In Search of William Tell | History | Smithsonian
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In Search of William Tell

Seven hundred years ago, William Tell shot an arrow through an apple on his son's head and launched the struggle for Swiss independence. Or did he?

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In the center of the town square stands a heroic bronze figure, a stern, sturdy, bearded man in homespun clothes, crossbow over his shoulder, his arm around a barefooted boy. Before him stands another stern, sturdy man, this one in a neat business suit, respectfully silent, with his arm around another small boy, this one wearing Reebok running shoes. The man points to the ground. “This,” he tells the boy, “is the spot.”

The boy nods. He knows what spot this is: the birthplace of their country. He knows that the bronze statue is of William Tell, who with one shot of his crossbow started the centurieslong series of events that turned a few isolated settlements of poor, backward medieval mountaineers into the prosperous modern nation of Switzerland. He has heard the story of William Tell at his bedside and in the classroom. He has seen it on television and in comic books and acted out at country fairs and in school theatricals. He knows that here, many hundreds of years ago—in a.d. 1307, according to the statue’s inscription— Tell, a local farmer and famous hunter, came striding with his son through the market square of Altdorf, then as now the only town of any size in the canton of Uri.

In the center of the town square those many years ago, bailiff Gessler, agent of the Hapsburg duke of Austria, placed a Hapsburg hat on a pole and, to the blare of trumpets, announced that all passersby must uncover their heads before it. But William Tell of Uri kept his hat on his head. He was promptly dragged before Gessler, who ordered an apple placed on the head of Tell’s son and told the farmer that if he failed to shoot it off with a single arrow at a distance of 120 paces, both he and the boy would be put to death.

Tell paced off the distance, loaded and aimed his crossbow, shot his arrow, and the apple fell. “Your life is now safe,” Gessler said to him, “but kindly tell me why I saw you putting a second arrow inside your jacket?”

“If my first arrow had killed my son,” Tell answered, “I would have shot the second at you, and I would not have missed.”

Enraged, Gessler ordered Tell bound, carried down to LakeLucerne and thrown on a boat that would take him to a dungeon in the grim castle of Küssnacht. There, he declared, “You will never more see sun or moon.”

Today, the square in Altdorf where all this took place is the first stop in a pilgrimage that takes contemporary Swiss fathers and sons, not to mention thousands of tourists of many nationalities, to the chapel built on the site of Tell’s home in the village of Bürglen, then on to the landing where Gessler and his prisoner set off on the treacherous waters of Lake Lucerne. Next, a few miles to the east, visitors come to a spot on the lake’s south shore where a steep path descends to a flat rock by the water’s edge known as Tellsplatte—Tell’s ledge. It was here that Tell, released from his bonds when a violent wind sprang up and he was the only man aboard with the strength to bring the boat to safety, steered close to the rock, leapt ashore and, with a mighty kick, sent Gessler and his crew back into the waves.

Calculating that the men would somehow reach shore, Tell made his way 20 miles through dark forests and over mountain passes to the Hohle Gasse (narrow pass), a sunken road leading to Küssnacht. There he hid behind a tree, waited for Gessler and shot him dead with that famous second arrow. Finally, modern pilgrims return to the lake, to a bank on the shore opposite Tell’s ledge. Here, after killing Gessler, Tell met in a forest meadow, known today as Rütli, with three other men from neighboring cantons who had been wronged by the bailiff or by other hired hands of the Hapsburgs. The four swore an oath, which Swiss boys know by heart: “To assist each other with aid and every counsel and every favor, with person and goods, with might and main, against one and all, who may inflict on them any violence, molestation or injury, or may plot any evil against their persons or goods.” Then orders were given for mountaintop bonfires to signal the start of a war of national liberation and the destruction of castles like Gessler’s, built by the Austrians to awe the natives.

Tell’s story is cherished by the Swiss and central to their sense of origins—witness the image of Tell’s crossbow stamped on every item of export that passes Switzerland’s borders, as proof that it is truly made in Switzerland. The tale’s popular celebration continues undimmed: this summer, for example, a special festival in and around Altdorf marks the 200th anniversary of the première of German dramatist Friedrich von Schiller’s William Tell, a box office smash (directed on its opening night in March 1804 by Schiller’s friend Johann Wolfgang von Goethe) that spread Tell’s inspirational story far and wide.

There is just one small problem: many historians doubt that Tell ever made those two famous arrow shots in 1307, and many are convinced that no such person as William Tell ever existed.

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