We all know the basics of the legend of William Tell: he shot an apple of his son’s head. However, there is much more to this hero from Switzerland, be it fact of fiction, his tale is one of heroism, bravery and the courage to stand against tyranny.
There are several accounts of the story of William Tell, this one is perhaps the most famous.
We must go back into time, the early 14th century. William Tell was a noted marksman with the crossbow, his talent with a crossbow was only matched by his legendary strength and his skill as a mountain climber. In Switzerland during this time, these were useful talents to have.
During this time, the Habsburg emperors from Austria were trying to increase their influence into this area. Gessler was the newly appointed Austrian Vogt (or advocate or mayor) for the village of Altdorf.
Gessler wanted to flaunt his new acquired power, so he placed his hat upon a pole in the village’s central squire. People who walked by, was to bow in a sign of homage to Gessler’s hat, which was a symbolic representation of his authority. William Tell when he passed did not bow.
William Tell was arrested. Gessler was told of Tell’s marksmanship, so he decided to test it. As a punishment for his defiance, Tell was sentenced to shoot an apple off his son’s head. If he succeeded, he would be set free.
Taking two quarrels (arrow for crossbow), with one and shot the arrow of his son’s head. Gessler asked Tell why he had taken two arrows from the quiver. Tell informed him that if he had missed the apple and killed his own son, the 2nd quarrel was going to be used on him (Gessler).
Furious, Gessler ordered William Tell to be taken to prison. It was on this voyage that another mythical feat is associated to him. The ship carrying Tell, encountered a severe storm and the crew had trouble steering. Knowing he possessed legendary strength, they unchained William Tell, and placed him at the rudder or the ship, in hope he could steer the vessel.
William Tell seized this opportunity, and using his agility and his skill as a mountain climber, jumped from the boat onto a large rock near shore. Knowing where Gessler was heading, Tell ran cross country and set an ambush for him. Using the same quarrel he had saved previously, he shot Gessler through the heart. This death rallied the population, and soon they rebelled/ William Tell also played a major part in this rebellion.
Years later, William Tell dies trying to save a young girl from drowning in the Schächenbach River.
The story of William Tell has influenced generations. It is a tale of a hero who must use his gifts in fighting tyranny. This story has been told and retold over generations and has influenced every form of media. There are statues dedicated to him throughout Switzerland and even a small chapel on the banks of the Lake Lucerne where he was supposed to of made his legendary jump from the ship to shore. We must even include famous music which people erroneously think was written for the Lone Ranger.
I consider myself a part-time historian; I like to research about cultures and civilizations long since passed. One problem with too many historians, is that they concentrate too much on dates and facts. History is not about what happened at a specific time, it is about the people who lived through those times.
One of my favorite lines from a movie is from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962) directed by the great John Ford. The line is; "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
William Tell, may have been real, he may have been fictitious; this is not important. William Tell, alive or imaginary, was a symbol: A symbol used by oppressed people who were seeking a path to freedom. The story of William Tell rallied people and gave them the courage to come together and fight tyranny. Sometimes a symbol is more important than flesh and blood.