The Legend of William Tell

SOME years ago the announcement went abroad that the familiar story of William Tell was not historically true ; that such a person never existed, or, if he did, could never have played the rôle ascribed to him as founder of the Swiss Confederation. It was discovered that when the methods of research which Niebuhr had used with so much skill to elucidate the origin of Rome were applied also to the early days of the Confederation, the episode of William Tell became a fireside tale, a hit of folk-lore ; valuable from a literary standpoint, but without historical significance. Unfortunately, he had long been regarded as a universal household friend, a prime favorite with the children, and one who appealed also to their elders as a singularly picturesque representative of Liberty striving successfully against Tyranny. He had, moreover, called forth the best powers of at least one great poet, Schiller, and one famous musician, Rossini, so that his claim seemed to the world established beyond question by the sanction of genius. It was natural, therefore, that this adverse report should be received with incredulity and indignation. At first people preferred to cling to their belief in William Tell, rather than to sacrifice another illusion of their childhood to the all-devouring, investigating spirit of the age ; the more so because they knew little or nothing about the history of Switzerland beyond this episode. But when the best authorities, one by one, declared themselves against the truth of the tradition, the conviction gradually gained ground that the old hero must be classified as a legendary personage.

There is no period in all history so generally misunderstood as that which marks the origin of the Swiss Confederation ; partly on account of the scarcity of authentic contemporary documents, but principally on account of the false versions which unscrupulous chroniclers have handed down to us. In fact, so great is this want of records and so confusing are the traditions that the dawn of Swiss history is probably doomed to remain shrouded in a certain amount of obscurity. It is not my purpose in this article to follow the new school of native historians in their task of reconstructing tins perplexing age, hut rather to examine the version which they have been obliged to reject as unhistorical.

The truth is, there always have been a certain number of objectors to the accuracy of the tradition which based Swiss liberty upon the shot of a skillful archer, but their words have made no lasting impression upon the public mind. As early as the beginning of the sixteenth century, Joachim von Watt, the reformer of St. Gall, better known under his Latinized name Vadianus, had spoken of the subject in his Chronicle of the Abbots of the Monastery of St. Gall : “ Of these three lands” (meaning the present cantons of Uri, Schwyz. and Unterwalden) “they tell strange things in regard to their age and origin. . . . I suspect that much is fabled, and some, again, may not be likened to the truth.” In 1607, the writer François Guilliman, of Fribourg, who added some new details to the story of William Tell in his history De Rebus Helvetiorum, makes this surprising confession in a letter to a friend: “ After having maturely pondered the matter, I consider the whole thing a mere fable, especially as I have not yet been able to discover a writer or chronicler, more than a century old, who mentions it. All this seems to have been invented to nourish hatred against Austria. The people of Uri are not agreed amongst themselves in regard to the place where William Tell lived ; they can give no information in regard to his family or his descendants.” Again, in 1754, Voltaire said in his Annales de l’Empire, “ L’histoire de la pomme est bien suspecte; ” and in his Essai sur les Mœurs, " Il semble qu’on ait cru devoir orner d’une fable le berceau de la liberté helvétique.” A momentary sensation was created in 1760 by a pamphlet entitled Der Wilhelm Tell, Ein Dänisches Mährgen, which was ordered publicly to be burned by the hangman of canton Uri, so bitter had the controversy become. The author was a certain Uriel Freudenberger, pastor at Ligerz, on the Lake of Bienne, and his attack elicited a sharp retort from Felix Balthazar, of Lucerne, a Défense de Guillaume Tell. Calm, however, was restored for a time by the authoritative declarations of two noted historians, Emmanuel von Haller and Johannes von Müller, in favor of the traditional hero, although Müller, like Guilliman, privately acknowledged to a friend that he had serious doubts of the truth of what he wrote. Even Schiller, whose play appeared in 1804, was constrained to admit that in the tradition William Tell had really no part in founding the Confederation, and he was consequently obliged to resort to such expedients as his art suggested in order to make his hero the central figure of the struggle against Austria.

The subject finally came up again when Joseph Eutych Kopp submitted it to a thorough investigation by searching the records of the three cantons, and publishing his results in his Urkunden zur Geschichte der Eidgenössischen Bünde (1835—1857), his Reichsgeschichte (1845—1858), and his Geschichtsblätter aus der Schweiz 1853.

