William Tell (in the four languages of Switzerland: German: Wilhelm Tell; French: Guillaume Tell; Italian: Guglielmo Tell; Romansh: Guglielm Tell) is a folk hero of Switzerland. His legend is recorded in a late 15th-century Swiss illustrated chronicle. It is set in the time of the original foundation of the Old Swiss Confederacy in the early 14th century. According to the legend, Tell—an expert marksman with the crossbow—assassinated Gessler, a tyrannical reeve of Habsburg Austria positioned in Altdorf, Uri.
Several accounts of the Tell legend exist. The earliest sources give an account of the apple shot, Tell’s escape, and the ensuing rebellion. The assassination of Gessler is not mentioned in the Tellenlied but is already present in the White Book of Sarnen account.
The legend as told by Tschudi (ca. 1570) essentially follows the account in the White Book, but adds further detail, such as Tell’s given name Wilhelm, his being from Bürglen, and the precise date of the apple-shot of 18 November 1307.
William Tell was known as a strong man, a mountain climber, and an expert shot with the crossbow. In his time, the Habsburg emperors of Austria were seeking to dominate Uri, and Tell became one of the conspirators of Werner Stauffacher, vowing to resist Habsburg rule. Gessler, the newly appointed Austrian Vogt of Altdorf, raised a pole under the village lindentree, hung his hat on top of it, and demanded that all the townsfolk bow before the hat.
On 18 November 1307, Tell visited Altdorf with his young son and passed by the hat, publicly refusing to bow to it, and was arrested. Gessler—intrigued by Tell’s famed marksmanship but resentful of his defiance—devised a cruel punishment. Tell and his son were to be executed. However, he could redeem his life by shooting an apple off of his son, Robert’s head in a single attempt. Tell split the apple with a bolt from his crossbow.
Gessler then noticed that Tell had removed two crossbow bolts from his quiver. Before releasing him, he asked why. Tell was reluctant to answer, but after Gessler promised he would not kill him, he replied that if he had killed his son, he would have killed Gessler with the second bolt. Gessler was furious and ordered Tell to be bound, saying that he had promised to spare his life, but instead would imprison him for the remainder of his life.
Tell was brought to Gessler’s boat to be taken to the dungeon in the castle at Küssnacht. A storm broke on Lake Lucerne, and the guards were afraid that their boat would sink. They begged Gessler to remove Tell’s shackles so he could take the helm and save them. Gessler gave in and Tell leapt from the boat at the rocky site, already known in the “White Book” as the “Tellsplatte” (“Tell’s slab”). Since the 16th century the site has been marked by a memorial chapel.
Tell ran cross-country to Küssnacht. As Gessler arrived, Tell assassinated him with the second crossbow bolt along a stretch of the road cut through the rock between Immensee and Küssnacht, now known as the Hohle Gasse. Tell’s blow for liberty sparked a rebellion in which he played a leading part, leading to the formation of the Old Swiss Confederacy.
According to Tschudi, Tell fought again against Austria in the 1315 Battle of Morgarten. Tschudi also has an account of Tell’s death in 1354, according to which he was killed trying to save a child from drowning in the Schächenbach river in Uri.
Earliest mentions (15th century)
The first reference to William Tell appears in the White Book of Sarnen (German: Weisses Buch von Sarnen). This volume was written in c. 1474 by a country scribe named Hans Schreiber. It mentions the Rütli oath (German: Rütlischwur) and names Tell as one of the conspirators of the Rütli, whose heroic tyrannicide triggered the Burgenbruch rebellion.
An equally early account of Tell is found in the Tellenlied, a song composed in the 1470s, with its oldest extant manuscript copy dating to 1501. The song begins with the Tell legend, which it presents as the origin of the Confederacy, calling Tell the “first confederate“. The narrative includes Tell’s apple-shot, his preparation of a second arrow to shoot Gessler, and his escape, but it does not mention any assassination of Gessler.
Early Modern period
Further reference to William Tell is found in Petermann Etterlin‘s Chronicle of the Swiss Confederation (German: Kronika von der loblichen Eydtgenossenschaft). Etterlin’s 1507 chronicle is the earliest printed version of the Tell story.
An account of William Tell’s deeds is also given in the chronicle of Melchior Russ from Lucerne. This book, which its author dates to 1482, is an incoherent compilation of older writings, including the Song of the Founding of the Confederation, Conrad Justinger‘s Bernese Chronicle, and the Chronicle of the State of Bern (in German, Chronik der Stadt Bern).
