Castle of the Week 83 – Pierrefonds
Chateau de Pierrefonds (here after referred to as Pierrefonds) is a sleek and beautiful structure located about 60 miles north of Paris between Compiegne and Soissons in the old province of Valois. It is a romantic, picturesque castle that was converted from the ruins of a powerful medieval fortress into a magnificent imperial palace. It has a rich history dating back over a thousand years. It has stood witness to many intrigues, assaults and sieges.
The Nivelon family originally controlled Pierrefonds until 1185 when the last Nivelon lord died without an heir. It was then purchased by King Philippe Auguste and attached to the crown as a royal castle. In 1392, King Charles VI of France gave the castle with the province of Valois to his brother, Louis, Duke of Orleans. Around this time the king became insane, his authority waned and two competing factions emerged to lay claim to the throne. The factions were The Burgundians (supported by the English who lay claim to the French throne) and the Armagnacs who supported Duke Louis of Orleans.
In 1396, Louis began construction of a vast military network north of Paris with Pierrefonds as its center. He gave the existing castle to a local monastic order and ordered construction of a new more powerful fortress. The construction took ten years to complete and was finished in 1406, just in time to celebrate the wedding of his eldest son Charles.
In 1407, Louis was assassinated by the Burgundians, which plunged the kingdom into civil war. In 1411, the castle fell into the hands of the Burgundians due to a change of allegiance of the garrison’s captain. It was returned to Charles of Orleans in 1413 only after the castle was badly damaged by fire. Bad fortune continued to follow Charles when the English captured him in 1415 after the battle of Agincourt. He was held captive in England for 25 years. Upon his release at the end of the Hundred Years’ war in 1440, Charles returned to Pierrefonds and repaired the castle.
In 1617, some dissatisfied nobles formed a group in opposition to Cardinal Richelieu and his domination of young King Louis XIII. Antoine d’Estrees, Marquis of Coeuvres, the then owner of Pierrefonds, sided with the opposition. On March 24th 1617, an attacking force of 3000 infantry, 500 cavalry and 4 artillery pieces sent by Richelieu began a siege of the castle. The garrison held for six days but was eventually overwhelmed.
On May 16th, Louis XIII ordered Pierrefonds dismantled but the solid construction of the fortress presented such a problem for the demolition crew, that they settled on destroying part of the towers and the walls.
For the next two hundred years, the castle remained in ruins and was sold several times during that time. One of the most notable owners was Napoleon Bonaparte, who bought the property for a mere 2,950 francs. In 1848 it was placed on the list National Historic Buildings.
Pierrefonds got its rebirth with the ushering in of the second empire. In 1850, the Prince- President (future Napoleon III) visited the ruins and was inspired to restore the castle. Eight years later in 1858, construction began under the direction of the famous architect, Eugene Emmanuel Viollet. He began by restoring the keep and the two adjacent massive towers.
By 1861, the Emperor was so enamored with Pierrefonds that he had the plans modified from that of a “picturesque ruin” to an “imperial residence”. The workers and craftsmen increased from around 100 to over 300 by 1863, working non-stop, seven days per week. His plans kept the exterior design of the castle very similar to the original military fortress of Louis of Orleans. He was given free reign and went wild with gothic architecture on the interior of the castle.
The critics of Napoleon III called the restoration work “romantic madness.” The bug must have been contagious as it is said to have influenced the King of Prussia to restore Haut-Koenigsbourg and Louis II of Bavaria to build Neuschwanstein, after their visit to Pierrefonds.
In spite of round the clock construction, work was still not complete by 1870 when the Franco Prussian War swept onto the scene. Construction was halted and the valuables evacuated to Paris. Three years later in 1873 construction resumed after a petition of Viollet to the government for an additional 850,000 francs to complete the work.
Viollet died in 1879 never to see his project completed. With the collapse of the empire, work was halted in 1885. The interior furnishings and furniture were never completed and the castle was left empty. After thirty years of construction and an estimated 5,850,000 francs, Pierrefonds was an imperial palace with an emperor.
Pierrefonds was constructed on a plateau protected on three sides by steep natural escarpments. The plan of the castle is composed of a quadrangle defended by eight towers, one in each corner and an additional one defending the center of each section of wall. Each tower is named after a legendary hero from history. The strongest named for Julius Caesar, which guarded the gatehouse and was adjacent to the keep.
1) Tower Charlemagne
2) Tower Julius Caesar
3) Tower Arthur (King Arthur)
4) Tower Alexander (Alexander the Great)
5) Tower Godfrey de Bouillon
6) Tower Joshua
7) Tower Hector
8) Tower Judas Maccabee
9) Main Gate
10) Court of Honor
One of the other defenses characteristic of Pierrefonds was the covered double terraced walls. They were defended by over-hanging crenellations and arrow slits. This made it virtually impossible for anyone to scale the walls without having a very bad day. Due to the shape and size of the castle, defenders could quickly shift to hot spots to repel attackers. The high thick walls and mobility of the defenders allowed the garrison of Pierrefonds to be smaller than a normal castle.
This project has been very enjoyable. I have learned a lot about French history and the intrigues that go along with it. I would like to thank Michael Reed and Eric Desrentes for their assistance and use of their images of Pierrefonds. I encourage you to visit their websites to see additional photos of Pierrefonds as well as other French castles and palaces.
Write-up courtesy of Duke of York.