Tell's feat of archery supposedly took place around 1300, when Switzerland was under Austrian rule. The independent-minded Tell refused to salute an Austrian official, who then ordered Tell to take the nerve-wracking shot. Afterward, the official spotted a second arrow. Tell said that if his first arrow had missed, he would have used the second one to kill the official. As punishment, Tell was sent to prison, but he escaped and killed the Austrian official. This act inspired the rebellion that eventually ended Austrian rule in Switzerland. Some accounts name Tell a leader in that fight.
* See Nantes and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
William Tell first appeared in legends and songs of the 1400s. By the 1700s, various Swiss histories featured the story. The play Wilhelm Tell (1804) by the German poet Friedrich von Schiller brought the Swiss hero to world attention, as did the opera Guillaume Tell (1829) by Italian composer Gioacchino Rossini. Despite these works, however, there is no historical evidence that William Tell existed, although the stories about him may have been based on a kernel of reality. The famous test of marksmanship, with a cherished life at stake, is similar to stories from Norse* and British folklore.
William Tell, legendary Swiss patriot. According to legend, Tell was a native of Uri, one of the Swiss forest cantons. Gessler, the canton's Austrian bailiff, decreed that Swiss citizens must remove their hats before his hat, which he had posted on a stake in the canton's largest town. Tell refused and as punishment was ordered to shoot an apple off his small son's head. Although he succeeded, he was held prisoner by Gessler when he revealed that had he failed, he planned to kill Gessler with an arrow he had hidden on his person. Tell escaped and eventually shot Gessler from ambush at Küssnacht, thus setting off the revolt that ousted the bailiff on Jan. 1, 1308. While there is no valid proof of Tell's existence, the legend represents a distorted account of events that resulted (1291) in the formation of the Everlasting League between the cantons of Schwyz, Uri, and Unterwalden. Schiller's popular drama Wilhelm Tell is based on the legend; Rossini's opera William Tell is based on Schiller's drama.