Wilhelm Tell – A Man Who Fought for freedom

Every nation has a hero who embodies its striving for independence and freedom. So there is a brave archer and a loving father, about whom Swiss people wrote poems and composed songs.

Every nation has a hero who embodies its striving for independence and freedom. So there is a brave archer and a loving father, about whom Swiss people wrote poems and composed songs. The main character of Schiller’s world famous drama and Rossini’s last opera – meet Wilhelm Tell, honor and glory of Switzerland!

What exactly do we know about Tell? They say he was born in Bürglen, a small town located in the canton of Uri. The very name of the canton comes from the Celtic word “ure” which means “a bull”. A bull is depicted on the state emblem of Uri and represents the temper of the citizens – proud, freedom-loving and invincible. But back in the 13th century Swiss people could not even dream of freedom – the country was a part of the German Empire.

Three Swiss cantons in the middle of Helvetia – Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden, or so called “forest cantons” (Waldstatten) – were given some independence in the Empire as a reward for the bravery of their men who fought in the army of the king, Rudolf of Habsburg. The citizens could elect their own ruler, the Landamann, who obeyed the emperor directly. Everything changed when Rudolf’s son, Albert I came to power.

Albert was ambitious and cruel and canceled all the privileges his father gave to the cantons. He deposed all the Landamann’s and replaced them with Austrian officials – bailiffs. They behaved shamelessly, spreading terror among the poor citizens. One of them, named Gessler, excelled in cruelty. His actions in the city of Altdorf made the people want to rebel, and the bailiff knew about the upcoming rebellion. He decided to find out who of the citizens was the rioter. That’s where the legend of Wilhelm Tell starts.

Gessler gave the order to put a big pole on the square and to hang his hat on it. Every townsfolk had to bow before the hat or he would be considered a rebel and executed. One day Tell was walking on the square of Altdorf with his little son. He passed by the hat and refused to bow to it. Gessler’s people arrested Tell immediately. On the interrogation Tell proclaimed that he was a free man living in a free country and that made Gessler lose his temper. However, he did not dare to execute the rioter.

According to the despicable plan of the bailiff, Tell could redeem his life if he shot an apple off his son’s head. Tell begged not to make him risk his son’s life, but Gessler said that if Tell didn’t do it, one of the archers would. The man gathered all his courage and shot. And the apple, cut in two, fell off the head of the boy. Gessler noticed that Tell had taken two arrows from the quiver and when he asked why, the brave archer answered that if he killed his son, the second arrow would be shot to Gessler’s head. Wilhelm Tell ran away with his son and later, under cover of night, he shot the cruel bailiff.

Tell’s fearlessness encouraged the people of Uri to fight for their freedom. His image was used in the French Revolution, he became a main character of Schiller’s play and Rossini’s opera, his heroic feat had inspired many historical figures. Up to today this brave man is a symbol of liberty, persistence and independence and a great inspiration for the Swiss and moreover, for the entire world. Though some people say it’s just a fairy tale, we do believe Wilhelm Tell existed. What do you think?

Welcome to Fantastic Switzerland – the Land of heroes!


Michael AW

Michael AW

Michael is the founder of Fantastic Switzerland Associaton. A non-profit organization to promote the location of Switzerland

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