To understand the commotion produced in Switzerland by Kopp’s exposé, we must try to imagine what would be the result in the United States if George Washington were suddenly declared to be a legendary character. Every one sided for or against the truth of the tradition ; no one could remain neutral; but from that day to this the impression has gradually forced itself upon the minds of all who have looked into the question that Kopp was in the main right, and that, whatever modifications new discoveries may make necessary in the sweeping judgment which that historian pronounced, William Tell can never again be looked upon as the founder of the Swiss Confederation.

Our confidence in the accuracy of the tradition is first shaken by the fact that the great archer is not mentioned by a single writer of the period in which he is supposed to have lived, or even the faintest allusion made to him in the records of that day. To begin with, therefore, we are warranted in doubting his historical importance, if he could be so completely ignored by his contemporaries. The battle of Morgarten, in 1315, was the baptismal day of the young Confederation, but none of the chroniclers who describe this event and the incidents attending it have a word to say of a William Tell, or of any one who could be mistaken for him. On the other hand, the whole tenor of these writings and of the documents of the period is opposed to the tradition. The impression we derive from them is that the Swiss gained their independence after a long-continued struggle, not by a sudden rising, and through the efforts of the whole people, not at the instigation of one man. In 1420, a Konrad Justinger, of Berne, in writing the annals of his native city, touched upon the origin of the Confederation, but even he says nothing about William Tell; nor does Felix Hemmerlein, of Zürich, writing upon the same subject in 1450.

In fact, it is not till about 1477, more than a century and a half after William Tell was supposed to have lived, that we can find any reference made to him. At that date an unknown poet brought out a ballad entitled Song of the Origin of the Confederation, in twenty-nine stanzas, nine of which seem from internal evidence to antedate 1474. The following translation of the four stanzas which bear upon the subject, the first to my knowledge which has appeared in English, has been made without any attempt at metrical correctness, the original being extremely rough and in dialect:—

“Now listen well, dear sirs,
How the league at first arose,
Nor let yourselves be wearied ;
How one from his own son
An apple from the head
Had with his hands to shoot.
“The bailiff spake to William Tell:
' Now look thee that thy skill fail not,
And hear my speech with care :
Hit thou it not at the first shot,
Forsooth it bodes thee little good,
And costeth thee thy life.’
“ Then prayed he God both day and night
He might at first the apple hit;
It would provoke them much!
He had the luck, by the power of God,
That he with all his art
So skillfully could shoot.
“ Hardly had he done the first shot,
An arrow did he put in his quiver :
‘ Had I shot down my child,
I had it in my mind —
I tell thee for the honest truth —
I would have shot, thee also.' ”

Subsequent verses describe how an uproar ensues, in which Tell enumerates the evil deeds of the bailiffs. These are then expelled, and young and old unite in a loyal league. It will be noticed, however, that there is no mention of the name Gessler, of a hat set upon a pole, of the leap at the Tellsplatte, or of the murder of the bailiff at Küssnacht: these details appear in another version, dating from almost the same time.

Between 1467 and 1474, a notary at Sarnen, in the canton of Unterwalden, transcribed a number of traditions in the form of a chronicle into a collection of documents, known as The White Book on account of the color of its parchment binding. Here the story of William Tell is told as follows, in a style of archaic simplicity which is not without a certain charm of its own : “ Now it happened one day that the bailiff, Gesler, went to Ure [canton of Uri], and took it into his head and put up a pole under the limetree in Ure, and set up a hat upon the pole, and had a servant near it, and made a command whoever passed by there he should how before the hat, as though the lord were there; and he who did it not, him he would punish and cause to repent heavily, and the servant was to watch and tell of such an one. Now there was there an honest man called Thall; he had also sworn with Stoupacher and his fellows [a reference to a conspiracy previously described in The White Book]. Now he went rather often to and fro before it. The servant who watched by the hat accused him to the lord. The lord went and had Tall sent, and asked him why he was not obedient to his bidding, and do as he was hidden. Tall spake : ‘ It happened without malice, for I did not know that it would vex your Grace so highly ; for were I witty, then were I called something else, and not the Tall ‘ [the Fool, a pun upon his name 1]. Now Tall was a good archer ; he had also pretty children. These the lord sent for, and forced Tall with his servants that Tall must shoot an apple from the head of one of his children ; for the lord set the apple upon the child’s head. Now Tall saw well that he was mastered, and took an arrow and put it into his quiver ; the other arrow he took in his hand, and stretched his crossbow, and prayed God that he might save his child, and shot the apple from the child’s head. The lord liked this well, and asked him what he meant by it [that he had put an arrow in his quiver]. He answered him, and would gladly have said no more [an obscure passage ; the original is hett es gern jm besten ver Rett]. The lord would not leave off ; he wanted to know what he meant by it. Tall feared the lord, and was afraid he would kill him. The lord understood his fear and spake : ‘ Tell me the truth ; I will make thy life safe, and not kill thee.’ Then spake Tall: ’ Since you have promised me, I will tell you the truth, and it is true: had the shot failed me, so that I had shot my child, I had shot the arrow into you or one of your men.’ Then spake the lord :

