Wilhelm Tell – Myth or historical fact
BY EVELINA RIOUKHINA
I started my journey through the history of Switzerland from far away – from the legend that brought me back almost seven thousand years, to the possible Swiss roots, the lake-dwellers (a site submitted by Switzerland to UNESCO and included in the World Heritage tentative list.
The journey through history and arts, described in the previous Swiss Pages, led us from the Pax Romana (or almost) to the events of today. There is a need, however, for several stops in this journey to see in detail some events or to look at some personalities, mythic or real, that made Swiss history. This Swiss page, this time, is about one such person and it concerns the history of one of the most crucial periods in the formation of Switzerland, the pact of independence at the end of the 13th century, richly endowed by the story – which may be legend or historical truth – of Wilhelm Tell.
The history – the oath at Grütli
Three men, respectively from the cantons of Schwyz, Uri and Unterwalden – the Waldstätten or forest cantons – met secretly on the plateau of Grütli above the Urner Lake (which is part of the Lake of Lucerne) and pledged that they and their kin would forever help each other against external threats. This was in 1291 and it marks the foundation of the Swiss Federation. The immediate threat came from the House of Habsburg, nominally lords of the region. The interest of the Habsburgs in the Waldstätten, which otherwise had at the time little to tempt avarice, was as so often in Swiss history a line of communication, access to the passes that joined northern and southern Europe, especially the Germanic part of the Holy Roman Empire, to Italy.
Access to the St. Gotthardt pass had become an important issue when around 1230 the local population improved the road, used previously mainly by mountain goats and hunters, in that order. Improvement, moreover, is a relative term. A path was suspended on ropes from the sheer cliff face of the Schöllenen gorge through which flowed the River Reuss (until a 65 metre tunnel was cut through the rock in 1701).
Nonetheless, the valleys in Uri, which gave access to the pass became of high strategic importance. The House of Habsburg (which originated in Switzerland, although it was later associated mainly with Austria) already held the northern approach to the St. Gotthardt route from the Rhine to Luzern. Rudolf I of Habsburg now wished to incorporate into his domain the central Swiss valleys south of Luzern so as to complete his control of the pass.
He died in 1291, but within weeks of his death representatives of the communities of Schwyz, Uri and Unterwalden, alarmed by the threat of Habsburg intrusion, met in the field of the Grütli (the location is doubtful) and signed in August 1291 the historic pact whereby its signatories pledged eternal mutual assistance against all enemies and in the process laid the foundation of the Swiss Confederation.