Tell, William, legendary Swiss patriot. According to legend, Tell was a native of Uri, one of the Swiss forest cantons. Gessler, the canton's Austrian bailiff, decreed that Swiss citizens must remove their hats before his hat, which he had posted on a stake in the canton's largest town. Tell refused and as punishment was ordered to shoot an apple off his small son's head. Although he succeeded, he was held prisoner by Gessler when he revealed that had he failed, he planned to kill Gessler with an arrow he had hidden on his person. Tell escaped and eventually shot Gessler from ambush at Küssnacht, thus setting off the revolt that ousted the bailiff on Jan. 1, 1308. While there is no valid proof of Tell's existence, the legend represents a distorted account of events that resulted (1291) in the formation of the Everlasting League between the cantons of Schwyz, Uri, and Unterwalden. Schiller's popular drama Wilhelm Tell is based on the legend; Rossini's opera William Tell is based on Schiller's drama.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.