; French: Guillaume Tell
Italian: Guglielmo Tell
a legendary hero of disputed historical authenticity who is said to have
lived in the Canton of Uri in Switzerland in the early 14th century.
Print of Gessler and Wilhelm Tell
William Tell from Bürglen was known as an expert marksman with the
crossbow. At the time, the Habsburg emperors were seeking to dominate
Uri. Hermann Gessler, the newly appointed Austrian Vogt of
Altdorf raised a pole in the village's central square with his hat on
top and demanded that all the local townsfolk bow before it. As Tell
passed by without bowing, he was arrested. He received the punishment of
being forced to shoot an apple off the head of his son, Walter, or else
both would be executed.
Tell had been promised freedom if he shot the apple. On November 18,
1307, Tell split the fruit with a single bolt from his crossbow, without
mishap. When Gessler queried him about the purpose of the second bolt in
his quiver, Tell answered that if he had ended up killing his son in
that trial, he would have turned the crossbow on Gessler himself.
Gessler became enraged at that comment, and had Tell bound and brought
to his ship to be taken to his castle at Küssnacht. In a storm on Lake
Lucerne, Tell managed to escape. On land, he went to Küssnacht, and when
Gessler arrived, Tell shot him with the crossbow.
Tell's defiance of Gessler sparked a rebellion leading to the
formation of the Swiss Confederation.
Tell fought in the Battle of Morgarten in 1315. He died in 1354 while
trying to save a child from drowning in the Schächenbach, an alpine
river in Uri.
There is a fresco from 1582 in a chapel in Bürglen showing this scene.
The history of the legend
The first reference to William Tell appears in the
White Book of
Sarnen (German: Weisses Buch von Sarnen). This volume was
written in 1474 by a country scribe called Hans Schriber. It makes
mention of the Rütli oath (German: Rütlischwur), the Burgenbruch and
Tell’s heroic deeds.
Another documentation of Tell’s exploits is the
Song of the
Founding of the Confederation (German: Lied von der Entstehung
der Eidgenossenschaft). This earliest surviving Tell song (German:
Tellenlied) was composed around 1477 by an anonymous poet. It explores
the beginnings of the Swiss Confederation, the expulsion of the foreign
governors as well as the famous episode of Tell shooting at the apple on
his son’s head.
Further reference to William Tell and his adventures is to be found
in Petermann Etterlin’s Chronicle of the Swiss Confederation
(German: Kronika von der loblichen Eydtgenossenschaft).
Etterlin’s chronicle, which was first printed in 1507, is the earliest
printed version of the Tell story.
Another account of William Tell’s deeds is given in the chronicle of
Melchior Russ from Lucerne. This book, which the author dates to 1482,
constitutes nothing more than an incoherent compilation of older
writings such as the Song of the Founding of the Confederation or
Conrad Justinger’s Bernese Chronicle (German: Chronik der
The next reference to William Tell can be found in a Tell play
(German: Tellspiel), whose debut performance was probably held in winter
1512/13 in Altdorf.
This oldest existing written version of a Tell play is known under the
name Urner Tellspiel (German: ‘Tell Play of Uri’).
According to the Swiss historian Jean-François Bergier, Aegidius
Tschudi from Glarus merged several earlier accounts of the William Tell
myth into the story that is summarized above. Tschudi’s monumental work
Chronicon Helveticum (Latin: ‘Swiss Chronicle’), which was
written around 1550, became the major model for later writers dealing
with William Tell. Not only did Tschudi’s chronicle become the main source for
Johannes von Müller’s History of the Swiss Confederation (German:
Geschichte Schweizerischer Eidgenossenschaft), it also served as
a model for Friedrich Schiller's play William Tell (German: Wilhelm Tell).
