Switzerland’s National Hero Probably Didn’t Exist

“There’s only yourself. The belief is in your own precision.” —Three Days of the Condor (1975)

In A Nutshell

We’ve all heard the story about how William Tell shot an apple off his son’s head by order of an Austrian envoy. It’s a defiant act of rebellion that has long been the cornerstone of Swiss history and national pride, a hero firmly entrenched in their history books; unfortunately, it’s also not true. Historical inaccuracies and dates that just don’t match indicate that he’s a much later invention of national pride. That, and the story also crops up in a Viking legend dated to 400 years earlier.

The Whole Bushel

William Tell’s likeness is all over Switzerland. His name is on chapels and parts of the natural landscape, the square where the infamous event took place is a historic and national treasure. His bow is stamped on Swiss exports. Festivals are held in his honor, celebrating his selfless courage that led to freeing Switzerland from the tyranny of the Austrians. He even holds a place of honor within the mythos of the Catholic Church.

Most people know the part about the arrow, but there’s more to the story of William Tell than just that. It started when an Austrian bailiff made Swiss citizens bow to a hat he had placed in the town square. Tell refused, and the bailiff made him shoot an arrow off his son’s head in penance. Tell grabbed two arrows, and after he made the shot he told the bailiff that he had reserved the second one for him should he have killed his child.

Not surprisingly, that landed him in pretty hot water with the Austrians. They were on their way to throwing him in a dungeon when Tell escaped, throwing the bailiff and his men out of the boat. From there, he met up with a handful of other revolutionaries, where they swore the oath that started the Swiss revolution and ended in the nation’s independence from Austrian influence.

The story was long thought to be historical fact, and the idea that it was anything but went over just about as well as you’d think. Books that suggested otherwise were publicly burned in William Tell’s town square.

But there’s more to substantiate claims that Tell was a fictional invention than the idea that he was a real person.

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Even though the events of the story were said to have happened in 1307, the earliest recorded writings of the legend only date back to 1570. And around 200 years after the writing of the stories about Tell, historians uncovered documents (the Oath of Rutli) detailing the oaths of those revolutionaries that met in the forest to plan their rebellion against the Austrians. None of them was named William Tell.

In fact, there are no historical records referring to William Tell before those 1570 writings. Those were penned by a man named Aegidius Tschudi, and his dates are really, really wrong. In it, he says that William Tell’s act of rebellion took place in 1307, along with his formation of the rebel group. But the actual Oath of Rutli was dated 1291.

There’s also an almost-verbatim telling of the story that predates Tell. An anecdote in the Viking history of Denmark tells of a man named Toko who was drunkenly boasting of his archery skills. The king ordered him to shoot an apple off his son’s head. He did, and, as in the Tell legend, he had also picked up an extra arrow for the king should he have missed the apple. There was no rebellion in the Toko version, but Toko never forgave the king and did eventually kill him.

In spite of evidence, the desire to keep William Tell in the realm of history is strong. A Basel University professor who created an exhibition debunking the William Tell story as legend received not just angry mail, but also death threats. So strong is the story in the mythos of Switzerland that during World War II, the meadow clearing where Tell and his men met was the site of a ceremonial pledge to defend Switzerland against Nazi invasion at all costs.

History or not, the story of Tell and his rebels has undeniably shaped an entire nation.

Show Me The Proof

Smithsonian: In Search of William Tell
NY Times: The Swiss Debunk William Tell and All That