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Nov 18

William Tell Day

Swiss Country
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William Tell's Son
Ford Madox Brown (1863)
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"He lived in Burglen as the rest
And neighbours frankly him confest
Among the brave the first and best:
His name was William Tell"

~ The Hero of Switzerland, 1845-62, Groomsbridge and Sons

William Tell is a 14th century Swiss folk hero, who according to legend, as an expert marksman, shot an arrow through an apple on his son's head and launched the Swiss struggle for independence. His story has been told in ballads, opera, and film. When Rossini’s 1829 opera William Tell (with its famous overture) was first produced at La Scala in Milan, the city was still part of the Hapsburg Empire, so the setting was changed discreetly to Scotland, and Tell and his son appeared wearing kilts!

The famous legend of Swiss Folk Hero, William Tell's amazing feat of archery is said to have taken place on November 18th, 1307, when Switzerland was under the protection of Germany.  

 

Shooting an apple off one's child's head, also known as apple-shot (from German Apfelschuss) is a feat of marksmanship with a bow or crossbow that occurs as a motif in a number of legends in Germanic folklore and also English and Scottish ballads such as the Northumbrian ballad of Adam Bell, Clym of the Clough, and Wyllyam of Cloudeslee (a source for  Walter Scott's Ivanhoe):

 

William of Cloudeslee tells the king he will put an apple on his seven-year-old son's head and shoot it off at 120 paces:

I have a sonne seven years old;

Hee is to me full deere;
I will tye him to a stake—
All shall see him that bee here—
And lay an apple upon his head,
And goe six [score] paces him froe,
And I myself with a broad arrowe

Shall cleave the apple in towe.

This story's best known telling is that of William Tell:

"When Duke Albert of Austria became King, he sent his bailiffs to control Switzerland.  The bailiffs were cruel and corrupt men, and one, Herman Gessler of Bruneck, had trouble persuading the proud and independent Swiss folk that they were now under Austrian rule. As a test, he set his hat up on a pole in the square in the middle of Altdorf, and decreed that everyone who passed must salute this symbol of Austrian authority.  William Tell and his son Walter,  passing through from Brglen,  walked past the hat without saluting and were promptly arrested.  Refusing to believe that Tell was ignorant of the rule, and hearing of his skill as a marksman had Walter tied to a lime tree, with an apple on his head, threatening the boy if William did not exhibit his alleged skill. William Tell took a crossbow bolt and hid it in his shirt, and successfully fired another one through the apple. When Gessler asked why he had hidden the other bolt in his shirt, Tell replied that if he had killed his son, that second bolt would have gone straight into Gessler.

Gessler had William tied up and thrown in a boat, to be taken to Gessler's castle at Kssnacht, to be thrown in a dungeon for the rest of his life.  But once on the lake, a sudden storm put the boat in danger. The oarsmen panicked, untied Tell, and begged Tell to save them.   Tell took command of the boat, and when it drew near the steep cliffs that line the lake there, at Tell's Platte, a flat ledge that sticks out into the lake, he jumped off, pushing the boat away with his foot.

 

Now a marked man, Tell quickly marched overland to cut off Gessler at a sunken roadway near his castle. He lay in wait, and as Gessler rode by, Tell shot him through the heart.  The Swiss, encouraged by this act, rose up and ejected the Austrians without bloodshed, beginning their independence that still exists today."

This tartan represents the country of Switzerland. Colours: grey for the Swiss Alps; green for the forests and meadows; blue for rivers and lakes; yellow for sunshine; white for the snow and the crossing white lines on the Swiss flag. 

For a scholarly examination of the origins of this legend, click the portrait of William Tell's Son by Ford Madox Brown (1863).