Chillon Castle on Lake Geneva. In the background the Dents du Midi. Photochromolithography, around 1900.
Chillon Castle on Lake Geneva. In the background the Dents du Midi. Photochromolithography, around 1900. Swiss National Museum

Chillon Castle

Renowned for its beauty and ranking among the best-preserved of medieval European castles, Chillon Castle is a medieval fortress situated on the banks of Lake Geneva close to Montreux in what is present-day Canton Vaud. Chillon Castle was formerly the domain of the powerful Counts of Savoy during the 12th-16th centuries. Swiss forces from Canton Bern seized Chillon Castle from the House of Savoy in 1536, and Chillon Castle later became a source of inspiration for writers and poets throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

James Blake Wiener

James Blake Wiener

James Blake Wiener is a writer, PR specialist, trained world historian and a Co-Founder of World History Encyclopedia.

There is some evidence that the Romans founded a small settlement near Chillon Castle after their victory over the Helvetians in the first century BCE, but more ample evidence for human inhabitation along Lake Geneva comes from the Bronze Age onwards. The Bishops of Sion controlled the area in and around Chillon prior to the Counts of Savoy, but it was the House of Savoy, which first recognized the site's strategic importance due to its proximity to the Rhône River, Lake Geneva,  as well as the Alpine Passes. As the Counts of Savoy consolidated their wealth and power around Lake Geneva during the 12th and 13th centuries, their rule soon extended to the majority of what is currently French-speaking Switzerland. Unsurprisingly, the counts needed a castle to project the dynasty’s power to their subjects.
Chillon Castle on Lake Geneva. Photo print "The world in colors", around 1907.
Chillon Castle on Lake Geneva. Photo print "The world in colors", around 1907. Swiss National Museum
While the first written records of Chillon Castle appear in 1150, the Savoyards, in probability, began construction several decades earlier in the 11th century. The castle keep and the chapel are the oldest parts of the castle, and they date from the late 11th century. The dimensions of Chillon Castle are unusually reminiscent of that of a ship – 110 m long by 45 m wide – at its greatest point. Unlike other medieval castles in Europe, Castle Chillon has never been destroyed or ruined by siege warfare. Chillon Castle’s size and outline stayed unadulterated too, even after more than eight centuries. Like their royal, medieval counterparts elsewhere in Europe, the Counts of Savoy never stayed at the Chillon Castle year-round; instead, they used it chiefly as a summer residence because of the good weather along the lake.
Red shield with silver cross: The coat of arms of the Duke of Savoy. Coat of arms of Duke Charles III, 1519.
Red shield with silver cross: The coat of arms of the Duke of Savoy. Coat of arms of Duke Charles III, 1519. Swiss National Museum
Chillon Castle grew into an important administrative and financial center in Savoyard territories after Count Thomas I (r. 1189-1233) founded Villeneuve, as a port city, in 1214. Enriched by the profits earned through taxation and trade, members of the House of Savoy (1003-1946) expanded the castle and its defensive walls. Counts Thomas I and Peter II (r. 1263-1268) oversaw the refortification of various structures within the castle, with the help of the famed architect, Pierre Mainier, during a major period of renovation and expansion. They transformed Chillon Castle into a lavish princely residence where members of the local nobility served the House of Savoy in grand style and organized events of pageantry. Chillon’s dungeons also date from the time of Peter II reign, as do the castle’s elegant rooms with exquisite views of Lake Geneva and asymmetrical, cobbled courtyards. Peter II and his immediate successors patronized local artists to decorate the castle’s interior walls, which date from the late-13th and early-14th centuries.
The ambassadors are received in front of Chillon Castle by Peter II and his entourage.
According to the reports of the chroniclers Konrad Justinger and Diebold Schilling, the Bernese troubled by the Kyburgers sent unobtrusively dressed ambassadors who came through the Simmental to Lake Geneva at night to ask for the protection of the Savoy. The ambassadors are received in front of Chillon Castle by Peter II and his entourage. Illustration from the Spiezer Chronik (1485) by Diebold Schilling. Burgerbibliothek Bern, Mss.h.h.I.16, S. 85
After being elected Pope Felix V, Duke Amadeus VIII of Savoy enters Bern on June 18, 1440. Illustration from the "Amtliche Berner Chronik" by Diebold Schilling (1483).
After being elected Pope Felix V, Duke Amadeus VIII of Savoy enters Bern on June 18, 1440. Illustration from the "Amtliche Berner Chronik" by Diebold Schilling (1483). Burgerbibliothek Bern, Mss.h.h.I.2, S. 7
Chillon Castle’s heyday was short. When Counts of Savoy relocated chief administrative and financial operations southwards to Chambery, the Savoyard court began to alternate between Ripaille, Thonon, and Le Bourget in the 14th and 15th centuries. Chillon’s fortunes thus declined. Amadeus VIII (r. 1391-1440), reigning as “Duke of Savoy” from 1416 onwards, attempted to restore the castle to its golden age during the 13th century by ordering his chief architect, Aymonet Corniaux (c. 1402-1453), to alter the castle’s towers, grand halls, and wall defenses. Amadeus’s election as Pope Felix V (r. 1439-1449) – Amadeus is widely considered the last Antipope – prevented him from taking further measures to enhance Chillon Castle.

