WILLIAM TELL AND THE SWISS PATRIOTS
 "IN the year of our Lord 1307," writes an ancient chronicler, "there dwelt a pious countryman in Unterwald
beyond the Kernwald, whose name was Henry of Melchthal, a wise, prudent, honest man, well to do and in good
esteem among his country-folk, moreover, a firm supporter of the liberties of his country and of its adhesion
to the Holy Roman Empire, on which account Beringer von Landenberg, the governor over the whole of Unterwald,
was his enemy. This Melchthaler had some very fine oxen, and on account of some trifling misdemeanor committed
by his son, Arnold of Melchthal, the governor sent his servant to seize the finest pair of oxen by way of
punishment, and in case old Henry of Melchthal said anything against it, he was to say that it was the
governor's opinion that the peasants should draw the plough themselves. The servant fulfilled his lord's
commands. But as he unharnessed the oxen, Arnold, the son of the countryman, fell into a rage, and striking
him with a stick on the hand, broke one of his fingers. Upon this Arnold fled, for fear of his life, up the
country towards Uri, where he kept himself long secret in the country where Conrad of Baumgarten from Altzelen
lay hid for having killed the governor of Wolfenschiess,
 who had insulted his wife, with a blow of his axe. The servant, meanwhile, complained to his lord, by whose
order old Melchthal's eyes were torn out. This tyrannical action rendered the governor highly unpopular, and
Arnold, on learning how his good father had been treated, laid his wrongs secretly before trusty people in
Uri, and awaited a fit opportunity for avenging his father's misfortune."
Such was the prologue to the tragic events which we have now to tell, events whose outcome was the freedom of
Switzerland and the formation of that vigorous Swiss confederacy which has maintained itself until the present
day in the midst of the powerful and warlike nations which have surrounded it. The prologue given, we must
proceed with the main scenes of the drama, which quickly followed.
As the story goes, Arnold allied himself with two other patriots, Werner Stauffacher and Walter Fürst, bold
and earnest men, the three meeting regularly at night to talk over the wrongs of their country and consider
how best to right them. Of the first named of these men we are told that he was stirred to rebellion by the
tyranny of Gessler, governor of Uri, a man who forms one of the leading characters of our drama. The rule of
Gessler extended over the country of Schwyz, where in the town of Steinen, in a handsome house, lived Werner
Stauffacher. As the governor passed one day through this town he was pleasantly greeted by Werner, who was
standing before his door.
 "To whom does this house belong?" asked Gessler.
Werner, fearing that some evil purpose lay behind this question, cautiously replied,—
"My lord, the house belongs to my sovereign lord the king, and is your and my fief."
"I will not allow peasants to build houses without my consent," returned Gessler, angered at this shrewd
reply, "or to live in freedom as if they were their own masters. I will teach you better than to resist my
So saying, he rode on, leaving Werner greatly disturbed by his threatening words. He returned into his house
with heavy brow and such evidence of discomposure that his wife eagerly questioned him. Learning what the
governor had said, the good lady shared his disturbance, and said,—
"My dear Werner, you know that many of the country-folk complain of the governor's tyranny. In my opinion, it
would be well for some of you, who can trust one another, to meet in secret, and take counsel how to throw off
his wanton power."
This advice seemed so judicious to Werner that he sought his friend Walter Fürst, and arranged with him and
Arnold that they should meet and consider what steps to take, their place of meeting being at Rütli, a small
meadow in a lonely situation, closed in on the land side by high rocks, and opening on the Lake of Lucerne.
Others joined them in their patriotic purpose, and on the night of the Wednesday before Martinmas, in the year
 each of the three led to the place of meeting ten others, all as resolute and liberty-loving as themselves.
These thirty-three good and true men, thus assembled at the midnight hour in the meadow of Rütli, united in a
solemn oath that they would devote their lives and strength to the freeing of their country from its
oppressors. They fixed the first day of the coming year for the beginning of their work, and then returned to
their homes, where they kept the strictest secrecy, occupying themselves in housing their cattle for the
winter and in other rural labors, with no indication that they cherished deeper designs.