The version of the legend compiled by Aegidius Tschudi from Glarus in his monumental Chronicon Helveticum (ca. 1570) became the major model for later writers dealing with William Tell. Not only did Tschudi’s chronicle become the main source for Johannes von Müller‘s History of the Swiss Confederation (German: Geschichte Schweizerischer Eidgenossenschaft, 1780), it also served as a model for Friedrich Schiller‘s play William Tell (1804). Tschudi is known to have manipulated documents.
A widespread veneration of Tell, including sight-seeing excursions to the scenes of his deeds, can be ascertained for the early 16th century. Heinrich Brennwald in the early 16th century mentions the chapel (Tellskapelle) on the site of Tell’s leap from his captors’ boat. Tschudi mentions a “holy cottage” (heilig hüslin) built on the site of Gessler’s assassination. Peter Hagendorf, a soldier in the Thirty Years’ War, mentions a visit to ‘the chapel where William Tell escaped’ in his diary.
The church of Bürglen had a bell dedicated to Tell from 1581, and a nearby chapel has a fresco dated to 1582 showing Tell’s death in the Schächenbach.
The Three Tells
The Three Tells (die Drei Tellen, also die Drei Telle) were symbolic figures of the Swiss Peasant War of 1653. They expressed the hope of the subject population to repeat the success story of the rebellion against Habsburg in the early 14th century.
By the 18th century, the Drei Tellen had become associated with a sleeping hero legend. They were said to be asleep in a cave at the Rigi. The return of Tell in times of need was already foretold in the Tellenlied of 1653 and symbolically fulfilled in the impersonation of the Three Tells by costumed individuals, in one instance culminating in an actual assassination executed by these impersonators in historical costume.
Tell during the 16th century had become closely associated and eventually merged with the Rütlischwur legend, and the “Three Tells” represented the three conspirators or Eidgenossen Walter Fürst, Arnold von Melchtal and Werner Stauffacher.
The first impersonators of the Three Tells were Hans Zemp, Kaspar Unternährer of Schüpfheim and Ueli Dahinden of Hasle. They appeared at a number of important peasant conferences during the war, symbolizing the continuity of the present rebellion with the resistance movement against the Habsburg overlords at the origin of the Swiss Confederacy. Unternährer and Dahinden fled to the Entlebuch alps before the arrival of the troops of general Sebastian Peregrin Zwyers; Zemp escaped to the Alsace. After the suppression of the rebellion, the peasants voted for a tyrannicide, directly inspired by the Tell legend, attempting to kill the Lucerne Schultheiss Ulrich Dulliker.
Dahinden and Unternährer returned in their roles of Tells, joined by Hans Stadelmann replacing Zemp. In an ambush, they managed to injure Dulliker and killed a member of the Lucerne parliament, Caspar Studer. The assassination attempt—an exceptional act in the culture of the Old Swiss Confederacy—was widely recognized and welcomed among the peasant population, but its impact was not sufficient to rekindle the rebellion.
Even though it did not have any direct political effect, its symbolic value was considerable, placing the Lucerne authorities in the role of the tyrant (Habsburg and Gessler) and the peasant population in that of the freedom fighters (Tell). The Three Tells after the deed went to mass, still wearing their costumes, without being molested. Dahinden and Unternährer were eventually killed in October 1653 by Lucerne troops under Colonel Alphons von Sonnenberg. In July 1654, Zemp betrayed his successor Stadelmann in exchange for pardon and Stadelmann was executed on 15 July 1654.
The Three Tells appear in a 1672 comedy by Johann Caspar Weissenbach. The “sleeping hero” version of the Three Tells legend was published in Deutsche Sagen by the Brothers Grimm in 1816 (no. 298).
|This section needs additional citations for verification. (November 2011) (Learn how and when to remove this template message)|
Antoine-Marin Lemierre wrote a play inspired by Tell in 1766 and revived it in 1786. The success of this work established the association of Tell as a fighter against tyranny with the history of the French Revolution.
