During the later centuries of the Middle Ages the different peoples of Europe began to draw apart from each other and to form separate nations. We have seen how England drove out its foreign lords and began to rule itself, and how Henry the Fowler founded the separate German nation. The same spirit was working in every region during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and the patriots of those years have a special interest because they were founding the nations of the modern world. The next people to make a stand for liberty were the Swiss, and this tale is of their leaders, the men of the forest cantons, and of their hero, William Tell.
Switzerland was divided into cantons as England was divided into counties, and the forest cantons were Uri, Schwiz, and Unterwalden. They were beautiful mountain regions, covered with forests, which sloped down to the blue lake of Lucerne lying in their midst. Here dwelt a simple mountain people, shepherds whose log huts perched in the high Alpine meadows, and artisans and farmers who lived in the tiny villages that dotted the valleys or lay, on the harbors of the lake. No part of Switzerland is more shut away by mountain ranges from the outer world.
The men who dwelt in the forest cantons in the Middle Ages heard of what was going on in the courts of emperors and kings, but so far as their daily life was concerned, it affected them little. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Switzerland was first under Clovis; then it was part of Charlemagne's empire; and after his death it fell, in the partition, to the German section. To each ruler the Swiss gave allegiance, recognizing his overlordship; but the private affairs of the cantons, which affected the life of the people, were managed either by seigniors and barons, who lived in castles and claimed control over the regions which surrounded them, or by town officers whose appointment was approved by the emperor. So there came to be "free towns," which paid their annual dues to the emperor, but which directed their own affairs through general assemblies meeting once or twice a year in the open air, at which any person who owned "seven feet of land before or behind him "might claim a voice. Such were the towns of the forest cantons. In this remote region, shut in by mountains, the people kept more of their ancient liberties than in any other part of Switzerland.
This was the state of affairs when the crown of the empire passed to the house of Hapsburg. Emperor Rudolph of Hapsburg was, as you will read in "Kings and Common Folk," a great emperor. He ruled justly and fairly, and the Swiss who were his fellow countrymen honored him; but he did not like the idea of free towns in his empire, and he refused to give a charter renewing and confirming the ancient rights of Uri, Schwiz, and Untenvalden. Because his officers were fair and just, the people of the forest cantons did not suffer in his reign, but when he died and the government passed to Albert, Duke of Austria, it was far otherwise. Not only did he refuse to grant the ancient liberties, but he put Austrian officers in place of their town seigniors. These men governed in a most tyrannous fashion. They threw people into prison without giving them any trial. They robbed the poor of their crops and their cattle under the name of taxes. In short, they knew no law but their own desires, and their ways were cruel beyond imagination.
Then the men of the forest cantons met and joined themselves in a "perpetual alliance" for aiding one another in resisting oppression. That is what history tells of the beginning of the oldest free state in the world. But, as in the case of Hereward the Saxon, legend has a great deal more to tell, and this is one of the times when legend is as well worth reading as history, for even if everything did not happen in just this fashion, the story gives us a true picture of Swiss patriotism, and has come to be one of the most famous stories of liberty in the world.
The men of the cantons resented bitterly the tyranny of the Austrian officers, and whispered among themselves that such deeds could not be borne. But they had no leader. They did not know that, while they were sleeping in their beds, three patriots were meeting nightly to plan for freedom.
It was not safe to meet by day nor in any house, for the Austrian's spies were everywhere. So three patriots, Stauffacher of Schwiz, Melchthal of Unterwalden, and Walter Fürst of Uri, who had suffered much from the governors and whose hearts burned over the oppression of the people, determined to come together by night and advise with one another concerning what could be done. They chose for their meeting place the meadow of Rütli, a steep promontory jutting out over Lake Lucerne, which lay mid-way between the three cantons. Here they met, and as they discovered from one another what tyrannies were being practiced in each canton, they said: "The time for submitting is past. The forest cantons must be free again." So they struck hands on it, and each agreed to bring ten men of like sentiments with himself to the place of meeting.
