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Francis Bonivard was the political prisoner of Chillon

Posted in Castles, English Literature, Famous landmarks, Historical articles, History, Politics on Friday, 28 February 2014

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This edited article about the Prisoner of Chillon first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 574 published on 13 January 1973.

Chateau de Chillon,  picture, image, illustration

The Chateau de Chillon and Bonivard were immortalised by Lord Byron in his poem The Prisoner of Chillon, by Harry Green

The Lake of Geneva is a long crescent-shaped stretch of water with Switzerland on its northern side and the Savoy region of France to the south. Many famous places lie along its shores – Lausanne, Vevey and Geneva itself – places that are visited by tourists from the world over.

Towards the eastern end of the lake, past the resort of Montreaux, stands the Chateau de Chillon, a building that has a far darker history than its beautiful surroundings would seem to suggest.

The Chateau de Chillon dates back to the seventh century, but it was not until about 1250 that it was expanded to become an impregnable fortress. Subterranean dungeons were hewn out of the massive rock foundations. On three sides, the castle rose sheer from the icy waters of the lake. Its fourth side faced towards the cliff that towered above the shore. This side was strengthened, and the roadway between the lake and the cliff was narrowed, so that at most only two horesemen could ride abreast along it. A heavy gate was built across the path leading to the castle.

The Chateau de Chillon had been made impossible for an unwelcome intruder to enter – or for an unwilling prisoner to escape from – a prisoner such as Francis Bonivard.

In those days, the Savoy district of France was a separate country ruled over by its warrior dukes and counts. They looked upon Geneva as part of their territory by right, although the people of Geneva would have preferred to ally themselves with the neighbouring states in Switzerland. But as long as the people of Geneva stood alone, the dukes of Savoy were too strong for them. So revolutionary groups began to be formed, people who made plans for the day when Geneva would be free of the chains of Savoy. Francis Bonivard was one such person.

Francis Bonivard was born in 1493. His uncle was the prior of the monastery of St. Victor in Geneva and, when he died, Bonivard took over the position. It was really a position in name only, offering a good salary and little in the way of duties. Bonivard used his salary to further his own education, travelling and studying law. When he was about twenty-five he joined the “Children of Geneva,” a young political, group who seemed to be more enthusiastic than sensible, for their main activity was to swagger round the town shouting “Down with the Duke of Savoy!”

The following year, the Duke of Savoy visited Geneva to wipe out this talk of sedition. Bonivard’s closest friend was caught and beheaded as a warning to others. Bonivard himself left Geneva disguised as a monk, but he was betrayed and imprisoned by the Duke of Savoy for two years.

“Never again shall I endure the horror of imprisonment,” Bonivard vowed. He little realised that a far worse prison was waiting for him.

When Bonivard was released, he found that his position as Prior had been taken from him. He was friendless and without money. He decided to fade from sight until the right moment came once again to try to help Geneva gain its independence.

After a few years, his position as Prior of St. Victor was restored to him. But the position was one thing, money another. The money had previously come in the form of rents collected from estates in Savoy. These had ceased. So Bonivard now built up his own private army and went to war. He would sally forth, striking without warning, and conducting a form of amateur guerilla warfare. However, the people of Geneva became worried by his activities, fearing reprisals from Savoy. They persuaded Bonivard to stop, offering him instead a small yearly income from the city exchequer.

But Bonivard had already gone too far. The Duke of Savoy now had other plans for him!

Bonivard disbanded his army and went to visit his mother. When returning to Geneva, he decided to use a different and longer route. Because of this he hired a guide.

As he and his guide approached the eastern end of the Lake of Geneva, a group of soldiers suddenly rode out from a wood where they had been waiting in ambush for him.

Bonivard immediately put his spurs to his horse, but his guide leaped at him and threw him to the ground. The guide drew a knife and slashed away Bonivard’s sword belt so that he was left defenceless. The soldiers closed in and bound his hands. Then they half led him, half dragged him to the Chateau de Chillon. A curt order was given, the gate to the castle swung open, and the party clattered inside. The gate swung shut behind them. There was no escape!

For the first two years of his imprisonment, Bonivard was placed in an upstairs room which allowed him certain comforts. Captain de Beaufort, who commanded the castle, treated him pleasantly and with a certain amount of respect.

Then in 1532, Bonivard was disturbed one morning by harsh voices and the sound of heavy footsteps approaching the room in which he was kept. The key turned and the door was flung open. It was the Duke of Savoy, with Captain de Beaufort looking worried and uncertain standing behind him. The Duke of Savoy stalked round the room examining the bed, the blankets, the chair and table, the unbarred window.

“Such comforts cannot be allowed!” he barked. “This man is a conspirator and persistent trouble-maker. Let him be treated as such!” The duke swept from the room.

Later that day, two soldiers came. They took hold of Bonivard’s arms and dragged him down the narrow stairs, deeper and deeper into the depths of the castle where no light of day had ever reached. They reached a low stone passageway with dungeon doors leading off either side. A soldier opened one of these doors and Bonivard was pushed inside. Here he was backed up against a stone pillar and chains were fastened to his arms and legs. The soldiers left him, slamming the door shut behind them.

Bonivard’s real ordeal had started.

Week gave place to week without knowledge of night or day. The coldness of the dungeon settled round Bonivard like a clammy cloak. Once a day he was given bread and water. After a few weeks the chains were removed. He was still never allowed to leave the dungeon, but now at least he could get some sort of exercise. This he did by walking up and down across the short length of the cell. After two years he had worn a little pathway in the rock which looked almost as if it had been carved out with a hammer and chisel!

The days were without end. Bonivard had now lost all hope of ever being released. He knew himself to be a forgotten man.

In the outside world, major events were taking place. Geneva had taken a greater stand for independence. Knowing still that they could do nothing alone against the Duke of Savoy, the people secretly sought help from the neighbouring state of Berne. Eventually a treaty was signed. Berne raised an army and marched towards Geneva. The moment had been chosen well. The Duke of Savoy was engaged in a war against France. He could spare few men to put down this unexpected revolution. And so town after town fell to the Bernese army. At last Geneva was free to form part of Switzerland. Only the Chateau de Chillon remained.

Four armed vessels were sent down the lake to besiege the castle. Their heavy cannon were capable, if necessary, of razing the place to the ground. It wasn’t necessary. At the first sign of their approach, Captain de Beaufort made his escape across the lake in his own boat.

To Bonivard it was a day like any other, a day of blackness and without name. He paced wearily up and down his cell. Suddenly the door was flung open. Gentle arms helped him up the damp slippery steps and out into the courtyard. He stood weak and white, blinking at the blinding daylight.

“You are free,” somebody told him.

He asked the year, the month, the day and was told.

“So long!” he murmured. “So long!”

He had been in the Chateau de Chillon for six seemingly endless years, and for four of these he had endured the icy darkness of the subterranean dungeon.

The prisoner of the Chateau de Chillon has been eloquently depicted in one of Lord Byron’s famous poems. However, Lord Byron wrote of him as a religious martyr, whereas he was in fact a political prisoner – Bonivard did not become a devout Protestant until after he had been released from prison.

The Chateau de Chillon still remains to this day on the shores of the Lake of Geneva, although the tourists who come and photograph its medieval beauty rarely give a thought to its most famous prisoner – Francis Bonivard.

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