Castle of Chillon<
Europe in the Middle Ages
Life in Medieval Castles
Medieval Castles > Castles Switzerland > Castle of Chillon
Castle of Chillon
Lake Geneva, Switzerland.
Built in: First records date back to 1160.
Further onward we saw a white, ancient-looking group of towers, beneath a mountain, which was so high, and rushed so precipitately down upon this pile of building as quite to dwarf it; besides which, its dingy whiteness had not a very picturesque effect. Nevertheless, this was the Castle of Chillon. It appears to sit right upon the water, and does not rise very loftily above it. I was disappointed in its aspect, having imagined this famous castle as situated upon a rock, a hundred, or for aught I know, a thousand feet above the surface of the lake; but it is quite as impressive a fact supposing it to be true that the water is eight hundred feet deep at its base.
By this time, the mountains had taken the beautiful lake into their deepest heart; they girdled it quite round with their grandeur and beauty, and, being able to do no more for it, they here withheld it from extending any farther; and here our voyage came to an end. I have never beheld any scene so exquisite ; nor do I ask of Heaven to show me any lovelier or nobler one, but only to give me such depth and breadth of sympathy with nature, that I may worthily enjoy this. It is beauty more than enough for poor, perish
able mortals. If this be earth; what must Heaven be !
It was nearly eight o'clock when we arrived; and then we had a walk of at least a mile to the Hotel Byron. I had forgot to mention that in the latter part of our voyage there was a shower in some part of the sky, and though none of it fell upon us, we had the benefit of those gentle tears in a rainbow, which arched itself across the lake from mountain to mountain, so that our track lay directly under this triumphal arch. We took it as a good omen, nor were we discouraged, though, after the rainbow had vanished, a few sprinkles of the shower came down.
We found the Hotel Byron very grand indeed, and a good one, too. There was a beautiful moonlight on the lake and hills, but we contented ourselves with looking out of our lofty window, whence, likewise, we had a sidelong glimpse at the white battlements of Chillon, not more than a mile off, on the water's edge. The castle is wofully in need of a pedestal. If its site were elevated to a height equal to its own it would make a far better appearance. As it now is, it looks, so to speak profanely of what poetry has consecrated, when seen from the water, or along the shore of the lake, very like an old whitewashed factory or mill.
This morning I walked to the Castle of Chillon with J-, who sketches everything he sees, from a wild flower to a castle or a range of mountains. The morning had sunshine thinly scattered through it; but, nevertheless, there was a continual sprinkle, sometimes scarcely perceptible, and then again amounting to a decided drizzle. The road, which is built along on a little elevation above the lake shore, led us past the Castle of Chillon ; and we took a side-path, which passes still nearer the castle-gate. The castle stands on an isthmus of gravel, permanently connecting it with the mainland. A wooden bridge covered with a roof, passes from the shore to the arched entrance; and beneath this shelter, which has wooden walls as well as roof and floor, we saw a soldier or gendarme, who seemed to act as warder. As it sprinkled rather more freely than at first, I thought of appealing to his hospitality for shelter from the rain, but concluded to pass on.
The castle makes a far better appearance on a nearer view, and from the land, than when seen at a distance and from the water. It is built of stone, and seems to have been anciently covered with plaster, which imparts the whiteness to which Byron does much more than justice, when he speaks of "Chillon's snow-white battlements."
There is a lofty eternal wall, with a cluster of round towers about it, each crowned with its pyramidal roof of tiles, and from the central portion of the castle rises a square tower, also crowned with its own pyramid to a considerably greater height than the circumjacent ones. The whole are in a close cluster, and make a fine picture of ancient strength when seen at a proper proximity; for I do not think that distance adds anything to the effect. There are hardly any windows, or few, and very small ones, except the loopholes for arrows and for the garrison of the castle to peep from on the sides towards the water; indeed, there are larger windows at least in the upper apartments; but in that direction, no doubt, the castle was considered impregnable. Trees here and there on the land side grow up against the castle wall, on one part of which, moreover, there was a green curtain of ivy spreading from base to battlement.
The walls retain their machicolations, and I should judge that nothing had been altered, nor any more work been done upon the old fortress than to keep it in singularly good repair. It was formerly a castle of the Duke of Savoy, and since his sway over the country ceased (three hundred years at least), it has been in the hands of the Swiss government, who still keep some arms and ammunition there.
We passed on, and found the view of it better, as we thought, from a farther point along the road. The raindrops began to spatter down faster, and we took shelter under an impending precipice, where the ledge of rock had been blasted and hewn away to form the road. Our refuge was not a very convenient and comfortable one, so we took advantage of the partial cessation of the shower to turn homeward, but we had not gone far when we met mamma and all her train. As we were close by the castle entrance, we thought it advisable to seek admission, though rather doubtful whether the Swiss gendarmes might not deem it a sin to let us into the castle on Sunday. But he very readily admitted us under his covered drawbridge, and called an old man from within the fortress to show us whatever was to be seen.
