Stories of William Tell Told to the Children  by H. E. Marshall

The Battle of Morgarten

For a few years the Swiss had peace, but when the Emperor Henri died the Duke of Austria, who was now called Leopold, tried to make the Princes choose him as the next Emperor. But Albrecht had been hated so much that the Princes would not choose an Austrian as Emperor. That made the Swiss very glad, for they greatly feared another Austrian ruler. The new Emperor was called Louis, and he was king to the Swiss, as Henri had been, and gave them new letters saying that they were a free people.

Duke Leopold of Austria was very angry that he had not been chosen Emperor, and his anger made him hate the Swiss more than ever. Like Duke Albrecht, he resolved to fight against them and conquer them. "The wretched peasants!" he said; "I will yet tread them under foot."

Duke Leopold gathered his army and set out for Schwytz, which he meant to conquer first. He was so sure of victory that he took with him a cartload of ropes with which to bind the prisoners.

But when the Swiss heard that Duke Leopold was coming, they made ready to fight, strengthening their towns as best they could, and keeping watch for him day and night.

Duke Leopold was a fierce and terrible man, but he was also tall and handsome. He looked very splendid and knightly as, dressed in glittering armour, he rode at the head of his troops. Behind him were the greatest of Austria's knights and nobles, followed by twenty thousand gallant soldiers in shining armour.

And this great host came marching against only six hundred mountain peasants. There seemed no doubt as to how the fight must end. But Duke Leopold little knew what wonderful deeds these peasants could do when fighting for their country and their freedom.

When the men of Schwytz heard that Leopold's great army was near, they sent to Uri and Unterwalden for help. They did not send in vain, and on the fourteenth of November, as the sun was setting, four hundred men of Uri arrived, led by Tell and Walter Fürst. At midnight, as they sat round the watch-fires, Arnold Melchthal came from Unterwalden bringing with him three hundred more. The whole army numbered now thirteen hundred men.

Round the camp fires the leaders held a council of war. "Brothers," said Stauffacher, "once more we are gathered to protect our country against Austria. With God's help we will once more succeed. Even among the Austrians we are not without friends. Yesterday this arrow was shot into our camp," he went on, holding up the arrow so that all might see it. "Fastened to the shaft is a piece of parchment, and written upon it the words, 'Beware of Morgarten.' That is surely meant for a warning."

"What does it mean?" asked some one.

"Are you sure it is a friend and no traitor who sends the message?"

"I know the writing. It certainly comes as a friendly warning."

"Whose is it?"

"It is the writing of the Count Henri of Hunenberg. He is our friend although he is an Austrian."

"Yes, yes," said every one, "we may trust him, he is just and good."

Then a very old man rose and seemed about to speak, and every one was silent to listen to him. He was so weak and crippled that he could not fight, indeed he could hardly walk. But still he had come with the army, for although his body was bent and worn with age, his mind was bright and keen, and he was very wise. He loved his country, and the people were glad to listen to his counsels.

"The letter is the warning of a friend," said this old man. "It means that you must stay upon the heights of Morgarten. Duke Leopold will lead his army through the valley below. When his knights and horsemen are close packed in the narrow pass between the mountain and the lake they will be at our mercy. You can then rush down upon them from above, and they will not be able to escape."

The leaders resolved to do as the old man advised, and after everything was arranged for the coming battle, they lay down to rest till dawn. But scarcely had they done so that the camp was roused again. In the still night the sound of the tramp of feet could be heard.

"Who goes there?" called the sentinel.

"Friends," came the answer, "we would speak with the captains of the army."

Dimly through the darkness could be seen the forms of a small company of men. They were soon surrounded, and their leaders were brought before Tell and the other captains.

"Who are you, and what do you want?" asked Tell.

"We are outlaws," replied the men. "For our misdeeds we have been banished from the land. But we are sorry for the evil that we have done, and we have come to beg you to give us a chance to win again the place which we have lost. There are fifty of us. We come to offer our lives for our country. Let us fight with you against the Austrians. We ask nothing better than to die for our Fatherland."

"Go away a little," said Tell, "until we talk of this matter. What think you?" he added, turning to his fellows as the outlaws moved away.

"They may not fight with us," said the others. "We cannot trust them." So after a little more talk the outlaws were told that they could not be allowed to fight in the Swiss army, and that they must go away.

The fifty men were very sad because the Confederates would not let them help in the fighting. They went sorrowfully from the Swiss camp, but they did not go far. A little way off there was a ledge of rock above a steep precipice. There they lay down to wait for the enemy, for, although they were not to be allowed to fight in the army, they had made up their minds to die for their country. They had no arms nor weapons of any kind, but somehow or other they meant to help.

Soon the first streaks of dawn turned the snow-topped mountains pink. The camp was all astir, and in the early morning light the Swiss were drawn up in fighting order. They wore little armour, and besides their bows and arrows their chief weapon was what was called a "Morning Star." This was a heavy club, the head of which was thickly covered with sharp iron points, so that it looked like a star. And although it had such a beautiful name, it was a very deadly weapon.

