Bern was founded, according to tradition, in 1191 by Berchtold V of Zähringen as a military post. It was made (1218) a free imperial city by Emperor Frederick II when Berchtold died without an heir. Bern grew in power and population and in 1353 joined the Swiss Confederation, of which it became the leading member. Its conquests included Aargau (1415) and Vaud (1536), besides numerous smaller territories. The area was governed until 1798 by an autocratic urban aristocracy. Bern accepted the Reformation in 1528. When Switzerland was invaded (1798) by the French during the French Revolutionary Wars, Bern was occupied, its treasury pillaged, and its territories dismembered. At the Congress of Vienna (1815), Bern failed to recover Vaud and Aargau, but received the Bernese Jura (the former Bishopric of Basel). A liberal constitution was adopted in 1831, and in 1848 Bern became the capital of the Swiss Confederation.
The city is largely medieval in its architecture. It has a splendid 15th-century town hall, a noted minster (begun 15th cent.), and numerous other historic structures. There are many picturesque patrician houses and old guild halls. An elaborate medieval clock tower and a pit in which bears (Bern's heraldic animal for seven centuries) are kept are well known to tourists. More modern buildings include the 19th-century federal parliament building, many fine museums (including one devoted to Paul Klee), and the university (1834).
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