November 18, 1307: William Tell Shoots an Apple off His Son’s Head (Real Heroes or Mere Legends?)

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A Brief History

On November 18, 1307, Swiss archer William Tell split an apple into two pieces  on his son’s head with a well-aimed arrow.  For defying Austrian authority, both he and his son were to be executed, but their lives would be spared if Tell, an excellent marksman, could hit the apple.  Ever since, William Tell has been perhaps the greatest Swiss hero, the symbol of patriotism.  But was he real?

Digging Deeper

Written accounts of the incident only surfaced in the late 15th century, almost 170 years later.  It is typical that many events in history, be they real or fictional, are only recorded long after the fact.  Accounts of Alexander the Great, for example, were written a couple hundred years after his death, and the Gospels of Christ were written decades after the crucifixion.  

So what is true and what is not?  Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett were certainly real frontiersmen, although their television and movie exploits may be greatly exaggerated.  Television and movie heroes Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson and Wild Bill Hickock were all quite real, but again, most likely not quite the incredible men portrayed in the old dime novels and on the silver screen.

The American frontier never saw a Paul Bunyan, a Pecos Bill, an A.B. Stormalong or a Mike Fink.  On the other hand, there really was a train engineer named Casey Jones, although Casey the baseball player who struck out is fictional.

Getting back to Europe, how about Robin Hood?  Was there a “Robin of Locksley?”  This one is debated as well, with all sorts of real candidates being given as the Robin Hood of legend.  Robin Hood’s king, Richard the Lion Hearted, was a real English king, but he did not even speak English! (He spoke a French dialect.)  How about the “Braveheart” portrayal by the Mel Gibson film of that same name (1995)?  Was William Wallace real?  Yes!  This time the hero certainly was real, although the depictions of this character are either inaccurate or incomplete, as little is known about the real man.  Have you ever seen El Cid, the 1961 film starring Charlton Heston?  Yes, there really was an 11th century Spanish hero known by that moniker.  In fact his real name was Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar.

Hundreds of years from now, we can only guess if scholars will debate whether or not Batman, Superman or Babe Ruth were real people.  Question for students (and subscribers): Will our last few presidents be remembered by history as champs or chumps?  Give us your thoughts on how future people will look back on our heroes in the comments section below this article.

For another event that happened on November 18, please see the History and Headlines article: “Korean Boxer Predicts Own Death before being Beaten (to Death) by Ray Mancini.”

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Baldwin, David.  Robin Hood: The English Outlaw Unmasked.  Amberley, 2010.

Buff, Conrad.  The Apple and the Arrow.  HMH Books for Young Readers, 2001.

Storrie,Paul D. and Thomas Yeates.  William Tell: One against an Empire [A Swiss Legend] (Graphic Myths and Legends).  Graphic Universe TM, 2013.

The featured image in this article, a painting by Ludwig Vogel (1788-1879) of William Tell and the apple, is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.

You can also watch a video version of this article on YouTube:


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.