‘Since now this is so, it is true 1 have promised thee not to kill thee ; ’ and had him bound, and said he would put him into a place where he would never more see sun or moon.” The account goes on to describe how Tall, in being taken down the lake in a boat, makes his escape at the Tellsplatte, and later shoots Gessler in the Hohle Gasse at Küssnacht ; but he is not mentioned as taking part in the league afterwards made ; much less does he figure as the founder of the Confederation.

Now the question arises, How can we account for the sudden appearance of William Tell, both in the Song of the Origin of the Confederation and in The White Book of Sarnen, after the writers of a century and a half had passed him over in complete silence ?

As regards the simple story of the shot, apart altogether from its historical application, there can be no doubt now, after the investigations which have been made in till directions, that we have to do here with a widespread household myth, belonging equally to many branches of the Germanic family, but preserved with special tenacity in the retired and conservative valley of Uri. The same legend occurs in various parts of northern and central Europe, in Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Holstein, on the Middle Rhine, and with another motive in the English ballad of William of Cloudesly. There is always a skillful archer who is punished by being made to shoot an object from his child’s head, and who in almost every case reserves an arrow with which to slay the tyrant in case of failure. The names of the men and places and the local coloring of course vary in the different versions, but the structure of the story remains the same in all. The one which bears probably the greatest resemblance to that of William Tell is to be found in a Danish history, Gesta Danorum, written by Saxo, surnamed Grammaticus, in the twelfth century. Here the anecdote is told of one Toko, or Toki, and King Harald Bluetooth (936—980). Making due allowance for the great difference between the style of this work, which is in pompous Latin, and the rude and fresh dialect of The White Book of Sarnen, the resemblance is certainly very striking.

Says Saxo Grammaticus : " Nor ought what follows to be enveloped in silence. Toko, who had for some time been in the king’s service, had by his deeds, surpassing those of his comrades, made enemies of his virtues. One day, when he had drunk too much, he boasted to those who sat at table with him that his skill in archery was such that with the first shot of an arrow he could hit the smallest apple set on the top of a stick at a considerable distance. His detractors, hearing this, lost no time in conveying what he had said to the king. But the wickedness of this monarch soon transformed the confidence of the father to the jeopardy of the son ; for he ordered the dearest pledge of his life to stand in place of the stick, from whom if the utterer of the boast did not at his first shot strike down the apple, he should with his head pay the penalty of having made an idle boast. The command of the king urged the soldier to do this, which was so much more than he had undertaken, the detracting artifices of the others having taken advantage of words spoken when he was hardly sober. As soon as the boy was led forward, Toko carefully admonished him to receive the whir of the arrow as calmly as possible, with attentive ears, and without moving his head, lest by a slight motion of the body he should frustrate the experience of his well-tried skill. He also made him stand with his back towards him, lest he should be frightened at the sight of the arrow. Then he drew three arrows from his quiver, and the very first he shot struck the proposed mark. Toko being asked by the king why he had so many more arrows out of his quiver, when he was to make but one trial with his bow, ‘ That I might avenge on thee,’ he replied, ‘ the error of the first by the points of the others, lest my innocence might happen to be afflicted and thy injustice go unpunished.' ”2 Afterwards, during a rebellion of the Danes against Harald, Toko slays him with an arrow in a forest.

