Chateau Gaillard

Winter 1203-04

The Norman conquest of England in 1066 created an unusual situation in which the new King of England was, in his capacity as Duke of Normandy, a vassal of the King of France.  With Norman possessions extending even to the Mediterranean, the English monarch / Duke of Normandy was in reality more powerful than the King of France.  Conflict between the two realms was predictable and extended off and on in several guises for several centuries.

In the late 1100s King Richard the Lionhearted of England and King Phillipe Auguste of France briefly ended their conflict in Normandy with a peace treaty.  Richard, however, in 1196 began construction of a castle, Chateau Gaillard, in a designated neutral zone along the River Seine, a place called Andeli, an act which gave him control of river traffic from the Channel into Rouen and Paris.   

After Richard died and was succeeded by King John, Phillipe Auguste attacked the new fortifications, capturing the Chateau de Ile then the town itself, forcing the residents to seek the protection of Chateau Gaillard on the cliffs 90 meters above the river.

Civilians could only hinder the defense of the castle and eat the food stored for the defenders, so the English sent groups of them out from the castle.  Knowing this, Phillipe Auguste prevented the final group of civilians from passing through his lines, as was the custom of the times.  In the siege that followed, many of these civilians caught between the lines were killed or died of hunger and exposure.  

In this work by Viollet-le-Duc you can understand the design and appearance of the castle, an innovative fortress of its time.  Chateau Gaillard featured machiolations, at least on the keep, which were stone works built out from the top of the walls so that objects could be dropped on attackers below.  Towers were designed to project forward from the walls to provide flanking fire, and arrow slits were designed for a wide field of fire.  The castle featured a concentric defense.  Built with steep ground on three sides, an attacker would have to capture first the outer bailey, then the middle and inner baileys before facing the strongest part of the castle, the keep.  The inner bailey used a scalloped wall design, theoretically stronger but not as useful in reality as expected.

Outer Bailey

Protected by a ditch to its front, the outer bailey was the castle's first line of defense.  After the castle became obsolete, locals used the stone for other construction projects.  In the cross section of the wall in the center you can see that the outward facing stones are well finished compared to the wall's interior, which is made of rubble and mortar.  During the siege, the French captured the outer bailey by mining under the defenses, bringing a portion of them down.  Next we will walk toward the middle bailey.

This 360 degree view is from the ditch separating the outer bailey from the middle bailey.  A bridge spanned this ditch, which is 9 meters wide and 6 meters deep.  Next we will walk into the middle bailey.

In this 360 degree view we can see the ditch separating the middle bailey from the inner bailey, which includes the keep.  The French captured the outer bailey and were now faced with the middle bailey.  To capture it, the French infiltrated the area, perhaps through the latrines, the approximate position of which is indicated on the panorama.  They then took the chapel and opened the gate from the outer bailey.

The defenders now held only the inner bailey.  Mining, counter mining, and a trebuchet brought down its walls, and the remaining English, 140 of them, surrendered on March 6, 1204.


Above are two views of the keep, which is part of the inner bailey walls, from opposite sides.  Rounded on the portion that is part of the inner bailey walls, on the interior of the bailey, the keep is rectangular.  The keep walls are 2.5 meters thick and included machiolations and a plinth at the bottom, a thicker section of the walls which allows dropped items to shatter or bounce.  The plinth also makes mining under the walls more difficult.

Rouen fell to the French king soon afterward followed by all of Normandy.  The reign of King John was not a success in no small part due to the loss of Normandy, and he was forced to sign the Magna Carta in which he acknowledged the limits of royal power and the existence of specific liberties.  Due to the this and family connections between the royal families of England and France, in later times the King of England would claim the throne of France, but the Hundred Years War would end any threat of English takeover of France.  Although Chateau Gaillard had some involvement in the Hundred Years War, it did not play a vital role.  Gunpowder made it obsolete, and the castle was a ruin by 1573.  By the early 1600s it was used as a hideout by local criminal elements so the locals got permission to tear the place and use the stone for local building projects.   Today it is a partially restored ruin well worth a fortification buff's visit.

Copyright 2012 by John Hamill

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