Famous Men of the Middle Ages HTML version

William Tell and Arnold von Winkelried
Far up among the Alps, in the very heart of Switzerland, are three districts, or cantons, as
they are called, which are known as the Forest Cantons and are famous in the world's
history. About two thousand years ago the Romans found in these cantons a hardy race of
mountaineers, who, although poor, were free men and proud of their independence. They
became the friends and allies of Rome, and the cantons were for many years a part of the
Roman Empire, but the people always had the right to elect their own officers and to
govern themselves.
When Goths and the Vandals and the Huns from beyond the Rhine and the Danube
overran the Roman Empire, these three cantons were not disturbed. The land was too
poor and rocky to attract men who were fighting for possession of the rich plains and
valleys of Europe, and so it happened that for century after century, the mountaineers of
these cantons lived on in their old, simple way, undisturbed by the rest of the world.
In a canton in the valley of the Rhine lived the Hapsburg family, whose leaders in time
grew to be very rich and powerful. They became dukes of Austria and some of them were
elected emperors. One of the Hapsburgs, Albert I, claimed that the land of the Forest
Cantons belonged to him. He sent a governor and a band of soldiers to those cantons and
made the people submit to his authority.
In one of the Forest Cantons at this time lived a famous mountaineer named William Tell.
He was tall and strong. In all Switzerland no man had a foot so sure as his on the
mountains or a hand so skilled in the use of a bow. He was determined to resist the
Secret meetings of the mountaineers were held and all took a solemn oath to stand by
each other and fight for their freedom; but they had no arms and were simple shepherds
who had never been trained as soldiers. The first thing to be done was to get arms without
attracting the attention of the Austrians. It took nearly a year to secure spears, swords,
and battle-axes and distribute them among the mountains. Finally this was done, and
everything was ready. All were waiting for a signal to rise.
The story tells us that just at this time Gessler, the Austrian governor, who was a cruel
tyrant, hung a cap on a high pole in the market-place in the village of Altorf, and forced
everyone who passed to bow before it. Tell accompanied by his little son, happened to
pass through the marketplace. He refused to bow before the cap and was arrested. Gessler
offered to release him if he would shoot an apple from the head of his son. The governor
hated Tell and made this offer hoping that the mountaineer's hand would tremble and that
he would kill his own son. It is said that Tell shot the apple from his son's head but that
Gessler still refused to release him. That night as Tell was being carried across the lake to
prison a storm came up. In the midst of the storm he sprang from the boat to an over-
hanging rock and made his escape. It is said that he killed the tyrant. Some people do not