Wilhelm Tell is the Swiss national hero and a legendary freedom fighter from Central Switzerland. The poet Friedrich Schiller wrote the famous play of the same name in his late creative period. Mentioned since the 15th century, he became a central figure of identification for various, both conservative and progressive circles in the Swiss Confederation. Since the end of the 19th century, Tell has been regarded as the national hero of Switzerland.
With the opening of the Gotthard Pass at the beginning of the 13th century, the region around Lake Lucerne also became strategically and economically interesting and the Habsburgs increased their claim to ownership of the area. They sent bailiffs into the country who suppressed the people of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden and demanded massive taxes.
Honour to the Reichsvogt Gessler
In 1307, the Habsburgs ruled the central Swiss territories around Lake Lucerne. Their bailiffs were a thorn in the side of the people of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwaldn. Especially the hated Reichsvogt von Altdorf in the canton of Uri. His name was Hermann Gessler.
Gessler demanded from all of Altdorf that you pay your respects to him. So he erects a pole in the middle of the village square and puts his hat over it. Those who passed the hat had to bow as if the bailiff was present in person.
When Wilhelm Tell and his son Walter from Bürglen arrived in Altdorf, they passed the bailiff’s hat with their heads held high. Thereupon they were immediately arrested at Gessler’s behest.
William Tell and the legendary apple shot
William Tell was known as an outstanding crossbow shooter. So Gessler devised a terrible punishment for him. For his misdeed he should shoot an apple from his son’s head. If he hits the apple, he may draw. If the arrow misses the apple or Tell refuses, both he and his son Walter would die.
Tell had no choice but to accept the challenge with a heavy heart. He picked up two arrows, aimed, shot and hit the apple with the first shot. The bailiff Gessler asked Tell why he had taken two arrows. The latter replied pugnaciously: “If I had killed my son, I would have killed you with the second arrow.”
The Reichsvogt was beside himself with rage. He ordered his soldiers to take the marksman to his castle and imprison him there. Gessler’s castle was located in Küssnacht am Rigi. The journey there was by boat across Lake Lucerne.
Freedom on stormy seas
On the way a violent storm came up and forced Gessler and his soldiers to untie Tell. For he was the only one who knew how to steer a boat safely across the lake in such weather conditions.
But Tell used the opportunity to flee. As the boat approached the shore, he jumped out of the boat onto a rock slab, the so-called Tell Plate. In doing so, he pushed himself firmly off the boat so that it floated further out onto the lake.
But Tell didn’t just flee, he still had a score to settle with Gessler and set off for Küssnacht to wait for Gessler. When Gessler finally arrived at Küssnacht, Tell spoke the legendary words “He must come through this hollow alley” (durch diese Hohle Gasse muss er kommen) and shot Tell with his crossbow. The Reichsvogt was dead on the spot and Wilhelm Tell became a national hero. His deed triggered a wave of rebellion and the Swiss finally freed themselves from the clutches of the Habsburgs.
Wilhelm Tell by Friedrich Schiller
Every Swiss knows the legend of Tell. Especially since Friedrich von Schiller turned the story into a dramatic stage play. The world premiere took place at the beginning of the 19th century. And in this country, the play is still one of the most popular of all. The literary work made the national hero of the Swiss Confederation famous all over the world.
Legend or reality?
Whether Wilhelm Tell had ever existed is still unclear today. Also whether the story about the apple shot had effectively taken place in this way, nobody can say for sure. Even among historians it is highly controversial whether Wilhelm Tell is a legend or a true story. For older sources report similar stories with different names, for example in Denmark. But we Swiss don’t really care. With this story we have a great national hero and we are proud of him.
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