Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Sacred Space

In my years of research I have often come across passages that mention the final resting place of certain ancestors as this or that Swiss Cathedral. These passages often date from the 18th century or earlier so I don’t know if the tombs still exist or ever did.

On a recent trip to Switzerland I went to Lausanne to see if an ancestor who was said to buried there, still was. It has been documented in family records that Barbara Wyttenbach, mother of David de Büren, who also happens to be my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother (I hope that’s enough greats) is buried in the ambulatory of the Cathedral of Lausanne. As there is no ancestor help line at the cathedral, I needed to go to Switzerland and look for myself.

Barbara de Wyttenbach (1585-1652)

Cathedral of Lausanne Ambulatory © Sacred Spaces

After parking in town I made my way up the many steps to the Cathedral. I was dressed for cold weather, and wanted to ditch my winter coat halfway to the top on the unseasonably warm day. Upon making it to the Cathedral, I walked inside and was greeted by a beautiful holy expanse. I walked to the back of the church where I knew the ambulatory to be and started to look at the inscriptions on the tombs I found.

As I made my way around, I saw some names that I recognized like de Loys and de Tscharner, but as yet no de Büren. I held out hope that I would find her name and upon almost exiting the ambulatory, eureka! I was oddly emotional when I found her name, perhaps because I didn’t think I would find her to begin with. She was not listed as de Büren or von Büren but rather as her maiden name of Widenbach (Wyttenbach). She is buried with three of her children, who died in infancy, from her second marriage to François Güder.

She was from an old Bernese family, so why is she buried in Lausanne? When she died in 1652, her son David de Büren was chief magistrate of Lausanne for Bern and it appears that he pulled some strings to have buried in the Cathedral. I think that he wanted to respect his mother’s memory and those of his half-sisters with a burial place of honor.

Below is a photo of the tomb as well as my interpretation of the Latin inscription.



When I entered the Cathedral initially the door was opened for me by a man begging his next meal. He hoped I would repay his gesture with one of my own in the form of a Franc or two. Upon leaving the Cathedral I found him again and placed a couple of Francs in his cup. It seemed only right, he had after all invited me into a sacred space not just for others but also for my family.

Beyond Survival

Having detailed family archives are indispensable when it comes to discovering personal historical narrative but it is also instructive for a broader understanding of family history.

For many years the de Büren family, not unlike other families of the time, was always on the verge of extinction. Between warfare, disease, and high maternal mortality the continuation of the family was by no means assured in Switzerland of the Late Middle Ages/Early Renaissance.

Within the family much has been made of David de Büren (1615-1659) starting a new era of prosperity with his marriage to Marguerite de Bonstetten. This union led directly to the acquisition of the Château de Vaumarcus and the title of Baron for his descendants.

Whatever the reason – moving away from the city, new found wealth, greater political influence, or simply fate – family life expectancy and birth rates improved dramatically with David’s descendants.



On average the life span of de Büren women increased by 23 years from the 17th to the 18th century. More importantly male births increased from 12 in the 17th century to 27 in the 18th century. As a result of longer life spans for mothers and more sons, the 18th century made the family larger and more resilient as a group.

In 1631, after the death of his brother, David de Büren was the last male heir of the de Büren name, one that could have died with him. Some 400 years later, there are over 50 of his direct de Büren descendants living in Switzerland, France, England, Argentina, Brazil and the United States.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Marvin Watches

The former ancestral home of the de Buren family, the Château de Vaumarcus has since the 1980s been the headquarters for many Swiss firms. One company that has called Vaumarcus home since 2007 is the Marvin Watch Company.


Marvin was started in 1850 in St. Imier, Switzerland, and was successful for many years before falling on hard times. The brand was purchased in 2002 by Cécile and Jean-Daniel Maye and had since experienced quite a renaissance.

The following videos give an overview of Marvin's activities and well as their very talented staff.