This latter personage was a staid, rather grim, and Calvinistic-looking old worthy; but he received us without scruple, and forthwith proceeded to usher us into a range of the most dismal dungeons, extending along the basement of the castle, on a level with the surface of the lake. First, if I remember aright, we came to what he said had been a chapel, and which, at all events, looked like an
aisle of one, or rather such a crypt as I have seen beneath a cathedral, being a succession of massive pillars supporting groined arches, a very admirable piece of Gothic architecture. Next, we came to a very dark compartment of the same dungeon range, where he pointed to a sort of bed, or what might serve for a bed, hewn in the solid rock, and this, our guide said, had been the last sleeping-place of condemned prisoners on the night before their execution.
The next compartment was still duskier and dismaller than the last, and he bade us cast our eyes up into the obscurity and see a beam, where the condemned ones used to be hanged. T looked and looked, and closed my eyes so as to see the clearer in this horrible duskiness on opening them again. Finally, I thought I discerned the accursed beam, and the rest of the party were certain that they saw it. Next, beyond this, I think, was a stone staircase, steep, rudely cut and narrow, down which the condemned were brought to death; and beyond this, still on the same basement range of the castle, a low and narrow [corridor] through which we passed, and saw a row of seven massive pillars, supporting two parallel series of groined arches, like those in the chapel which we first entered. This was Bonnivard's prison, and the scene of Byron's poem.
The arches are dimly lighted by narrow loopholes, pierced through the immensely thick wall, but at such a height above the floor that we could catch no glimpse of land or water, or scarcely of the sky. The prisoner of Chillon could not possibly have seen the island to which Byron alludes, and which is a little way from the shore, ex- actly opposite the town of Villeneuve. There was light enough in this long, grey, vaulted room, to show us that all the pillars were inscribed with the names of visitors, among which I saw no interesting one, except that of Byron himself, which is cut, in letters an inch long or more, into one of the pillars next to that to which Bonnivard was chained. The letters are deep enough to remain in the pillar as long as the castle stands. Byron seems to have had a fancy for recording his name in this and similar ways; as witness the record which I saw on a tree of Newstead Abbey.
In Bonnivard's pillar there still remains an iron ring, at the height of perhaps three feet from the ground. His chain was fastened to this ring, and his only freedom was to walk round this pillar, about which he is said to have worn a path in the stone pavement of the dungeon; but as the floor is now covered with earth of gravel, I could not satisfy myself whether this be true. Certainly six years with nothing else to do in them save to walk round the pillar, might well suffice to wear away, the rock, even with naked feet. This column and all the columns, were cut and hewn in a good style of architecture, and the dungeon arches are not without a certain gloomy beauty. On Bonnivard's pillar, as well as on all the rest, were many names inscribed; but I thought better of Byron's delicacy and sensitiveness for not cutting his name into that very pillar. Perhaps, knowing nothing of Bonnivard's story, he did not know to which column he was chained.
Emerging from the dungeon-vaults, our guide led us through other parts of the castle, showing us the Duke of Savoy's kitchen, with a fireplace at least twelve feet long; also the judgment--hall, or some such place, hung round with the coats-of-arms of some officers or other, and having at one end a wooden post, reaching from floor to ceiling, and having upon it the marks of fire. By means of this post contumacious prisoners were put to a dreadful torture, being drawn up by cords and pulleys, while their limbs were scorched by a fire underneath. We also saw a chapel or two, one of which is still in good and sanctified condition, and was to be used this very day, our guide told us, for religious purposes. We saw, moreover, the Duke's private chamber, with a part of the bedstead on which he used to sleep, and be haunted with horrible dreams, no doubt, and the ghosts of wretches whom he had tortured and hanged; likewise the bedchamber of his duchess, that had in its window two stone seats, where, directly over the head of Bonnivard, the ducal pair might look out on the beautiful scene of lake and mountains, and feel the warmth of the blessed sun. Under this window, the guide said, the water of the lake is eight hundred feet in depth ; an immense profundity, indeed, for an inland lake, but it is not very difficult to believe that the mountain at the foot of which Chillon stands may descend so far beneath the water. In other parts of the lake and not distant, more than nine hundred feet have been sounded. I looked out of the duchess's window, and could certainly see no appearance of a bottom in the light blue water.
The last thing that the guide showed us was a trap-door, or opening, beneath a crazy old floor. Looking down into this aperture we saw three stone steps, which we should have taken to be the beginning of a flight of stair;; that descended into a dungeon, or series of dungeons, such as we had already seen. But inspecting them more closely, we saw that the third step terminated the flight, and beyond was a dark vacancy. Three steps a person would grope down, planting his uncertain foot on a dimly seen stone ; the fourth step would be in the empty air.