It is natural enough that history should be mixed with myth, to make it interesting to the populace. But it is uttery unnatural that history or myth should not be interesting to the populace. — G. K. Chesterton

William Tell - George Upton




The Compact on the Rutli Meadow

There is a secluded meadow, surrounded by a forest, not far from the boundary line between Unterwalden and Uri, and near the Lake of the Four Cantons, called the Rutli.' The spot was used by the people of the three cantons for their secret gatherings.

"On the lake's left bank,

As we sail hence to Brunnen, right against

The Mytenstein, deep-hidden in the wood,

A meadow lies, by shepherds called the Rutli,

Because the wood has been uprooted there."

Schiller's William Tell.

It was night, but a night almost as light as day, so brightly shone the moon. There was a stir of life on the Rutli, and here and there figures emerged from the dark forest. A little boat came sailing across the lake. It conveyed Walter Furst, Werner Stauffacher, and Arnold von Melchthal, each of whom, in accordance with a previous agreement, brought ten trusty friends, men strong in soul and body, with whom they purposed to discuss the preliminary steps which should be taken to promote the welfare of the fatherland. The solemn beauty of the night aroused a feeling of sacred earnestness in the hearts of these men as they shook hands with one another and proceeded to the centre of the meadow.

Walter Furst was the first to speak. "God be with you all," he said. Friends, it is no ordinary matter that has called us here. We are come to discuss the welfare of the fatherland, and to adopt measures for the preservation of that freedom which we received from our fathers as a sacred legacy, so that we in turn may hand it down unimpaired to our children. We three—Stauffacher, Melchthal, and I—have invited you here; but before we did so, we went to the noble Baron von Attinghausen, who is with us to-night, and counselled with him. He is the oldest and most experienced of us all, and can tell you better than we why we have the right on our side. Therefore he will speak for us."

The white-haired hero advanced and said: "Friends and comrades, we owe our freedom to the bravery of our fathers, who many times defended it with their lives when it was assailed. For a long time we lived in peace and quiet. The Emperor Rudolph respected our rights, and was faithful to his pledges even unto death. But when Albrecht became his successor, his lust for power, and his sinister designs, brought bitter sorrow upon our land. We had lived quietly until the princes and cities elected him Emperor. We sent messengers to him at Strasburg, beseeching him to maintain our rights and liberties. He replied that he was considering the possibility of making some changes in our political relations.

"It was one of our ancient rights that each head of a family should have a voice in the Diet, in all matters pertaining to the country's welfare, and that the Landamman elected by each of the three cantons should execute the decrees of the majority. It was only in cases of extraordinary emergency that the Emperor sent a viceroy to preside over the deliberations of the Diet, but even then he was bound to act in accordance with our laws. The Emperor's intention to deprive us of these rights became more and more apparent. During the first seven years he sent two of his privy councillors, the barons Ochsenstein and Lichtenberg. They called together a number of our men who had much influence with the people, and notified them it would be better for them and their successors if they persuaded their countrymen to submit to the imperial power in everything. 'Do not all the neighboring cities and provinces, as well as the jurisdiction of nearly all the monasteries, belong to the Emperor?' they said. 'He wishes to consider you as the dear children of his family. He has the best of intentions toward you. His only desire is to give you the complete protection of the royal house, not that he may be master of your homes, or to extort money from you, but because his father told him that you are a brave and upright people. The Emperor loves such a people, and it will be his delight to lead you to victories and glory, and to distribute the spoils of war, dignities, and feudal rights among you.'

"That is the way these councillors talked, and I was there and heard them. We answered: 'We shall never forget what a good ruler the Emperor Rudolph was, but our liberty and the usages of our fathers are so dear to us that we cannot abandon the direct protection of the German Empire and submit to the domination of the princes and their families. He who is appointed by the Emperor from among the princes and will respect our rights shall always be our governor.'"

Thus spoke the aged baron. Many were astonished when they heard his words, for the people in general were not yet fully aware of the plans of their leaders. The baron resumed:

"You will recall that the markets of Lucerne and Zug were suddenly closed, shortly after the departure of the councillors. Our reply did not please them, and they closed them, hoping to force us to submit by injuring our trade. From that time to the time of the blood penalty nothing was said of a governor ruling in the name of the Empire; it was always in the name of Austria. These measures induced the people to select three messengers and send them to Strasburg, where the Emperor was residing at that time. Schwyz chose Conrad Hum, Unterwalden chose Winkelried, and I was chosen by Uri. We waited upon the Emperor, and begged him to protect us in the enjoyment of our ancient rights and privileges. We were dismissed in disgrace, however, the Emperor saying afterwards that he would have granted our requests if the men of our country, in whom he had trusted, had respected his orders.

"There was general consternation when we brought back this reply. You know that a few years after this our stubborn refusal to surrender our freedom and absolutely submit to the Emperor led to the sending of the two governors, Landenberg and Gessler, here. They live among us now in violation of our rights, not in the name of the German Empire, but in the name of Austria. Vainly we have asserted our ancient right that a governor from abroad can only be sent here in case of emergency, and even then that he must rule according to our laws. These men, Gessler and Landenberg, who have been placed in authority over us, do not rule in accordance with our laws, but in accordance with their own cruel caprices. We are treated not as freemen, but as a band of robbers. He who has escaped harsh treatment thus far is fortunate. My head is bowed and my days are few. I could endure the wretched conditions under which our country suffers, for I have but little time to stay, but you are mostly in the prime of manly vigor. Will you endure this tyranny longer? Or, will you devote your lives to the maintenance of the freedom of the fatherland, the noblest and most sacred of all earthly achievements?"

Thus spoke the venerable Baron von Attinghausen, and his words met with an enthusiastic response. Furst, Stauffacher, and Melchthal, the three who were the first to associate themselves together, bared their heads, raised their hands to heaven, and swore to devote their lives to the holy cause of their country. The others took a similar oath. They agreed that no one should act upon his own judgment alone; that no one should forsake the others, but that they would live and die in true friendship; that they would hand down the freedom they had inherited from their fathers unimpaired to their descendants; that they would respect the rights and possessions of the Count of Hapsburg and of all foreign lords; and that they would do nothing wilfully to injure the governors. But they would resist to the end any attempt to assert or destroy their liberty.

Thus originated the Swiss Confederacy.

They next conferred together as to the time when they should begin their great work. Those for Schwyz and Uri favored fixing a definite time for the uprising, but those from Unterwalden were opposed to overhasty action. Finally New Year's Day of 1308 was fixed as the time for attacking the castles of Sarnen, Rossburg, and Kussnacht. They arranged to have frequent consultations as to the details of the assault. Then, for the morning was already dawning, the assemblage dispersed, each one going his own way, with the heartfelt trust that God would bless their righteous purpose.