The French revolutionary fascination with Tell was reflected in Switzerland with the establishment of the Helvetic Republic. Tell became, as it were, the mascot of the short-lived republic, his figure being featured on its official seal. The French Navy also had a Tonnant class ship of the line named Guillaume Tell, which was captured by the British Royal Navy in 1800.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe learned of the Tell saga during his travels through Switzerland between 1775 and 1795. He obtained a copy of Tschudi’s chronicles and considered writing a play about Tell, but ultimately gave the idea to his friend Friedrich von Schiller, who in 1803–04 wrote the play Wilhelm Tell, first performed on March 17, 1804, in Weimar. Schiller’s Tell is heavily inspired by the political events of the late 18th century, the French and American revolutions, in particular. Schiller’s play was performed at Interlaken (the Tellspiele) in the summers of 1912 to 1914, 1931 to 1939 and every year since 1947. In 2004 it was first performed in Altdorf itself.
Gioachino Rossini used Schiller’s play as the basis for his 1829 opera William Tell. The William Tell Overture is one of his best-known and most frequently imitated pieces of music; in the 20th Century, the “coda” of the Overture became the theme for the radio, television, and motion picture incarnations of The Lone Ranger, a fictional American Frontier hero.
In 1836 the first William Tell patterned playing cards were produced in Pest, Hungary. They were inspired by Schiller’s play and made during tense relations with the ruling Habsburgs. The cards became popular throughout the Austrian Empire during the Revolution of 1848.
In 1858, the Swiss Colonization Society, a group of Swiss and German immigrants to the United States, founded its first (and only) planned city on the banks of the Ohio River in Perry County, Indiana. The town was originally dubbed Helvetia, but was quickly changed to Tell City to honor the legendary Swiss hero. The city became known for its manufacturing, especially of fine wood furniture. William Tell and symbols of an apple with an arrow through it are prominent in the town which includes a bronze statue of Tell and his son, based on the one in Altdorf, Switzerland. The statue was erected on a fountain in front of city hall in 1974. Tell City High School uses these symbols in its crest or logo, and the sports teams are called “The Marksmen.” The William Tell Overture is often played by the school’s pep band at high school games. Each August since 1958, Tell City’s centennial year, the town has held “Schweizer Fest,” a community festival of entertainment, stage productions, historical presentations, carnival rides, beer garden, sporting events and class reunions, to honor its Swiss-German heritage. Many of the activities occur on the grounds of City Hall and Main Street, at the feet of the Tell statue.
John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln, was inspired by Tell. Lamenting the negative reaction to his action, Booth wrote in his journal on April 21, 1865 “with every man’s hand against me, I am here in despair. And why; For doing what Brutus was honored for and what made Tell a Hero. And yet I for striking down a greater tyrant than they ever knew am looked upon as a common cutthroat.”
Following a national competition, won by Richard Kissling, Altdorf in 1895 erected a monument to its hero. Kissling casts Tell as a peasant and man of the mountains, with strong features and muscular limbs. His powerful hand rests lovingly on the shoulder of little Walter, but the apple is not shown. The depiction is in marked contrast with that used by the Helvetic Republic, where Tell is shown as a landsknecht rather than a peasant, with a sword at his belt and a feathered hat, bending down to pick up his son who is still holding the apple.
The first film about Tell was made by French director Charles Pathé in 1900; only a short fragment survives. A version of the legend was retold in P.G. Wodehouse‘s William Tell Told Again (1904), written in prose and verse with characteristic Wodehousian flair.
The design of the Federal 5 francs coin issued from 1922 features the bust of a generic “mountain shepherd” designed by Paul Burkard, but due to a similarity of the bust with Kissling’s statue, in spite of the missing beard, it was immediately widely identified as Tell.
Adolf Hitler was enthusiastic about Schiller’s play, quoting it in his Mein Kampf, and approving of a German/Swiss co-production of the play in which Hermann Göring‘s mistress Emmy Sonnemann appeared as Tell’s wife. But on June 3, 1941, Hitler had the play banned. The reason for the ban is not known, but may been related to the failed assassination attempt in 1938 by young Swiss Maurice Bavaud(executed on May 14, 1941, and later dubbed “a new William Tell” by Rolf Hochhuth), or the subversive nature of the play. Hitler is reported to have exclaimed at a banquet in 1942: “Why did Schiller have to immortalize that Swiss sniper!”
Max Frisch in his “William Tell for Schools” deconstructed the legend, portraying the bailiff as a well-meaning administrator suffering from being placed in a barbaric back-corner of the empire, while Tell is a simpleton who stumbles into his adventure by a series of misunderstandings.
Spanish playwright Alfonso Sastre re-worked the legend in 1955 in his “Guillermo Tell tiene los ojos tristes” (William Tell has sad eyes); it was not performed until the Franco regime in Spain ended.
