The legend of William Tell

17 February 2008
The legend of William Tell

William Tell is one of the universal symbols of the victory of the oppressed over the oppressor. Is it possible that William Tell, the very symbol of Swiss independence, never existed?

It is 1291 and the story begins at a time when Austria—a foreign power—ruled the cantons of Uri, Schwytz and Unterwald, now forming part of central Switzerland. The local population was obliged to show allegiance to the Austrian Emperor’s representative, Gessler, by saluting his hat attached to a pole in the centre of Altdorf, the capital of Uri. William Tell, motivated by his deep-seated desire for equality and liberty, refused to do so. He was arrested and challenged by Gessler to shoot an arrow from a crossbow at an apple placed on his son’s head. In successfully hitting the apple and not his son, Tell demonstrates the courage and skill of the common people in the face of the tyrant’s authority.

But the story does not end there. Tell had kept in reserve a second arrow. Gessler noticed this and asked him what it was for. He promises to let Tell go free if he states the truth. So, naively, Tell states that, if he had hit and killed his son, the second arrow was intended for Gessler. The latter reneges on his promise and condemns Tell “never to see the light of the sun or the moon again”. While Tell is taken across the lake on a boat towards the prison, a violent storm breaks out. The only person on board the boat with the skills necessary to save them is Tell, so to avoid drowning the occupants of the boat give him the helm. Seizing his chance, he steers the boat towards a rock, leaps out and pushes the boat away with his foot. Once again, the local man has used his cunning and knowledge to humble the oppressor.

Gessler has tried to humiliate Tell by forcing him to put his son’s life in danger, he has betrayed a promise and attempted to put Tell in prison. So Gessler must pay. With his celebrated second arrow Tell now kills Gessler. Tell has taken the law into his own hands and liberated his people at the same time. This is the signal for a general revolt led by Tell and culminating in the birth of the Swiss nation with the “Sermon of the Gr?tli” in this same year—1291.

Is that all very clear? Well, not exactly. There is no written account of these events dating from 1291, nor for many, many years after this date. The first description of these exploits was written in about 1470 by a village councillor, Hans Schriber, who wanted to set down the traditional oral tale about the origins of the first Swiss cantons. This is nearly two hundred years later! In this account the hero is called Der Thall, which means “simpleton” in the local dialect. Was it a coincidence that this manuscript was written at the time of the Battle of Morat when the Swiss army defeated another oppressor—a time when the country needed heroes?

The account written by Schriber was then issued in printed form in 1507 in the city of Lucerne. Surprisingly, the publisher, Petermann Etterlin, now gives the hero a first name—“William”!

But the most artfully presented form of the legend appears in the “Chronicon helveticum” written by Aegidius Tschudi in 1570. He tells us that he wrote it in a style “to please everybody” and researchers have since discovered that he either invented or fabricated documents to support his version. Although Tschudi’s text would not be printed until 1736, this is the source of all subsequent stories about William Tell.

Tschudi’s account was used as a main source for the History of Switzerland written by Jean de Muller in 1778. Rather like Tschudi, de Muller was a master at presenting myth as historical fact. The German poet Schiller then took Tschudi’s account and turned it into his last play, William Tell produced by Goethe in Weimar in 1804. Schiller’s masterpiece, strongly influenced by the concepts of the French Revolution, has been described as “magnificent, sober, noble and grand”. Even today, in the eyes of the Swiss, Schiller’s play is closer to the truth than the traditional story. An example, if ever there was one, of the power of the pen.

As the image of William Tell was taking on its definitive form, literary critics were beginning to demolish it. In 1760 an obscure village priest in the canton of Berne published (anonymously) a pamphlet pointing out that the story of William Tell was, in fact, originally a Danish legend! This caused great outrage, particularly in Uri. In the same year, the original document of the Gr?tli pact of 1291 was discovered in the archives of the canton of Schwytz. The name of Tell does not appear on it!

The legend suffered a further blow in 1832 when an archivist, Joseph Kopp, published a document to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the entry of the canton of Lucerne into the Swiss Confederation. He found, first, that there was not a shred of evidence to suggest that Tell had ever existed; and second, far from being a tyrannical despot, Gessler had been a remarkably able and just governor.

But the coup-de-gr?ce came in 1947, when the historian Helmut de Boor showed that the traditional tales corresponding to this legend originated in Nordic countries in the tenth and eleventh centuries. The same story can be found in Norway, Denmark, Sweden and … Iceland! As far as Switzerland is concerned, identical events are supposed to have taken place much later—in the thirteenth century.

There now exists the paradoxical situation that the historians have proven beyond any doubt that William Tell never existed, while in popular opinion—not to mention for very sound commercial reasons—he is the very incarnation of Swiss democratic ideals.