Other Tell figures
Although the different William Tell stories are not consistent in all
details, they are all constructed around the famous episode of Tell and
the apple (German: Apfelschussszene). However, as the educated patrician
Gottlieb Emmanuel von Haller and the pastor Simeon Uriel Freudenberger
pointed out in 1760 in a short leaflet with the title William Tell, a
Danish Fable (German: Der Wilhelm Tell, ein dänisches Mährgen),
there are many parallels to the Tell story in Nordic literature.
In fact, the story of a great hero successfully shooting an apple
from his child’s head is an archetype present in the story of Egil in
the Thidreks saga as well as in the stories of Adam Bell from England,
Palnetoke from Denmark and a story from Holstein.
The oldest documented Tell figure is a Danish warrior named Toko
whose story appears for the first time in the Gesta Danorum
(Latin: ‘Deeds of the Danes’), a twelfth-century text compiled by Saxo
As with William Tell, Toko is forced by King Harald Bluetooth to shoot
an apple off his son’s head as proof of his marksmanship.
A striking similarity between William Tell and Toko is that both heroes
take more than one arrow out of their quiver.
When asked why he pulled several arrows out of his quiver, Toko, too,
replies that if he had struck his son with the first arrow, he would
have shot King Harald with the remaining two arrows.
François Guillimann, a statesman of Fribourg and later historian and
advisor of the Habsburg emperor Rudolph II, wrote to Melchior Goldast in
1607: "I followed popular belief by reporting certain details in my
Swiss antiquities ,published in 1598, but when I examine them
closely the whole story seems to me to be pure fable.". In 1760,
Simeon Uriel Freudenberger from Luzern anonymously published a tract
arguing that the legend of Tell in all likelihood was based on the
Danish saga of Palnatoke. A French edition of his book, written by
Gottlieb Emmanuel von Haller (Guillaume Tell, Fable danoise), was
burnt in Altdorf.
This view remained very unpopular, however. Friedrich von Schiller
used Tschudi's version as the basis for his play Wilhelm Tell in
1804, interpreting Tell as a glorified patriot assassin. This
interpretation became very popular especially in Switzerland, where the
Tell figure was instrumentalised in the early 19th century as a
"national hero" and identification figure in the new Helvetic Republic
and also later on in the beginnings of the Schweizerische
Eidgenossenschaft, the modern democratic federal state that
developed then. When the historian Joseph Eutych Kopp dared in the 1830s
to question the veracity of the legend his effigy was burnt on the Rütli, the meadow above Lake Lucerne where—according to the
legend—the oath was sworn that concluded the original alliance between
the founding cantons of the Swiss confederacy.
Historians continued to argue over the saga until well into the 20th
century. In 1891 Wilhelm Öchsli published a scientific account of the
founding of the confederacy (commissioned by the government for the
celebration of the first National holiday of Switzerland on August 1,
1891), and dismissed the story as fiction. Yet 50 years later in 1941,
when Tell had again become a national identification figure, the
historian Karl Meyer tried to connect the events of the saga with known
places and events. Modern historians generally consider the saga to be
fiction, as neither Tell's nor Gessler's existence can be proven. The
legend also tells of the Burgenbruch, a coordinated uprising
including the slighting of many forts; however, archeological evidence
shows that many of these forts were already abandoned and destroyed long
In spite of all this, William Tell lives on as a "real" hero in
popular culture. He is still a powerful identification figure, and
according to a recent survey, 60% of the Swiss believe that he really
A possible historical nucleus of the legend was suggested by Schärer
(1986). He identified one Wilhelm Gorkeit of Tellikon (modern Dällikon
in the Canton of Zurich). "Gorkeit" is explained as a version of the
surname Armbruster (crossbow maker). Historians were not
convinced by Schärer's hypothesis, but it is still referred to by the
nationalistic right, who denounce its rejection by academia as an
In modern politics and arts
Antoine-Marin Lemierre wrote a play inspired by Tell in 1766 and
revived it in 1786. The success of this work established the association
of Tell as a fighter against tyranny with the history of the French
The French revolutionary fascination with Tell was reflected in
Switzerland with the establishment of the Helvetic Republic. Tell
became, as it were, the mascot of the short-lived republic, his figure
being featured on its official seal.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe learned of the Tell saga during his
travels through Switzerland between 1775 and 1795. He obtained a copy of
Tschudi's chronicles and considered writing a play about Tell, but
ultimately, gave the idea to his friend Friedrich von Schiller, who in
1803-04 wrote the play Wilhelm Tell, first performed on March 17,
1804 in Weimar. Schiller's Tell is heavily inspired by the political
events of the late 18th century, the French revolution in particular.
