On 10 January 1798, patriots of Vevey and Montreux claimed the castle from the Bernese bailiffs, who left gracefully, surrendering without a fight. On 24 January, with support from local citizens and residents of Lausanne, they declared Vaudois independence. The castle became a national asset during the Vaudois Revolution and has since belonged to the Canton of Vaud, founded in 1803 under Napoleon Bonaparte’s Act of Mediation, which officially established 19 Swiss cantons. This old building was first used to store weapons and ammunition, and later as a state prison. Hence, the first visitors to the castle would find nothing but prisoners… under the watchful eye of a concierge and two guards. This medieval building really drew in the Romantics. During his visit in 1816, British poet Lord Byron found inspiration in the story of Chillon inmate François Bonivard, (1493-1570) making him the protagonist in his poem The Prisoner of Chillon, which shot the castle to global fame. It has been translated into 20 languages. This magnificent tale of suffering experienced by Bonivard, the Prior of Saint Victor’s Monastery in Geneva who was imprisoned at Chillon for his anti-Savoy views and then freed by the Bernese, transformed this historic figure into an emblem of freedom and sanctified his prison as a sacred symbol.
Fuelled by the Romantics’ fond reminiscence on the Middle Ages, Chillon made a new name for itself; in 1762, Rousseau had already drawn attention to the site by writing it into an episode of Julie; or The New Eloise, making a brief allusion to Bonivard’s captivity.
Many artists, such as Victor Hugo, Joseph Mallord William Turner, Léon Tolstoï, Gustave Courbet, Salvador Dali and Joseph Hornung to name a few, were so fascinated by the castle and the landscape in which it was nestled that they paid homage to it in their artistic works.
Towards the end of the 19th century, restoration work on the castle began, led by the cantonal architect, Albert Naef. Restoration projects are still carried out today.