Montbazon

Amazingly, the survival of the massive tenth century keep and later fortifications at Montbazon owe much to the resolve and dedication of a former Marine lieutenant of the American Expeditionary Force of 1917-18. His name was William Perry Dudley. Sent to Montbazon in 1918 to recover from battle wounds, he was fascinated by the castle ruins overlooking the town. Four years later, after becoming a wealthy landscape-architect in theStates,he returned, bought the ruins and thenceforth devoted himself to restoration of the castle. In this demanding task, which would take decades, he was supported by his American artist friend Lilian E. Whitteker (1895-1978). Although the site contains fine twelfth century works by Henry II of England as well as later remains dating up to the fifteenth century, it is the great keep that catches the eye (Fig. 29). Its builder was the legendary Fulk III Nerra (Foulques), Count of Anjou (970-1040), founder of the Angevin line and distant ancestor of Henry II.43 Foulques was one of those extremely energetic characters who seem to blaze their way through the records of the Middle Ages. Precise details of his life are not known but apparently his mood could swing abruptly from murderous rage to remorse, hence the sobriquet ‘Nerra’ signifying black (le noir). Legend has it that he threw his wife Hildegarde through a window of his château at Angers and that her fall on the far bank of the river Maine was miraculously softened by passing angels. We read that in atonement for his many sins he founded abbeys and made four pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Also known as the Great Builder, Foulques built many of the seventy strongholds that formed a strategic chain around his Angevin domain. The great keep at Loches was one of them. He is famous for initiating the building of keeps and castles in stone; until his time, as mentioned earlier, forts of the motte-and-bailey type were essentially wooden.

Fig. 29 – Donjon of Montbazon, Indre-et-Loire

The square donjon at Montbazon is the oldest surviving keep in France and a fine example of his pioneering style. It was built in 991-4. Over 30 metres high, with 2-3 metre thick walls of stone, it originally held three storeys. In 1797 a lightning strike produced a gash, still visible, in one wall (Fig. 29). In 1957, a frame of reinforced concrete was installed within the upper reaches of the four walls. Crowning the keep is a 10 metre-high copper statue of the Virgin and Child that was erected after a fund-raising campaign (1866): the principal contributor was Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III.

  1. William Anderson, ibid. 45-6 []