Switzerland: Tales of Heroes and Arrows

Although Switzerland is now joked about for its perpetual ‘neutral’ stand, this European country also has its own national heroes, who were not at all ‘neutral’ ones.  Centuries ago, indeed, Switzerland could not keep with such a status. The country was put under the Habsburg rule, an Austrian royal family, as soon as the late-13th century: from then on, reeves were dispatched in every canton, raising taxes and trying to keep control over its populations. Nevertheless, three states, known as Waldstätten (literally, ‘forest states’) struggled for independence: Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden were first to join forces so as to resist the Habsburg power.

A map of Europe for those who can’t spot Switzerland. Right here, stuck between France, Germany and Italy… (Source: Alexander Altenhof via Wikimedia)

Struggle for self-identity and independence is usually the way to shaping national heroes: see William Wallace in Scotland (“FREEEEDOOOM!”), King Leonidas of Sparta (“Tonight, we dine… in hell!”), Gandhi in India (“Tonight, I don’t dine anyway –fasting”), among others whose legend lived on to the present day. In Switzerland, this figure may be William Tell.

Passing by the village of Altdorf, capital of Uri, with his son Robert in 1307, William noticed that the Austrian reeve of the city has raised a pole at the town’s center, with a hat atop. Passers-by had to bow before the hat, as a sign of submission to the Habsburg rule: but William was no man to comply with foreign, illegitimate authority. Thus was he man to be arrested.

William is put under arrest following the ‘hat incident’. Mosaic by Hans Sandreuter (1901) exhibited at the Swiss National Museum. (Source: Roland zh via Wikipedia)

The ruler of Altdorf, Hermann Gessler, was known as a cruel man: upon hearing about William’s deeds, he went to him and offered him a way out in the form of an archery test. An apple was to be placed on top of his son’s head, and would William shoot an arrow straight to the fruit, both would be released. Helpless, William accepted the challenge: he was very skilled with his crossbow, but this would not be the case would he lose his nerve. The day of the challenge, a crowd had gathered around William, mostly made up villagers, along with Gessler and his soldiers. Was it for nationalist support or gruesome entertainment, William did not know. He focused on his target.

Silence. William took a deep breath. Robert, blindfolded and whose hands were tied, did not shiver. He took aim, and one second later, fired his crossbow and hit the apple which was cut in half due to the violence of the shock. Relieved, William hurried towards his son but then dropped a second arrow, hidden within his clock. It unleashed Gessler’s fury. “Fellow!” he shouted from the stands, “What did you mean with this second arrow?” to which William defiantly replied: “Tyrant! This arrow was for your heart if I had hurt my child.”

“Free apple juice everyone!” Representation of William Tell’s crossbow shot extracted from Sebastian Münster’s Cosmographia (1554) by Hans Rudolf Manuel Deutsch. (Source: Wikipedia)

Of course, Gessler would not spare William’s life anymore, for he wasn’t straight as an arrow. He had him arrested – again – and sent to the castle of Küssnacht, where the archer was supposed to receive life sentence and see “neither sun nor moon”. However, William was not to leave his son alone; he escaped by jumping off the boat leading him to the prison on Lake Lucerne. Tracking Gessler from the shores of the lake, he hid in a bush, and took out the second arrow he was arrested for in the wake of the archery contest. When Altdorf’s reeve arrived, in the dead of night, William fired and killed him with a single arrow, straight to his (stone-cold) heart.

The legend of William Tell, kind of a local version of Robin Hood, sparked Swiss resistance. But the struggle with the Habsburgs was only in its early stages in 1307. Remember the forest states? They grew to include five more territories by 1353, the union forming the Bund der Acht Orte (‘Alliance of the Eight Places’) in an attempt to coordinate Swiss resistance. Several bloody battles followed. During one of them, another Swiss hero was born: the legend of Arnold von Winkelried is set at the Battle of Sempach, in 1386.

The Battle of Sempach, painting by Karl Jauslin, 1889. (Source: Wikipedia)

On that day, the troops of Leopold III, Duke of Austria, were marching towards Sempach when they came across the Helvetian party. The imbalance of power was obvious for any witness of the scene: on one side, stood the Austrian knights in battle order, their silver amours shining under the summer sun. Holding their long, sharp pikes at their front, they formed an impenetrable line to the Swiss side, mostly made up poorly-equipped peasants without military experience.

Facing this spiky silver threat, Helvetian hopes for independence and freedom seemed to die out, until Arnold von Winkelried addressed his men:

True and dear confederates, I shall lose my life doing it.

Their battle order is locked tight, we may not breach it

But I will make a breach.

Upon saying this, he dropped his weapons and threw his body on the Austrian pikes, opening a way for his men to engage in close combat and, eventually, win. This event was a turning point in the conflict between the Habsburgs and the Old Swiss Confederacy.

Unfortunately for the latest, they would not be left in peace for centuries to come. As the formerly Habsburg-ruled cities fell back into Helvetian hands, conflicts arose in the neighborhood; as Swiss soldiers had earned a reputation for bravery and strength from their involvement in liberating their own country, lots of them were employed by foreign European courts. The Pontifical Swiss Guard, responsible for the Pope’s protection since the 15th century and still in charge nowadays, is a telling example of how such a small country’s history was shaped by war and why it brought about its neutrality principle in the following years.

The Pontifical Swiss Guard. With them, the Pope is sure to go unnoticed. (Source: Official Vatican Network via Flickr)

William Tell and Arnold von Winkelried’s legends – though they lack historical accounts – ultimately illustrate how history grows myths so as to sustain nationalism and patriotism. And while Switzerland is the oldest neutral country in the world – along with one of the world’s most dynamic economies – one may understand why it has come to enshrine the neutrality principle in the Treaty of Paris, dated 1815: it’s more of a well-kept treasure.



Author: Nicolas

Ingrédients : 33% d'anecdotes insolites, 19% de livres poussiéreux, le reste de curiosité névrosée. Auteur du Petit dictionnaire des sales boulots (Vendémiaire, 2022). Chroniqueur chez Slate et RetroNews.

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