Castle of the Week 85 – Château de Bonaguil
Le Château de Bonaguil was the last medieval castle built in France. It is unique in that it was constructed during the transition between the Medieval and Renaissance periods. It was a time when the medieval castle was losing its defensive value, feudalism was dying and new castles (which were more opulent palaces like Chambord) replaced the austere fortresses of the past. Bonaguil harnessed the old defensive capabilities of a medieval castle as well as deploying musketry and artillery linking it to modern forts.
The first castle of Bonaguil was a stone keep built atop a rocky needle around the year 1250 by the Knight Arnaud de la Tour of Fumel. In fact, the name Bonaguil is a transliteration of bonne aiguille, which means good needle. This was a very strategic place bordering several provinces in southwest France. During the Hundred Years’ War, the Lords of Bonaguil sided with the English. The castle at this time was a pentagonal shaped stone tower with an adjacent barracks to house the small garrison. During the war, the castle was taken and retaken by both sides many times before it was eventually burned and abandoned. However, Bonaguil still remained the property of the Lords of Fumel.
Over a hundred years later in 1444, the marriage of Jean de Roquefeuil, Baron of Blanquefort and Isabeau de Peyre brought the castle back into prominence as the Baron left his castle at Blanquefort and came to Bonaguil to make it his new home. He began renovations of the ruins at Bonaguil and transformed it into a modest castle to house his family of nine children. He died in 1482 leaving his entire estate to Berenger de Roquefeuil, his third son.
Most of what is seen today of Bonaguil was built between 1483 and 1520 by the Baron Berenger of Roquefeuil, who wanted a fortress to protect him. He was quite a character and said, “I will raise a castle that my villains subjects will not be able to capture, nor the English if they are audacious enough to come back, and even the king of France’s most powerful soldiers.” His castle took over forty years to construct and comprised of 13 towers and 1167 feet of defensive perimeter, all adapted for use of gun powered weaponry. When it was complete, it was said an entire army would have been necessary to capture the castle.
Berenger died in 1530 leaving Bonaguil to his son Charles. Charles’ wife, Blanche of Lettes de Montpezat, liked the life of luxury and pleasure. Her lavish spending and need to party drained the immense family fortune. (Leave it up to a woman to do what they do best – spend, spend, spend!)
Over the years, Bonaguil fell into bad disrepair. In 1618, the castle was sold due to a lack of funds but was later repurchased by the Roquefeuil family. Marguerite de Fumel purchased the castle in 1761, restored it and lived there until she died in 1788. She made some modern upgrades such as replacing the drawbridges with permanent stone bridges. She also added several out buildings and created a large festival area of the outer defensive perimeter on one side of the castle. During the Revolution, the castle was plundered of windows, doors and raw materials. The ruined castle was sold to the town of Fumel in 1860 for 3000 francs and in 1862 declared a national monument.
Lawrence of Arabia visited the castle in August 1908 and said of Bonaguil, “It was most interesting.” He wrote, “provision is made everywhere for canon: and at the same time the old methods were not out of date. It is so perfect that it is almost ridiculous to call it a ruin: all the vaults, stairways and some of the roofs are perfect.” (There are over 200 murder holes for muskets and cannon.) I guess he didn’t realize the castle had been cleaned and several stages of restoration had already occurred in 1882 and in 1900. There was further restoration in 1950, 1977 and 1985.
1) Main Gate
3) Dry Moat
4) Draw Bridge (later replaced with a permanent stone bridge)
5) Great Tower
6) Main Courtyard
8) Well – 157 feet deep (48m)
10) Lord’s Apartments
11) Lower Courtyard
12) Bakery, Wash House and other outbuildings
13) Festival Plaza (enlarged in the 18th century)
14) Square tower
15) Chicane – a zig-zag false entry designed to slow down attackers
Bonaguil is a typical medieval castle with three defensive lines, each inner line higher than the one it overlooks. The first line of defence was the outer wall dedicated to grazing fire, second was the main castle and third was the keep. Built on a rocky needle surrounded by abrupt terrain, it is really only accessible from one side. A fortified barbican protected the main entrance of the castle, with a deep dry moat carved into the rock separating it from the main castle.
Access to the main castle (second defensive line) from the barbican was across a massive drawbridge, which spanned the dry moat. When the drawbridge was lifted or closed, entering the castle was still possible but very tricky and dangerous. An attacker would have had to make his way through a maze of gatehouses, dark corridors, up stairs and across a narrow drawbridge before gaining access to the castle itself. Every effort was made to conceal the entrances and make access very difficult for the attacker. The only real entrance to the castle is through the barbican; the complicated, concealed way would have only been for troops very familiar with the castle for a possible counter attack.
The main castle is protected by a series of towers, the largest of these being 116 feet tall (35m) with walls 13 feet thick (4m) at its base. The upper levels were for housing and the lower levels for artillery. Considering the size of the tower’s door, it is expected that the cannons used would have been of heavy calibre. The key points of the walls were protected with crenulations and equipped with machicolations (murder holes) suitable for arrow or musket. The towers were constructed with pyramid shaped stone corbels at their top to support the battlements; this was to offer a better resistance against enemy cannon fire.
The keep is a unique vessel shaped tower (third line of defence) and had several major roles. It was the tallest structure in the castle and was used as an observation post, headquarters for the garrison and finally, with its flat roof, an artillery emplacement. Yes, you read right, the top of the keep was an artillery emplacement (cannonieres in French). Military philosophy of the 15th century was beat anything far away and defend the area close to the castle with grazing fire. At the same time, prevent any attempts of the enemy scaling the wall with high walls and towers with roofs. (Example would be a conical roof) The cannons of Bonaguil would have been able to be used for long and short-range fire in defence of the castle. The upper artillery would be in range of any siege engine the attackers could bring to bear. Musketry and grazing fire cannon would have been used to repulse any attempt to approach the castle. This demonstrates that a systematic use of artillery and musketry had been studied prior to construction of the castle.
Bonaguil shows us how artillery was incorporated in the defence of a medieval castle. However, with the advancement of more powerful artillery, medieval castles became obsolete. The days of the castle were at an end and the birth of the modern fort had begun.
I would like to give special thanks to Stéphane W Gondoin of Castleland.com who greatly helped me in this effort. I would like to extend thanks to Jean-Charles Pizolatto of aginum.net for allowing me the use of some photos as well as my good friend who helped me translate some articles from French to English.
Please also visit the following links, as they are a wealth of information and a great help in writing this article:
Write-up courtesy of
Duke of York.