During this interval of secrecy another event, of a nature highly exasperating to the Swiss, is said to have
happened. It is true that modern critics declare the story of this event to be solely a legend and that
nothing of the kind ever took place. However that be, it has ever since remained one of the most attractive of
popular tales, and the verdict of the critics shall not deter us from telling again this oft-repeated and
always welcome story.
We have named two of the many tyrannical governors of Switzerland, the deputies there of Albert of Austria,
then Emperor of Germany, whose purpose was to abolish the privileges of the Swiss and subject the free
communes to his arbitrary rule. The second named of these, Gessler, governor of Uri and Schwyz, whose threats
had driven Werner to conspiracy, occupied a fortress in Uri, which he had built as a place of safety in case
of revolt, and
 a centre of tyranny. "Uri's prison" he called this fortress, an insult to the people of Uri which roused their
indignation. Perceiving their sullenness, Gessler resolved to give them a salutary lesson of his power and
On St. Jacob's day he had a pole erected in the market-place at Altdorf, under the lime-trees there growing,
and directed that his hat should be placed on its top. This done, the command was issued that all who passed
through the market-place should bow and kneel to this hat as to the king himself, blows and confiscation of
property to be the lot of all who refused. A guard was placed around the pole, whose duty was to take note of
every man who should fail to do homage to the governor's hat.
On the Sunday following, a peasant of Uri, William Tell by name, who, as we are told, was one of the
thirty-three sworn confederates, passed several times through the market-place at Altdorf without bowing or
bending the knee to Gessler's hat. This was reported to the governor, who summoned Tell to his presence, and
haughtily asked him why he had dared to disobey his command.
"My dear lord," answered Tell, submissively, "I beg you to pardon me, for it was done through ignorance and
not out of contempt. If I were clever, I should not be called Tell. I pray your mercy; it shall not happen
STATUE OF WILLIAM TELL.
The name Tell signifies dull or stupid, a meaning in consonance with his speech, though not with his
 character. Yet stupid or bright, he had the reputation of being the best archer in the country, and Gessler,
knowing this, determined on a singular punishment for his fault. Tell had beautiful children, whom he dearly
loved. The governor sent for these, and asked him,—
"Which of your children do you love the best?"
"My lord, they are all alike dear to me," answered Tell.
"If that be so," said Gessler, "then, as I hear that you are a famous marksman, you shall prove your skill in
my presence by shooting an apple off the head of one of your children. But take good care to hit the apple,
for if your first shot miss you shall lose your life."
"For God's sake, do not ask me to do this!" cried Tell in horror. "It would be unnatural to shoot at my own
dear child. I would rather die than do it."
"Unless you do it, you or your child shall die," answered the governor harshly.
Tell, seeing that Gessler was resolute in his cruel project, and that the trial must be made or worse might
come, reluctantly agreed to it. He took his cross-bow and two arrows, one of which he placed in the bow, the
other he stuck behind in his collar. The governor, meanwhile, had selected the child for the trial, a boy of
not more than six years of age, whom he ordered to be placed at the proper distance, and himself selected an
apple and placed it on the child's head.
Tell viewed these preparations with startled eyes,
 while praying inwardly to God to shield his dear child from harm. Then, bidding the boy to stand firm and not
be frightened, as his father would do his best not to harm him, he raised the perilous bow.
The legend deals too briefly with this story. It fails to picture the scene in the market-place. But there, we
may be sure, in addition to Gessler and his guards, were most of the people of Uri, their hearts burning with
sympathy for their countryman and hatred of the tyrant, their feelings almost wrought up to the point of
attacking Gessler and his guards, and daring death in defence of their liberties. There also we may behold in
fancy the brave child, scarcely old enough to appreciate the magnitude of his peril, but looking with simple
faith into the kind eyes of his father, who stands firm of frame but trembling in heart before him, the
death-dealing bow in his hand.