What I find very interesting is that Marvin's offices are in the Palais portion of the castle, the part of the castle that was built by Charles de Büren for his Dutch wife so she could have a more comfortable space in which to live, work, draw and paint. This construction helped fostered many generations of de Büren artists. It is comforting to know that the legacy of de Büren creative expression at Vaumarcus continues today with Marvin.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Rüeblimahl

One of the reasons I went on my recent trip to Switzerland was to attend an event dear to my ancestors. The event was the Rüeblimahl held at the one of the medieval guilds of Bern, the Metzgern Zunft or in English the Butcher’s Guild. The de Buren/von Büren family has been a member of the guild since its arrival in Bern in 1326, so it was a great honor to represent the family again within its hallowed walls.

The Rüeblimahl is a meal that commemorates the aftermath of the Battle of Laupen in 1339 when hungry soldiers from the guild only found carrots to eat from a local field. While the feast may commorate the eating of carrots, do not be fooled, this is not the Vegetable guild, it is the Butcher’s guild, so meat, meat and more meat is on the menu for this occasion. In fact, when I visited Franz von Graffenried, the President of the Burgergemeinde Bern the afternoon before the event, he joked with me “You won’t be eating any carrots, that’s for sure.” and he added “I hope you don’t have anything planned that afternoon.” Well I did actually, my time was short in Bern, I figured the lunch couldn’t last all afternoon, could it?

Daniel Claude and myself in the Pig's corner. Thanks to Jürg Stauffer for the Photo.

I was greeted at 11:45 am by Daniel Claude the son of the President of the guild, Martin Sauerer, as well as fellow guild member Jürg Stauffer. They were both very kind and took me under their wing. They infomed me that I would be sitting with them in the Pig’s corner, a place traditionally reserved for hog butchers, but now occupied by the young members of the guild. We started to make small talk and when I told Daniel that I had an interview at 2:30 pm he said, “Oh, we won’t be done by then. Better make it 4 or 5 pm.” What? I was triple booked all afternoon. I was sure he was pulling my leg.

We started the festivities with a nice apperitif of Swiss white wine in the cellar and then moved into the dining hall. We were packed to the gills at three long tables addorned with guild artifacts and carrots, just for decoration.

We started with soup, introductions and speeches. The first speech was made by the President of the guild who after acknolwedging his many important guests, most from other local guilds, came to me. He said that a member of one of the oldest families in Bern and of the guild, a von Büren was with them today, and had also come from California for the event. He stopped speaking Bärn Dütsch (Swiss-German dialect of Bern) of which I know probably two words and spoke in French for my benefit saying that I was always welcome at the Butcher’s guild. I was obviously moved. There were more speeches as the wine flowed.

The second course was bone marrow and liver, and not just one plate mind you. The marrow on bread with salt was very tasty. Someone remarked that it didn’t matter how much wine we were all drinking since we were eating liver. The third course arrived with heaping mouds of beef, special sausages and green beans. The sausages were my favorite, simply outstanding. After a couple of helpings I realized that I had to meet a reporter from Swissinfo who was doing a story on me, a California-Swiss coming back to his roots. As the reporter and I walked around the old town I felt a deep connection to Bern, one that grows each time I come back.

After my appointments I came back at 5 pm for some eau-de-vie with those who were still there. Jürg Stauffer and I talked for a bit and then I headed on to Neuchâtel. I was treated with genuine warmth by all those I met and really felt like a member of the guild.

I hope to attend again next year, and this time I will stay for the duration, if only to have a couple more of those sausages.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Château d'Oron

As I travel through Switzerland this week I have had many unique experiences. One was a private viewing of the Château of Oron in Western Switzerland. David de Büren was chief magistrate for Oron in the early 18th century and therefore it has a special meaning for my family.

Many thanks to André Locher of the Oron conservation committee for taking time out of his busy schedule to show me around.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Spin Doctor of the 15th century

Clara de Büren was the second daughter of Jean de Büren and Nicola Mossü. She was lady of Signau and Worb and was one of the most famous women of her age. She would marry first Ulrich Rieder and then Louis (Loy) de Diesbach. Louis was lord of Diesbach, and a Bernese Senator. While Clara was important in her own right, she is known mostly today as the mother of Nicolas de Diesbach, Schultheis of Bern and key player in the Burgundian wars that would consume Switzerland in the 15th century.

