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The city of Bern was founded by Berchtold V. Duke of Zähringen in 1191.  He sought to build  a stronghold on the River Aare.  The loop was ideal for the purpose, and the Duke therefore entrusted one of his noblemen with the task of building a city there.  A might castle already stood at the lower end of the peninsula, built probably in the 11th century as a free imperial castle.  A small settlement had sprung up around Nydegg Castle in the course of the 12th century.  Cuno von Bubenberg, who answered for the execution of the Duke's orders, had the oak forest covering the peninsula felled, and the wood of those trees was used to build the first houses.  Bern was then part of Upper Burgundy, ruled by the Dukes of Zähringen, who had been appointed to this position by the Emperor Lothar II.


Cuno von Bubenberg built a first city wall in the centre of which rose the great Clock Tower with the main gate opening to the countryside beyond.  In front of the city wall was a natural hollow in the ground, which served as moat


The oldest coat of arms of the city dates from 1224 and contains a bear, Bern’s heraldic animal, as well as the name of Bern.  According to the legend the name Bern was given to the city by Duke Berchtold V of Zähringen after a hunt held in the wooded surroundings of his new town in which his first prey was a bear.  The similarity between the word Bär (= bear) and the town’s name seems to lend authenticity to the legend but it may well be a piece of folk etymology.  It has also been suggested that Bern was named after Verona, a famous town of the Middle Ages, which was called Bern in German (Welsch Bern).


The founder of the town died in 1218, and that was also the end of the Zähringen dynasty. Bern was granted immediacy by Emperor Frederick II and thus became a free city of the Holy Roman Empire.  But the Earls of Kiburg sought to extend their territories into the former Duchy of Zähringen. After Frederick II’s death, Bern placed itself under the protection of Count Peter of Savoy. The town was enlarged westwards in 1252, and a new city wall was built with the Prison Tower (Käfigturm) as its main gate. 


Bern fought its most important battle for its independence against the united nobility of Burgundy, was at Laupen in the year 1339.  The city of Freiburg, founded by the father of Duke Berchtold V of Zähringen, had joined Bern's enemies.  The Bernese troops were victorious and this battle marked the final defeat of the nobility and ensured the future of the city.  The town grew further to the west so that it reached up where the Main Station stands now.  The third city wall that was built in the short space of one and a half years, remarkably quick for those days, was torn down only a hundred years ago.


In 1353 Bern joined the Swiss Confederation. The greater part of the town was destroyed by fire in 1405. The houses were built up again on the old foundations; instead of wood, sandstone from nearby quarries was used as building material. 


Bern continued to pursue its own policy with much energy.  It conquered land both to the east and west, mostly gained at the cost of the Houses of Habsburg of Savoy.  Large territories along the Lake of Geneva came under Bernese rule and it is largely thanks to Bern that much of the French part of Switzerland is today within the Confederation. Most of the houses were replaced in the 16th and 17th centuries by new buildings whose harmonious appearance and richness in detail delight visitors still today. 


The invasion of the French in 1798 destroyed Bern's position of authority.  In the new Switzerland, which emerged in 1815 from the ruins left by Napoleon I, Bern had to give up almost half its territories to allow the formations of two new Cantons (Aargau and the Waadt). The town also lost control over the Canton of Bern. It became, however, the cantonal capital and in 1848 had the honour of being chosen by the first Swiss Parliament as the capital of the Swiss Confederation.  Its former subject states were decisively in favour of this choice, a mark of recognition that pleased the Bernese very much.


In the past fifty years Bern has greatly expanded.  Wide bridges span the Aare River to link the old town with its new suburbs.  While maintaining much of its medieval and eighteenth century appearance, the old city has developed into an important business centre, and with its arcades, historical fountains, towers and attractive streets delights the visitors.  The most famous places of interest in Bern are the old Town Hall (1406 - 1416), still today the seat of the Bernese government, the Cathedral , built between 1421 and 1527 by Matthäus Ensinger and Erhart Küng and the Bear Pit, the delight of young and old.  The Houses of Parliament and the Church of the Holy Ghost are also well worth seeing.  There are over 70 embassies and legations in Bern and several international organisations such as the World Postal Union, which was founded here in 1874, have their head offices in Bern.


Bern vigorously fought for its freedom against all comers in the past, but it always was a bridge between east and west as well, and it has helped to successfully unite the German and French parts of Switzerland, and as the capital city it continues to unite the many qualities which compose the Swiss nation.