In a minute more the bow is bent, Tell's unerring eye glances along the shaft, the string twangs sharply, the
arrow speeds through the air, and the apple, pierced through its centre, is borne from the head of the boy,
who leaps forward with a glad cry of triumph, while the unnerved father, with tears of joy in his eyes, flings
the bow to the ground and clasps his child to his heart.
"By my faith, Tell, that is a wonderful shot!" cried the astonished governor. "Men have not belied you. But
why have you stuck another arrow in your collar?"
 "That is the custom among marksmen," Tell hesitatingly answered.
"Come, man, speak the truth openly and without fear," said Gessler, who noted Tell's hesitancy. "Your life is
safe; but I am not satisfied with your answer."
"Then," said Tell, regaining his courage, "if you would have the truth, it is this. If I had struck my child
with the first arrow, the other was intended for you; and with that I should not have missed my mark."
The governor started at these bold words, and his brow clouded with anger.
"I promised you your life," he exclaimed, "and will keep my word; but, as you cherish evil intentions against
me, I shall make sure that you cannot carry them out. You are not safe to leave at large, and shall be taken
to a place where you can never again behold the sun or the moon."
Turning to his guards, he bade them seize the bold marksman, bind his hands, and take him in a boat across the
lake to his castle at Küssnach, where he should do penance for his evil intentions by spending the remainder
of his life in a dark dungeon. The people dared not interfere with this harsh sentence; the guards were too
many and too well armed. Tell was seized, bound, and hurried to the lake-side, Gessler accompanying.
The water reached, he was placed in a boat, his cross-bow being also brought and laid beside the steersman. As
if with purpose to make sure of the
 disposal of his threatening enemy, Gessler also entered the boat, which was pushed off and rowed across the
lake towards Brunnen, from which place the prisoner was to be taken overland to the governor's fortress.
Before they were half-way across the lake, however, a sudden and violent storm arose, tossing the boat so
frightfully that Gessler and all with him were filled with mortal fear.
"My lord," cried one of the trembling rowers to the governor, "we will all go to the bottom unless something
is done, for there is not a man among us fit to manage a boat in this storm. But Tell here is a skilful
boatman, and it would be wise to use him in our sore need."
"Can you bring us out of this peril?" asked Gessler, who was no less alarmed than his crew. "If you can, I
will release you from your bonds."
"I trust, with God's help, that I can safely bring you ashore," answered Tell.
By Gessler's order his bonds were then removed, and he stepped aft and took the helm, guiding the boat through
the storm with the skill of a trained mariner. He had, however, another object in view, and had no intention
to let the tyrannical governor bind his free limbs again. He bade the men to row carefully until they reached
a certain rock, which appeared on the lake-side at no great distance, telling them that he hoped to land them
behind its shelter. As they drew near the spot indicated, he turned the helm so that the boat struck violently
 against the rock, and then, seizing the cross-bow which lay beside him, he sprang nimbly ashore, and thrust
the boat with his foot back into the tossing waves. The rock on which he landed is, says the chronicler, still
known as Tell's Rock, and a small chapel has been built upon it.
The story goes on to tell us that the governor and his rowers, after great danger, finally succeeded in
reaching the shore at Brunnen, at which point they took horse and rode through the district of Schwyz, their
route leading through a narrow passage between the rocks, the only way by which they could reach Küssnach from
that quarter. On they went, the angry governor swearing vengeance against Tell, and laying plans with his
followers how the runaway should be seized. The deepest dungeon at Küssnach, he vowed, should be his lot.
He little dreamed what ears heard his fulminations and what deadly peril threatened him. On leaving the boat,
Tell had run quickly forward to the passage, or hollow way, through which he knew that Gessler must pass on
his way to the castle. Here, hidden behind the high bank that bordered the road, he waited, cross-bow in hand,
and the arrow which he had designed for the governor's life in the string, for the coming of his mortal foe.
