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Myth of William Tell

By Edited Apr 8, 2016 2 2

No Clear Shot

Many myths and legends carry kernels of truth or historic fact at their cores. 

Others, like the Biblical myth of the Great Flood, are borrowed from earlier literature and/or oral traditions of other cultures (the Noah’s Ark story is taken whole cloth from the much older Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh). 

Some of the more iconic “historic” heroic figures known, however, perhaps never even existed.  Among that group of legends are King Arthur, Robin Hood, and the Swiss patriot and archer, William Tell.

 

William Tell (1554 engraving)

We Are Not
The political map has changed over the millennia.  National identity for many people of the world is a relatively recent concept as well. 

In ancient Greece, although people tended to think of Greek culture and identified themselves as citizens of the peninsula on which they lived, the city-state was to what each citizen owed his or her primary allegiance.   People of Athens first identified themselves as Athenians, not as Greeks.  Spartans were from Sparta, Trojans from Troy.  A unified concept of “country” did not exist then.

Similarly, there was no such thing as a native Italian up until the mid 19th century.  Italy existed for centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire much as ancient Greece did, with independent city-states, kingdoms, and fiefdoms scattered across the Italian peninsula and on the island of Sicily. 

To those living in Italy before unification, they were identified as Venetians (from Venice), Florentines (from Florence), and Genoans (from Genoa, home of Cristoforo Colombo).  These areas were ruled by princes and doges (nobles).  Each was a sovereign entity unto itself, and they often warred with each other.  [Marco Polo, a Venetian, found himself a prisoner of war, captured in a conflict against Genoa after returning from his legendary travels in China.  He was imprisoned in 1298, and it was there he first told, and then dictated, the tales that made him famous.]

The Lombards, an invading group of Germanic people, founded the area in Italy known today as Lombardy.  This loose kingdom fluctuated in its boundaries, expanding and contracting.  Portions of the Lombard kingdom had been conquered by Rome in 56 AD.  Later, sections of this northern Italian Kingdom (combined with Frank territories and Germanic areas) settled into a loosely self-governing group of feudal lands, nestled in the Alpine Mountains of Europe.  The people became known as the Swiss.

Alpine Uprising
In Medieval times this loose Swiss confederacy of self-governed areas, known as “cantons”, lived relatively freely.  Their allegiance was to the Holy Roman Emperor, based in Germany, and to their local nobles.  Their independence had been guaranteed by royal charter.  They did not suffer much from outside influence – their secure position to the north of the Alps meant they were safe from the Lombards in the south and from other barbaric nomads from the east as well.

These independents became threatened, however, by the Hapsburg Family (perhaps one of the greatest of ruling clans ever, their bloodlines live on in almost every royal house and family in Europe and Russia).  The Hapsburgs controlled much of the lands adjacent to the Swiss cantons and set eyes on imperial expansion into the region.  

Deatial map of Uri canton & Lake Lucerne area

From 1254-1273 there was no Holy Roman Emperor on the throne, and the Swiss had no imperial protection from the Hapsburgs.  In 1273 Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph (of the Hapsburg dynasty) was installed as Emperor. 

The Swiss, used to governing themselves, chafed under this threat.  In a prescient move to defend against further Hapsburg incursion the Swiss cantons of Unterwalden, Schwyz, and Uri formed an alliance.  This alliance was recognized later by Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII (reigned from 1308-1313).  It successfully thwarted a Hapsburg invasion in the canton of Schwyz in 1315.  Other cantons joined this early alliance, and defeated Austrian Hapsburg forces years later in 1386.  By 1393, this alliance became the first step toward a Swiss Confederacy. 

Do Tell
Born in Bürglen in the Uri canton into this tumult of 13th and 14th Century political intrigue was a man who would become known globally as a Swiss patriot, historic figure, and hero for the commoner

William Tell was allegedly born in the very late 1200s (no date is reliably recorded).  At this time in Swiss history the Hapsburgs had already started movements toward annexing the Swiss cantons.  In some places, Austrian henchmen were installed in high offices during the time of Hapsburg imperial rule.  Local political postings were favored toward Hapsburg allegiance. 

Into the Uri canton, according to the legend of William Tell, came a local magistrate who functioned as a bailiff.  The alpine village of Altdorf was the political heart of the Uri canton, and the bailiff, or “reeve”, governing the area was an Austrian named Albrecht Gessler.  Gessler was the authority on the ground for the Hapsburgs.

Gessler & Tell (!880 sketch)

The legend reports the newly appointed Gessler had a pole erected in the Altdorf town center.  He then had his own hat placed atop this pole.

