Nov 182013

William Tell, the swiss national hero

Supposedly on this date in 1307 William Tell shot an arrow into an apple on his son’s head. The legend as told by Tschudi (ca. 1570) reports that William Tell, who originally came from Bürglen, was known as a strong man, mountain climber, and an expert shot with the crossbow. In his time, the Habsburg emperors of Austria were seeking to dominate Uri. Albrecht (or Hermann) Gessler, the newly appointed Austrian Vogt of Altdorf, raised a pole in the village’s central square, hung his hat on top of it, and demanded that all the townsfolk bow before the hat.

On 18 November 1307, Tell visited Altdorf with his young son and passed by the hat, publicly refusing to bow to it, and so was arrested. Gessler, intrigued by Tell’s famed marksmanship, yet resentful of his defiance, devised a cruel punishment: Tell and his son would be executed, but he could redeem his life by shooting an apple off the head of his son, Walter, in a single attempt. Tell split the apple with a bolt from his crossbow.


But Gessler noticed that Tell had removed two crossbow bolts from his quiver, not one. Before releasing Tell, he asked why. Tell replied that if he had killed his son, he would have used the second bolt on Gessler himself. Gessler was angered, and had Tell bound.

Tell was brought to Gessler’s ship to be taken to his castle at Küssnacht to spend his newly won life in a dungeon. But, as a storm broke on Lake Lucerne, the soldiers were afraid that their boat would founder, and unbound Tell to steer with all his famed strength. Tell made use of the opportunity to escape, leaping from the boat at the rocky site now known as the Tellsplatte (“Tell’s slab”) and memorialized by the Tellskapelle.


Tell ran cross-country to Küssnacht. As Gessler arrived, Tell assassinated him with the second crossbow bolt along a stretch of the road cut through the rock between Immensee and Küssnacht, now known as the Hohle Gasse. Tell’s blow for liberty sparked a rebellion, in which he played a leading part. That fed the impetus for the nascent Swiss Confederation.

Tell supposedly fought again against Austria in the 1315 Battle of Morgarten. Tschudi also has an account of Tell’s death in 1354, according to which he was killed trying to save a child from drowning in the Schächenbach river in Uri.

Most likely the tale is apocryphal.  Versions of it well predate 14th century Switzerland.The earliest known occurrence of the tale is from the 12th century, in Saxo Grammaticus’ version of the story of Palnatoki, whom he calls Toko (Gesta Danorum Book 10, chapter 7):

Toko, who had been for some time in the service of the king [Harald Bluetooth], had, by the deeds in which he surpassed his fellow-soldiers, made several enemies of his virtues. One day, when he had drunk rather much, he boasted to those who were at table with him, that his skill in archery was such that he could hit, with the first shot of an arrow, ever so small an apple set on the top of a wand at a considerable distance. His detractors hearing these words, lost no time in conveying them to the ears of the king. But the wickedness of the prince speedily conveyed the confidence of the father to the peril of the son, ordering the sweetest pledge of his life to stand instead of the wand, from whom, if the utterer of the boast did not strike down the apple which was placed on him at the first shot of his arrow, he should with his own head pay the penalty of his idle boast. . . . When the youth was led forth, Toko carefully admonished him to receive the whiz of the coming arrow as steadily as possible, with attentive ears, and without moving his head, lest by a slight motion of his body he should frustrate the experience of his well-tried skill. He made him also, as a means of diminishing his apprehension, stand with his back to him, lest he should be terrified at the sight of the arrow. He then drew three arrows from his quiver, and the first he shot struck the proposed mark. Toko then being asked by the king why he had taken so many arrows out of his quiver, when he was to make but one trial with the bow, “That I might avenge on thee,” said he, “the error of the first by the points of the others, lest my innocence might hap to be afflicted and thy injustice to go unpunished!”

Apocryphal or not, widespread veneration of Tell, including sight-seeing excursions to the scenes of his deeds, is documented as early as the 16th century. Heinrich Brennwald in the early 16th century mentions the chapel (Tellskapelle) on the site of Tell’s leap from his captors’ boat.