Gessler came, still talking of his plans to seize Tell, and without a dream of danger, for the pass was silent
and seemed deserted. But suddenly to his ears came the twang of the bow he had heard before that day; through
the air once more winged
 its way a steel-barbed shaft, the heart of a tyrant, not an apple on a child's head, now its mark. In an
instant more Gessler fell from his horse, pierced by Tell's fatal shaft, and breathed his last before the eyes
of his terrified servants. On that spot, the chronicler concludes, was built a holy chapel, which is standing
to this day.
Such is the far-famed story of William Tell. How much truth and how much mere tradition there is in it, it is
not easy to say. The feat of shooting an apple from a person's head is told of others before Tell's time, and
that it ever happened is far from sure. But at the same time it is possible that the story of Tell, in its
main features, may be founded on fact. Tradition is rarely all fable.
We are now done with William Tell, and must return to the doings of the three confederates to whom fame
ascribes the origin of the liberty of Switzerland. In the early morning of January 1, 1308, the date they had
fixed for their work to begin, as Landenberg was leaving his castle to attend mass at Sarnen, he was met by
twenty of the mountaineers of Unterwald, who, as was their custom, brought him a new-year's gift of calves,
goats, sheep, fowls, and hares. Much pleased with the present, he asked the men to take the animals into the
castle court, and went on his way towards Sarnen.
But no sooner had the twenty men passed through the gates than a horn was loudly blown, and instantly each of
them drew from beneath his doublet
 a steel blade, which he fixed upon the end of his staff. At the sound of the horn thirty other men rushed from
a neighboring wood, and made for the open gates. In a very few minutes they joined their comrades in the
castle, which was quickly theirs, the garrison being overpowered.
Landenberg fled in haste on hearing the tumult, but was pursued and taken. But as the confederates had agreed
with each other to shed no blood, they suffered this arch villain to depart, after making him swear to leave
Switzerland and never return to it. The news of the revolt spread rapidly through the mountains, and so well
had the confederates laid their plans, that several other castles were taken by stratagem before the alarm
could be given. Their governors were sent beyond the borders. Day by day news was brought to the head-quarters
of the patriots, on Lake Lucerne, of success in various parts of the country, and on Sunday, the 7th of
January, a week from the first outbreak, the leading men of that part of Switzerland met and pledged
themselves to their ancient oath of confederacy. In a week's time they had driven out the Austrians and set
their country free.
It must be admitted that there is no contemporary proof of this story, though the Swiss accept it as authentic
history, and it has not been disproved. The chief peril to the new confederacy lay with Albert of Austria, the
dispossessed lord of the land, but the patriotic Swiss found themselves unexpectedly relieved from the
execution of his
 threats of vengeance. His harshness and despotic severity had made him enemies alike among people and nobles,
and when, in the spring of 1308, he sought the borders of Switzerland, with the purpose of reducing and
punishing the insurgents, his career was brought to a sudden and violent end.
A conspiracy had been formed against him by his nephew, the Duke of Swabia, and others who accompanied him in
this journey. On the 1st of May they reached the Reuss River at Windisch, and, as the emperor entered the boat
to be ferried across, the conspirators pushed into it after him, leaving no room for his attendants. Reaching
the opposite shore, they remounted their steeds and rode on while the boat returned for the others. Their
route lay through the vast cornfields at the base of the hills whose highest summit was crowned by the great
castle of Hapsburg.
They had gone some distance, when John of Swabia suddenly rushed upon the emperor, and buried his lance in his
neck, exclaiming, "Such is the reward of injustice!" Immediately two others rode upon him, Rudolph of Balm
stabbing him with his dagger, while Walter of Eschenbach clove his head in twain with his sword. This bloody
work done, the conspirators spurred rapidly away, leaving the dying emperor to breathe his last with his head
supported in the lap of a poor woman, who had witnessed the murder and hurried to the spot.
This deed of blood saved Switzerland from the vengeance which the emperor had designed. The
 mountaineers were given time to cement the government they had so hastily formed, and which was to last for
centuries thereafter, despite the efforts of ambitious potentates to reduce the Swiss once more to subjection
and rob them of the liberty they so dearly loved.
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