William Tell is the legendary national hero of Switzerland, a man who is credited with bringing about the birth of that wonderful country of magnificent peaks and valleys in the beginning of the 14th century (or perhaps a bit later).
The story is set in the town of Altdorf in the canton of Uri. The Austrian Hapsburgs had become powerful and intended to control Uri and thus the trade route across the Alps. Albert I (or II), Duke/Emperor of Austria sent Hermann Gessler to police the rugged mountain folk of the forest cantons. Gessler was a particularly villainous sort of guy. He had his feathered cap set atop a pole in the town square and commanded all to bow to it as they passed or be punished severely. One day Wilhelm and his son, who were not from that town, passed by the hat, giving it no respect whatsoever. They were pounced upon for this defiance and dragged before Gessler, who demanded that Tell, whose reputation as a bowman must have preceeded him, shoot an apple from his young son's head. If he was successful, they could go free. The alternative was death for both. Of course, the vile Gessler fully expected that Tell's arrow would kill the son.
After centuries of telling, the story no longer holds any suspense; we all know that the arrow flew true and neatly cleaved the apple, leaving the boy unharmed. Gessler noticed that Tell had another arrow tucked in his belt and asked its purpose. Tell replied stonily that had the first harmed his son, the second would have found Gessler's heart. Gessler, true to a villain's way, took this impudence and latent threat as an excuse to break his promise and ordered Tell imprisoned.
While Tell was being transported to Gessler's castle across Uri lake one stormy night, he escaped by leaping to a large flat rock (now known as Tellsplatte). He later intercepted his captor's party and killed the tyrant. His deed ignited rebellion in the three cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Nidwald, which had already agreed to a common front of resistance to the Austrians. The uprising ousted the tyrants and led to the Convention of Helvetica to form what is now called Switzerland.
There is no historical evidence that either Tell or Gessler actually existed (but don't assert this around the Swiss!). Indeed, the idea of the champion's one great shot that saves the day is fairly common in folklore and story-telling. However, this story inspired the plays "Wilhelm Tell" by Schiller (1804) and "Guillaume Tell" by Rossini (1829), and is still a popular children's tale told around the world today.
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