Who was the real William Tell?

2 Jul 2018

William Tell is Switzerland’s national hero, revered for his gallant acts leading to Swiss liberation. Over the centuries his legend has grown and Tell has become a universal symbol for the freedom struggle, but did he ever really exist?

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Photo: Charlie Kinross

Over 150 years after the foundation of the Swiss Confederacy the first references to William Tell can be found in the 1470 manuscript White Book of Sarnen and 15th century Swiss folksongs. In Chronicon Helveticum (1550), historian Aegidius Tschudi provided the first detailed account of Tell’s heroism and his role in Swiss independence, including the story of him shooting an apple off his son’s head. Tschudi helpfully even puts an exact date on the apple shot: 18 November 1307. Tschudi’s account would become the definitive source of the legend for the many artistic retellings over the following centuries. 

Tellspiels – plays based on Tell’s life – were performed in Switzerland throughout the 1500s, but it was two very popular early 19th century artistic works that would cement the legend. German Johann Friedrich von Schiller’s 1804 play, based on Tschudi’s version of events, continues to be revived every year in the Swiss town of Interlaken. Étienne de Jouy based his libretto for Rossini’s 1829 opera Guillaume Tell on Schiller’s play and it thrilled audiences from Vienna to London to New York in the 1830s.

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Left: A 1782 depiction of Tell in the Schweizerisches Landesmuseum, Zürich. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Right: An allegorical Tell defeating the chimera of the French Revolution (1798). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Around the world William Tell came to represent rebellion against tyranny and even inspired some would-be assassins. He was used to motivate insurgents in both the French and American Revolutions. John Wilkes Booth claimed Tell was his inspiration for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Adolf Hitler enthused about Schiller’s play in Mein Kampf then proceeded to have it banned in Nazi Germany after an assassination attempt on him by a young Swiss man.

Steeped in so much legend it becomes difficult to separate fact from fiction. William Tell is so integral to Swiss nationalism that most Swiss people believe he did exist. In fact, the belief in Tell is so vehement that books and effigies of those who dared to question his existence were publicly burnt in the 1700 and 1800s in Tell’s home canton of Uri. 

Monuments to William Tell stand proudly throughout Switzerland. In the centre of Altdorf, there is an imposing statue where Tell supposedly shot the legendary arrow. The spot where Tell landed after jumping off the boat during the storm to escape Gesler is marked by a Tellskapelle with frescos of the hero’s life on the shore of Lake Lucerne. Another Tell chapel stands in Bürglen on what is believed to his birthplace.

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William Tell monument in Altdorf. Source: Wikimedia Commons

However, there is no concrete historical evidence that William Tell actually lived. Some believe that this evidence was burned in fires in Altdorf, but it is most likely that William Tell is an amalgam of legends.

The story of a marksman shooting an apple off a loved one’s head is nothing new. It appears in many other nation’s folklore including Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Persia and England. There is a remarkably similar story that came out of Denmark in the 12th century. In Gesta Danroum (The History of the Danes) a skilled hunter called Toko is forced to shoot an apple off his son’s head then escapes imprisonment to kill the tyrant. Just like William Tell. 

 While William Tell might have not been an actual person, there is no doubt that the legend is not only intrinsic to Swiss identity but has been an inspiration to freedom fighters around the world. His courage in fighting against oppression remains pertinent to this day.

Victorian Opera performed William Tell as part of Season 2018.

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Lake Lucerne, Switzerland. Courtesy of Swiss Tourism.