Floods and William Tell

In Florida, May is the driest month of the year, but here in Kentucky, it is typically the wettest month.  I got a reminder of that from the rain pouring down on us, this past Saturday, Sunday and Monday.  On Sunday morning, water leaked into the main floor from our patio door.  Bad as that is, we can catch most of the water with towels and a pan or two.  The puddle we got in the basement on Monday evening was a bigger mess to clean up; I had to leave the light on downstairs that night, to speed up the evaporation process.

In Chapter 9 of my European history series, today I added the William Tell legend to the paragraph on how Switzerland got started.  That expanded the paragraph into a whole new section, so here is how it reads now:

The Birth of Switzerland

This is a good place to cover how Switzerland got started. Though Switzerland is right in the middle of Europe, not much had happened there before the thirteenth century. It is easy to understand why; the land is poor in resources, except for edelweiss and yodelers, and because the Alps are such a formidable barrier, only somebody like Hannibal would want to go through the country, rather than around it. Anyway, we saw in the previous section that the Hapsburgs originally came from the Swiss Alps. The inhabitants around Lake Lucerne were always threatened by the Hapsburg ancestral castle looking over them, so in 1291 the cantons (communities) of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden formed an "Everlasting League," an alliance to keep them free from everybody else.


Unlike most European countries, Switzerland was founded by ordinary people, rather than by a king, and they did not crown anyone after they succeeded. You may have heard of one Swiss founding father, William Tell. According to the legend the Swiss all know, William Tell was a strong mountain climber and an expert crossbowman. One day the Hapsburgs sent an official named Albrecht Gessler to Uri. In Uri’s central square, Gessler put his hat on a pole, and ordered everyone in the town to bow before the hat. When William Tell and his son Walter came to town and walked past the hat, Tell refused to bow to it; Gessler didn’t see this as a friendly overture, and had Tell arrested. But Gessler had also heard of Tell’s marksmanship, and wanted to see a demonstration, so he came up with a punishment that was both unique and cruel. If Tell could shoot an apple off the head of his son at 120 paces, he would be free to go; if he failed, Gessler would execute both Tell and his son.

Tell accepted the challenge, took two crossbow bolts (arrows) from his quiver, and successfully hit the apple with one shot. When Gessler asked why he had grabbed two bolts, Tell replied that if he had killed his son with the first one, he would have shot the second one at Gessler himself. Furious, Gessler ordered that Tell be taken to his castle dungeon. They boarded a ship to cross Lake Lucerne, but a storm struck in the middle of the crossing; Tell escaped and when Gessler pursued him on the lake’s shore, Tell killed him with the second crossbow bolt. These events inspired the people of Uri to rise up and liberate their canton.

The problem with the William Tell story is that we can’t prove any of it is true; William Tell may not have even existed. First, there is an historical error. The Swiss claim the apple-shooting incident took place on November 18, 1307, but as we saw above, Uri had been free of the Hapsburgs since 1291. Second, the oldest version of the story we have was written in 1474, more than a century after it supposedly happened. Still, the Swiss have made it a central part of their culture, to the point that in a recent survey, 60 percent of the Swiss polled said they believed William Tell was real, and the crossbow is one of Switzerland’s national symbols because of him.

Now let’s get back to what we know really happened. The Swiss have a reputation for being the most efficient people in Europe; it seems that they do everything right the first time they try it. That may have started with the Everlasting League, because the alliance worked superbly. In 1315 the Swiss, with a force numbering only 1,500 men, ambushed a Hapsburg force that was ten times larger, while the invaders were strung out along an icy road beside Lake Aegeri (the battle of Morgarten). In 1339 the three cantons, allied with Berne, defeated the Burgundians in the next major battle, at Laupen, and that allowed the League to live in peace for nearly fifty years. By 1353 five more cantons (Lucerne, Zurich, Glarus, Zug and Berne) had joined the original three, forming a confederation large enough to stand on its own. In 1415 they even conquered the Aargau valley, capturing Castle Hapsburg in the process. After several more defeats, the major powers chose to leave the Swiss alone, partly because of their country’s spectacularly rugged scenery, and partly because of the Swiss practice of giving arms and military training to civilians. Swiss pikemen gained a reputation for being the best infantry force anywhere, and an admiring Machiavelli called the Swiss "the best armed and the most free people in Europe." The last attempt to conquer Switzerland was a short and vicious effort by Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, called the Swabian War (1499); after it failed he had to recognize the Swiss Confederation, now containing thirteen members, as an independent republic within the Holy Roman Empire. Later on, the Treaty of Westphalia declared Switzerland a completely independent country (1648). By this time Switzerland no longer got involved in the politics of its neighbors, so it became the ultimate neutral nation, long before the Congress of Vienna (see Chapter 13) put it in writing.

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