The Assassination Of Gessler (1307)

The assassination of Julius Cæsar and of the first Roman Emperors led to greater demoralization of the people, and thereafter to anarchy, bloodshed, civil war, and ultimately to an atrocious despotism; but at an interval of twelve hundred and forty years after the death of Nero there occurred a political assassination, growing out of personal revenge, which freed a whole people from oppression and placed the murderer among the heroes of mankind and the liberators of nations.

We speak of William Tell, the national hero of Switzerland, who in 1307 deliberately murdered Gessler, the Austrian governor.

This governor, who resided at the castle of Kuessnacht, had committed the greatest outrages and acts of despotism against the inhabitants of his gubernatorial district, embracing the so-called three Waldstädte (Forest Cantons),—Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden. Until then these Forest Cantons had enjoyed a republican government, and had given to the German Empire a merely nominal recognition, by acknowledging the German Emperor as their suzerain. There is a great resemblance in the relations between these Swiss Cantons and the German Empire to the relations which existed, before the South African war, between the two Boer Republics and the crown of England. Rudolph of Hapsburg, himself a Swiss by birth, who had been elected German Emperor, had pursued a liberal policy toward the Cantons and in special charters had guaranteed to them their inherited rights and liberties. But his son Albrecht the First, who succeeded Rudolph on the imperial throne, resolved to do away with these prerogatives, deprive the Swiss Cantons of their independence, and make them subject to the crown of Austria. Theretofore the German Emperors had been represented in a few cities of Switzerland by bailiffs, who exerted the same authority in the Cantons as our federal judges in United States Territories; but Albrecht changed their duties and authority entirely, investing them with many additional powers, so that they became practically governors of their districts, appointed by the Emperor and administering their office as imperial officials.

Against this change the inhabitants of the Cantons entered their solemn protests; they sent delegations to Albrecht to remonstrate with him; but he gave evasive answers, increased the soldiery protecting the governors, shut his ears to all complaints about their arrogance and growing usurpation, and secretly encouraged them “to do all in their power to break the stubborn resistance of these uncouth mountaineers and boors, and make them obedient subjects of the Austrian crown.” To the strong men of the Cantons, who had never bowed their necks under the yoke of a foreign despot, the tyranny of these Austrian governors became intolerable; their leading men made up their minds to throw it off by all means, and to maintain their independence at any cost. Even the members of the nobility scattered through the Cantons were indignant at the arbitrary and haughty ways of the imperial bailiffs, who treated them with the same arrogance as they treated the common people; they therefore made common cause with the latter, so that practically the imperial officials were isolated in a hostile country, without friends or party.

The public discontent culminated in a secret conspiracy, of which Walter Fuerst of Uri, Werner Stauffacher of Schwyz, and Arnold Melchthal of Unterwalden, were the originators. These three men, each a representative and influential citizen of his own Canton, met at the house of Walter Fuerst and agreed to meet for further consultation on the Ruetli, an elevated plateau, hidden in the woods, near the lake of Uri, on certain nights, each undertaking to bring along ten men tried and true, who had promised to act with them, for life and death, for the deliverance of their country. They also pledged themselves by oath to keep this league a secret from all but the initiated, who like themselves had sworn to coöperate for the deliverance of the country, until the time had come for united action on one and the same day. This was done in the fall of 1307. A later consultation of the conspirators on the Ruetli took place some weeks afterwards, and was attended by the three leaders and thirty others. They were all full of enthusiasm and hope of victory. They all pledged the almost unanimous support of the inhabitants of the three Cantons, and finally agreed that the people should rise in rebellion on New Year’s Day, 1308. The humane feature of this proposed revolution appears from their joint agreement, affirmed under oath, that, in expelling the Austrian governors and their followers from their castles and their country, they would not kill them except in self-defence, but would treat them with leniency and charity. Is it not as if we heard Oom Krueger and his friends of the Transvaal and Orange Free State counsel on measures for their independence? They placed their full confidence in the justice of their cause, the assistance of God, and their own bravery.

The day for the execution of their plot was anticipated by an unforeseen event. Gessler, the Governor of Uri and Schwyz, had made himself especially odious by all sorts of petty acts of tyranny. Among these was an order that the ducal hat of Austria was to be placed on the top of a long pole to be erected on the market space of Altorf and that nobody should pass by it without uncovering his head and showing it respect as if the Duke of Austria (Albrecht, Emperor of Germany) himself were there. The citizens generally complied with the order. But one day William Tell and his little son passed by the hat without minding Gessler’s order. William Tell was the son-in-law of Walter Fuerst, one of the three leaders of the Ruetli conspiracy, and, like Walter Fuerst himself, he was looked upon with suspicion by the Austrian authorities. The openness with which he ignored Gessler’s order was immediately construed as an act of defiance and rebellion. He was taken before Gessler, and the cruel bailiff imposed upon him a punishment which, he thought, would wound him to the heart.

