The Savoy period (12th century to 1536)
The oldest written document mentioning the castle dates from 1150; it says that the House of Savoy already controlled the route along the shores of Lake Geneva.
Explicit reference to the castle is first made in 1150, when it is said that the Counts of Savoy controlled it, having acquired the rights to it, or sharing them with the sires of Blonay. As a result, they also controlled the route along the shores of the lake. In this document, Chillon is referred to as a castrum: given the mediaeval meaning of the word, this proves that there was a settlement associated with it. During the 13th century, the Counts of Savoy conquered most of the territory of Vaud, divided as it was into a number of small seigneuries. This marked the beginning of Savoy domination over approximately two-thirds of the territory which makes up today’s French-speaking Switzerland.
The land which they had conquered lay both to the north and to the south of the Alps, and they controlled the two major routes across the western Alps, namely the Mont Cenis Pass and the Great Saint Bernard Pass. These two passes, major trade routes which connect Italy with north-western Europe, proved to be a useful source of income. The upkeep of the roads and the protection offered to travellers were offset by the taxes levied on the goods transported across the territory. Because of its position on the second route, the castle was interesting for both economic and strategic reasons. In 1214, Thomas I of Savoy founded the town of Villeneuve, two kilometres above the bourg of Chillon, on a site which was large enough for the construction of a tollbooth, warehouses for the storage of goods and port facilities.
Important reconstruction and enlargement works were carried out on the castle in stages, initiated by Count Thomas I of Savoy (1189-1233) and his four sons, including Pierre II, the master of the castle from 1255 to 1268. Pierre Mainier, a cleric from Chambery, supervised the works for Pierre II. At the time of Philippe of Savoy, the brother of and successor to Pierre, the works were entrusted to Jacques de Saint-Georges, a master mason and engineer, and thus an architect who was specialized in military installations. The Savoy family used the castle as an occasional residence, whilst the permanent resident was the castellan.
Since they governed extensive territories, the Savoy family needed to move from one place to another constantly in order to maintain a close relationship with their subjects. This nomadic lifestyle was also tied in with the rhythm of the seasons, as some residences could not be used during the winter months, whilst others lent themselves to certain activities, such as hunting. The count travelled sumptuously. He was accompanied by his close circle and by an entourage made up of servants and administrators. He also took with him the equipment and furniture which would be needed to transform the places where he stayed; his rooms in each residence were empty and left closed when he was absent.
But someone needed to be at Chillon throughout the year, and this task fell to the castellan, usually a member of the Savoyard aristocracy. The castellan guarded the fortress, dispensed justice and levied the customs duties and the seigneury’s income. The duchy of Savoy was broken up into several bailliages during the second half of the 13th century, and at this time the castellan of Chillon took on the duties of the bailiff of Chablais. The result was that this became the largest dominion in the Savoyard lands, covering as it did the castellanies between Vevey and Aigle, in the Lower Valais, and on the south banks of Lake Geneva (Evian, Thonon). The castle became a very important administrative and financial centre in the northern Savoyard lands. Two specific buildings were therefore constructed on the northern sector of the rock, in the area reserved for the Count. These were the domus clericorum (G), used for administrative duties, and the treasury building (K), which had two functions. It was here that the archives were stored. However, the same building was also used to safeguard currency, money which came from the seigneury and from the tollhouse at Villeneuve; this money was not usually sent to the Treasury in Chambery but was kept at the castle to be used for military operations or works.
At the end of the 14th century, administrative affairs were centralized and operations were transferred to Chambery. The court preferred to stay in other residences, such as Le Bourget, Thonon or Ripaille. In 1436, before his election as Pope Felix V, the Duke Amédée VIII tried to inject some new life into the castle. He sent his master of works, Aymonet Corniaux, a carpenter whose duties were to maintain the buildings in Chablais and the Vaud region. Corniaux carried out important works in the castle, and modified the defences at the top of the towers and the walls. However, this was not to be continued, and Chillon was destined to remain neglected until the Bernese arrived.