Observe, also, the truly remarkable likeness of the old English ballad of William of Cloudesly to the Song of the Origin of the Confederation, both as regards sense and style. 1 quote a few of the more striking verses only, in order not to weary the reader with continual repetitions : —

“ ‘I haue a sonne is seuen yere olde ;
He is to me full deare ;
I wyll hym tye to a stake,
All shall se that be here ;
“ ‘ And lay an apple vpon hys head,
And go syxe score paces hym fro,
And I my selfe, with a brode arow,
Shall cleue the apple in two.’
“ And bound therto his eldest sonne,
And had hym stande styll therat,
And turned the childes face fro him,
Because he shuld not sterte.
“ Thus Clowdesle clefte the apple in two,
That many a man it se;
' Ouer goddes forbode,’ sayd the kynge,
‘ That thou sholdest shote at me ! ’ " 3

Two explanations are possible in view of this similarity : either the author of the ballad of Tell and the notary of Sarnen copied the account of Saxo Grammaticus, written three centuries before, at the same time making them conform to Swiss surroundings, or the Danish and Swiss writers simply put down a legend current amongst their own people, derived from some common, older source, from which proceeded also the Icelandic, Norwegian, and other versions. This latter solution seems to me preferable. Northern Switzerland was invaded by the German tribe of the Alamanni at the fall of the Roman Empire, and the present cantons of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden were colonized by them somewhat later. William Tell is probably the Alamannian counterpart of Toko the Dane. Moreover, both the ballad and The White Book reveal the ring of genuine folk-lore ; they do not betray the touch of the copyist; so that we need not necessarily question the good faith of the authors who wrote them down. But whatever explanation be accepted, it is now established that William Tell is no more exclusively Swiss than he is Icelandic.

If, now, we examine the different parts of the legend itself, to see if we cannot establish its historical value from internal evidence, we find our task still more discouraging. All the arguments put forward by the partisans of Tell have been found to fail upon closer scrutiny.

Certainly it is not unreasonable to suppose that if the great archer had once lived in the forest cantons his name would be found in some of the ancient records, but the most minute search in the archives of the three cantons has failed to show that such a man as Thall, Tall, or William Tell ever existed. In the midst of the controversy upon this question which broke out at the end of the last century, a Johann Imhof, vicar of Schaddorf, a village adjoining Bürglen, the traditional birthplace of Tell, searched diligently for proofs of his existence. He announced that he had discovered the name in two places : in the burial register (Jahrzeitbuch) of his own parish, and again in the parsonage book (Pfarrbuch) of the neighboring village of Attinghausen. Investigation has revealed that, of these two entries, one had been wrongly read, the other had been tampered with. In the first case de Tello was really de Trullo, and in the second Täll, originally Näll. Imhof also cited documents, as well as Balthazar in his Défense de Guillaume Tell ; but upon examination these supposed proofs failed utterly, and only harmed the cause they were intended to sustain. They consist of quotations from well-known chronicles, which date from a time when the tradition was already fully developed, or of documents bearing the strongest internal evidence of forgery.

Nor can the pilgrimages which are held in his memory, the Tell’s Chapels or other local features which are shown to travelers at Altdorf and Bürglen, be regarded as testifying to his existence, since, like the chronicles, they either date from a time when the tradition was fully developed, or have been found to be connected with altogether different circumstances. The famous chapel on the Lake of Lucerne seems to have been originally designed for the use of fishermen ; the one at the Hohle Gasse, near Küssnaclit, is first mentioned in 1570, and the one at Bürglen in 1582, long after the chroniclers had fixed the legend upon the hearts and minds of the people.

The supposed site of the William Tell episode at Altdorf is in the centre of the village, not far from the market-place. Here you will come upon an heroic statue of the archer — alas, in plaster ! It was made for the Federal Schützenfest, held in Zürich in 1857, and presented afterwards to Altdorf. Tell stands in the act of hurling defiance at the bailiff, and the appropriate verse from Schiller’s play is engraved upon the pedestal. On the whole, the pose is not bad, but unfortunately the good fellow looks squatty ; his breadth is evidently too great for his height, although I ceased to wonder at this disproportion when I was told that he had to be painted over annually in order to keep the plaster from crumbling ; with every coat of paint he grows stouter, and old citizens, who remember him in his slim youth, dismayed at seeing him thus swell before their eyes, have determined to dismiss him altogether, and have a grand marble statue once for all.

