The Legend of William Tell

One of the most famous names in Swiss history, linked with the country's struggle for liberty, concerned a William Tell, who may never have existed. But to the Swiss he's very real, the father who, with his crossbow, hit the apple that the tyrannical Austrian bailiff of Uri, Gessler, had placed on the head of his son.

When Gessler allegedly asked Tell why he had brought a second arrow, Tell told him he intended it for Gessler if he had hit his son instead of the apple. Furious, Gessler had Tell dragged to his boat at the northwestern shore of Lake Lucerne. A storm came up and Gessler released Tell from his fetters, hoping that his strong arms could save the boat party. Tell escaped and waited on the shore near Gessler's castle. When Gessler arrived, Tell hit him with an arrow straight through the heart. Or so the story goes.

First found in a ballad, the tale dates from at least before 1474. Over the years, various authors have smoothed away inconsistencies and rounded out the tale. But it was Schiller's play in 1804 that gave the tale worldwide renown.

Alleged proof of the actual existence of a William Tell break down hopelessly upon scholarly examination. For example, entries in the parish registers are forgeries. One document that alleged that 114 men in 1338 had been "personally acquainted" with Tell didn't surface until 1759 -- no doubt a fake.

Tellskapelle (the Tell Chapel) stands today as a monument to the legend, lying at the Lake of the Four Cantons between Sisikon and Fl├╝elen.

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