Schiller's play was performed at Interlaken (the Tellspiele) in
the summers of 1912 to 1914, 1931 to 1939 and every year since 1947. In
2004 it was first performed in Altdorf itself.
Gioacchino Rossini used Schiller's play as the basis for his 1829
opera William Tell; the William Tell Overture is one of his
best-known and imitated pieces of music.
John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln, was inspired by
Tell. Lamenting the negative reaction to his deed, Booth wrote in his
journal on April 21, 1865 "with every man's hand against me, I am here
in despair. And why; For doing what Brutus was honoured for and what
made Tell a Hero. And yet I for striking down a greater tyrant than they
ever knew am looked upon as a common cutthroat."
Following a national competition, won by Richard Kissling, Altdorf
erected a monument in 1895 to its hero. Kissling casts Tell as a peasant
and man of the mountains, with strong features and muscular limbs. His
powerful hand rests lovingly on the shoulder of little Walter, but the
apple is not shown. The depiction is in marked contrast with that used
by the Helvetic Republic, where Tell is shown as a landsknecht rather
than a peasant, with a sword at his belt and a feathered hat, bending
down to pick up his son who is still holding the apple.
The first film about Tell was made by French director Charles Pathé
in 1900; only a short fragment survives.
The design of the Federal 5 francs coin issued from 1922 features the
bust of a generic "mountain shepherd" designed by Paul Burkard, but due
to a similarity of the bust with Kissling's statue, in spite of the
missing beard, it was immediately widely identified as Tell.
Salvador Dalí painted
The Old Age of William Tell and
William Tell and Gradiva in 1931, and
The Enigma of William Tell
Adolf Hitler was enthusiastic about Schiller's play, quoting it in
his Mein Kampf, and approving of a German/Swiss co-production of
the play where Göring's mistress appeared as Tell's wife; but on June 3,
1941 Hitler had the play banned. The reason for the ban is not known,
but may been related to the failed assassination attempt in 1938 by
young Swiss Maurice Bavaud
(executed on May 14, 1941, and later dubbed "a new William Tell" by Rolf
Hochhuth), or the subversive nature of the play.
Hitler is reported to have exclaimed at a banquet in 1942 "Why did
Schiller have to immortalize that Swiss sniper!".
Max Frisch in his "William Tell for Schools" deconstructed the
legend, portraying the bailiff as a well-meaning administrator suffering
from being placed in a barbaric back-corner of the empire, while Tell is
a simpleton who stumbles into his adventure by a series of
Spanish playwright Alfonso Sastre re-worked the legend in 1955 in his
"Guillermo Tell tiene los ojos tristes" (William Tell has sad eyes); it
was not performed until the Franco regime in Spain ended.
There are many other pictorial and textual references, ranging from a
black humour cartoon by Gary Larson to album covers (e.g. the National
Lampoon's "Greatest Hits" album), song lyrics (e.g. in St. Stephen
from the Grateful Dead and many others), movies such as the 1928 Charlie
Chaplin film The Circus, and even computer games like that in the
Beginner's Guide for the Inform programming language.
The TV series "Crossbow", with Will Lyman as William Tell, broadcast
71 episodes on the Family channel from 1987 to 1990.
Tell City, Perry County, Indiana, USA, is named after William Tell.
In the Senses Fail song, The Priest and the Matador, William Tell's
name is referenced in the line, "I'm the arrow shot straight to hell,
from the bow of William Tell."
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