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?

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 1)

For one thing, his story wasn’t set down fully until 1569- 70, some 250 years after the events it describes, by historian Aegidius Tschudi, who, among other things, got his dates wrong. In 1758, nearly two centuries after Tschudi’s death, up turned a forgotten copy of the original Oath of Rütli made by the representatives of the three forest cantons, none of whom was named Tell. It was dated “the beginning of August 1291,” so the whole episode had to be moved back 16 years (only Uri remains stubbornly faithful to the old date of 1307). Swiss Independence Day, established officially in 1891, is now celebrated with bonfires on August 1.

Also in the mid-18th century, a Bernese scholar named Gottlieb de Haller read, in an old history of Denmark, a tale involving King Harald Bluetooth, who reigned from 936 to 987, and a Viking chieftain named Toko. One drunken evening Toko boasted that he could do anything with his bow and arrow; he could even shoot an apple off a pike at the other end of the hall. “Good,” said the king. “I will now place an apple on the head of your little son and you will shoot it off.” There was no arguing with a king, so Toko took up his weapon, told the boy to look the other way and shot off the apple. When the king inquired why he had two more arrows inside his vest, Toko replied, “To kill you, sire, had I killed my son.”

Bluetooth took the answer as perfectly normal for a Viking and forgot all about it. But Toko was not a man to forget or forgive and eventually joined the young crown prince Sweyn Forkbeard in revolt against his father. In the course of battle, he came across Bluetooth relieving himself behind a bush and put an arrow through his heart.

De Haller’s subsequent book, William Tell: a Danish Fable, provoked outrage in Switzerland. There was a court action, a copy of the book was publicly burned in the Altdorf square once dominated by the tyrant’s hat, and the author might have been set ablaze himself had he not made abject apologies, saying it was all just a literary exercise, not meant to be taken seriously.

But the door was now wide open for skeptics, and other scholars rushed in. They discovered there had been no organized uprising in the forest cantons after the Oath of Rütli, that the castles had been sacked either well before or well after 1291, and that, in fact, there was no documentary evidence that a man named William Tell had ever lived, let alone shot an apple off anyone’s head. They concluded that Tell was a fictional character based on muddled memories or ancient legend. The most recent comprehensive history of Switzerland— a thousand-page tome published in 1988 in French, Italian and German—dismisses Tell in just 20 lines. (Even so, a bronze statue of a heroic Tell graces the book’s cover.)

Jean-François Bergier, a former professor of history at Zürich’s Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and author of what many consider the best Tell biography, Guillaume Tell, concedes that the apple story was likely imported from Scandinavia. But he insists that something very important did happen in the mountains of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden (the latter now split into Obwalden and Nidwalden) around the beginning of the 14th century. There, in a remarkable break with the past, was established the principle that a people could revolt against a great power and constitute themselves as a self-governing entity. And the Swiss federation founded at Rütli, or someplace like Rütli, in 1291 (or 1307) is still going strong after 700 years.

History did unquestionably turn around in those obscure gorges, although exactly how remains a matter of speculation and debate. The ancestors of the inhabitants of these forest cantons—among them Celts, Teutons, Helvetians, Burgundians— had come, in distant centuries, eastward or westward over the great plateaus north of the Alps in search of richer lands to cultivate or to loot, or in hopes of escaping the law. They pushed their way up the narrow Alpine valleys till they came up against sheer rock walls and settled down.

They lived in splendid isolation. Forced to cooperate among themselves, they elected officials at assemblies of landowners. As in mountain communities everywhere, they were bound by a common devotion to their own long-settled ways, and they presented a united front against foreigners on the other side of their mountains.

It all began to change, though, with the climatic warming trend that started around a.d. 1000. As the snow line receded, there was more pastureland and there were more cows to sell. The mountain men began looking for wider markets and found them just over the Alps in Italy. The St. Gotthard pass leading south was easy to navigate, but an impassable gorge blocked access from the north. Sometime in the mid-13th century, somebody—perhaps the men of Uri, who had learned to build sturdy houses on impossibly steep slopes—stretched a bridge across the gorge, changing the economic map of Europe. The St. Gotthard now offered the most convenient route between northern Europe and Italy, and all who traveled that way had to take a three-day journey through Uri, paying the men of the canton for food, shelter and the use of their mules.

But even as Uri was becoming more prosperous, it was torn by internal strife. In desperation, the community appealed, in 1257, to a neighboring nobleman, Count Rudolph von Hapsburg, to settle a feud among warring clans. Only too happy to oblige, Count Rudolph came with a glittering retinue, settled matters between the feuding clans and began poking his nose into everyone’s business. Since his underlings wore the arms of the Hapsburgs and had soldiers to back them up, they soon came to feel that they owned the place. The people resisted, first sullenly, then violently.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus