Warships at Chillon Castle – can you believe it?

When we think of maritime power in the Middle Ages, Savoy very rarely comes to mind. And with good reason – or so you’d think – what with its territory being landlocked by the Alps for the majority of the medieval period. In fact, it wasn’t until the 14th century that it eventually expanded to the Mediterranean Sea, with the annexation of Nice in 1388.


Savoie galley, near Villeneuve

That said, the counts and later dukes of Savoy began asserting their dominance on the water way before then. For centuries, in fact, they had a veritable ‘war flotilla’ stationed on Lake Geneva. To understand this desire for lake supremacy, we need to go back to the 13th century.

At that time, the House of Savoy was firmly establishing itself around the lake. They controlled the great Alpine passes and the routes merchants and pilgrims took from northern Italy to France, and vice versa. At the height of their expansion, their territory stretched towards the north and dominated the French region of Chablais, plus part of what is now the Swiss region of Chablais, in Valais and Vaud.

What do all of these locations have in common? Lake Geneva.

By dominating the lake, the Savoys created an interchange at the heart of their territory. To achieve this, they built ships that would be equally suited to war and trade. There are mentions of some initial construction attempts between 1258 and 1259, but the terms used were vague. So much so that it’s impossible to know exactly what kind of boat they built.

Portrait of Amédée V, 1701

Chillon Castle occupied a very strategic spot, which meant Savoy could control traffic along a heavily frequented axis between Lake Geneva and Chablais. There’s a very good reason why the counts decided to build and store their little armada close by, in the village of Villeneuve.

Things began to change during the long reign of Count Amadeus V (1285-1323) who was married in the fortress on Lake Geneva to Princess Sybille de Bâgé. He brought in builders from the city of Genoa to manage an enormous construction project. Four galley ships ‘were built, modelled on those that sailed across the Mediterranean. These ‘giants’ could hold up to 100 rowers and were flanked by smaller ships.

Italian sailors brought triangular sails with them, known as Latin sails or ‘lateens’, which came in handy when sailing upwind. The sails adorning the lake-locked ships were emblazoned with the cross of Savoy, which would become the heraldic symbol of the dynasty for many years to come.

The Villeneuve arsenals also housed war machines and supplies. This meant the flotilla could support conquest attempts by providing food and equipment, mostly where the lake meets the city of Geneva. But this type of infrastructure doesn’t come cheap. In fact, it costs a bomb… At their peak, it’s estimated that maintenance costs made up one sixth of the House of Savoy’s total annual budget.

But, in the eyes of the counts (later dukes), it was undoubtedly worth every penny. The ships also brought an element of prestige, used to transport the nobility and their families, most notably between Chillon Castle and Ripaille Castle. The latter became a true royal residence in the 14th century.

In 1343, a terrible fire destroyed the Villeneuve stores. All but one of the galleys went up in smoke, with the sole survivor suffering extensive damage. So, the Savoys set about rebuilding their vessels and the naval site – a project which would take around a decade.


The ship graffiti

Their watery reign came to an end in 1536 when Vaud was conquered by the Bernese. After claiming Chillon Castle, these newcomers became the new masters of the lake. The Savoy flotilla was officially retired when the last two remaining galleys were handed over to the Bernese.

The walls of Chillon Castle still bear marks of the Savoy ships. In the treasure building (room 41) – which was built in the second half of the 13th century and turned into a stairwell in 1815 – you’ll find a ship equipped with Latin sails. See if you can spot it!

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