Who was William Tell?

Actors in the town of Altdorf rehearse the most famous scene from the William Tell play © KEYSTONE / URS FLUEELER

Was he a real person and, if so, is there any evidence supporting the claims that he performed the heroic deeds attributed to him?

This content was published on July 26, 2004 - 16:38
Daniele Papacella and Dale Bechtel,

The legend says Tell came from the village of Bürglen in canton Uri.

Tell was a hunter, a family man and skilled with a crossbow. But not much else was known about the peasant until November 18, 1307.

On that fateful day, Tell journeys the few kilometres from Bürglen to Altdorf, Uri’s main town.

As he walks through the town square, he chooses to ignore the hat of Gessler, which the Habsburg bailiff has placed on a pole.

Gessler wants the hat to represent imperial authority and demands that everyone who passes shall bow before it. Failure to do so is tantamount to treason.

Tell is arrested for his snub and Gessler threatens to execute him unless he can prove his skill as a marksman.


The wicked bailiff has an apple placed on the head of Tell’s son, Walter, and orders the archer to shoot it off.

If he misses, both are to die. Tell is distressed but gains strength from his son who shows no fear.

The shot is taken and the crossbow bolt splits the apple. Tell confesses that he has hidden a second arrow on his body, which he would have used on Gessler in case of injury to his son.

The bailiff is enraged and refuses to free Tell. Instead, the archer is placed in irons and put on a boat for Küssnacht where he is to be jailed.

But a sudden storm blows up threatening to capsize the small craft. Tell’s captors release him, realising that he alone can steer the boat to shore because of his knowledge of the lake.


Tell brings the boat close to some flat rocks, where he leaps to safety while pushing the vessel and its crew back out into the stormy waters.

Tell eventually makes his way overland to Küssnacht to seek his revenge. He ambushes Gessler’s party as it makes its way along a main road through the forest, shooting the tyrant through the heart with his last arrow.

The Swiss hero than vanishes from the scene of the crime and nothing more is heard of him.

There is no mention of Tell either in the state archives in Vienna of the former Habsburg empire, or in historical documents preserved in canton Uri.

Historians have also trawled through medieval registers and have come up empty handed.

“Tell” or “von Thal”?

There is speculation that “Tell” may have been an adaptation of the Uri name “von Thal” (of the valley). But in 1300 the head of this clan was a “Conrad von Thal” and there is no indication that any of his relatives answered to the name of William.

Conrad von Thal was also remembered as a loyal subject, who conscientiously paid his tithes to his overlord.

The presence of similar legends in other parts of Europe suggests that the Tell saga might be no more than a dramatic enrichment of Swiss history.

Tell represents the common man, who respects authority but is quick to fight for his rights once it turns despotic. Thus, a modest peasant can become a hero.

And he is a hero lacking in supernatural powers, unlike mythical figures in many medieval tales.

It is therefore easy to understand why so many in Switzerland still believe there once was a man called William Tell.

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Key facts

The places where the William Tell story unfolds:
Village of Bürglen – Tell’s birthplace
Altdorf – where Tell defies the Habsburg tyrant and is forced to shoot an apple off his son’s head.
Lake Lucerne – Tell escapes during a stormy crossing of the lake.
Küssnacht – where Tell gets his revenge and kills Gessler.

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