From this spot Tell is reported to have shot the arrow, while his little son stood just beyond, under an ancient limetree. This tree, having withered and died, was cut down in 1569 by a certain Besler, magistrate of the village (Dorfvogt), and a fountain erected in its stead, which now stands there surmounted by a rude statue of Besler himself. As a matter of fact, the lime-tree is historical, for we know that assizes were held under it, and sentences signed as having been pronounced “ under the limetree at Altdorf ; but of course all this does not bear upon the truth or falsity of the Tell tradition, since chroniclers, if they chose to adorn their tale, would naturally select genuine local features.

Near by rises a tower, at one time pronounced to be over the place where the boy stood, but now known to be much older than the period in which William Tell is said to have lived ; that is, at the beginning of the fourteenth century. It was probably the seat of a mayor who collected tithes for the abbey of nuns (Fraumünster) in Zürich, to which institution the greater part of the present canton of Uri at one time belonged. As for the tower itself, although it has been ridiculously modernized by the addition of a strange combination of roof and green blinds, it is a simple, square structure, like the towers which still stand in the neighboring villages of Bürglen and Silenen, and like the famous Zwing Uri, the ruins of which may be seen near Amsteg, at the entrance of the Maderaner Thal. The sides are adorned with two frescoes: one almost effaced, but betraying signs of good workmanship ; the other well preserved, and representing various scenes in the legend. Nothing more atrocious in the way of design or grotesque in conception than the latter can very well be imagined ; for the style, if indeed it can be said to have any, is a sort of exaggerated late Renaissance, — very exaggerated and very late, — the work, doubtless, of some strolling Italian house-painter. Even that highly picturesque incident, the setting of a hat upon a pole, a feature peculiar to the Swiss version of the legend, so far as is known, is susceptible of a perfectly natural historical explanation. The historian Meyer von Knonau, noticing that a hat figures in his own family coat of arms, and in those of many other families whose name is Meyer, has come to the conclusion that the setting up of the mayor’s hat was a regular custom at the Altdorf assizes, and that what is represented in the legend as the whim of a tyrant was in reality a well-established official procedure. Like the statue of Tell in Altdorf, all the so-called facts in support of the legend crumble at the touch of strict inquiry, and are in need of continual repainting if they are to hold together at all.

Not to protract this argument to tedious length, I will merely cite one more proof of the flimsiness of the structure upon which the whole story rests. We now know that the rôle ascribed to the bailiff Gessler is an historical impossibility. The history of the Gessler family has been written by an untiring investigator, Rochholz, who has brought together from every conceivable source the documents which bear upon the subject. From his investigations it results that no member of that family is mentioned as holding any office whatsoever in the three cantons, or as being murdered by a man Thall, Tall or William Tell. It is contrary to all contemporary documents to suppose that an Austrian bailiff ruled over Uri after 1231, or that such a one would have owned the castle of Küssnacht, the history of which property has been carefully traced, and which was in the hands of its true owners, the knights of Küssinach, at the time when Gessler is reported to have made it his residence.

The fact is that in Gessler we are confronted by a curious case of confusion in identity. At least three totally different men seem to have been blended into one in the course of an attempt to reconcile the different versions of the three cantons. Felix Hemmerlein, of Zürich, in 1450 tells of a Habsburg governor living on the little island of Schwanau, in the Lake of Lowerz, who seduced a maid of Schwyz and was killed by her brothers. Then there was another person, strictly historical, Knight Eppo of Küssinach (Küssnacht), who, while acting as bailiff for the dukes of Austria, put down two revolts of the inhabitants in his district, one in 1284 and another in 1302. Finally there was the tyrant bailiff mentioned in the ballad of Tell, whom, by the way, a chronicler writing in 1510 calls, not Gessler, but a Count of Seedorf. These three persons were combined, and the result was named Gessler.

