By Bonnivard!

There was a time when we well-eddikated chaps found this stuff brought up with the pay-and-rations. Obviously, something here passed me by, or the brain-cells are popping bulbs faster than I thought.

There was I, as one does, idly leafing through Byron, and stopped off at Chillon.

Eternal Spirit of the chainless Mind!
Brightest in dungeons, Liberty, thou art;–
For there thy habitation is the heart,–
The heart which love of thee alone can bind;
And when thy sons to fetters are consigned,
To fetters, and the damp vault’s dayless gloom,
Their country conquers with their martyrdom,
And Freedom’s fame finds wings on every wind.
Chillon! thy prison is a holy place,
And thy sad floor an altar, for ’twas trod,
Until his very steps have left a trace,
Worn, as if thy cold pavement were a sod,
By Bonnivard! May none those marks efface!
For they appeal from tyranny to God.

Georgie-Porgie Gordon could crank out that stuff by the quire. I cannot enumerate the times I’ve skimmed that sonnet over the years, without a pause for thought. Similarly, at some stage I must have taken time out with The Prisoner of Chillon, which ought to have clarified my moment of mystification.

Essentially (and I can’t claim it all floods back to me), the castle had outlived its primary function as a point at which travellers heading for the Great Saint Bernard could be … err … fleeced. Small tricks like that kept the Counts of Savoy flush in Emmental and brandy. After a spell as a summer home for the Savoys, it became — as many of these joints did — a gaol.

Shoving inconvenient clerics, of the other faith (and there always was another faith), into chokey became an international sport. After all, some storage was required while Sire decided whether we needed a burning.

A Prior engagement

Which brings us to François Bonivard (or, as Byron has him, “Bonnivard”). He was a hereditary (i.e. he inherited from his uncle) prior of St Victor, just outside the walls of Geneva. Our Frankie was a merry monk, who preferred the pleasures of the flesh to the calls of mother church. Then fate came visiting him.

These being the years of the Wars of Religion, anyone and everyone had to take sides. Bonivard leaned to the reformers. Anyone going that way might easily offend a feudal lord of the other persuasion. The local Big Cheese was Charles III, Duke of Savoy, who readily hoovered up all the readies of those of the other persuasion. All that was left of the Bonivard patrimony was that one priory.

So François threw his lot (and there wasn’t much left) with the rebels. Which in turn meant he had to do a sudden bunk when the Savoyards came looking for him. He was betrayed by those he thought “mates”, one of whom (Abbot Brisset) snaffled his personal priory, and he spent a couple of years in Savoy’s Grolée clink at Lyon.

The table turns: Brisset ate something that terminally disagreed with him, Bonivard “escaped” from his prison, and made it back to claim his priory. All’s well that ends well?

As if. Bonivard went off for a weekend (dirty or not, but he had the beginnings of a reputation) at scenic Moudon, and found himself again in the clutches of the Savoyards, this time consigned to the Castle of Chillon — so we get there eventually — and was incarcerated there for the next six years.

Quality? Nah! Feel the width!

His release came when the burgeoning power of the city-state of Bern took over the Vaud. His priory was a rubble heap, and he was definitely out-of-funds. But Bonivard was instantly a national hero and a fire-brand: Geneva awarded him a pension, and a salaried place on the management committee.

He had also lost any pretentions to monkish celibacy, but a recognition of how to finance a rather rackety lifestyle — marrying a succession of well-off widows, until he arrived (#4) at a defrocked — in any sense — nun (she ended badly, drowned for immorality in the Rhône, with her inamorato beheaded).

Doubtless with a resigned sigh, Bonivard now devoted his declining years — until his death in 1570, aded 77 — to compiling the Chronicles of Geneva, and some other works, none of which need to detain us on any grounds of literary merit.

You need a good spin-doctor, my friend …

… allow me to introduce the sixth Baron Byron.

I seriously doubt Bonivard would have any significance had it not been for the romanticising he got at the hands of Byron.

Like any starry-eyed undergraduate, I fell for his mad, bad and dangerous-to-know attractions. When I woke the morning-after, I realised the language was superb, but any political or social thought was pretty jejune.

Which is all pretty well summed up by that slogan, worthy of any MadMen:

Freedom’s fame finds wings on every wind.


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Filed under Byron, culture, travel

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