Chillon; Painting by Gustave Courbet 1875
In 1150, the castle is mentioned for the first time, but its construction probably started much earlier according to archaeological finds. Its location was once very important, as it was built on a rock on the commercial road to Italy, going via the Alpine pass of the Grand-Saint-Bernard.
Born: 1203, Susa
Died: May 15, 1268
A medieval fortress, it later became a summer residence for the Counts of Savoy. Among other things, the Savoyards constructed new halls, courtyards, a chapel and a “camera domini”, the master bedroom of the dukes and counts. In the 13th century they built a prison in the undergrounds, which had previously been used to keep weapons and food.
In middle of the 15th century, the House of Savoy, controlling Chillon for four centuries, started having problems. Finally, during the war of Religions, the Bernese acquired the canton of Vaud and with it Chillon. From 1536 to 1798 the castle was under Bernese’s control. Unfortunately during that period many earthquakes and hurricanes damaged the old building. When left inhabited by the bailiffs, Chillon was used to keep prisoners and store weapons. The Bernese definitely left at the Vaudoise revolution.
One room is dedicated to Peter II of Savoy (1203 – 1268), the displays show the dynastic power of the family and the State of Savoy.
Peter came into conflict with Rudolf of Habsburg, and Rudolf occupied Peter's lands in the canton of Vaud, including the Château of Chillon. Peter returned from Piedmont in time to lead his troops in retaking the chateau and his lands in 1266.
Already elderly, he died without a male heir. Sources differ on the place of his death, some stating that he died in the Château de Chillon so closely associated with him.
Chillon’s dark past
But what really happened in Chillon?
Since the construction of its prison until 1861, many people were jailed there for various reasons. Some were locked in because of political or religious reasons while others were kept as war hostages. Many women, believed to be witches, were tortured and burnt at the end of the 16th century through the middle of the 17th century. It is also said that the chancellor of Savoy in 1455 was drowned in the lake after being questioned in Chillon.
The prisoners of Chillon
Who were the most famous prisoners? The imprisonment of Bonnivard in the 16th century retained the most attention. The tragic treatment of the prisoners, including Bonnivard, has touched many artists over the years.
The fate of the Villeneuve’s Jews
The 14th century was deadly for European Jews. The plague killed many people on the European continent around 1348. As the population needed to blame the deaths on someone, people quickly blamed the Jews for wanting to kill the Christians. In the town of Villeneuve located around Chillon lived a group of Jews since 1284. Thomas of Savoy had founded the city in 1214 and Jews had come to settle there later.
It was incorrectly believed that the Villeneuve’s Jews were the cause of the Plague and its spreading across Europe. Rumors started; apparently, that they would have poisoned all wells and springs from Venice to Savoy causing the death of the people drinking the water.
In September of 1348, all Jews there were arrested and sent to Chillon’s dungeons, at that time under the rule of Amédée VI of Savoy.
François de Bonnivard (or Bonivard) was jailed there for six years. But who was he to “deserve” to stay for so long?
Bonnivard was a monk from the prior of Saint-Victor near Geneva. He was also a heretic, a friend of the Reform opposing both the Duke of Savoy, Charles III, and the Bishop of Geneva. Bonnivard was a well-known scholar and historian of his time.
After his release, he wrote a dictionary in French-German-Latin and a grammar book. Later, the republic of Geneva commissioned him to write the Geneva Chronicles. Captured in 1519 (till 1521), it did not stop him to continue fighting for what he believed in, liberty, and in 1530 he was taken captive again by the Duke of Savoy.
The first two years, Bonnivard spent them in a room while the last four he was chained at the fifth pillar third underground in the dark. “There are seven pillars of Gothic mould, In Chillon’s dungeons deep and old, There are seven columns, massy and grey,” said Byron. Around Bonnivard were six other cells, where prisoners were chained just like him. He was stuck on a three feet long chain and could only walk a few steps.
Bonnivard was finally released in 1536 when the Bernese gained power over the House of Savoy.
The poets and Chillon
The French poet Victor Hugo left a detailed description of what he saw in Chillon. “He could only-lie on the rock- with a great deal of sorrows and without being able to spread his body parts.”
Romantic poets started coming to Chillon beginning of the 19th century. The first one to visit the region and the castle was the Englishman Lord Byron.
After his visit to Chillon in June 1816, Lord Byron, inspired by what he had seen, wrote a long Sonnet about Bonnivard entitled the “Prisoner of Chillon.”
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