To trace the legend to a mythical source and to reveal its inconsistencies is simple enough, but to explain the historical application which has been made of it is quite another matter. If William Tell is the hero of a widespread Germanic myth, how came he to be connected with the history of Switzerland at all ? Why has not tradition handed down as founder of the Confederation one of those active patriots who are known to have lived and labored for Swiss freedom, — men like Stoupacher (Stauffacher) of Schwyz, or Attinghausen of Uri? Here lies the main difficulty ; but an explanation even of this is at hand, which on the whole satisfies the peculiar conditions of the problem. Generally speaking, pure historical analysis is not entertaining reading, though it is apt to be instructive ; but this question of William Tell not only throws a great deal of light upon the extraordinary methods of mediæval writers, but also contains elements that may, without exaggeration, be termed diverting, inasmuch as it resolves itself into a sort of political hoax played by the venerable patriots of Uri upon their unsuspecting contemporaries, centuries ago, and then transmitted to us to be unraveled and exposed.

When the Song and The White Book appeared at the end of the fifteenth century, the Swiss Confederates stood at the very apex of their military glory, having just completed a series of great victories by defeating in three pitched battles the richest prince in Europe, Charles the Bold of Burgundy, who, according to the old rhyme, lost

“ Bei Grandson das Gut,
Bei Murten den Mut,
Bei Nancy das Blut.”

Filled with a spirit of patriotic exaltation, they turned to magnify their national origin, as is the wont of all nations when they rise to importance. But each of the three districts which had united to form the nucleus of the Confederation, Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden, tried to secure for itself as much credit as possible in the founding of it, thus giving rise to a variety of versions. Schwyz supplied the story of a certain genuinely historical personage, Stoupacher; Unterwalden, that of a youth designated as living in the Melchi, near Sarnen, and arbitrarily named Melchthal by later writers ; and Uri attempted to turn to political account a legendary William Tell, an old favorite amongst the people of that district. The notary of Sarnen collected these stories, and did his best to give each of the three lands an equal share in the founding of the Confederation. In time the mythical hero distanced his rivals in popular favor, perhaps for the very reason that he was mythical and his family unknown in those parts, a sort of “ dark horse ” upon whom the jealous claimants could unite.

As subsequent historians based their accounts almost exclusively upon The White Book of Sarnen, it is not necessary to examine their work in detail. Suffice it to say that they did not hesitate to supply the persons with names and the events with dates wherever these were needed, although this was done so carelessly that the greatest discrepancies arose, and discredit was cast even upon that which was really historical. The traditions found their best exponent in Giles (Ægidius) Tschudi, of Glarus, from whom Schiller in turn derived most of the material for his play. But the Swiss chroniclers need not have resorted to legends of doubtful origin in order to invest the rise of their Confederation with the interest it ought always to have commanded. In attempting this they rather obscured than displayed the qualities which make their ancestors worthy of our admiration, and pressed into the background those features of Swiss history which best deserve to be studied. The impression we derive from the perusal of the documents is nobler, more natural, and more instructive than that which the cycle of legends can give us. The chroniclers would have us believe that the sacred flame of liberty was kindled by the whim of a petty tyrant, the liberation of the people effected by murder ; they would make the origin of the oldest federal republic in existence, the most stable of modern states, dependent upon a trick, upon the chances of an arrow in its flight, when in reality it is based upon the eternal laws of the brotherhood of man ; they would represent as fortuitous, abnormal, and sudden what was eminently deliberate, lawful, and long drawn through centuries of strife and struggle. Although it is not within the scope of this article to treat of the real rise of the Swiss Confederation, as reconstructed by modern historians, still it may be said here that nothing could have been more heroic than the ceaseless struggle waged by the early patriots of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden against the encroachments of the house of Habsburg-Austria, or move admirable than the patient wisdom with which they finally won their independence. History has recorded no words in which childlike faith in the justice of a cause and prophetic insight into its inevitable triumph have been better expressed than in the closing sentence of the league concluded in 1291 by these three Forest States: “ The above written statutes, decreed for the common weal and health, are to endure forever, God willing.”

W. D. McCrackan.

  1. Root dalen, to act childishly.
  2. Baring-Gould’s Curious Myths of the Middle Ages.
  3. Child’s The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Part V. p. 29.