William Tell: 700 Years On

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Today marks 700 years since the date traditionally regarded as the day when William Tell shot an apple off the top of his son’s head with a crossbow and kick-started a resolution against the Austrians which led to the founding of Switzerland.

The legend goes that the Austrian Hermann Gessler was appointed vogt (sheriff) of Altdorf. The power went to his head, and he had erected in the town square a wooden pole; Gessler’s hat was placed atop the pole and the townspeople were expected to salute the pole whenever they passed it. Perhaps as an act of defiance, or perhaps because no-one had told him about the new rule, Tell happened to walk through the town square without saluting. Gessler ordered him to be arrested.

Upon hearing of Tell’s reputation as an archer, Gessler decided on a very unusual punishment: for Tell to be ordered to perform a seemingly impossible task, and shoot an apple off his own son’s head from a great distance. If he refused, or failed in the task, both William Sr and William Jr would be executed, but if he passed, they would both be set free.

Tell had no choice but to accept the challenge and asked for a crossbow and two bolts. On 18 Novemeber 1307, he shot the split the fruit in two in what must have been an impressive display of marksmanship.

As he was being set free, Gessler happened to ask why Tell had requested a second bolt. Tell replied that had he missed the arrow, he would have used the other bolt to shoot Gessler. Gessler was understandably upset and asked for Tell to be arrested again and taken by ship to his castle. During a storm, Tell escaped and fled to the castle. When Gessler arrived, Tell shot him with the crossbow; an act of defiance which sparked a Swiss uprising.

There is probably very little historical accuracy in this story, but the dates match up roughly. The Swiss battle for independence from Austria culminated in the Battle of Morgarten in November 1315, where they defeated the army of the ruling Habsburg family of Austria. Switzerland has remained an independent nation ever since (except for a 17 year stint subject to Napolean’s France).

Like Robin Hood and King Arthur, depite questionable historical accuracy, the heroic tale of William Tell has inspired generations of artists, writers and musicians for generations. I leave you with the William Tell Overture (thanks to Wikipedia).