This hat was a symbolic representation of Austrian might, and it was required of the Uri citizens to give deference to it as if he or she were in the actual presence of the Duke of Austria (at that time, one of the sons of Emperor Rudolph who had bequeathed the land to the Duke in 1282). 

William Tell, a skilled local archer, accompanied by his son, Walter, nonchalantly bypassed the hat on the pole without bowing.  His lack of obeisance to the hat and, by extension, to the Duke of Austria, caused his immediate arrest on November 18, 1307.  Soldiers who occupied the town dragged William and his son, Walter, to face Gessler, the local Austrian tyrant.

Tell was to be punished (in all likelihood tortured and then executed to make an example of him).  Gessler struck a bargain with Tell, however. 

Having heard of Tell’s skill with the crossbow, and in an inspired bit of cruelty as punishment for his insubordination, Gessler ordered Tell to shoot an apple off Walter’s head at 100 paces (some traditions hold the distance was 80 paces).  If Tell successfully shot the apple without harming the boy, Gessler would set him free to pay obeisance to the hat another day.  If he refused to shoot, Gessler would have both Tell and his son executed.

William Tell (arrow shot)

The group retired to a proper shooting range.  Tell drew two arrows from his quiver; the first crossbow shot cleanly hit the apple on his son’s head. 

Gessler, meanwhile, had noticed that Tell had the second arrow in hand. When he asked Tell the purpose of the second arrow, Tell advised Gessler that had he accidentally killed his son with the

Tell's escape from Gessler (2 scenes)
first bolt, he would have used the second one to kill Gessler.

Gessler was outraged and had Tell bound and placed on one of his ships docked in nearby Lake Lucerne.  He was to be taken to Gessler’s castle at Küssnacht, many miles to the northeast near modern-day Zürich, for further punishment. 

During the voyage on Lake Lucerne a fierce storm arose; Tell’s captors were afraid that their boat would capsize.  They unbound Tell and asked him to pilot the ship over the stormy lake.  Tell made use of the opportunity to escape; in the confusion he drew the boat close enough to land, and he leaped to safety at a site now known as the Tellsplatte.

Tell traveled by land to Gessler’s castle, arriving ahead of him some days later.  When Gessler and his men drew near, Tell ambushed the bailiff on the road between the castle and a nearby village, killing him with an arrow through the heart.  He then made good his escape. 

Tell’s defiance allegedly led to galvanizing the Swiss into revolting against Hapsburg rule. 

Tell died in 1354, while saving a child from drowning in the Schächenbach River in Uri canton. 

No Tell
This is a wonderfully compelling and engaging story, and embodies many heroic elements of revolutionary fervor, the oppressed throwing off their shackles and successfully besting a tyrant.

Sadly, none of it is true.

The earliest appearance of William Tell wasn’t until about 1470 when a folk song of his heroic deeds gained popularity (the song omits his murder of Gessler).  A few years later, and over a century after his “death”,

William Tell (heroic engraving)
Weisses Buch von Sarnen (White Book of Sarnen) was written in 1475 by a country scribe named Hans Schreiber.  It relates William Tell’s exploits, complete with the shooting of the arrow from his son’s head.

Based on the timeline of Tell’s tale, however, the Swiss Confederacy was already throwing off the Hapsburg intrusion by the time of his “birth”. 

Archaeological evidence shows many period insurgent forts and outposts were destroyed or abandoned well before the 1307 William Tell/Albrecht Gessler confrontation. 

This means the Swiss were already in the process of achieving their own independence, and had no need of the “sudden” appearance of a national hero to incite them to revolt.

Likewise, the timeline of known Swiss history does not fit Tell’s lifespan, either.  He could not have been born in the latest years of the 13th Century and participated in a showdown with Gessler as early as 1307: he would have been a teenager or young adult, certainly not old enough to have a 10-year-old son by that time.  [An alternative explanation might be this boy wasn’t Tell’s son but perhaps his younger brother.]

Finally, the crossbow itself perhaps destroys the Tell myth better than any other single thing.  

This weapon had been used by ancient Romans as a secondary firearm; it was perfected in the 12th Century and widely used until the mid 14th Century.  After that time longbows came to be favored. 

It is highly unlikely that this version of the crossbow would be an accurate long-range weapon.  The precision required to hit an object the size of an apple from distances ranging from about 240 feet up to 300 feet (about 73 to 91 meters, as the legend would have one believe) would be unattainable with this crudely crafted device.  Certainly the weapon would be very effective and deadly at short range, but not over greater distances.  [Most artistic renderings have the son apparently but a few yards away from Tell’s firing position – the actual distance given in the tale, however, places Tell’s success beyond the realm of probability.]

