If there is one Swiss person every American knows the name of it is William Tell. Even if only as the name behind the theme song for The Lone Ranger.
Most of us, though, have grown up with the story of how he, on a lark, shot an apple off his son’s head. However, Wilhelm Tell (in the Germanic and probably more accurate version of his name) and his tale is much more complicated than that.
The full tale is as follows….
Wilhelm Tell was Swiss man known for being strong, handsome, an expert mountain climber, and crack shot with a crossbow. He lived during the time the Hapsburgs ruled the area on their way to founding the Holy Roman Empire. As they grew in power, the Hapsburgs became absolutely despised by the people they ruled. One reason is because of land managers/bailiffs like Albrecht Gessler.
Gessler was the bailiff of the Altdorf area where Tell lived and would routinely put his hat up on a tall pole and make people bow to it as they walked through the town square. One day Wilhelm Tell walked through the town square. I imagine this being a rare event for him and that he was a picture of Swiss ruggedness with a rough jerkin and leather trousers, tall leather boots, crossbow slung across his back, minding his own business as he walked his son through the market to buy some necessary supplies.
Being an independent individualist, naturally he walked right by The Hat with nary a tip of the head much less a full bow.
Gessler stopped Tell and told him to salute The Hat. When Tell refused he arrested him and then baited him by saying, “I hear you are the best crossbow marksmen in the canton. Prove it! Shoot this apple off your son’s head and I will let you go free.”
When Tell tried to refuse his brave, brave son said, “I am not afraid, Father. You are the best. You won’t miss.”
So they lined them up across the market square; his son at one end in front of a tree with an apple on his head, and his father 10 meters away on the steps of the church. (There are fountains there marking the precise spots.)
Wilhelm raised his bow, drew out two bolts, and took careful aim. His son stood stock-still in front of that tree and waiting for his father to fire. Of course, the entire town gathered to watch. Silence fell and whomp, the crossbow bolt flew through the air and through the apple.
The cheering was deafening. People clapped Wilhelm on the back and raised the child holding the apple with the bolt through it into the air. Gessler came over and grudgingly congratulated Tell. And then, noticing him returning a bolt to his quiver asked, “If you knew you wouldn’t miss why did you need two bolts?”
Tell replied (probably unwisely), “Because if I missed the apple and killed my son I would have shot you with this one.”
“Guards! Treason! Assassination!”
And Tell was re-arrested.
They hustled him away and put him in a cell. Sometime later, when isn’t specified – it could have been right away, Gessler’s men were transporting Tell from Altdorf to, oh probably, Brunnen up the coast of the lake. While they were in the boat, a small rowing affair, a storm came up. Visibility went down, there are some stories that say it was very foggy and some stories say it was pouring rain, and the soldiers had to rely on Tell, who was also an expert sailor, to get them to shore. He faithfully gave them directions to the shore and then when they were just about there he leaped from the boat onto a rocky part of the shore line and escaped.
Undaunted he ran, through the storm, up the side of the foothills, along and then away from the lakeside. He ran all the way to Küssnacht to intercept Gessler as he was on his way to the town of Immensee. He finally caught up with him at a place they now call the Hohle Gasse – a lane between two roads.
Tell stood at one end and fired his crossbow bolt at Gessler as he passed by the other end of the lane and killed him.
Justice is served.
The pictures of murals above come from the Tellskapelle – a chapel that was erected upon the site where Tell is said to have heroically and athletically leaped ashore to escape. To get there you take a 10 minute boat ride or hike for 90 minutes from Fluelen.
It is convenient for everyone that he chose the most beautiful spot on the lake for his bid for freedom. They even have a name for the actual act of leaping – Tellensprung.
The murals in the Tellskapelle were painted by Basel native Ernst Stuckleberg in 1879. They have been restored and the chapel kept up faithfully over the years with the latest restoration happening in 2011.
You can then hike along the path Tell supposedly ran along in order to intercept Gessler. It is a really lovely 45 minute hike and if you can get past the hordes of little gnat-like swarms of bugs that assaulted us along the way you will love it.
