A Brief History of the Legend of William Tell

William Tell (centre) after shooting the apple from his son's head | © Ad Meskens/Wikicommons
William Tell (centre) after shooting the apple from his son's head | © Ad Meskens/Wikicommons
Photo of Sean Mowbray
21 December 2017

Ask any Swiss who William Tell is and they are likely to inform you that he’s the hero of Swiss independence. He’s kind of a big deal. According to the legend, Tell, a bit of a hot-headed fellow it seems, gave the tyrannical Austrian leader Gessler (or his hat to be precise) the proverbial finger before killing him for good measure. Join us on a super-quick rundown of Tell’s exploits, if they ever happened at all.

An apple a day keeps Gessler away

Albrecht Gessler, a Habsburg bailiff ensconced in the canton of Uri, if you believe the tales, was rather full of himself and had his quirks, like any good tyrant worth his salt. Gessler’s particular thing was getting folks to praise his hat. No judgement here. With the power and might of the Austrian-Habsburg realm behind him, Gessler demanded that all under him greeted his hat, which he placed atop a long pole in the town of Altdorf. Truly, he was a despicable man.

Now, according to some, William Tell had already become embroiled in a conspiracy to resist the Austrians and Gessler. So, he refused publicly to bow and lift his hat to the Austrian’s hat. Bold move.

Rather unsurprisingly, Tell’s insolence pricked Gessler’s pride. Gessler, the fanatical Austrian menace that he was, devised a cunning punishment for Tell. He’d heard of the man’s prowess with a crossbow so ordered that he must shoot an apple from the top of his son’s head, only if he succeeded would both their lives be spared.

William Tell (far right) is arrested for not saluting Gessler’s hat (far left) | © Hans Sandreuter/Wikicommons

Of course, Tell succeeded and split the apple down the middle (it wouldn’t have made for a very inspiring story otherwise). But Gessler noticed that Tell had picked up two crossbow bolts, not just one. Curious (and apparently rather dim-witted) he questioned the burly Swiss why he needed two bolts. Well, the other one would have been to kill you with, Tell replied, to the shock of nobody except Gessler. Wrapped in fury, Gessler had him arrested on the spot and planned to lock him in the dungeon of the castle at the town of Küssnacht.

Tell was carted off and tossed onto a boat. While being transported across Lake Lucerne, a vicious storm whipped up, rocking the boat savagely from side to side. The guards, apparently well aware of Tell’s legendary strength, released him, pleaded that he save them all from certain death. Seizing the opportunity, Tell drove the boat towards the shore, grabbed his crossbow, skipped off onto land and darted off. Today, the place where he landed is still known as Tellsplatte, or Tell’s ledge.

Tell waited for the arrival of Gessler in a narrow hollow on the road to Küssnacht. We can imagine that his trigger finger itched in anticipation, probably remembering that vile hat sitting on top of the pole in Altdorf, the horror.

He finally saw Gessler approach, stepped out from behind a tree and shot him dead. From here, Tell is said to have met with other men from three Swiss cantons who had defied the Austrian rule. The men swore a solemn oath in the forest (known as the oath of Rütli) to work together and fight off the Austrian yoke. This was, as the story goes, a pivotal moment in the Swiss fight for freedom against Austria as it’s where the Old Swiss Confederacy began (kind of like the X-Men Origins series but without the claws and actually interesting).

Lake Lucerne | © Sarah_Loetscher/Pixabay

Whether all this happened is hotly debated by historians. The story itself comes from the mind of Aegidius Tschudi, who didn’t put pen to paper until 250 long years after Tell’s death. Tschudi’s fact-checking has since been seriously questioned as it turned out that the oath of Rütli took place 16 years earlier than he believed, prompting the Swiss Independence day to be shifted. Likewise, there is even the suggestion that William Tell was actually Danish, or at least the story was. To the horror of the Swiss, Tell’s apple-shooting antics bear a remarkable resemblance to an old Viking tale that predates the Swiss legend by around 400 years.

Whether or not Tell existed, something which the Swiss will happily argue with you until the next ice age, may be questionable, but it sure does make for a wonderful tale – an independence struggle caused by a hat is simply made for Hollywood. It’s also a tale that bound Switzerland into what it is today, a curious conglomeration of 26 very different mini-states that somehow make a country. Fine work Willy.

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