The Chateau de Chillon enchanted and haunted the imagination of Lord Byron

Posted in Architecture, Castles, English Literature, Historical articles, History on Wednesday, 23 October 2013

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This edited article about castles originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 436 published on 23 May 1970.

Chillon Castle, picture, image, illustration

The Chateau de Chillon by Dan Escott

As tourists drive along the road by the Lake of Geneva in Switzerland, the sight of the beautiful Castle of Chillon often makes them stop their cars and reach for their cameras. Standing on a ship-shaped island of limestone, just off the lake shore, it makes a pleasing sight, with its white walls and towers reflecting in the blue waters. Although it looks calm and peaceful now, battles have been fought around the walls, while within them, terrible and dramatic happenings have taken place.

It is not known when its foundations were first laid, but its site has always been a strategic place to command the important road that leads to the famous St. Bernard Pass. The Romans must have realized the value of its position, for their tiles and money have been found there, and it is recorded in the 9th century, that there was a Roman tower on the rock.

In 1224, Thomas I of Savoy ordered the castle to be strengthened and decorated as he wished to make it his main residence. There had been a small town which had grown up under the protection of the castle. This was later razed to the ground by Charles III of Savoy to make fire lanes for the castle cannon.

Thomas I, however, built a town called Villeneuve just over a mile away on the lake shore, which soon grew very prosperous because of its position on the main route to Rome. It is recorded that so many Christian pilgrims used the route that at a special hospice built for them at Villeneuve, 600 lbs. of bread were distributed to them free each day.

Pierre, the son of Thomas, taxed the town’s trade and with this money raised the height of the castle walls and made it so powerful that from it he was able to control the Vaud Province. These were rich, prosperous days for the castle and for those who lived under its protection, but in the 14th century the long wars between England and France ruined the roads used by the pilgrims, and the importance of Chillon lessened.

It was no longer the home of the local rulers, but was administered by chatelains (men from powerful families in the district), and was often used as a prison. In a special dungeon, prisoners were often executed by hanging from a huge beam of black wood which stretched the width of the stone chamber.

In 1342, the Black Death began to claim victims in the area and, wishing to find somebody to blame for the outbreak, some so-called Christians accused the Jews who lived in Chablis of poisoning water supplies and thus causing the plague. It was a ridiculous charge, but these unfortunates were arrested and taken before the Count of Savoy at Chillon. He ordered them to be imprisoned in underground cells and tortured. Local Christians who had been friendly with the Jews were also treated in the same way.

One of the most tragic stories in the history of Chillon occurred in 1382. Sir Raoul de Monthenard, a cruel tyrant nicknamed “The Breaker,” then master of the castle, wished to marry the daughter of his first cousin, a beautiful girl called Erdelinde. But she was in love with a young man, named Mainfroi de Luceus, whose father was the sworn enemy of Sir Raoul. Afraid of his anger, Erdelinde and Mainfroi married secretly and later Erdelinde had a baby.

When Erdelinde’s father died, Sir Raoul seized her by force and took her to Chillon, where he arranged for a priest to marry them in the castle chapel. The priest who was to perform the ceremony was the same one who had already married Erdelinde in secret and, as soon as he saw her, he refused to perform the ceremony.

Meanwhile, Erdelinde had arranged for her baby to be brought to the chapel to prove to Sir Raoul that marriage to him was impossible. When he saw the child, the master of Chillon, in a terrible fury, seized the baby and hurled it through the chapel window into the lake below. Erdelinde immediately leaped after it, and both mother and child were drowned.

Grief-stricken, the true husband of Erdelinde, Mainfroi de Luceus, challenged Sir Raoul to a duel in which he received severe wounds from which he died.

Lonely prisoner

There was another terrible time at Chillon when, between June 9 and September 26, 1613, twenty-seven people accused of witchcraft were executed there.

Chillon’s most famous prisoner was Francois de Bonivard. He was a well-educated, wealthy young man who showed great sympathy with the people of Geneva when they rebelled against Charles III of Savoy in the early part of the 16th century. He was captured, and imprisoned in the Castle of Chillon.

At first he was well treated as a political prisoner but, in 1532, the Duke of Savoy visited the castle and ordered him to be kept in an underground dungeon. Here he remained for four years before being released by his allies.

In the cell he was chained for long periods of time to one of seven stone pillars, and when the English poet, Lord Byron, visited the cell in 1816, he wrote that the footmarks worn in the stone by the lonely prisoner as he paced up and down were still to be seen. Byron was so impressed by the story of Bonivard’s imprisonment that he wrote a very famous poem about it called “The Prisoner of Chillon.” While the poem was not quite historically accurate, it captured the feelings of the prisoner so well that it became one of Byron’s best-known works.

Today, Chillon is very well preserved. It is entered by a wooden bridge where once there was a drawbridge over a moat filled by water from the lake. The outer wall is pierced with two rows of loopholes, and has three semi-circular towers. In the middle tower were the “oubliettes” for which the castle was famous. These “oubliettes” were traps for unwary visitors, who could fall into them and be heard of no more. One of these was a pitch-black shaft which had steps leading down – or so it seemed. After the second step, the victim stepped into space and hurtled down a 90-foot chute to be drowned in a pool of water fed from the moat.

Bonivard’s dungeon was situated next to the execution chamber. Here are the seven pillars, and it was to the fifth of these that this famous defender of people’s freedom was chained for some time. A couple of pillars along from it, Byron scratched his name when he came to visit the dark prison of the man he admired so much.

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