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William Tell

According to the popular legend, William Tell is a pivotal figure in the liberation of the Swiss cantons from Habsburg rule. The story goes that a tyrannical Habsburg governor, by the name of Gessler, places his hat on a stick in the main square of Altdorf, in the canton of Uri, and requires passers-by to bow in deference before it. When Tell refuses to do so, Gessler sets him a test of markmanship. An apple is placed on the head of Tell's young son. Tell must shoot a bolt through it from his crossbow.

When the hero achieves this dangerous feat, Gessler arrests him anyway (Tell has threatened to use a second bolt on Gessler).


Taken as a prisoner by boat to Gessler's castle, at the northern end of Lake Lucerne, Tell escapes and eventually kills the tyrant. This act of rebellion sparks an uprising which frees the Swiss confederation.

The events are supposedly set in the years after the pledging of the Everlasting League in 1291. The story of Tell is first mentioned in a chronicle of about 1470, and similar feats of archery feature elsewhere in folklore. But the rare degree of independence won by the Swiss cantons (between 1291 and 1394) is an achievement worthy of a heroic champion of liberty. In William Tell the popular imagination provides an ideal and profoundly influential candidate for that role.


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