Last modified: 2010-11-12 by ivan sache
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Municipal flag of Thonon-les-Bains - Image by Ivan Sache, 26 August 2004
The municipality of Thonon-les-Bains (28,927 inhabitants in 1999; 1,621 ha),located on the southern shore of Lake Léman, is the capital of the traditional Province of Chablais, the northernmost province of Savoy, which was highly disputed between the Catholics and the Protestants after the Reformation. The town is built on a kind of terrace dominating the lakeshore, on which the borough and port of Rives was built later.
This presentation is mostly based on the booklet Histoire de Thonon et des principaux châteaux du Chablais, undated but released in the early 1980s, and, unfortunately, out of print. The booklet was written for the tourism office of Thonon by the local historians Joseph Ticon, Bernard Crola, Marcel Sauthier and Claude Sache.
Early history of Thonon
At the end of the Age of Stone (Magdalenian), Chablais was mostly
covered by the glacier of Rhône and a thin steppe. No remains of
Magdalenian hunters have been found in the area but a mammoth tusk was
discovered in 1885 near Bellevaux. It is the masterpiece of the Chablais Museum, housed in the castle of Sonnaz, close to the town hall of Thonon.
Human colonization became significant in the second half of the fourth millenium BC. The oldest remains found in Chablais have been related to the Cortaillod civilization, which radiated southwards from Switzerland. Several early lakeside villages have been identified in Chablais. In 1862, two lakeside stations were discovered during the revamping of the port of Thonon and of the borough of Rives. Those stations were an early Neolithic station and a bigger one dating back to the late Age of Bronze. The latter station was built on piles and stretched over a 140 x 40 m area. The level of the lake significantly varied through the ages and it is believed today that the lakeside stations were built on the shore and not directly over the waters of the lake.
During the Age of Iron, Chablais was inhabited by the Allobroges, a
Gaul tribe living in Savoy and Dauphiny, submitted by the Romans in 121 BC. Remains from that period are scarce in Thonon, so that it is
impossible to evaluate the importance of the settlement built there.
During the Roman times, a vicus (administrative center) was set up on
the plateau dominating the lake on the left bank of the river Dranse,
on which a bridge or a ford was built. The vicus, stretching over c. 10
hectares, hhas been identified as the stopping place on the 22nd mile
of the Roman way linking Geneva to Saint-Maurice. In the first century, the vicus developed and might already have had a port. The villas (estates), set up at the periphery of the vicus, are the origin of the villages of Concise, Marclaz, Ripaille, Tully and Vongy, which were
progressively incorporated in the town of Thonon but have preserved
their specific identity.
The urbanization of the town increased in the IInd century, with the building of basins and water tanks and the establishment of a pottery workshop with eight ovens. In the second half of the IIIth century, the vicus was threatened by the Alamans and its inhabitants abandoned all their goods. The vicus was eventually burned down.
Thonon under the Dukes Amadeus
Nothing is known about Thonon during the Burgundian (443-534) and
Frankish (534- c. 1000) rules but a necropolis dated from VIIth century
and a concession act granted in 929 by the Abbey of Saint-Maurice to
Count Turumbert and his wife Emina. The act mentions a "villa Donona",
which was identified to Thonon by early historians, without firm
The name of Thonon is found for the first time in 1138, as Thonuns, in an act written by Prior Fulgerius for the foundation of the priory of Bellevaux. In 1250, the priory of Thonon and the churches of Concise and Marclaz were listed among the possessions of the abbey of Ainay, located near Lyon. Thonon was then a small village built around a priory and protected by the fortress of Allinge-Neuf, which was built on a hill located a few kilometers away from the village.
On 24 November 1266, Count Peter II of Savoy, aka as "the Little Charlemagne", purchased the rights on the town of Thonon from the priories of Bellevaux and Thonon. The purchase gave the count a new settlement on the lakeshore and strengthened the strategical position of the fortress of Allinge-Neuf, which was no longer isolated among the possessions of the Lords of Faucigny and of the Counts of Genevois. The Counts of Savoy increased the importance of Thonon by granting franchises to the town. The first franchises were granted by Philippe I on 1 December 1268 in Chillon. They were confirmed and increased by Amadeus V the Great in 1285 and 1289. The burghers of Thonon were granted exclusive rights on trade. In 1301, they were granted the exclusive right to seize the goods of deceased usurers. In 1324, Count Edward granted rights on the trade of wines. The franchises triggered trade and economic development. Importants markets and a yearly fair were established. Lombard moneychangers opened a casane (shop) in Thonon, as did the famous banker Palmeron Turchi.