Tschudi mentions a “holy cottage” (heilig hüslin) built on the site of Gessler’s assassination. The first recorded Tell play (Tellspiel), known as the Urner Tellspiel (“Tell Play of Uri”), was probably performed in the winter of either 1512 or 1513 in Altdorf.The church of Bürglen had a bell dedicated to Tell in 1581, and a nearby chapel has a fresco dated to 1582 showing Tell’s death in the Schächenbach.

Antoine-Marin Lemierre wrote a play inspired by Tell in 1766 and revived it in 1786. The success of this work established the association of Tell as a fighter against tyranny with the history of the French revolution. The French revolutionary fascination with Tell was reflected in Switzerland with the establishment of the Helvetic Republic. Tell became the symbol of the short-lived republic, his figure being featured on its official seal. The French Navy also had a Tonnant class ship of the line named Guillaume Tell, which was captured by the British Royal Navy in 1800.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe learned of the Tell saga during his travels through Switzerland between 1775 and 1795. He obtained a copy of Tschudi’s chronicles and considered writing a play about Tell, but ultimately gave the idea to his friend Friedrich von Schiller, who in 1803–04 wrote the play Wilhelm Tell, first performed on March 17, 1804, in Weimar. Schiller’s Tell is heavily inspired by the political events of the late 18th century, the French and American revolutions, in particular. Schiller’s play was performed at Interlaken (the Tellspiele) in the summers of 1912 to 1914, 1931 to 1939 and every year since 1947. In 2004 it was first performed in Altdorf itself.

Gioachino Rossini used Schiller’s play as the basis for his 1829 opera William Tell. The “William Tell Overture” is one of his best-known and most frequently imitated pieces of music; in the 20th Century, the well known ending of the Overture became the theme for the radio, television, and motion picture incarnations of The Lone Ranger.  Oh, what the heck:

Adolf Hitler was enthusiastic about Schiller’s play, quoting it in Mein Kampf, and approving of a German/Swiss co-production of the play in which Hermann Göring’s mistress Emmy Sonnemann appeared as Tell’s wife. But on June 3, 1941, Hitler had the play banned. The reason for the ban is not known, but may been related to the failed assassination attempt in 1938 by young Swiss Maurice Bavaud (executed on May 14, 1941, and later dubbed “a new William Tell” by Rolf Hochhuth), or the subversive nature of the play. Hitler is reported to have exclaimed at a banquet in 1942: “Why did Schiller have to immortalize that Swiss sniper!”

Salvador Dalí painted The Old Age of William Tell and William Tell and Gradiva in 1931, and The Enigma of William Tell in 1933.


No trouble deciding today’s recipe , a delectable apple cake: William Tell Never Miss Cake.


William Tell Never Miss Cake



8 ozs cream cheese, softened
2 cups sugar
4 eggs
1 cup canola oil
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsps baking powder
2 tsps ground cinnamon
1 tsp salt
¼ tsp baking soda
2 cups chopped peeled tart apples
1 cup shredded carrots
½ cup Chopped Pecans

Praline Icing:

½ cup packed brown sugar
¼  cup butter, cubed
2 tbsps 2% milk
½ cup confectioners’ sugar
½  tsp vanilla extract
¼ cup chopped pecans, toasted


Preheat oven to 350°F/ 175°C

In a small bowl, beat the cream cheese and ¼ cup sugar until smooth. Beat in 1 egg. Set aside.

In a large bowl, beat the oil with the remaining sugar and eggs until well blended. Sift together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, salt and baking soda, and gradually beat the flour into the oil mixture until blended. Stir in the apples, carrots, and pecans.

Line a greased and floured 10 in fluted tube pan with half of the cake batter.  Spread the cream cheese mixture in an even layer over the batter.  Fill with the remaining apple batter.

Bake for 50-60 minutes or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes before removing from the pan to a wire rack to cool completely.

In a large saucepan, bring the brown sugar, butter and milk to a boil. Cook and stir 1 minute. Remove from the heat. Whisk in the confectioners’ sugar and vanilla until smooth. Drizzle over the cake  and sprinkle with pecans.

Yield: 12 servings.

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