They came together, thirty-three of the truest men of the three cantons, on the night of the seventeenth of November ( this was in the year 1307) and talked together long hours in the darkness, and before they separated they took an oath which is known as the oath of Rütli. They raised their right hands to heaven and swore in the name of God, before whom kings and peasants had equal rights, that they would work together for the liberties of the cantons; that they would stand for the innocent and oppressed people of the land; that they would go about rousing the people to a remembrance of their ancient rights; that they would do no harm to seigniors or governors save as it was needful for their lawful liberties; but that the freedom which they had received from their ancestors, that same freedom they would hand down to their children. As they spoke the oath, so the story goes, the first rays of the rising sun shone over the mountains on the brave group of patriots.
The men of Rütli dispersed, to find new tyrannies awaiting them. Gessler, officer of Uri, had taken it into his head to humble the people in a new way. He had a pole set up near the linden tree of Altdorf, where every one must pass, and upon it he caused a hat to be placed. Then he had it proclaimed that every one who should pass before the hat should take off his hat and bow and show respect, as though the king were there. At the foot of the pole he set a servant to watch and see that every one obeyed him. He who did not, should have cause to repent it, he announced.
"What nonsense is this?" said the people. "Does he make mock of our misery, trying to show us that we are slaves, to bow down to a hat?"
Now the day after this hat was set up, one of the men of Rütli, William Tell, came to Altdorf and passed the hat upon the pole without doing reverence. This was reported to Gessler. He therefore had Tell brought before him and asked him why he did not bow before the hat. When his answer did not satisfy, the tyrant bethought him how he could best punish him and give the people a lesson at the same time. Now Tell was a renowned archer; there was hardly a better one. And he had with him his son, a child of six.
"Now, Tell," said Gessler, "I understand that thou art a good shot. Thou shalt prove thy skill before me. Thou shalt shoot an apple from the head of this thy son."
Tell protested in vain, begging him for God's sake not to require him to do this.
"I would rather die," he said.
"Thou and thy child shall both die if thou wilt not obey," replied Gessler.
So Tell was led out into the village square. His son was placed before a tree, and an apple was laid on the child's head. All the people looked on in pity and fear, and murmured against the tyrant for this cruel plan.
Tell prayed fervently to God to protect him and his loved boy. Then he took his crossbow, drew it, and placed the arrow upon it, put another into his jerkin, and shot at the apple. And behold! the apple was cleft clean in two, the arrow lodged in the tree behind, and the child stood forth unhurt. Truly that was a wonderful shot.
Then Gessler praised him for the shot, but asked him why he had another arrow in his jerkin.
"It is the hunter's custom," replied Tell.
"Come, Tell, give me the truth. The answer thou hast given I will not accept. Fear not, thy life shall be safe."
"Well, then," said Tell, "since you have made my life safe, I will tell you the truth. Had I hurt the boy, with the other arrow I should have shot you, and I should not have missed you."
Gessler was furious when he heard this.
"So be it," he said. "I have made thy life safe; my word shall hold; but I will have thee taken to a place where thou shalt lie without seeing sun or moon forevermore."
He ordered his men to bind Tell and take him to a boat, which should carry him to prison, and he himself went with them. Tell's shooting tackle, quiver and arrow and bow, he took along and placed on board near the tiller. When they came upon the lake a terrible storm arose, and all were in danger of being drowned. Gessler's servants said to him: "Sir, you see us and our danger. Our pilot is full of fear and unskilled. Now Tell is a powerful man and skillful with a boat. We should make use of him in this distress."
So Tell was loosed and stood at the rudder and sailed along. But he looked often at his bow and arrow. When he came near to a level place, he cried to the boatmen to pull well until they were in front of that flat place, where they would be out of danger. Then he pushed the tiller with much power (he was a man of great strength), grasped his bow, and leaped on shore, pushing the boat back as he did so. Thus Tell escaped from the tyrant Gessler.
When you go to Switzerland, you will see on the shore of Lake Lucerne a little chapel built at the spot where tradition says he leaped ashore, and you will be shown the meadow of Rütli, where the patriots met. In the little town of Altdorf you will find the statue of which the picture is shown here. The rest of the story of Swiss freedom you will read in the pages of history, which tells how the three cantons rose in revolt against their oppressors, how the Swiss fought at Morgarten and threw off the hated yoke of Austria, and how they met on the shores of Lake Lucerne in the year 1315 and renewed the perpetual league of freedom which was the beginning of the Swiss republic, the oldest free state in the world.