In the XIIIth century, a new borough called Rives, mentioned for the
first time in 1283-1284, was built on the lakeshore near the port. In
1289, war broke out with the Lord of Faucigny. Wooden fortifications
were built, to which a stone gate, a fortress and a tower were added in
1295-1296 to protect the port. The tower, still present, is
called Tour des Langues (Tongues' Tower). The name of the tower refers
to a feudal tax paid by butchers: the tongue of every slaughtered ox or cow had to be given to the lord. The fortress was increased several times and completely rebuilt around 1365. When war between Dauphiny and Savoy ended, the castle lost its strategic importance and
was neglected. In 1413, Mary of Burgundy, Amadeus VIII's wife, went to
Thonon and decided to build a new castle on the site of a former, smaller fortress. The castle had a donjon and at least four towers, fifteen windows and fifteen fireplaces, several
fountains and a chapel. Amadeus' son, Louis, married Ann of Cyprus and
increased the wealth of the castle, furnished with expensive
tapestries, furs and furniture. Thonon was then the main residence of
the ducal court and remained so all along the XVth century, attracting
several immigrants who dramatically increased the population and
activity of the town. Amadeus VIII purchased a vineyard from the
Cartusians and built bigger town walls in 1431-1438.
Amadeus VIII also rebuilt the castle of Ripaille, located east of Thonon, near the mouth of the river Dranse. Ripaille was a Roman villa, and later a meet for the counts of Savoy, who enjoyed hunting in the neighbouring forest. During the reign of count Amadeus VI (aka the Green Count) and his wife Bonne of Bourbon, the court moved to Ripaille. Count Amadeus VII (aka the Red Count) was killed in the forest of Ripaille during hunting and the castle was abandoned. Amadeus VIII rebuilt the castle with seven towers, and retired there with his former brother of arms, setting up the Order of Saint-Maurice. The duke was elected anti-Pope as Félix V by the Council of Basle and resigned in 1449 in order to solve the Greater Western Schism. Voltaire wrote a famous epistle in which he claimed that Amadeus VIII's retirement was more voluptuous than religious (Tu voulus être pape et cessas d'être sage - You wanted to be the Pope and ceased to be wise). In French, a ripaille is indeed a voluptuous lunch, but the name of the castle of Ripaille has nothing to do with that, and Voltaire made an undeserved, bad reputation to Amadeus VIII.
In the XVIth century, Duke Charles III could not preserve Savoy from invasion. Most of the Duchy was occupied by France, whereas soldiers from Bern occupied Chablais and set up in Thonon a bailiwick, building the first town hall. They sent to Chablais the Protestant pastors Farel and Fabri, who caused a lot of trouble, and suppressed the Roman Catholic cult. Bern withdrew from Chablais in 1567 but war broke out between Savoy and Geneva, which seized up Thonon, then lacking any town walls, in 1589. After several episodes of Savoyard reconquest and Genevan occupation, Chablais was eventually retroceded to Savoy in 1598 by the Treaty of Vervins. The Treaty of Thonon, signed in 1569 with Valais, set up the eastern border of Savoy at the river Morge. The Morge is still the border between France and Switzerland, separating the village of Saint-Gingolph into a French and a Swiss municipalities.