The White Book of Sarnen says that the date of the Apple Affair was 18 November 1307. An extraordinarily precise date for a story about someone scholars can’t agree actually existed.
That’s right. William Tell may have never even existed.
However, that doesn’t mean that he isn’t still important in Swiss history. He is. Vitally important, even.
Firstly, historians give that really precise date of 1307 for a big reason. 1307 is often cited as the year the cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden took the Oath of Rütli, a pledge that they would help each other (probably against the Hapsburgs) and band together to be a single people.
After these three cantons decided to form an alliance and were on their way to successfully throwing off the Hapsburg rule, others started to drift over, too. With every victory over the Holy Roman Empire more cantons joined up. By 1353, Lucerne, Zurich, Grünigen, and then Zug, Bern, and Glarus had all joined the original alliance. (Some by conquest, some because they wanted to.)
Over the years, neighboring Hapsburg territories also signed treaties and allegiances with these three cantons. Some 30-odd documents that detail every treaty and allegiance are preserved in a special archives: The Bundesbrief.
It’s a quick visit, but a must if you want to learn about Swiss history.
The front of the building has an incredible mural with the 26 cantons represented, all making the “sign of three” – the traditional symbol of Swiss unity.
My favorite document of the whole museum was the treaty with the canton of Glarus. It’s called The Ill Alliance or Der böse Bund. Böse is pronounced “bossy” in English and that should give you an idea of what this treaty entailed. Basically, in 1352, poor Glarus agreed to come to the aid of any canton when asked, but was only guaranteed help “when it was deemed appropriate.” I feel kind of bad we’ve held off seeing Glarus until last.
So, you have all these different fiefdoms run by dukes and earls under Hapsburgian or empiric rule and you need to pull them into one unified country. You need to create a national identity.
One way to do that is to find national heroes and a common villain. The Hapsburgs were the perfect villains, but they needed people with incredible attributes that you can label as SWISS and without having a regional label overshadow their “Swiss-ness.”
Enter into the picture, Herr Wilhelm Tell and his victory over one part of the despised Hapsburg rule.
What’s not to love? Wilhelm Tell embodies the best of everything about being Swiss. Impeccable Marksman. Individualistic. Good Provider. Loving Father. Expert Mountain Climber. Justice-seeking. Good Looking.
Now that is my kind of rallying point.
In the main square of Altdorf, you can climb the bell tower behind that statue of William Tell and his son. They have curated it beautifully and you can read more about the myth, the man, the legend. Including being greeted by a jazz oboe version of The William Tell Overture that is the most hysterical version of any classical piece anywhere. Jazz Oboe, people.
Plus when you reach the top you get the most incredible view.
People from every country love William Tell. Whether he existed or not is irrelevant. His legend was not only used to get the people rise against the oppressive Hapsburgs and form a new nation, it was used to create a national identity; to tell the citizens of a brand-new nation what it means to be Swiss. To make you want to be Swiss.
His story was revived in the 1800s and especially during World War II when Switzerland (and other countries) needed a symbol to encourage the nation to stand firm against the tyranny and despotism that was happening around them. In fact, Rossini wrote The William Tell Overture as part of the opera William Tell in 1829 in the midst of the William Tell revival.
Speaking of WWII, in 1941 Switzerland formed a concept of “Spiritual Defense” and relied on it’s storied past, especially William Tell and Arnold von Winkelried (whom you will meet next time), to bring the country together again against the external threats. It is very convenient, therefore, that Switzerland was able to, in 1941, celebrate its 650 year as a country – 1291 being the year the three canton of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden signed the Letter of Eternal Allegiance and the reason why August 1st is the national holiday of statehood. They even built a statue to help with the mood.
Well, I’m inspired.
But in all seriousness, it doesn’t matter if Wilhelm Tell ever existed because all the traits that he embodies and emotions he evokes exist. Now, I could be saying that to prevent the undoing of hundreds of years of nation building, but I’m not. He makes all those “Swiss Traits” seem achievable and attainable. He inspires and uplifts and that’s what he is meant to do.
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