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All the William Tells

by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the August 2002, A.S. XXXVII issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

After Robin Hood the most well known archer of the Middle Ages is William Tell. And like Robin Hood, Tell’s life is wrapped in a fog of myth and legend. But unlike Robin Hood, where glimpses of the men who inspired the legends can be seen, Tell is a ghost in the history books. The origins of Tell lie not in the actions of men, but in folklore. This essay will display some of the lore.

At a time soon after the opening of the Gotthard Pass, when the Hapsburg emperors of Vienna sought to control Uri and thus control trans-Alpine trade, a new bailiff, Hermann Gessler, was dispatched to Altdorf. The proud mountain folk of Uri had already joined with their Schwyzer and Nidwaldner neighbors at Rutli in pledging to resist the Austrian’s cruel oppression, and when Gessler raised a pole in the central square of Altdorf and perched his hat on the top, commanding all who passed before it to bow in respect, it was the last straw. William Tell, a countryman from nearby Burglen, either hadn’t heard about Gessler’s command or chose to ignore it; whichever, he walked past the hat without bowing. Gessler seized Tell, who was well known as a marksman, and set him a challenge. He ordered him to shoot an apple off his son’s head with his crossbow; if Tell was successful, he would be released, but if he failed or refused, both he and his son would die. The boy’s hands were tied. Tell put one arrow in his quiver and another in his crossbow, took aim, and shot the apple clean off his son’s head. Gessler was impressed - and infuriated and then asked what the second arrow was for. Tell looked the tyrant in the eye and replied that if the first arrow had struck the child, the second would have been for Gessler. 1

This is the standard telling of the Tell legend as recorded in the “Chronicon Helveticum” by Gilg Tschudi written around 1735. The main source of the story however comes from the manuscript known as the “White Book of Sarnen” which was probably written around 1470. There was also a ballad written in the same time period about these events, though no names were mentioned. The story is conjoined with that of the Swiss independence movement which started in the last quarter of the 13th century and reached its climax in the battle of Morgarten in 1315.

Among the earliest recorded versions of a Tell type story is found in the tenth book of “The Danish History” by Saxo Grammaticus written around 1200. The reign of the king mentioned, Harold Bluethroth, lasted from 950 to 985. The story was recorded as follows:

One Toke, who had served some while with the king (Harald Bluethroth), had made many men foes to his virtues by the services wherein he over passed the zeal of his comrades. Talking in his cups among the feasters, he chanced to boast that if an apple, however small, were set at a distance upon a stick, he would hit it with the first shaft he aimed. This speech, catching the ears of his detractors, reached the hearing of the king. But the unscrupulous monarch presently turned the father’s confidence to the peril of the son, and commanded that this most sweet pledge of Toke’s life should be put in the place of the stick with the apple on his head, and should suffer with his own head for that windy boast, unless he who made the promise should with the first arrow that he tried strike the apple off it. Thus the treacherous slanders of others took up his half-tipsy vaunt, and the soldier was forced by his king’s behest to do better than his promises, so that his words bound him to more than their own consequence... So Toke brought the lad forth, and warned him straightly to await the singing of the arrow with steadfast ear and unswerving head, so as not to balk by any slight motion the successful trial of his skill. Also he considered a plan to remove the lad’s fear, and made him turn away his face, that he should not be scared by the sight of the missile. Then he put out three arrows from the quiver; the first that he fitted to the string struck the mark proposed. [Eulogy on father and son.]... But when the king asked Toke why he had taken three shafts from the quiver, when he was to try his fortunes but once with the bow, Toke answered, “That I might avenge on thyself the miss of the first with the point of the others, lest perchance my innocence might suffer and thy violence escape.” 2

Other versions of this story can also found in Norway (twice), Iceland, Holstein, and on the Rhine. But not all tellings portray the protagonist in a good light. In “The Malleus Maleficarum”, the witch hunting manual of 1486 written in Germany, among the practices it condemns is the use of demons in producing “smart” arrows. It ends the section with this tale of the archer Puncker.

It is told also of this man, that a very eminent person wished to have proof of his skill, and for a test placed his little son before the target with a penny on his cap, and ordered him to shoot the penny away without removing the cap. The wizard said that he would do it, but with reluctance; for he would rather have refrained, not being sure whether the devil was seducing him to his death. But, yielding to the persuasions of the prince, he placed one arrow in readiness in the cord which was slung over his shoulder, fitted another to his bow, and shot the penny from the cap without hurting the boy. Seeing this, the prince asked him why he had place the arrow in that cord; and he answered: “If I had been deceived by the devil and had killed by son, since I should have had to die I would quickly have shot you with the other arrow to avenge my death.” 3

The shot was not always forced upon the archer as this fragment of the poem of the English Tell, William Cloudsley shows. The earliest known copy dates from 1550, but likely to be much older.

“I shall assay,” sayd Cloudeslee, “or that I ffuther goe.”
Cloudeslee with a bearing arrow clanue the wand in towe.

“Thou ar the best archer,” said our King, “fforsooth that euer I see.”
“& yett ffor your loue,” said william, “I will doe more masterye:

“I haue a sonne is 7 yeere old, hee is to me ffull deere;
I will tye him to a stake - all shall see him that bee here, -

“& lay an apple vpon his head, & goe sixe score paces him ffroe,
& I my selfe with a broad arrowe shall cleaue the apple in towe.”

“Now hast thee,” said the Kinge; “by him that dyed on a tree,
but if thou dost not as thou has sayd, hanged shalt thou bee!

“& thou touch his head or gowne in sight that men may see,
by all the saints that bee in hauen, I shall you hang all 3:!”

“that I haue promised,” said william, “that I will neuer fforsa’e:”
& there euen before the King, in the earth he droue a stake,

& bound thereto his eldes sonne, & bade him stand still thereatt,
& turned the childes fface hime froe because hee should not start.

An apple vpon his head he sett, & then his bow he bent;
sixe score paces they were meaten, & thither Cloudeslee went.

There he drew out a ffaire broad arrow, - his bowe was great and long, -
he sett that arrowe in his bowe that was both stiffe & stronge;

he prayed the people that were there That they wold still stand,
“ffor hee that shoteth ffor such a wager had need of a steedye hand.”

Much people prayed for Cloudeslee, that his liffe saued might bee;
& when hee made hime readye to shoote, there was many a weepinge eye.

Thus Cloudeslyee claue the aple in 2, as many a man might see:
“now god fforffbidd,” then said the King, “that thous sholdes shoote att mee! 4

If this celebrated shot ever took place, the when and who are forever obscured by the mists of time. It is more likely that it is a medieval version of an “urban legend”. And a great example of how one must be critical of period sources.



1. http// ^

2. “The Nine Books of the Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus,” pp. 577-8. ^

3. “The Malleus Maleficarum,” pp. 150-1. ^

4. “Folio Manuscript: Ballads and Romances Vol. 3,“ pp. 98-100. ^



Grammaticus, Saxo. The Nine Books of the Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus. Trans. Oliver Elton. New York: Norroena Society, 1905. "Story of Toke and the Apple" (Bk. X, pp. 329, ed. Holder).

Kramer, Heinrich, and James Sprenger. The Malleus Maleficarum. Trans. Montague Summers. New York: Dover Publications, 1971.

Percy, Bishop. Folio Manuscript: Ballads and Romances Vol. 3. ed. John W. Hales and Frederick Furnivall. London: N. Trubner & Co., 1868.

Sirugo, Paul. "The Legend of William Tell." 07 Jul. 2003
Legend of William Tell(dead link).

"William Tell." Online Encyclopedia . 07 Jul. 2003
William Tell(dead link).


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