When the Swiss were ready for battle, they fell upon their knees, as their old custom was, calling upon God, as their only Lord and Master, to help them that day. "Lord God of heaven and earth, look upon their pride and our lowliness. Show that Thou forsakest not those who trust in Thee, but bring them low who trust in themselves and glory in their own strength." Then they rose from their knees and stood waiting for the enemy.

They had not long to wait. The first beams of the winter sun fell upon helmet and breastplate, on glittering shield and spear. Soon, as far as the eye could reach, the valley was full of a slowly moving mass of men and horses, their banners fluttering in the wind, their weapons and armour gleaming in the sunlight.

Never before had the Swiss seen such an army. On they came, first the knights and men on horseback, behind the foot-soldiers, until the valley between the mountain and the lake was close packed. And above them, on the mountain-side, the Swiss stood quietly watching and waiting.

Meanwhile the fifty outlaws had not been idle. They had gathered great heaps of huge stones and boulders and brought them to the edge of the precipice. Now they felt their time had come. The mountain road was slippery, and the Austrian horsemen moved slowly and carefully, but the foot-soldiers behind pressed on so quickly that the ranks were broken and thrown into disorder. At this moment the outlaws, uttering wild shouts, rolled the huge stones which they had gathered down upon the struggling mass of men and horses below. As the stones came crashing upon them, the Austrian soldiers, already in some disorder, were thrown into utter confusion. Riders were overthrown and trampled underfoot; horses wild with terror galloped madly among the close-drawn ranks; and always the soldiers from behind, not knowing what was happening in front, kept pressing on.

The panic and rout seemed complete, when down the mountain-side came the Swiss, charging in perfect order. For although the slope was steep, their iron spiked shoes gave them firm hold upon the rocky crags. Swinging their morning stars about their heads, they fell upon the Austrian host.

In the narrow pass between the mountain and the lake there was great slaughter. Knight after knight fell dead under the blows of the terrible morning stars. Hundreds were crushed and trampled to death by their fellows. Hundreds more sprang into the lake, hoping to save themselves, and were drowned.

Fearless and foremost among the Swiss fought Tell and his friends. As Tell with great blows clove a path through the Austrian ranks, two knights fell upon him. "Die, traitor," they cried, as their swords flashed in the sunlight. But Tell avoided the blows, and swinging his morning star, brought it crashing down upon the head of one of the knights, while with his dagger in his left hand he kept off the other.

The first knight fell, and as he fell his helmet rolled off, so that his face was seen. It was the face of Gessler's son Dietrich.

The second knight now attacked Tell fiercely. But very soon he too lay dead beside his brother. For he also was a son of Gessler. The two brothers had hoped to avenge their father's death.

Landenberg also, in spite of his promise never to return to Switzerland, was with the Austrian army. But he too fell upon the field.

In less than an hour and a half, before nine o'clock in the morning, the Swiss had gained a complete victory. It is said that fifteen thousand men fell in this battle. All the pride and the glory of the Austrian army had perished. For many years chivalry was rare in the countries around, for all the bravest and best knights lay dead upon the field of Morgarten.

Duke Leopold himself hardly escaped with his life. He was led almost by force out of the battle by a soldier who knew the mountain passes, and pale as death, broken and sad, he arrived late that evening at a place of safety.

Duke Leopold tried no more to take away the freedom of the Swiss. After this battle a peace was signed, and year by year it was renewed.

Yet although by this battle a great blow against Austria had been struck, the struggle was not at an end. It was not until nearly two hundred years after Tell's great shot that the Swiss were entirely free. But never again did such dark and terrible days come upon them; never again did they suffer as they suffered when Gessler and Landenberg ruled the land.

In gratitude for the victory of Morgarten, the Swiss built a chapel upon the battlefield. The walls of it are painted with pictures of the fight, and to this day, every year on the fifteenth of November, the day on which the battle was fought, a service of thanksgiving is held.

Tell lived quietly for many years in his house at Bürglen, happy with his wife and children. In the year 1354 there was a great flood which carried away many houses and did much harm. Many people were drowned, and William Tell, who was now an old man, was among them.

But Tell still lives in the memory of the Swiss. They love him still and honour him as the saviour of their country. Where his house at Bürglen stood there is now a chapel. On its walls are written, in German, these lines—

"Here, where this holy church doth stand,

The saviour of his fatherland

Great William Tell erstwhile did live.

He made our freedom truly live,

And him to thank and God to praise,

This church upon the spot we raise.

Ah, comrades dear, think well thereon

What God and our fathers for us have done."

There is also a chapel upon the spot where Tell sprang from Gessler's boat. The place is called Tell's Platte, and to this day, once a year, a solemn service is held there, and the people, dressed in their best, come from all sides in a gay procession of decorated boats to do honour to the memory of their hero.

At Küssnacht too, on the spot where Gessler died, a chapel was built. After hundreds of years that chapel fell into ruins, but another was built which still stands.

Perhaps some day you may go to Switzerland and see all these interesting places.