William Tell: Celebrating a republican icon

The Swiss are celebrating the 700th anniversary of a legend that helped define them as a nation and has inspired republicans ever since. Peter Popham examines the story of Willam Tell

Saturday 17 November 2007 01:00 GMT

Seven hundred years ago tomorrow a dramatic and terrifying thing happened to a man whom we may dismiss as a legend but who 60 per cent of Swiss believe really existed.

It happened, we are told, in the town of Altdorf in the canton of Uri, present population 8,648. The St Gothard pass, linking the canton with Austria, had recently been opened, and the Hapsburgs in Vienna had dispatched a new and cruel Vogt or Bailiff by the name of Hermann Gessler to enforce the Austrian Reich among the snowy peaks. In the main square of Altdorf, to ensure that the townspeople knew the meaning of subjection, Gessler erected a pole with his hat on the top of it, requiring all who passed to bow to it.

But on this particular day, 18 November 1307, a yeoman farmer strolled into town with his small son and wandered through the square and straight past the pole without making a gesture of any sort. It could have been simple rustic ignorance; maybe nobody had bothered to tell him about the new rule. Or perhaps, as subsequent tellers of the tale preferred it, he was politically motivated: he was damned if he would kowtow to the oppressor from the land of cream cakes and waltzes (though those came later).

Gessler, known to all patriotic Swiss as a fiend, watched the countryman swaggering through the square, and he noticed the heavy, menacing implement dangling from the man's hand – and suddenly the perfect punishment occurred to him. He had his guards seize man and child and told them that an apple was to be placed on the son's head, and with the implement dangling from his hand – a crossbow – the father was to shoot it off. Either William Tell accept the challenge or both father and son would die.

In its broad outlines the story of William Tell is as familiar as any other folk tale in Europe. We all know the pay-off: Tell split the apple and the terrified lad survived. What is surprising is to learn that sophisticated, educated people of the modern age believe that it actually happened.

We love the stories of Merlin and King Arthur, Robin Hood and Little John, but it is a long time since we mistook them for history. William Tell is a legend of exactly the same type – but for generations it was taught in Swiss schools as an historical event. Today, while acknowledged as having invented elements, it is still seen as a very important story. How come?

The way they learn it up in the cantons, in 1291, 16 years before Tell's feat, the first critical event in the gestation of Switzerland occurred: the moment when, having seized and destroyed mighty castles of the Hapsburg invaders, peasant envoys from three cantons in central Switzerland gathered on Rutli Meadow in Uri Canton and solemnly swore to unite against foreign oppression and form a democratic, egalitarian, independent state.

These were fine sentiments. But it took the nerve and accuracy of Tell – or a number of rebellious figures, distilled by the alchemy of oral retelling into a single hero – to make it a reality. The "history" of William Tell goes on to relate how, after the splitting of the apple and several other vicissitudes, the bowman ends up assassinating Gessler – thereby inspiring his countrymen to rise up and throw off the Hapsburg yoke for ever. The history of "the world's oldest democracy" begins there.

Historians are sick of pooh-poohing the story of William Tell. It's like heaping scholarly scorn on the Garden of Eden: it's redundant, and risks making the heaper look ridiculous. "Of course you cannot prove that somebody has not existed," said Roger Sablonier, professor of medieval history at the University of Zurich. "But when you consider the historical criteria, it's very implausible because the storydoes not match the historical conditions of the 13th century. Tell is an invented figure ... I don't know of any professional historian with the thesis that Tell existed as a historical figure. This is over, and is also absolutely not interesting."

But the scepticism does not end there: scholars are equally dismissive about the Oath of Rutli, the solemn event in the meadow which marked the beginning of Switzerland's independent history. Professor Sablonier again: "There is not much true" about Rutli, he said, "as a historical fact. It's not even known for sure where the 'historical' Rutli was supposed to be."