In Schweizer Helden (Unlikely Heroes), a 2014 Swiss film directed by Peter Luisi, a group of immigrant asylum seekers perform a play of Wilhelm Tell. Schweizer Helden received the Prix du Public UBS award at the 2014 Locarno Film Festival.
William Tell lives on as a hero in popular culture. He is still a powerful identification figure, and according to a 2004 survey, 60% of the Swiss believe that he existed.
The historicity of William Tell has been subject to debate. 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 Luzern anonymously published a tract arguing that the legend of Tell in all likelihood was based on the Danish saga of Palnatoki. A French edition of his book, written by Gottlieb Emanuel von Haller (Guillaume Tell, Fable danoise), was burnt in Altdorf.
The skeptical view of Tell’s existence remained very unpopular. Friedrich von Schiller used Tschudi’s version as the basis for his play Wilhelm Tell in 1804, interpreting Tell as a glorified patriot assassin. This interpretation became very popular, especially in Switzerland, where the Tell figure was used in the early 19th century as a “national hero” and identification figure in the Helvetic Republic, and later in the beginnings of the Schweizerische Eidgenossenschaft, the modern democratic federal state that developed. When historian Joseph Eutych Kopp dared to question the legend in the 1830s, his effigy was burnt on the Rütli, a meadow above Lake Lucerne where—according to the legend—the oath was sworn that concluded the alliance between the founding cantons of the Swiss confederacy.
Historians continued to argue over the saga until well into the 20th century. In 1891 Wilhelm Öchsli published 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), dismissing the story as fiction. Still, 50 years later in 1941, when Tell had again become a national identification figure, historian Karl Meyer tried to tie the saga’s events to known places and events. Modern historians generally regard the saga to be fiction, since neither Tell’s nor Gessler’s existence can be proven. The legend also tells of a Burgenbruch, a coordinated uprising including the slighting of many forts; however, archeological evidence shows that many of these forts were abandoned and destroyed long before 1307–1308.
A possible historical basis of the legend was suggested by Arnold Schärer in 1986. He identified a Wilhelm Gorkeit of Tellikon (modern Dällikon in the Canton of Zürich) as the real William Tell. “Gorkeit”, he claimed, was a version of the surname Armbruster (crossbow maker). Historians were not convinced, but the theory was once referred to by Rudolf Keller, at the time president of the nationalistic right Swiss Democrats, on 1 August 2004 in Basel.
The Tell legend has been compared to a number of other myths or legends, specifically in Norse mythology, involving a magical marksman coming to the aid of a suppressed people under the sway of a tyrant. The story of a great outlaw successfully shooting an apple from his child’s head is an archetype present in the story of Egil in the Thidreks saga (associated with the god Ullr in Eddaic tradition) as well as in the stories of Adam Bell from England, Palnatoki from Denmark and a story from Holstein.
Such parallels were pointed out as early as 1760 by Gottlieb Emanuel von Haller and the pastor Simeon Uriel Freudenberger in a short leaflet with the title William Tell, a Danish Fable (German: Der Wilhelm Tell, ein dänisches Mährgen).
Rochholz (1877) connects the similarity of the Tell legend to the stories of Egil and Palnatoki with the legends of a migration from Sweden to Switzerland during the Middle Ages. He also adduces parallels in folktales among the Finns and the Lapps (Sami). From pre-Christian Norse mythology, Rochholz compares Ullr, who bears the epithet of Boga-As (“bow-god”), Heimdall and also Odin himself, who according to the Gesta Danorum (Book 1, chapter 8.16) assisted Haddingus by shooting ten bolts from a crossbow in one shot, killing as many foes. Rochholz further compares Indo-European and oriental traditions and concludes (pp. 35–41) that the legend of the master marksman shooting an apple (or similar small target) was known outside the Germanic sphere (Germany, Scandinavia, England) and the adjacent regions (Finland and the Baltic) in India, Arabia, Persia and the Balkans (Serbia).
The Danish legend of Palnatoki, first attested in the twelfth-century Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus. is the earliest known parallel to the Tell legend. As with William Tell, Palnatoki is forced by the ruler, (in this case King Harald Bluetooth), to shoot an apple off his son’s head as proof of his marksmanship.A striking similarity between William Tell and Palnatoki is that both heroes take more than one arrow out of their quiver. When asked why he pulled several arrows out of his quiver, Palnatoki, too, replies that if he had struck his son with the first arrow, he would have shot King Harald with the remaining two arrows.