The Bernese occupy Chillon Castle

The House of Savoy grew weaker as a result of geopolitical pressures due to their position between the rival Habsburg dynasty of Austria (1273-1918) and the Valois dynasty of France (1337-1589).Capitalizing on a persistently powerless Savoyard state during the Italian Wars (1494-1559), armies from the Canton Bern conquered Vaud from Savoy and took possession of the Castle of Chillon on March 29, 1536 after an uneventful siege lasting only three days. Under Bernese occupation, Chillon Castle continued to function as a fortress, depot, and occasional prison. The castle also served as a hospital, and the Bernese made the castle the residence of the bailiff of Vevey.
Cover picture of the folk song that tells of the war against Savoy and the conquest of Vaud by the Bernese in 1536
Cover picture of the folk song that tells of the war against Savoy and the conquest of Vaud by the Bernese in 1536. It depicts the troops of Hans Franz Nägeli, who march along Lake Geneva, which is lined with castles, 1556. University Library of Bern
Although the castle was in need of restoration by the 17th century, the Bernese changed very little. Space within the castle was, however, reorganized to suit the needs of Bernese soldiers and officials, and the Bernese updated the castle's fortifications to allow for the usage of firearms. The Bernese used the dungeons as magazines for local vessels, and they replaced the old, medieval drawbridge with a new one in the early 18th century. In spite of their efforts, the Bernese abandoned Chillon Castle in 1733, relocating to more comfortable lodgings in Vevey. Chillon Castle's upkeep was no longer deemed a necessity for the Bernese army, and the Chillon Castle became a storage center for transported goods and other materials. There was even a suggestion of turning the castle into a large wheat granary in 1785. Encouraged by the democratic ideals of the French Revolution (1789-1799), French-speaking citizens from Montreux and Vevey stormed the castle with the help of French troops in 1798. They faced no resistance from the Bernese occupiers. The castle's property has belonged to the Canton of Vaud since 1803. The Castle of Chillon continued to store munitions, including gunpowder, and function as a prison. Sensing its tremendous importance, the Swiss archaeologist Albert Naef (1862-1936) began the first of a series of ongoing restorations to bring the castle back to its former luster in the late-1800s. Restoration work continues at the present.
Chillon Castle, 2015.
Chillon Castle, 2015. Wikimedia / Ank Kumar
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Chillon Castle as seen from the motorway A9, 2008.
Chillon Castle as seen from the motorway A9, 2008. Wikimedia / Bolla Ugo
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Aerial view of Chillon Castle, 2017.
Aerial view of Chillon Castle, 2017. Wikimedia / Akasito
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The southwest wall of the castle. The fragmented Bernese coat of arms is reminiscent of the Bernese occupation.
The southwest wall of the castle. The fragmented Bernese coat of arms is reminiscent of the Bernese occupation. Wikimedia / Mbarbey49
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Celebrated by writers, philosophers and poets

Chillon Castle has inspired various writers for nearly 300 years. Rousseau was the first of these writers to mention the Castle Chillon in his famous and popular novel La Nouvelle Héloïse, which was published in 1762. Others, including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Charles Dickens, Henry James, and Ernest Hemingway admired the castle’s timeless elegance and found inspiration in its legends. The life of the famous Genevan Protestant historian, libertine, and former Catholic monk François Bonivard (1493-1570) served as the chief inspiration for Lord Byron's poem “The Prisoner of Chillon,” which was written in 1816. This poem was so popular that it spurred the first mass wave of tourism to Chillon Castle in the early-1800s. Mark Twain visited in 1880 and admired the castle but was rather annoyed with the endless streams of tourists. Byron's magic and Chillon’s beauty retain their potency, however, and Chillon Castle remains the most-visited monument in Switzerland today. ...Lake Leman lies by Chillon's walls: A thousand feet in depth below Its massy waters meet and flow; Thus much the fathom-line was sent From Chillon's snow-white battlement, Which round about the wave inthralls: A double dungeon wall and wave Have made—and like a living grave Below the surface of the lake The dark vault lies wherein we lay… Excerpt from Lord Byron’s The Prisoner of Chillon
The vaulted cellar of Chillon Castle - François Bonivard's prison. Photo around 1900.
The vaulted cellar of Chillon Castle - François Bonivard's prison. Photo around 1900. Swiss National Museum
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The Aula Magna.
The Aula Magna. Fondation du Château de Chillon
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Ceiling painting in the castle chapel.
Ceiling painting in the castle chapel. Wikimedia / Marie-Lan Nguyen
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Wall paintings: The imperial and Bernese coats of arms testify to the last owners of the castle.
Wall paintings: The imperial and Bernese coats of arms testify to the last owners of the castle. Wikimedia / Marie-Lan Nguyen
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Swiss National Museum

Three museums – the National Museum Zurich, the Castle of Prangins and the Forum of Swiss History Schwyz – as well as the collections centre in Affoltern am Albis – are united under the umbrella of the Swiss National Museum (SNM).