Nicolas was the richest man in Bern in his day thanks to the family business, a multinational corporation that imported textiles. He was a Knight of the Holy Sepulchre, a great orator, very charismatic and given his political ambitions, rose quickly within the circles of Bernese power.

Nicolas is most well known for his role as an emissary for Louis XI of France in Bern. The following section on Nicolas comes from Capitaine de Vallière's masterwork on the Swiss in foreign service, Honneur et Fidélité. I have translated and interpreted the following section from the original.

Louis XI the Prudent, King of France

Through the use of a number of machiavellian measures Louis XI pushed the Swiss to war on his behalf against the bravest and most powerful Prince in Christendom, Charles the Bold. The King of France had one aim in the middle part of the 15th century: the destruction of the Duchy of Burgundy. To accomplish this goal he would need the military might of the Swiss.

Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy by Peter Paul Rubens

The confederates at that time were not at all interested in becoming embroiled in a quarrel between a King and his Vassal, they preferred to stay on good terms with both and remain neutral. To win over those who preferred peace, the King used several close allies, Jodoc de Silinen, of Luzern, Bishop of Grenoble, Guillaume de Diesbach, and especially his cousin Nicolas de Diesbach of Bern, a very talented diplomat. These men would take their mission very seriously, slowly turning public sentiment away from the alliance with Burgundy, all the while handing out French gold as they went. The public, duped by fabricated stories, now felt threatened by the ambitions of Charles the Bold, who was seen as a dangerous enemy with the darkest of intentions. The exodus of Swiss mercenaries in the service of Louis XI and France commenced.

1474 Alliance Treaty between Louis XI and the Eight Confederate Cantons

1470 marked the first political success of Nicolas de Diesbach and showed his expanding influence. In light of the supposed eminent attack of Charles the Bold, eight Swiss cantons signed a defensive treaty with Louis XI. Four years later at the urging of Nicolas de Diesbach war would be declared against Charles and the Duchy of Burgundy. France and Louis XI would stay out of the fray, happy to have the Swiss fight Charles the Bold for them. The Burgundian Wars would last until 1477 when Charles the Bold died at the battle of Nancy.

Nicolas de Diesbach would die in 1475 of plague at Blamont near the beginning of hostilities with Burgundy. As a result of his death the Swiss lost their most able negotiator and when the war was over in 1477, Louis XI took clear advantage of the situation. History has judged Nicolas severely, most seeing him only as a puppet of Louis XI. If any positives can be drawn from the period is that the war that Nicolas de Diesbach lobbied for and helped bring about would substantiate the Swiss as a fighting force to be reckoned with for years to come.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Strongbox

My great-aunt Natalie de Büren was a passionate Swiss artist and in previous posts I have featured examples of her sculpture and drawings. After her passing in 1986 my father was lucky enough to secure her estate and keep her work intact. Natalie was incredibly prolific but not well known, and my father certainly saved many or her drawings and sculptures from destruction.

Interestingly, amongst the lot of art and isolated personal effects came a small wood and iron strongbox.



When I first saw it I had visions of the Pirates of Caribbean, Black Beard and Spanish gold taken at musket point. To further peak my curiosity the key was long gone. My father shared my interest in discovering its contents and actually had the box x-rayed.

After the x-ray he determined the box to be full of papers. OK, so it wasn't gold, but I was still very intrigued, weren't they missing the 1291 Swiss Federal Charter or something? My father found someone who specialized in old locks and had a key made. After many months of anticipation the wait was over, I would finally get to see what was inside the box.

Fabricated key.

Strongbox lock on the underside of the lid.

It turned out to be full of love letters and correspondence from the 1920s and 30s. Kind of a let down, but the way I figure it, there is a reason the letters are in that box. I think it is a deliberate act, not like misplacing them in the top drawer of a chippendale desk. One day I intend to transcribe their contents for the book I will write on my family.
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