenzburg became the owners of the castle. Later, it passed into the hands of the von Salis family through marriage. The castle suffered from poor maintenance over the centuries and was severely damaged by storms in the 17th century. However, in the early 19th century, restoration efforts were undertaken to repair the keep, outbuildings, and roof【24†source】【25†source】. 

  2. During the medieval period in Switzerland, a bailiff, known in German as a “Vogt,” played a significant administrative and judicial role. The bailiff was typically a nobleman appointed by a higher authority, such as a king, duke, or lord. Their responsibilities included:

    1. Administration: Bailiffs were responsible for overseeing the administration of the lands or territories under their jurisdiction. This included collecting taxes, managing estates, and overseeing local governance.

    2. Judicial Duties: They often had judicial powers and were responsible for maintaining law and order. This could include presiding over local courts and enforcing legal decisions.

    3. Military Leadership: In some cases, bailiffs also had military responsibilities, such as defending the territory, maintaining a militia, and overseeing local security.

    4. Representation: They represented the interests of the lord or ruling authority in the local area, acting as a liaison between the local populace and the higher nobility or royalty.

    The role of a bailiff was crucial in maintaining the feudal system, ensuring that the interests of the ruling class were upheld in the localities, and in administering justice and order in their respective regions. 

  3. In medieval Europe, including Switzerland during the time period of the “Bailiff of Brunnegg” story, several types of dogs were commonly used for hunting:

    1. Hounds: These were perhaps the most common type of hunting dogs. They were used for their strong sense of smell to track game. Breeds like Bloodhounds and various types of scent hounds were popular.

    2. Mastiffs: These large, powerful dogs were often used for hunting larger game due to their strength and tenacity.

    3. Greyhounds: Known for their speed and agility, greyhounds were used for coursing game, especially in open areas.

    4. Pointers and Setters: Although they became more popular later, these breeds were beginning to be used for their ability to locate and ‘point’ to game, particularly birds.

    5. Spaniels: Used for flushing game out of dense underbrush, spaniels were versatile and could work in a variety of terrains.

    The specific breed used would depend on the type of game being hunted and the local terrain. Hunting dogs were highly valued and often depicted in medieval art and literature as noble companions in the hunt. 

  4. Albrecht Gessler is a legendary figure in Swiss history, famously known for his role in the William Tell saga. According to the legend, Gessler was a tyrannical bailiff appointed by the Habsburgs in the early 14th century to rule over parts of Switzerland. His most notorious act, as depicted in the legend, was his order for William Tell to shoot an apple off his son’s head, a task which Tell successfully accomplished. This incident is said to have sparked a rebellion that led to the formation of the Swiss Confederation. Gessler is often portrayed as a symbol of Habsburg5 oppression in Swiss folklore. The historical accuracy of Gessler’s existence and his actions is debated, as much of his story is rooted in legend rather than documented history. 

  5. The Habsburgs were a prominent royal dynasty in Europe who played a significant role in the history of Switzerland. Originating from the region that is now Austria, the Habsburgs expanded their influence into various parts of Europe, including Switzerland, through conquest and marriage alliances.

    In Switzerland, the Habsburgs were seen as foreign rulers and their attempts to consolidate power often clashed with the growing desire for autonomy among the Swiss cantons. This tension led to several conflicts, most notably the Swiss struggle for independence, which included famous events like the legend of William Tell. The Swiss eventually won their independence from Habsburg control, which was a key step in the formation of the Old Swiss Confederacy, the precursor to modern Switzerland. The Habsburgs’ rule over Swiss territories is often remembered for its authoritarian nature and is a significant part of Swiss national identity and history.