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William Tell from Bürglen was known as an expert marksman with the crossbow. At the time, the Habsburg emperors were seeking to dominate Uri. Hermann Gessler, the newly appointed Austrian bailiff of Altdorf raised a pole in the village's central square with his hat on top and demanded that all the local townsfolk bow before it. As Tell passed by without bowing, he was arrested. He received the punishment of either successfully shooting an apple off the head of his son, or dying.
Tell had been promised freedom if he shot the apple. On November 18, 1307, Tell split the fruit with a single bolt from his crossbow, without mishap. When Gessler queried him about the purpose of the second arrow in his quiver, Tell answered that if he had ended up killing his son in that trial, he would have turned the crossbow on the bailiff. Gessler became enraged at that comment, and had Tell bound and brought to his ship to be taken to his castle at Küssnacht . In a storm on Lake Lucerne, Tell managed to escape. On land, he went to Küssnacht, and when Gessler arrived, he shot him with a crossbow bolt.
This defiance of the Austrian reeve sparked a rebellion, leading to Switzerland's independence.
The history of the legend
The legend of William Tell appears first in the 15th century, in two different versions. One version, found e.g. in a popular ballad from around 1470 and then in the chronicles of Melchior Russ from Lucerne (written 1482 to 1488) portrays Tell as the main actor of the independence struggles of the founding cantons of the Old Swiss Confederacy; the other, found in the Weisse Buch von Sarnen of 1470, sees Tell as a minor character in a complot against the Habsburgs led by others. Aegidius Tschudi , a catholic conservative historian, merged these two earlier accounts into the myth summarized above in 1570.
The story of a hero successfully shooting a small object from his child's head and then killing the tyrant who forced him to do it, however, is an archetype present in several germanic myths. The motif also appears in other stories from Denmark, England, and Holstein. François Guillimann , a statesman of Fribourg and later historian and advisor of the Habsburg emperor Rudolph II, wrote to Melchior Goldast in 1607: "I followed popular belief by reporting certain details in my Swiss antiquities [published in 1598], but when I examine them closely the whole story seems to me to be pure fable." () In 1760, Simeon Uriel Freudenberger from Berne anonymously published a tract arguing that the legend of Tell in all likelihood was based on the Danish saga of Palnatoke. (A French edition of his book, written by Gottlieb Emmanuel von Haller , was burnt in Altdorf.)
This view remained very unpopular, however. Friedrich von Schiller used Tschudi's version as the basis for his play William Tell in 1804, interpreting Tell as a glorified patriot assassin. This interpretation became very popular especially in Switzerland, where the Tell figure was instrumentalized in the early 19th century as a "national hero" and identification figure in the new Helvetic Republic and also later on in the beginnings of the Schweizerische Eidgenossenschaft, the modern democratic federal state that developed then. When the historian Joseph Eutych Kopp in the 1830s dared to question the reality of the legend, an effigy of him was burnt on the Rütli, the meadow above Lake Lucerne where—according to the legend—the oath was sworn that concluded the original alliance between the founding cantons of the Swiss confederacy.
Historians continued to argue over the saga until well into the 20th century. Wilhelm Öchsli published in 1891 a scientific account of the founding of the confederacy (commissioned by the government for the celebration of the first National holiday of Switzerland on August 1, 1891), and clearly dismissed the story as a saga. Yet 50 years later, in 1941, a time where Tell again had become national identification figure, the historian Karl Meyer tried to connect the events of the saga with known places and events. Modern historians generally consider the saga just that, as neither Tell's nor Gessler's existence can be proven. The legend also tells of the Burgenbruch, a coordinated uprising including the slighting of many forts; however, archeological evidence shows that many of these forts were abandoned and destroyed already long before 1307/08.
In popular culture, William Tell lives on as a "real" hero, though. He is still a powerful identification figure, and according to a recent survey, 60% of the Swiss believe that he really lived.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe learned of the Tell saga during his travels through Switzerland between 1775 and 1795. He got hold of a copy of Tschudi's chronicles, and considered writing a play about Tell. Ultimately, he gave the idea to his friend Friedrich von Schiller, who in 1803-04 wrote the play Wilhelm Tell, which had its debut performance on March 17, 1804, in Weimar. Schiller's Tell is heavily inspired by the political events in the late 18th century, the French revolution in particular.
- Öchsli, W.: Die Anfänge der Schweizerischen Eidgenossenschaft; Zürich, 1891.
- Salis, J.-R. v. : Ursprung, Gestalt, und Wirkung des schweizerischen Mythos von Tell; Berne, 1973. (In German.)
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