The uses made by the Swiss of this wonderful old story are in many ways more fantastic than the story itself. Medieval legends about a hero who is constrained to shoot a small object off his son's head, and who succeeds, are legion in medieval Europe, cropping up among other places in England, attributed to William of Cloudsely, near Carlisle, and in Denmark, where the legendary hero Palnatoke was obliged to shoot an apple off the head of his son while the latter was skiing downhill.

The Swiss version, like the others, was not set down in writing until near the end of the 15th century, but it had a special resonancein the cantons. By early in the next century Tell had already been cast as the hero of the independence struggle of the three founding cantons of the Old Swiss Confederacy.

More than four centuries passed, however, before he became the founding archetype of the Swiss nation. And the reason Switzerland clings to him as a symbol when the English have long since dumped Robin Hood along with Jack the Giant Killer is that as a nation-state Switzerland is one of the most recent, and improbable, in Europe.

According to the British historian Christopher Hughes, Swiss citizenship in the modern sense of the word only began after the occupation by France in 1798. In 1803 the first Italian-speaking areas joined the new Helvetic Republic, and important French-speaking areas were absorbed only in 1815. "Today's multilingual Switzerland is a product of the early 19th century," writes Benedict Andersen in Imagined Communities. Andersen, whose celebrated book describes how the nations of the world were one after another "imagined" into existence by their inhabitants and rulers after the American declaration of independence, sees Swiss nationalism as belonging to the "last wave": "It is not much more than a decade older than Burmese or Indonesian nationalism," he writes.

But it's no fun being last, especially when one is a nation with such anomalous characteristics – none of the linguistic uniformity of Austria, Germany, France or England, nor the religious unity of Italy; none of the authoritarian reassurance of a ruling dynasty. Hence the need to create a genesis for the nation deep back in the mists of time, personified by a hero like Tell. Hence the fact that Swiss historians who deny the historical reality of the apple story have been inundated, even in recent years, with hate mail, and even sent death threats.

The legend as national foundation myth asks the Swiss to identify themselves with Tell, a peasant bold enough to challenge the Austrian bully. In so doing it serves to obscure the less romantic reality: the secret of the longevity of the Old Swiss Confederacy, according to Hughes (it survived from 1515 to 1803) "was its double nature. Against outside enemies, it produced a sufficient unity of peoples. Against internal rebellion, it produced a sufficient unity of oligarchies". This is the ruthless way, we know, that successful states operate. But it's nice to imagine different.

The Swiss were not the only ones inspired by the Tell story. It is an atheistic rewriting of the story of Abraham and Isaac, with the last-minute intervention of God to save the son replaced by the defiance of the little man, finding his son's salvation from his own resources. As such it inspired Friedrich Schiller, in his 1804 play Wilhelm Tell, with the hero as the personification of revolutionary violence. Gioacchino Rossini wrote an opera based on the play. John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln was inspired too. Hitler was enthusiastic about the story until 1938, when a Swiss called Maurice Bavaud took a pot shot at him and he banned Schiller's play.

The American writer William Burroughs put the story to a different, macabre use when he accidentally shot and killed his partner Joan Vollmer during a drunken game of "William Tell" in a bar in Mexico in 1951.

But the story belongs first and last to the Swiss. After unification in 1848, they took William Tell to their hearts, with the unveiling of the Tell Monument in Altdorf, with a godlike portrait of the hero by Ferdinand Hoddler, and annual open-air performances of Schiller's play at Interlaken, which continue to this day. He was the amulet to which they clung through the Second World War, and the man who gave meaning to their decision to spurn the EU and the UN. And the more stridently the Swiss emphasised their difference and independence from the rest of the world, personified by the man with the bow, the easier it was to gloss over the glaring differences within.

Inspired by Tell

* SCHILLER: His eponymous play of 1804 celebrated William Tell the violent revolutionary

* ROSSINI: His opera, based on Schiller's play, was first performed in Paris in 1829

* WILKES BOOTH: The legend of William Tell inspired him to assassinate Abraham Lincoln

* BURROUGHS: The American writer shot and killed his partner during a drunken game of William Tell

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