Castle of the Week 117 – Château de Chillon, Switzerland


On the eastern shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland is a medieval fortress rising from the water on a rocky islet. Over time it became a romantic favorite of many writers, including Rousseau, Byron, Hugo, Dumas, and Hemingway. The Château de Chillon is at the site of an historical trade route, first created by the Romans and widened in medieval times. For a long time the Grand-St-Bernard Pass and Chillon Road were the only way from northern to southern Europe through the mountains. Whoever controlled the road and the fortress could exact tolls.


The oldest tower of Chillon dates from the 10th century. Most of the castle was built by Peter II of Savoy in the 13th century. It has three flanking towers on the side facing shore, a drawbridge with its own courtyard to one side, a set of inner and outer walls, and a keep in the center. The towers and curtain are fortified with machicolation, which is a projection at the top of the walls, supported by arches. Openings at the bottom of the machicolation allow for boiling oil to be dropped on attackers. During the 14th and 15th centuries, the towers were heightened, and the gate was rebuilt.


The Savoys owned Chillon from about 1150 until 1536, first as a feudal tenure, then as outright owners. It was their favorite summer residence, and grew to be their military and naval headquarters. The castle was defended on the lake-side by a fleet of ships. As another pass through the mountains slowly gained use, the importance of Chillon as a military base lessened. It was still used as a prison, with its dungeons carved out of the rock. In 1348 plague broke out in the nearby town of Villaneuve. The Jews of the city, with Christian accomplices, were accused of poisoning the water supply. They were imprisoned and tortured in the dungeon before being burned alive.

One of Chillon’s famous prisoners was Francois Bonivard, a monk who incited the Genevois people to form an alliance with the Swiss against Savoy. He was imprisoned in the dungeon, chained to a pillar, from 1530 to 1536 when the castle was conquered by the Bernese. His years of pacing next to the pillar left permanent treads in the stone floor. His experience made a large impression on Lord Byron, who visited in 1816 along with Shelley, and subsequently wrote a poem about entitled, “The Prisoner of Chillon.” Byron left his own impression on the dungeon by carving his name into one of the pillars.

The Bernese conquered the castle in 1536, in a battle that only lasted 2 days. They were in the castle until 1798, and left behind a lot of paintings of bears, the symbol of Bern. When Vaud gained its independence in 1798, the castle passed to the Canton. In 1887 the “Association du Château de Chillon” was founded for the restoration and maintenance of the castle. The Association works together with the Canton of Vaud for this purpose. Today over 300,000 visitors come to the Château de Chillon every year, inspiring new generations.

Photographs courtesy of Castles of the World.
Write-up by Kester.

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