Thonon and the Counter-Reformation
Chablais was still a Protestant country, and the duke commissioned
Francis of Sales (1567-1622), Prevost of the cathedral of
Geneva-Annecy, to convert the Chablais back to the Roman Catholic
religion. Francis was a brilliant, lively preacher, but the local
people were hard to convince. Since people did not want to hear him,
Francis wrote his best lectures on small paper leaflets he slipped
nightly under the doors of their houses. This original propaganda was
fruitful when a few notables converted back to Catholicism. On 24
December 1596, Francis celebrated the first midnight mass since 60
years on the new altar of the St. Hippolyte church. In 1598, he
organized the Quarante Heures de Thonon (Fourty Hours), a ceremony
presided on 20 September by the Duke of Savoy and on 1st October by the
Cardinal of Medicis. During the ceremonies, Francis was officially
appointed Apostle of Chablais and converted several hundred of people,
including nobles and ministers. Francis understood the importance of
education and decided to build in Thonon the Sainte Maison (Holy
House), where reading, cathechism, theology, arts, medicine and law
would be taught. In 1601, Francis appointed the printer Marc de la
Rue, who printed several Catholic booklets, such as L'Antidote contre
le cathéchisme de Genève par le Révérend Pere Gambarini, capucin (1601), Constitutions Synodales de Mgr François, Evêque de Genève
(1603), Vie de Saint Bernard de Menthon (1606, reprinted in 1612), Messe du Très Saint Rosaire de la Bienheureuse Marie toujours Vierge (1606), as well as a weird leaflet entitled Miracle arrivé dans la ville de Genève, en cette année 1609, d'une femme qui a fait un veau, telling the miracle of a women who allegely gave birth to a calf. It is not known when de la Rue stopped his activity, but Thonon remained without a printing house until 1860. Another important component of
the Sainte Maison was the Maison des Arts, where the newly
converted Catholics, especially those coming from Protestant regions,
were given a professional education. However, the lack of available
funds and the improvement of the relations with Geneva transformed
Francis' original project into a charity house, which disappeared
during the French Revolution.
Francis of Sales was so brilliant that he was later appointed Bishop of Geneva, with his see in Annecy. He wrote several books considered as masterpieces of French language and always refused to leave Savoy. This probably explains why he is today a kind of unofficial patron saint of Savoy.
During the XVIIth century, Thonon had c. 2,500 inhabitants and six monasteries were set up in the town by the Visitandines (1627), the Ursulines (1636) and the Annonciades Celestes (1637) for women, and the Capuchins (1602), the Barnabites (1616) and the Minimes (1636) for men. The monasteries were sponsored by the Duke of Savoy, who offered them stones and other stuff from the old castle, which had been destroyed by the French in 1589. The famous quietist mystic Madame Guyon (1648-1717) stayed for a while in the Ursulines convent, which was then directed by her spiritual adviser Father Lacombe, also Provost of the Barnabites.
Thonon under the French Revolution and the First Empire
In the XVIIIth century, the monasteries increased in importance and
restricted the development of the town. The princes of the house of
Savoy often stayed in Thonon when they went to the neighbouring spa of Amphion, later superseded by Évian. On 20 August 1724, the
wedding of Charles-Emmanuel, Prince of Piedmont, with the Princess of
Hesse-Rheinfels was celebrated in the St. Hippolyte church.
On 7 June 1791, the young physician Joseph Dessaix and his fellows attempted to seize the prison to liberate a young man jailed because he had sung Ça ira, a revolutionary song. The attempt failed and the revolutionaries, who had fled to Switzerland, were hung in effigy on the market place and their goods were confiscated. On 21 September 1792, General de Montesquiou entered Savoy. Five days later, the Municipal Council of Thonon dated a session an IV de la République française et Ier de l'Égalité and expressed soumission et reconnaissance à la France. In October, Thonon welcomed the first Allobroges Legion, commanded by Captain Joseph-Marie Dessaix (1764-1834), born in Thonon. Dessaix had founded in Paris the Club des Allobroges, where Savoyards in exile prepared the incorporation of Savoy to France. He later led the Légion des Allobroges, which helped the French revolutionaries to invade Savoy. Napoléon I nicknamed Dessaix l'Intrépide and made of him a Division General and a Count. Dessaix is not related to general Desaix (1768-1800), the winner of the battle of Marengo, where he died. Incorporation of Savoy to France was voted on 27 November and a violent dechristianisation campaign was set up.
During the First Empire, Thonon was sous-préfecture of the department
of Léman and the economical situation improved a bit. After Napoléon's
fall, Savoy was reallocated to the Kingdom of Sardinia. The town hall
of Thonon was rebuilt in 1821-1825 by Mazzone in neo-Sardinian style.
When Napoléon III and Cavour started to negociate the reincorporation of County of Nice and Savoy to France, a pro-Swiss party developed in Thonon. On 30 March 1860, the Genevan Representative John Perrier and a few of his friends, all fairly drunk, hijacked the steamship L'Aigle and landed in Thonon to rouse the population. They drunk even more absinth and other strong beverages in the pubs and sailed to Évian, where they had the same lack of success. The lawyer Dessaix celebrated the expedition in the song La Cacade, which is a reference to the famous fiasco of l'Escalade, the expedition set up by the Duke of Savoy against Geneva in 1602.
