History of the Grand St Bernard pass
Home > Tourist Guide > Table of contents > Valais > Grand-St-Bernard > History

The Grand-St-Bernard Pass is the oldest of Alpine pass routes, in use at least since the Bronze Age (about 800 BC). Tribes and armies have tramped their way to and fro for millennia – in 390 BC, a Gaulish army crossed to defeat Rome – and from the earliest times ordinary people used the pass to trade goods between northern Europe and Italy. Hannibal’s famous crossing of the Alps in 217 BC, reputedly with elephants, is indelibly associated with the Grand-St-Bernard, though there’s little actual evidence of it. In 57 BC, Julius Caesar crossed the Summa Poenina, as it was known, to conquer the pagan peoples of Martigny, who worshipped the Celtic god Poenn (the chain of great peaks on the Swiss–Italian frontier is still called the Pennine Alps). Shortly after, Emperor Augustus built a road across the pass; on the top he left a temple to Jupiter, which subsequently lent its name to the area (Mons Iovis, or Mont Joux). The temple was sacked with the fall of Rome, but a refuge may well have remained on the pass, since the great and the good continued to tramp the road: Pope Stephen II crossed in November 753 to meet with Pepin the Short, King of France; while in 800 Charlemagne crossed back following his coronation in Milan.

In the early 900s, Huns and Saracens swept through the region, raping, pillaging and destroying churches: to keep them quiet, Hugh of Provence, King of Italy, granted them guardianship of the Mont Joux pass, whereupon they began to terrorize travellers and demand payment. Deeply concerned at the disruption caused to merchants and pilgrims Europe-wide, King Canute of Denmark took King Rudolf III of Burgundy to one side to have a quiet word. They ejected the heathens in short order, whereupon the archdeacon of Aosta, one Bernard of Menthon, who’d spent years tending to travellers coming down off the pass stripped of all their belongings, oversaw the construction of a hospice on the pass. Bernard himself travelled around the area, spreading the word of God, and was beatified shortly after his death in the 1080s. Pope Pius XI confirmed him as patron saint of the Alps in 1923.

The hospice immediately became a welcome point of safety on an extremely dangerous route, attracting favours and gifts from royal and noble households, and by 1177, a papal bull confirmed that the monks owned some 78 properties in Vaud, Valais, Savoy, Italy, France and England, including Hornchurch in Essex. Throughout the Middle Ages, the hospice provided free shelter and food to pilgrims, clerics and travellers, many crossing to and from Rome. By 1817 some 20,000 people were using the road annually. During the wars of the 1790s, entire armies crossed the pass: in May 1800, Napoleon led 40,000 troops over the pass into Italy, on the way consuming 21,724 bottles of wine, a tonne and a half of cheese, 800kg of meat, and more, running up a bill with the hospice of Fr.40,000 before departing with a wave of his hand. Fifty years later, the monks received Fr.18,500 towards payment, and had to wait until May 1984 for a token gesture of account settling from French president François Mitterrand.

First mention of the famous St Bernard dogs – product of an unknown cross between a mastiff, Great Dane and/or Newfoundland – was in 1708. Since then, these heavy-set, jowly beasts, with a little flask of reviving brandy tied round their collars, have come to stand as icons of the mountains. With the advent of skis, phone lines, radios, and now helicopters, the rescue services of the dogs have faded, but the hospice still keeps a kennel for them on the pass. (Some fifteen pure-bred St Bernard puppies are born every year, each with a tidy price-tag of Fr.1700.) With the construction of the Simplon Tunnel further east in 1905, trains rapidly superseded the St Bernard road, and in 1964 a motorway tunnel opened beneath the pass in order to safeguard traffic flow year-round. These days the hospice spends the summer crowded with visitors and hikers, and the winter receiving people climbing up from below to spend a few days or weeks on a solitary snow-bound retreat.

© Micheloud & Cie 2013     No part of this site may be reproduced in any form or by any means without our prior written permission. Printed from http://Switzerland.isyours.com/e/guide/valais/grandstbernardhistory.html