William Tell, The Man, The Myth, The Legend
William Tell with a crossbow, is forced to hit the apple placed on top of his son's head, according to the legend, on November 18, 1307. Colored woodcut, XVI century. Source: (Photo by Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images).
If you are like most people, the only thing you really know about William Tell was that he shot an apple off someone’s head. While that is a central part of the story, there is much more to William Tell than just fruit and archery. He is a Swiss folk hero who, according to legend, did much more than spear apples with his arrow. He set events in motion that led to the creation of Switzerland as a nation. The only flaw in the story may be that it is fictional. It is quite possible that William Tell never really existed.
William Tell and the Apple
William Tell was said to be a proud, patriotic hunter and farmer from the town of Altdorf. The region at that time was comprised of a lot of small, independent towns and villages, but the Hapsburg Dynasty of Austria was claiming control over the area. In the early 14th century, a representative of the Hapsburgs, Bailiff Gessler, was stationed in Altdorf. He was attempting to throw his weight around and exert his power over the townspeople. To that end, he placed a Hapsburg hat on a pole and, with much fanfare, declared that all passersby would be required to remove their own hat and pay homage to the Hapsburgs. William Tell, who had come into town with his young son, refused. Bailiff Gessler decided to make an example out of Tell. But he picked the wrong man.
Tell was Arrested, but Offered a Proposition
Bailiff Gessler, it seemed, had a vicious and sadistic streak. He ordered Tell to be arrested, but he offered him a deal. If he could shoot an apple off the head of his own young son using his bow and arrow from a distance of 120 paces, he would let him go free. If he failed, Bailiff Gessler said he would have both Tell and his son killed.
William Tell was an Expert Bowman
William Tell was one of the best hunters in the land, but he was uncertain about making the shot. He took two arrows, tucked one in his jacket, and counted off 120 paces. He instructed his son to look down and be still. Tell loaded the arrow into his crossbow, aimed, and shot. The apple with the arrow fell to the ground.
Tell Further Angered the Bailiff
After his successful shot, Bailiff Gessler told William Tell that he was sparing his life, but he couldn’t help but ask why Tell took two arrows and kept the second one in his coat. Tell coldly said, “If my first arrow had struck my son, my second arrow would have found you.” Gessler ordered his men to once again seize Tell. He was tied up and taken by boat across Lake Lucerne to be tossed in the dungeon of the Castle Kussnacht.
Tell’s Daring Escape
On the boat journey across Lake Lucerne, a storm blew in. Gessler and his men untied Tell so that he may help them row the boat to shore. With Tell’s strength, they came to shore on a large, flat rock that became known as Tell’s Ledge. Here, William Tell pulled himself up on the ledge, then kicked the boat back into the stormy water with Gessler and his men still aboard it. But Tell still wasn’t in the clear. He hiked through the forest to a narrow spot in the road that led to the castle. Here, he hid behind a tree and waited. After a time, Gessler and his men came marching along the road. William Tell took that second arrow, the one that was still in his coat pockets, and shot Gessler in the heart.
William Tell Formed an Alliance with Three Others
William Tell’s next move was to join forces with leaders from three neighboring regions. Together, the four men, who met at the Rutli meadow, and swore their oath of alliance to each other, launched a movement to oust the Hapsburgs and establish control over their own united regions. Switzerland was born. Still, to this day, the Swiss feel deeply connected to the story of William Tell and his fight for national freedoms. To them, William Tell is a national hero, but it could be that he never really existed.
The First Scholar to Claim That William Tell was Fictional, Faces Tremendous Backlash
A historian and researcher in the mid-1700s by the name of Gottlieb de Haller noted similarities between the William Tell story and a Danish tale about an interaction between King Harald Bluetooth and a Viking leader named Toko that ended in an apple being shot off Toko’s son’s head. The story even included the detail of the two arrows, so that the archer could kill the King if the first arrow killed his own son. De Haller theorized that the Swiss adopted this story into their own folklore. He even wrote that it was so in his book, William Tell: A Danish Fable. When the book was released in Switzerland, it caused such an outcry that people publically burned the book. A lawsuit was filed in court to stop the sale of the book. De Haller himself may have been lynched but he publically apologized for his misdeed.
Still, Questions Remain
The debate was not entirely put to rest. Scholars noted that the dates are off between historical accounts and the folklore stories. Also, a document containing the original Oath of Rutli doesn’t include William Tell’s name. In fact, there are no historical documents to prove that William Tell was a real person. Whether he was an actual person or a fable, the events that transpired in the meadow of Rutli led the Swiss people to rebel against their oppressors and establish their own national identity some 700 years ago…a real historical event that happened with or without an apple.