The Legend of William Tell – A Swiss Folk Hero

In Swiss folklore, William Tell is a folk hero who represents the fight for independence from Austrian occupation. The legend goes that William Tell was an expert marksman who was ordered by a local tyrant to shoot an apple off of his son’s head. When he refused, he was arrested and imprisoned. However, he managed to escape and ended up leading a revolt against the Austrian rulers. The legend of William Tell has been passed down through the generations and is still celebrated today.

The Origins of the Legend

William Tell
mosaic at the Swiss National Museum, Hans Sandreuter, 1901

The earliest known version of the William Tell legend was published in 1470, nearly 50 years after Tell’s supposed death. In this version, Tell is a skilled archer who lives in the canton of Uri. He is ordered by a local ruler, Hermann Gessler, to shoot an apple off of his son’s head. If he refuses, he will be put to death.

Tell agrees to the challenge but asks for three days to prepare. During this time, he crafts a crossbow and practices his aim. On the day of the challenge, he successfully shoots the apple off of his son’s head. When Gessler demands to know why he took so long to prepare, Tell reveals that he was actually aiming for his son’s head but missed on purpose. Gessler is infuriated by this and has Tell arrested.

While in prison, Tell overheard that Gessler planned to assassinate Austrian ruler Albrecht III during his visit to Altdorf. He tipped off authorities about the plot and was freed from prison as a result. During Albrecht’s visit, Gessler demanded that everyone bow before him when passing through town. However, when Tell refused, Gessler had him arrested once again.

The Final Showdown

While being transported back to jail in a boat, Tell managed to escape. He then made his way back to Altdorf where he assassinated Gessler with his crossbow. This act of defiance inspired others to rebel against Austrian rule and eventually led to Swiss independence.


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How to Explore the Legend

While the legend of William Tell is almost certainly not based on a real person, it’s still an important part of Swiss culture. And, in fact, there are several places in Switzerland that claim to be his birthplace. So, whether you’re interested in Swiss history or just want to see where the legend began, here are a few places you can visit.

William Tell Memorial Chapel – Bürglen, Uri

William Tell Chapel

The first stop on our list is the William Tell Memorial Chapel in Bürglen, Uri. This chapel is said to be built on the site of William Tell’s home. It was constructed in the 19th century and features a statue of William Tell on the outside. Inside, you’ll find a museum with exhibits about his life and the legend surrounding him.

William Tell House – Küssnacht am Rigi, Schwyz

William Tell House

The next stop is the William Tell House in Küssnacht am Rigi, Schwyz. This house is also said to be where William Tell lived. It dates back to the 15th century and has been converted into a museum about his life and times. In addition to exhibits about his life, you’ll also find displays of traditional Swiss folk art.

National Monument to William Tell – Altdorf, Uri

National Monument To William Tell - Altdorf, Uri

Last but not least is the National Monument to William Tell in Altdorf, Uri. This monument was erected in 1895 to commemorate the 600th anniversary of William Tell’s supposed rebellion against tyrants. It features a statue of him shooting an apple off his son’s head as well as several reliefs depicting scenes from his life.

The legend of William Tell is a significant part of Swiss folklore. It represents the fight for independence from the Austrian occupation and is still celebrated today. While the historical accuracy of the legend is debated, it remains an important part of Swiss culture and tradition.

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