Tell’s tale has its roots in other lore, and the “shooting the arrow off a child’s head” motif features in several other myths.  Similar stories of a national heroic marksman arising during a perceived time of crisis live on in many cultures. 

The earliest, predating the Swiss Confederacy by centuries, comes from Old Norse mythology. As proof of Tell’s fictional status, this extract is from a story told in the 12th Century (of Saxon origin, almost two hundred years before Tell’s heroics):

Toko (a knight in the service of his king, Harald Bluetooth), had, by the deeds in which he surpassed his fellow-soldiers, made several enemies of his virtues.

One day, when he had drunk rather much, he boasted to those who were at table with him, that his skill in archery was such that he could hit, with the first shot of an arrow, ever so small an apple set on the top of a wand at a considerable distance.  His detractors hearing these words, lost no time in conveying them to the ears of the king.

But the wickedness of the prince speedily conveyed the confidence of the father to the peril of the son, ordering the sweetest pledge of his life to stand instead of the wand, from whom, if the utterer of the boast did not strike down the apple which was placed on him at the first shot of his arrow, he should with his own head pay the penalty of his idle boast.

. . . [W]hen the youth was led forth, Toko carefully admonished him to receive the whiz of the coming arrow as steadily as possible, with attentive ears, and without moving his head, lest by a slight motion of his body he should frustrate the experience of his well-tried skill.  He made him also, as a means of diminishing his apprehension, stand with his back to him, lest he should be terrified at the sight of the arrow.  He then drew three arrows from his quiver, and the first he shot struck the proposed mark.

Toko then being asked by the king why he had taken so many arrows out of his quiver, when he was to make but one trial with the bow.  

“That I might avenge on thee,” said he, “the error of the first by the points of the others, lest my innocence might hap to be afflicted and thy injustice to go unpunished!”

Toko later kills the king (as Tell killed Gessler).

William Tell is a construct in the same way the United States has its Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty (although neither of these two icons have such a rich back-story).  Uncle Sam is a symbol of American might and right, good in the face of evil; Lady Liberty conveys the sense of freedom for the oppressed. So, too, William Tell became the face of Swiss independence from tyranny. 

In the end, William Tell is a myth, not proven in any meaningful way, nor does anyone with fully-functioning logic skills believe he was real

William Tell (Swiss myth)
any more than rational people now believe King Arthur or Robin Hood were real (although, bizarrely and not surprisingly, over half of Swiss people think Tell was real).

Monuments have been erected to Tell in Switzerland, the places named in his folklore still carry his name (“Tellsplatte”, where he escaped from Gessler, for example).  There is a chapel built on the apocryphal place in the road near Zürich where Tell assassinated Albrecht Gessler (who is likewise not found in any historical record, either).

The myth of William Tell is not supported by any archaeological or historic truth and is drawn from much older traditions.  Regardless, it is still a great tale

William Tell’s exploits (really just shooting an arrow, killing a man, and saving a drowning child) have been conflated to the level of heroics associated with Hercules or Thor.  There are real people who have performed real heroics in history who are not so familiar.  The greatness of Tell’s story, though, is proven by the simple fact that any six-year-old knows of the mythical William Tell and his arrow shot through an apple.  And because of that, William Tell is just as immortal as any other icon. 

That’s the power of a good story.

***

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Comments

Apr 22, 2012 4:05am
Etcetera
I didn't realise that William Tell was yet another myth much like King Arthur. We humans certainly like our myths and heroes.
Apr 22, 2012 6:18pm
vicdillinger
Yes, our world is filled with lies. I feel it is my job to clear things up where I can. I like Tell and his sotry, though, same as I like the Arthurian legends. Thanks for reading.
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Bibliography

  1. "William Tell." Britannica. 2002.
  2. "William Tell." britannica.com. 11/11/2011 <Web >
  3. "William Tell." American Peoples Encyclopedia. 1963.
  4. "Aarne–Thompson classification system." Wikipedia.org. 11/11/2011 <Web >
  5. "Shooting an apple off one's child's head." Wikipedia.org. 11/11/2011 <Web >
  6. "William Tell." Wikipedia.org. 11/11/2011 <Web >
  7. "Lombards & Lombardy." American Peoples Encyclopedia. 1963.
  8. "Switzerland." American Peoples Encyclopedia. 1963.
  9. "Italy." American Peoples Encyclopedia. 1963.
  10. "Hapsburgs." American Peoples Encyclopedia. 1963.
  11. "Marco Polo." American Peoples Encyclopedia. 1963.
  12. "Austria." American Peoples Encyclopedia. 1963.
  13. Kelly Stone "5 Famous People You Won't Believe Didn't Exist." cracked.com. 6/05/2013. 7/05/2014 <Web >

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