Heinrich von Winkelried
The tale of Heinrich von Winkelried is another blend of historical fact and fantastic legend. Of the historic Heinrich, all we know is that he was a German knight who died sometime around 1303, and a witness to several important documents, where his name was signed as Heinrich von Winkelried, genannt Schrutan (‘Heinrich von Winkelried, called The Giant’). It is unclear whether the nickname was a reference to his size or a self-adopted sobriquet to link him to the figures of German legend who were often called giants. Regardless, the Heinrich of history was clearly an important figure at court.
The legend is first mentioned in a Swiss chronicle of 1507, and is said to take place around the year 1250 (NB the discrepancy with the historical Heinrich). A dragon lived in a cave near the city of Stans, on the Mueterschwandenberg ridge (the supposed site of the dragon’s lair is still known as Drachenloch, ‘dragon’s hole’, today). The dragon killed and ate people and their cattle, as most dragons do. The dragon had been ambushed several times by people wielding crossbows, but when it realised it was in danger, it would run back to its cave like a lizard.
Heinrich von Winkelreid, who had been banished from the area for manslaughter, saw an opportunity for redemption, and went alone to confront the dragon. The cowardly beast, seeing that he was alone, came running at him with open jaws. Heinrich, who in the story is every-inch the giant, shoved his spear down the dragon’s throat and, having skewered it in place so it could not resort to its tactic of valiant retreat, hacked it to death with his sword. Thanking God, with his sword held aloft, dragon’s blood dripped on Heinrich, and he died from poisoning a few days later.