Coucy-le-Château

In medieval times this huge castle in Picardie was renowned for having the greatest and highest donjon in all Christendom. Its height of 64 metres matched that of the towers of Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris. Coucy was the power base of Enguerrand III, an independent lord who could claim to be as rich and powerful as the King of France, proudly declaring ‘Roi ne suis, ne Prince ne Duc ne Comte aussi; Je suis le Sire de Coucy‘ (‘Not king, nor prince, nor duke nor even count am I; I am the lord of Coucy’). The story of his life and times has been brilliantly told by the American historian Barbara Tuchman.36

Fig. 15 – Ramparts of Coucy-le-Château, Picardie

A continuous 2.4 km long curtain wall (enceinte) with nearly thirty drum towers still surrounds the upper town, the adjoining castle ward and the castle (Fig. 15). The castle (Fig. 16) was built by Enguerrand III circa 1223-30. Its ground plan was quadrilateral with a great tower at each corner. Within a 20 metre high chemise, which faced in the direction of the ward and town, stood the massive donjon (Fig. 17). Vertical stone buttresses and arches were built at intervals into its inner circumference. In the ground, first and second floor halls, twelve-armed ribbed vaulting soared from these buttresses to an oculus at the ceiling centre. This design gave the tower exceptional strength and stability and any undermining of the wall by enemy sappers would have caused localized damage rather than total collapse. If besieged, it was capable of housing more that one thousand men-at-arms.

Fig. 16 – Pre-1914 view of Coucy from north-west (by courtesy of Cartes Postales Anciennes)

Fig. 17 – Pre-1914 view of donjon of Coucy (by courtesy of Cartes Postales Anciennes).

Two deliberate attempts were made to blow up this wonderful keep. In the first, made in 1652 when Cardinal Mazarin was in power as Regent, an internal explosion only blew out the core structures, the walls acting like a giant shotgun. The second, regrettably wholly successful, was made on March 27, 1917 when the retreating German army detonated 28 tonnes of dynamite within its base.

In Lawrence’s day the donjon and fortifications were reasonably intact, as evidenced by contemporary postcards.37 He referred to Coucy as ‘a glorious place‘. He may have been aware that Viollet-le-Duc had done limited restoration work there between 1856 and 1866: however, his funding had been restricted because restoration of nearby Pierrefonds had been given imperial priority. Earthquakes in 1692 and 1855 had weakened the donjon and Violletle-Duc added constraining belts of wrought iron to its upper levels; today, we can see these rings lying amongst the massive stones that lie tumbled in the former moat.

  1. Barbara W. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th. Century (London: Macmillan London Ltd,, 1979). []
  2. Pierre-Emmanuel Sautereau, Coucy-le-Château: Cartes Postales Anciennes (2010), <http://coucy.cpa.free.fr/> A cornucopia of images. []