Château-Gaillard

This famous castle (Fig. 6) is often quoted as a demonstration of the military genius of King Richard I of England, otherwise known throughout medieval Europe as Cœur de Lion, Lionheart, Löwenherz and Cuor di Leone.29 His father was Henry II, King of England since 1154, overlord of a realm which stretched from Scotland to the Pyrenees and was many times larger than that of the King of France.30 His mother was the redoubtable Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204), once Queen of France and, many years later, Queen of England, wife of Henry II.31 Richard, born in Oxford in 1157, succeeded to the English throne in 1189. He regarded England primarily as a source of tax revenue that helped him to resist French pressures upon his widespread holdings in France. Although he spent less than one year in England and spoke French rather than Saxon, popular appeal has outrun historical fact. Nowadays Richard the Lionheart is an accepted ikon of English robustness in the face of foreign threats: his bronze statue has long stood guard outside the Houses of Parliament.32

Fig. 6 – Château-Gaillard above the river Seine, Haut-Normandie

Between Rouen, capital of the Duchy of Normandy, and Paris, capital of Philippe Auguste, King of the Franks, the river Seine threaded its way through a land known as the Vexin. The interests of the contending Plantagenet and French kings clashed in this strategic region and violent conflicts often flared up at the various fortresses. In 1197 Richard set about building Château-Gaillard, his ‘Castle of the Rock‘, in order to dominate the Vexin and to provide an impregnable centre from which he could conveniently administer his possessions. Completed at great expense under his direct supervision in less than two years, the castle is set on precipitous limestone cliffs 90 metres above a great loop of the Seine (Fig. 6). The chronicles record a rather disconcerted Philippe Auguste declaring ‘If its walls were made of solid iron yet would I take them!‘. In true Plantagenet style, Richard replied ‘By the throat of God, if its walls were made of butter, yet would I hold them!‘.

Fig. 7 – Ground plan of Château-Gaillard.

Down below, by the small town of Les Andelys, a supporting bridgehead and defence line were built. The castle design (Fig. 7) has a wedge-shaped outer ward, or ravelin, separated by a broad and steep-sided nine metre-deep ditch from the concentric arrangement of walls which defines the middle and inner wards. The distinctive rampart (chemise) of the inner ward is of great thickness (Figs. 8 and 9). Within it is the ‘beaked’ donjon, the heart of the fortress: a pronounced slope (talus) to its base enabled dropped missiles to be bounced off into the ranks of assailants. The stylish corbels of the donjon once supported machicolation (mâchicoulis) that consisted of floor openings through which the defenders could drop combustibles, stones or hot fluids on to attackers. Lawrence was always alert to this particular feature of construction. He was fully appreciative of the clever design features at Château-Gaillard, which were advanced for the late twelfth century, and was very taken with the overlapping cylindrical towers that make up the outward-facing surface of the chemise (Fig. 9). These reinforcing convexities eliminated ‘dead angles’ and made flanking fire possible. Regrettably, in the seventeenth century, many of its lower courses of dressed stones were pecked away and used for religious building projects.

Fig. 8 – Chemise and donjon, Château-Gaillard

Fig. 9 – Chemise, Château-Gaillard

Four years after Richard’s death in 1199, Château-Gaillard was besieged by King Philippe Auguste. In desperation, with food stocks running low, the besieged Anglo-Norman garrison, under the command of Sir Roger de Lascy, expelled villagers from the castle. One band of four hundred, including women and children, was refused passage through the lines of circumvallation by the French besiegers and soon began to perish from winter cold and starvation in the dead ground outside the castle walls, reputedly resorting to cannibalism. After a siege of five months and a month of assaults, a small French group infiltrated an outer wall near the chapel, possibly through the drain of a latrine and a low-placed window. The chemise was penetrated and the donjon surrendered. Sir Roger and the surviving knights were imprisoned and then released upon payment of heavy ransoms. Such were the ways of chivalry. Rouen and the Duchy of Normandy fell to Philippe Auguste, marking the final triumph of his Capetian clan over two Angevin Plantagenets, Henry II and his son Richard I.

  1. Amy Kelly, Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings (Cambridge, Mass.: London, UK: Harvard University Press, 1950) []
  2. Richard Barber, The Devil’s Crown: A History of Henry II and his Sons (London, British Broadcasting Corp. 1978) ISBN 0 563 17507 9 []
  3. Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole enact the stormy relationship between Eleanor and Henry in the superb film “The Lion in Winter” (1968). []
  4. This work of the Italian sculptor Baron Carlo Marochetti was cast in 1860. []