His name is Tell. William Tell. He doesn’t drink vodka Martinis, but he’s almost as famous as James Bond, and his story is just as exciting. He is, of course, the Swiss national hero with the crossbow who, as legend has it, defied the rule of the Habsburgs way back in the 13th century and thus laid the foundations for Swiss national independence. His fight against tyranny took place around Lake Lucerne – in Küssnacht, in Flüelen and Altdorf at the far southern end of the lake and at the Tellsplatte beneath the sheer rock faces of the lower lake.
The most famous version of the Tell story was written by German playwright Friedrich Schiller in 1804. It goes something like this: the Habsburg rulers are savagely oppressing the farmers, shepherds and cuckoo clock makers of the Lake Lucerne region. So some locals secretly meet in the middle of the night on a lonely meadow called the Rütli, swear allegiance to each other and decide to get rid of the rulers. The next day, Tell walks into Altdorf with his son, and refuses to pay respect to the Habsburg bailiff Gessler. Tell is stopped by Gessler’s men, but Gessler offers to pardon him if he shoots an apple from his own son’s head with his crossbow. Tell pulls two arrows, shoots - and hits the apple. Gessler asks what the second arrow was for, and Tell answers 'To shoot you with, if I were to hit my son'. Tell is immediately arrested, but in a storm he manages to escape from the boat he is being transported on, and jumps onto the Tellsplatte. Tell later finds Gessler near Küssnacht and shoots and kills him. Habsburg rule crumbles, this small Alpine region becomes sort of independent, Tell is celebrated as a hero and lives in Bürglen happily ever after.
Today we know that Wilhelm Tell, as he is known in German, is a legendary figure. There is no historical evidence whatsoever of him or even any family of the name Tell ever having lived in this area. But as a figure he was already popular in the 15th century and was long considered a real person. When two intellectuals published a book doubting Tell’s existence in 1760, they caused a huge scandal! Even today you may find the occasional old believer... Every nation needs its myths. Tell and the crossbow became symbols for everything Swiss and the story, at least, is alive and well!
The Lake Lucerne region is where the William Tell adventure is set and where, by legend, Switzerland was founded. You can visit the scenes of this medieval adventure which are listed below and follow in the Swiss national hero's footsteps while taking in the breathtaking landscape of Central Switzerland.