“From this boy's head, whereon the apple lay" - William Tell

18 November 1307, William Tell, according to legend, shot the apple off his son’s head on the market square of Altdorf.
“From this boy's head, whereon the apple lay, / Your new and better liberty shall spring; / The old is crumbling down—the times are changing / And from the ruins blooms a fairer life.“ (Friedrich Schiller, “Wilhelm Tell”) 

 A detail of Ernst Stückelberg (1831-1903) mural in the Tellskapelle, Switzerland

The Alpine passes in what was to become Switzerland connecting the German-speaking parts of the Holy Roman Empire with Italy were the bottlenecks on the roads the German kings and their armies took on their way south. For the Imperial coronation ceremonies in Rome as well as for applying pressure on the Upper Italian city states. Besides that, those roads and passes had the favourable side effect of being important trade routes, making the settlements en route quite prosperous. When the mighty House of Zähringen, having ruled Swabia and German-speaking Helvetia for 150 years, died out in 1218, Zurich, Bern, Fribourg and Schaffhausen, as well as the later cantons of Uri and Schwyz, were privileged with Imperial immediacy – no feudal lord was between them and the emperor himself, a status that involved quite a few liberties, especially during the long interregnum between 1250 and 1273. When Rudolph I of House Habsburg finally was elected King of the Romans (i.e. the Holy Roman Empire), things were about to change back to feudal routine for the Swiss.

Tell shooting the apple from his son's head - woodcut by Hans Rudolf Manuel Deutsch in Sebastian Münster's "Cosmographia" (1554)

Thus, the new bailiffs Habsburg appointed in Switzerland did not exactly enjoy an immense popularity and one, according to legend, named Hermann Gessler gave himself airs in the town of Altdorf in the canton of Uri. Later sources claim he strutted like a peacock and erected a pole on the market square with his hat on top of it, demanding that everyone should bow before that effigy of his rule. The famous crossbowman William Tell, who visited the place with his son Walther, was about to quote Goethe’s Götz von Berlichingen and got promptly seized by the bailiff’s men. Gessler the Peacock, in his wrath, demanded of Tell to shoot an apple off his son’s head at 100 paces or both would be executed on the spot. Tell took two bolts, hit the apple right in the middle with the first one and when asked by Gessler what the second bolt was for, the bailiff received the answer that the bolt was meant for him if the first shot would have been a miss and the angered Gessler had Tell seized again and dragged to the castle of Küssnacht, but the crossbowman could escape during a storm on Lake Lucerne, prepared an ambush in a deep defile on the only road leading to Küssnacht and finally shot the peacock, the spark that caused a rebellion against Habsburgian rule, ending with the Swiss victory at the Battle of Morgarten in 1315.

A fanciful late 19th century mural illustrating the Battle of Morgarten
(Schwyz, townhall)

The Old Swiss Confederacy had already been formed in 1291, likewise with a legendary act, the Rütlischwur (the oath on the Rütli, a meadow above Lake Lucerne), a foundation myth pari passu with the story of William Tell. The idea of the apple-shot was first recorded by Saxo Grammaticus in his “Gesta Danorum” around 1200 and in the Þiðrekssaga about the same time – both versions have the tyrant admire the valour of the hero and his second arrow and let him go free. But the strong image of shooting the apple off the head of one’s own child must have impressed the unknown Swiss chronicler of the “White Book of Samen” who first recorded the story of the legendary William Tell around 1470, when Charles the Bold, mighty Duke of Burgundy of House Valois, threatened Swiss independency again and was defeated in three epic battles. During the days of the French Revolution, the tale spread beyond the Swiss borders and Goethe inspired Schiller to write his famous play about the fight against tyranny in 1804 that spawned Rossini’s eponymous opera with its famous overture and probably set the imagination of one John Wilkes Booth of Bel Air, Maryland, spinning to avenge the patriotic gore that flecked the streets of Baltimore and elsewhere and shoot the despot Abraham Lincoln, sic semper tyrannis and all of that.

"Tell refuses to bow to the tyrant" - scene from Rossini's opera in 1917 (The Victrola Book of the Opera)

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