The revised story of Wilhelm Tell – Popular Swiss Folk Hero

‘Mum! You’ll never guess what Dad did at the market today!’

‘Bought some turnips I hope?’ replied Frau Tell.

‘No! He forgot! He put an apple on my head and shot an arrow right through the middle and then he got arrested!’

If you are not familiar with this piece of Swiss history, then allow me to help. Back in 1307, William Tell apparently neglected to acknowledge the hat of the Austrian Overlord Hermann Gessler, a man best described as a complete and utter bastard of the highest order (just my opinion). Now, Gessler’s hat had been placed upon a pole and all who walked past it were obliged to bow!  Tell’s indiscretion or blatant disregard for this instruction led to his arrest. The story, however, didn’t end there. Aware of Tell’s renowned marksmanship with a crossbow, Gessler informed Tell that he had two choices. The first was to demonstrate his great aim by shooting an arrow through an apple placed on the head of Tell’s young son, whose name was Walter, or Gessler would have them both killed. In addition, both would die if Tell missed the apple (I just wanted to point that bit out because it is quite important) 

Of course, the great William Tell split the apple in two and both he and young Walter lived to tell the tale. From here the story gets a bit film-like because Gessler is said to have asked Tell, why he had brought two arrows. According to the legend, Tell replied that had his son been harmed, the second arrow was for Gessler! The plot then thickened with Tell being apprehended a second time, his transportation to prison across Lake Lucerne, a mighty tempest, his cunning escape from the boat and the death of Gessler at the hands of Tell. This arguably sparked the long overdue uprising against the Habsburgs and the beginning of the Swiss Confederation. And that all started with an apple. Sounds familiar! You’d think by now we would have learnt to stay away from apples. Things change when apples get involved. Take Adam and Eve for example…. Sorry where were we?

Tell allegedly struck is enemy down with a single arrow to the heart. No wonder it has been made into a film and even an opera!

Whether you see the tale of Tell as fact or fiction, this story about a peasant from Bürglen who overthrew and killed the tyrant of Küssnacht castle, has travelled the globe. 

The way I look at it, is that Tell was very lucky to survive. In fact, I’m quite convinced that his wife killed him and then she went searching for Gessler!  Here’s my thinking – stay with me, especially if you are Swiss. This won’t be easy for you. I know you can’t stand the idea of me rewriting your history. 

We’re not talking a yellow here and ten minutes in the sin bin, but something far more serious. You see, and most men who have parental responsibilities know this – there are a number of things you can get away with! For example, letting your child ride a bicycle without a helmet – not good, but not all that dangerous (I never had one and survived the 70’s). Taking your son or daughter swimming and not putting on sunscreen – again not going to be popular, possible divorce material, but not too bad at the end of the day. Sticking an apple on your child’s head and then shooting the apple in half with an arrow – only one outcome really – ‘what on earth were you thinking?’ – ‘Are you completely crazy?’ Followed by a quick orchidectomy and then death. So, we can unequivocally conclude that Frau Tell, killed William Tell! Case closed.  

Except I still have a couple of questions:

How many kids did the Tells have and had any previously suffered head injuries caused by arrows? (That’s a serious question)

I mean surely, ‘Wilhelm’ as he was known, practiced a little bit?

‘Now stand still, don’t move and don’t mention this to your mother!’

And what do we really know of Frau Tell? Well not a lot. Trying to figure out her first name is hard enough. In the Opera by Gioacchino Rossini she is named Hedwiga, which comes from the High German word Haduwigmeaning ‘strife’, which seems a little unfair. The exact translation is ‘Hadu’ meaning battle and Wig meaning fight.  

So, perhaps Gessler did in fact die after getting his butt kicked by Frau Tell, who would have been mightily annoyed with the entire apple shooting incident.

Can we also assume that the part of the story that involved Tell jumping off a boat and onto a rock called the Tellsplatte is just fiction? No! I hear you cry!  It’s all true, just like the stories about Robin Hood and his Merry Men, the Pied Piper of Hamelin and even the Wizard of Oz. 

It’s not always easy to spot the ‘tell-tale’ signs of make-believe when we prefer to read a good story.

Article by Bruce Anderson for