The legend of
At the end of the 13th century
the sheriff of Habsburg tyrannized and subdued the people who lived in the
area that we today call Switzerland. The most cruel of them all was
Gessler who used extremely humiliating methods -- peacock feathers.
Gessler had placed his hat, decorated with peacock feathers, on a pole at
the marketplace of Altdorf and announced that every man who passed it
should fall down on his knees as a sign of appreciation and reverence. One
day William Tell, a hunter from the nearby valley of Schächen, passed the
market-place with his son Walter without paying attention to the hat.
Gessler had him arrested immediately and told him that his only chance to
stay alive was if he could hit the apple that Gessler had placed on the
head of his son Walter- with a cross-bow. Tell's arrow hit the apple and,
when Gessler saw that Tell had brought a second arrow, he asked why. Tell
replied that it was intended for Gessler if he had hit his son instead of
the apple. Gessler was furious, had Tell dragged on to his boat which was
ready for departure to his castle in Küssnacht at the north-western shores
of Lake Lucerne. Suddenly there was a raging storm and the boat was close
to heeling over. Gessler got scared to death and decided to release Tell
from his fetters hoping that he could save them all with his strong arms.
Tell stood in towards land and some rock that he knew near Sisikon. He
escaped at one single bound. The boat drove on and Tell knew that he was
lost. Therefore he hurried to Küssnacht where he hid in a bush near the
gorge that led to Gessler's castle. When Gessler arrived Tell hit him with
an arrow straight through his heart.
The classic form of the legend appears in the Chronicon
Helveticum (1734-36), by Gilg Tschudi, which gives November 1307 as the
date of Tell's deeds and New Year 1308 as the date of Switzerland's
liberation. There is no evidence, however, for the existence of Tell; but
the story of the marksman's test is widely distributed in folklore. These
events supposedly helped spur the people to rise up against Austrian rule,
resulting in the Confederation of Helvetica which we today call
Switzerland; "Land of the Schwyzers". Schwyz was one of the three original
cantons that swore the oath and formed the confederation in 1291 on the
Rütli. The other original cantons was Uri and Unterwalden.
In the early Romantic era of nationalist revolutions, the Tell legend
attained worldwide renown through the stirring play "Wilhelm Tell (1804)"
by the German dramatist Friedrich von Schiller. Later, Rossini composed
the music for an opera based on this play.