Thonon after the incorporation to France
Napoléon III visited Thonon soon after the incorporation of Savoy into France in 1860 and promoted the development of the town: the sous-préfecture, the prison, the gendarmerie and a modern port were built. The writer Francis Wey (1812-1882), known for his enthusiastic and often fanciful travel stories, nicknamed Thonon le Marseille de la petite Mediterranée. The railway was inaugurated in 1880 and new roads were built to links the valleys to Thonon. A spa was opened in 1888, a grand hotel and a casino were built, as well as a funicular linking the port and the upper town.
Thonon increased slowly in the beginning of the XXth century. The 50th
anniversary of the incorporation of Savoy to France was celebrated on 6
September 1910. President of the Republic Armand Fallières came to
Thonon by railway and was welcomed by bells and 101 gun shots. One of
the prides of Thonon is the cooking school (Lycée Hôtelier
Savoie-Léman, better known by its ancient name of École Hôtelière), founded in 1912. The new grounds of the school, designed by the
modernist architect Moynat, were inaugurated in 1936 by President of
the Republic Albert Lebrun.
In 1923, the suppression of the Grande Zone (the big tax-free zone) triggered trade in the town. During the Second World War, Thonon was occupied by the Italians and later by the Germans. The repression of the resistance movement was harsh and the liberation of the town was difficult. One of the leaders of the Résistance, the lawyer Georges Pianta, was appointed Mayor and was constantly reelected until his retirement in the 1980s. Pianta was also constantly elected Representative at the National Assembly. He expressed there fairly conservative views but managed Thonon in a very progressive manner. In 1950, the municipality bought all the lands and old houses on the lakefront and opened the Belvédères, from which the view on the Swiss coast and the port of Rives is wonderful. In 1952, a new municipal beach was opened near the castle of Ripaille. Two years later, the spa was completely rebuilt. The beach and the port were linked in the 1960s by the new quai de Ripaille. In 1965, Thonon was one of the first towns in France where urban revamping (rénovation) was attempted. The old, slummy, boroughs around the Visitation convent were destroyed and a new borough was created. Thonon was also one of the first French towns to have pedestrian streets, which were recently suppressed by the dumb municipality.
Most ancient industries (the Capitan pasta, the Zig-Zag cigarette papers) have disappeared, and Thonon lives today mostly from winter and summmer tourism, trade with Switzerland and its mineral water.
The architect Maurice Novarina (1907-2002) designed several buildings in Thonon,
for instance the church of Vongy and the cultural center (Maison des
Arts et Loisirs). He also designed the Centre Bonlieu in Annecy and
his masterpiece, the church Notre-Dame de Toutes Grâces in Plateau
d'Assy, a borough of the municipality of Passy, near Saint-Gervais and
Chamonix. The church was decorated by Léger, Lurçat, Bazaine, Rouault,
Richier, Bonnard, Matisse, Chagall and Lipchitz.
Valère Novarina, Maurice's son (b. 1942) is one of the most interesting French theater writers. His plays are characterized by an extremely profuse language, including several local words and expressions gathered by the author in the valleys and mountains of Chablais. Novarina followed the way of Jacques Audiberti, multiplying the language without destructuring it, as opposed to Ionesco and Beckett.
Another famous writer from Thonon is the French Academician Henry Bordeaux (1870-1963), who wrote several novels a la Paul Bourget, characterized by a traditionalist and provincialist style today totally old-fashioned and hardly readable.
Ivan Sache, 26 August 2004
The flag of Thonon-les-Bains is vertically divided yellow-blue. It is a banner of the municipal arms, Parti d'or et d'azur ("Per pale or and azure").
Those arms are said to have been granted to the town by Count of Savoy Philip (1268-1285). The count granted its first franchises to the town, therefore it is possible that he also granted the town municipal arms, but there is no record of such a grant.
The flag of Thonon can be seen on the balcony of the town hall, which is decorated from left to right with the flags of Thonon, Savoy, France, the European Union and Chablais. It is also widely used in the port and other places of the town.
Ivan Sache, 26 August 2004
Flag of SNLF - Image by Ivan Sache, 26 August 2007
In the port of Rives, the clubhouse of Société Nautique du Léman Français flies the SNLF flag, which is the flag of Savoy (white cross on red) with a vertically divided yellow-blue square in the middle and the black letters SN and LF placed on the horizontal arms of the flag either side of the square.
Ivan Sache, 26 August 2004