Who was William Tell?

William Tell

Depiction of the apple-shot scene in Sebastian Münster's Cosmographia (1554 edition).

There are several accounts of the Tell legend. The earliest sources give an account of the apple-shot, Tell’s escape and the ensuing rebellion. The assassination of Gessler is not mentioned in the Tellenlied, but is already present in the White Book of Sarnen account.

The legend as told by Tschudi (ca. 1570) goes as follows: William Tell, who originally came from Bürglen, was known as an expert shot with the crossbow. In his time, the Habsburg emperors of Austria were seeking to dominate Uri. Albrecht (or Hermann) Gessler, the newly appointed Austrian Vogt of Altdorf, raised a pole in the village’s central square, hung his hat on top of it, and demanded that all the townsfolk bow before the hat. When Tell passed by the hat without bowing to it, he was arrested. As punishment, he was forced to shoot an apple off the head of his son, Walter. Otherwise, both would be executed.

Tell was promised freedom if he successfully made the shot. On 18 November 1307, Tell split an apple on his son’s head with a bolt from his crossbow. Gessler noticed that before the shot Tell had removed two crossbow bolts from his quiver, not one, and after the shot asked him why. Tell replied that if he had killed his son, he would have used the second bolt on Gessler himself. Gessler was angered, and had Tell bound. He was brought to Gessler’s ship to be taken to his castle at Küssnacht. As a storm broke on Lake Lucerne, the soldiers were afraid that their boat would capsize, and unbound Tell, asking him to steer. Tell made use of the opportunity to escape, leaping from the boat at the site now known as the Tellsplatte.

Tell went by land to Küssnacht, and when Gessler arrived, Tell assassinated him, shooting him with his crossbow as he passed along a narrow stretch of the road from Immensee to Küssnacht, now known as the Hohle Gasse. Tell’s defiance sparked a rebellion, in which he played a leading part. The struggle eventually led to the formation of the Swiss Confederation. He fought again against Austria in the 1315 Battle of Morgarten. Tschudi also has an account of Tell’s death in 1354. He was killed trying to save a child from drowning in the Schächenbach river in Uri.

Earliest mentions (15th century)
Der Apfelschuss. Fresco by Ernst Stückelberg (1831–1903) in the Tellskapelle, Switzerland
The first reference to William Tell appears in the White Book of Sarnen (German: Weisses Buch von Sarnen). This volume was written in 1475 by a country scribe named Hans Schreiber. It makes mention of the Rütli oath (German: Rütlischwur), the Burgenbruch and Tell’s heroic deeds.

A roughly contemporary account of Tell is found in the Tellenlied, a song composed during the 1470s, its oldest extant manuscript copy dating to 1501. This song begins with the Tell legend, which it presents as the origin of the Confederacy, calling Tell the “first confederate”. The narrative presented includes Tell’s apple-shot, his preparation of a second arrow to shoot Gessler in the event of his killing his son, and his escape, but it omits the assassination of Gessler. The text then goes on to enumerate the cantons of the Confederacy, and it was expanded with “current events” in the course of the Burgundy Wars, ending with the death of Charles the Bold in 1477.

Early Modern period
Further reference to William Tell is found in Petermann Etterlin’s Chronicle of the Swiss Confederation (German: Kronika von der loblichen Eydtgenossenschaft). Etterlin’s 1507 chronicle is the earliest printed version of the Tell story.
An account of William Tell’s deeds is also given in the chronicle of Melchior Russ from Lucerne. This book, which its author dates to 1482, is an incoherent compilation of older writings, including the Song of the Founding of the Confederation, Conrad Justinger’s Bernese Chronicle, and the Chronicle of the State of Bern (in German, Chronik der Stadt Bern).
The version of the legend compiled by Aegidius Tschudi from Glarus in his monumental Chronicon Helveticum (ca. 1570) 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, 1780), it also served as a model for Friedrich Schiller’s play William Tell (1804).  Tschudi is known to have manipulated documents.

Comparative mythology
The Tell legend has been compared to a number of other myths or legends, specifically in Norse mythology, involving a magical marksman coming to the aid of a suppressed people under the sway of a tyrant. 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 (associated with the god Ullr in Eddaic tradition) as well as in the stories of Adam Bell from England, Palnatoki from Denmark and a story from Holstein. Such parallels were pointed out as early as 1760 by Gottlieb Emmanuel von Haller and the pastor Simeon Uriel Freudenberger in a short leaflet with the title William Tell, a Danish Fable (German: Der Wilhelm Tell, ein dänisches Mährgen).

Rochholz (1877) connects the similarity of the Tell legend to the stories of Egil and Palnatoki with the legends of a migration from Sweden to Switzerland during the Middle Ages. He also adduces parallels in folktales among the Finns and the Lapps (Sami). From pre-Christian Norse mythology, Rochholz compares Ullr, who bears the epithet of Boga-As (“bow-god”), Heimdall and also Odin himself, who according to the Gesta Danorum (Book 1, chapter 8.16) assisted Haddingus by shooting ten bolts from a crossbow in one shot, killing as many foes. Rochholz further compares Indo-European and oriental traditions and concludes (pp. 35–41) that the legend of the master marksman shooting an apple (or similar small target) was known outside the Germanic sphere (Germany, Scandinavia, England) and the adjacent regions (Finland and the Baltic) in India, Arabia, Persia and the Balkans (Serbia).

The Danish legend of Palnatoki, first attested in the twelfth-century Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus is the earliest known parallel to the Tell legend. As with William Tell, Palnatoki is forced by the ruler, (in this case King Harald Bluetooth) to shoot an apple off his son’s head as proof of his marksmanship. A striking similarity between William Tell and Palnatoki is that both heroes take more than one arrow out of their quiver. When asked why he pulled several arrows out of his quiver, Palnatoki, too, replies that if he had struck his son with the first arrow, he would have shot King Harald with the remaining two arrows.