“Tell,” said he to him, “by your act of disobedience you have forfeited your life. But I will be merciful to you,” and pointing to Tell’s crossbow, he continued: “You have the reputation of being the best archer of our Canton, if not of all Switzerland. I have never seen a test of your skill yet; very well, let your skill be tried now, and if it is as great as your reputation it will save your life. There is an apple. Place it upon your boy’s head, and at a distance of thirty steps shoot it with an arrow. But take good aim! For, if you hit the boy, your life will pay for it!”

William Tell complied with the cruel order, and with his usual masterly skill brought down the apple from the boy’s head. Gessler was enraged at the result, and, before dismissing Tell, he asked him with an insidious smile: “Now tell me, William Tell, why did you take two arrows from your quiver before you took aim at the apple on your boy’s head? Tell me sincerely, and whatever your answer may be, your life shall not be imperilled.”

Carried away by his wrath, Tell contemptuously replied: “If I had missed my aim and hit my boy, the second arrow was for you, and, by God Almighty, it would not have gone astray!”

“That’s what I thought,” cried Gessler, and turning to his escort he ordered them to put Tell in chains and take him to the boat on the lake. “Your life,” said he to Tell, “is not in peril; but I will take you to my castle in Kuessnacht; there in one of the darkest dungeons underground you shall be imprisoned, and may find time to repent the rebellious words which you have uttered!”

In the immediate neighborhood of Kuessnacht, on a mountain top overlooking the town, was the fortified castle where Gessler resided. It was on the way to that residence that Tell did the act by which he satisfied his personal revenge and also freed his country from the bloody tyranny of the despot. While Gessler and his prisoner were crossing the lake, a storm arose, which endangered the boat. The fury of the tempest filled the hearts of the boatmen with dismay and terror, and tremblingly they turned to Gessler, saying: “The boldest and most skilful boatman in the Canton is Tell. He may be able to save the boat, but we cannot! Set him free and he may bring us safe to port.”

Gessler ordered the chains to be removed from Tell’s limbs and ordered him to take the helm, promising him life, liberty, and a full pardon if he should bring them safe into port. Tell took the helm, and the boat, obedient to its master’s hand, sped through the storm-tossed waves like a seabird dancing on the surface. But turning round a rock-bound bluff close to the shore, Tell suddenly took up his cross-bow lying on the bench near by, and with a mighty leap jumped on the rock, hurling the boat far back into the hissing and tempestuous flood.

Gessler also escaped from the watery grave, but only to meet his doom on land even before he had reached his home. Tell was lying in ambush on the road from the lake to Kuessnacht. It was the road which Gessler and his party had to take on their return to the castle, if they should succeed in effecting a landing on the shore. After some time Gessler, accompanied by a few friends, came in sight. No sooner had the party entered the defile than Gessler, shot through the heart by Tell’s unerring arrow, fell from his horse.

Tell’s shot was the signal for the general uprising of the people of Switzerland. Years of struggle and warfare against Austria’s nobility and armed forces followed Tell’s heroic act, but the entire independence of Switzerland was finally secured. Switzerland is to this day a free and independent republic, and Tell’s name shines with imperishable lustre not only as its great national hero, but also among the immortal patriots and liberators of mankind.

We are well aware that recent historical criticism has expressed doubt as to Tell’s great act of deliverance, and even as to his existence, and that in some histories the tale is simply relegated to the domain of legend and tradition. But there is no real justification for this decision. It is founded only on a statement in the chronicle of Saxo Grammaticus recording a feat of archery in Scandinavia similar to that of William Tell, and performed hundreds of years before Tell’s day.

As Johannes von Mueller, the great historian, judiciously says: “It shows but scanty knowledge of history to deny the truth of a historical event simply because another similar event occurred in another century and country.” But truth or fiction, history or legend, the heroic act and name of Tell will live on, immortal and inspiring, as they have lived during the last six hundred years. Poets and novelists have immortalized the great national hero of Switzerland in song and story. Frederick Schiller, Germany’s greatest dramatist, has made him the central hero of his greatest drama, and has given his name to that great hymn of liberty and patriotism, which stirred up the German nation to its glorious struggle against Napoleon the First. It is one of the few truly patriotic assassinations recorded in history.


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