Trip to William Tell
Tell’s leap (Tellensprung) from the boat of his captors at the Axen cliffs; study by Ernst Stückelberg (1879) for his fresco at the Tellskapelle.
Page of the White Book of Sarnen (p. 447, first page of the Tell legend, pp. 447–449).
The first reference to Tell, as yet without a specified given name, appears in the White Book of Sarnen (German: Weisses Buch von Sarnen). This volume was written in c. 1474 by Hans Schriber, state secretary (Landschreiber) Obwalden. It mentions the Rütli oath (German: Rütlischwur) and names Tell as one of the conspirators of the Rütli, whose heroic tyrannicide triggered the Burgenbruch rebellion.
An equally early account of Tell is found in the Tellenlied, a song composed in the 1470s, with its oldest extant manuscript copy dating to 1501. The song begins with the Tell legend, which it presents as the origin of the Confederacy, calling Tell the „first confederate“. The narrative includes Tell’s apple shot, his preparation of a second arrow to shoot Gessler, and his escape, but it does not mention any assassination of Gessler. The text then enumerates the cantons of the Confederacy, and says was expanded with „current events“ during the course of the Burgundy Wars, ending with the death of Charles the Bold in 1477.
Aegidius Tschudi, writing c. 1570, presents an extended version of the legend. Still essentially based on the account in the White Book, Tschudi adds further detail. Tschudi is known to habitually have „fleshed out“ his sources, so that all detail from Tschudi not found in the earlier accounts may be suspected of being Tschudi’s invention. Such additional detail includes Tell’s given name Wilhelm, and his being a native of Bürglen, Uri in the Schächental, the precise date of the apple-shot, given as 18 November 1307 as well as the account of Tell’s death in 1354.
It is Tschudi’s version that became influential in early modern Switzerland and entered public consciousness as the „William Tell“ legend. According to Tschudi’s account, William Tell was known as a strong man, a mountain climber, and an expert shot with the crossbow. In his time, the House of Habsburg emperors of Austria were seeking to dominate Uri, and Tell became one of the conspirators of Werner Stauffacher who vowed to resist Habsburg rule. Albrecht Gessler was the newly appointed Austrian Vogt of Altdorf, Switzerland. He raised a pole under the village lindentree, hung his hat on top of it, and demanded that all the townsfolk bow before it.
On 18 November 1307, Tell visited Altdorf with his young son. He passed by the hat, but publicly refused to bow to it, and was consequently arrested. Gessler was intrigued by Tell’s famed marksmanship, but resentful of his defiance, so he devised a cruel punishment. Tell and his son were both to be executed; however, he could redeem his life by shooting an apple off the head of his son Walter in a single attempt. Tell split the apple with a bolt from his crossbow. Gessler then noticed that Tell had removed two crossbow bolts from his quiver, so he asked why. Tell was reluctant to answer, but Gessler promised that he would not kill him; he replied that, had he killed his son, he would have killed Gessler with the second bolt. Gessler was furious and ordered Tell to be bound, saying that he had promised to spare his life, but would imprison him for the remainder of his life.
Tell was being carried in Gessler’s boat to the dungeon in the castle at Küssnacht when a storm broke on Lake Lucerne, and the guards were afraid that their boat would sink. They begged Gessler to remove Tell’s shackles so that he could take the helm and save them. Gessler gave in, but Tell steered the boat to a rocky place and leaped out. The site is known in the „White Book“ as the „Tellsplatte“ („Tell’s slab“); it has been marked by a memorial chapel since the 16th century.
Tell ran cross-country to Küssnacht with Gessler in pursuit. Tell assassinated him using the second crossbow bolt, along a stretch of the road cut through the rock between Immensee and Küssnacht, which is known as the Hohle Gasse. Tell’s act sparked a rebellion, which led to the formation of the Old Swiss Confederacy. According to Tschudi, Tell fought again against Austria in the 1315 Battle of Morgarten. Tschudi also has an account of Tell’s death in 1354, according to which he was killed trying to save a child from drowning in the Schächental River in Uri.