Chateau de Vincennes

    Bois de Vincennes was long a favored royal hunting ground, so a hunting lodge then a manor were built there.  The king was known to dispense justice beneath one of the trees.  In the 1300s, the French monarchy was enduring a difficult period of the Hundred Years War, having lost major battles to the English and faced insurrection in Paris.  Construction of a castle at the Vincennes hunting lodge and manor would help defend Paris from the English and from domestic enemies.  The keep was built first between 1361 and 1370.  The outer walls, or enceinte, were built between 1373 and 1380 surrounding the manor house and associated buildings, making the castle one of the largest in Europe.  The place was deigned as the seat of government, and it included a reliquary chapel also.  The victories of Henry V of England put him in possession of the Chateau de Vincennes and earned him marriage into the French royal family, cementing the English conquest of France.  A conquest by the English was not to be, however, as Henry died at Vincennes and France's Charles VII liberated the country from the English, including Vincennes itself in 1436.  In the late 1400s a royal palace was built inside the castle to replace the keep as a residence.  The castle was used as a refuge during the Wars of Religion.

    Under the young Louis XIV, the castle was transformed into a grand residence, with the king and queen's pavilions built along with gardens and other improvements, but the place was still not adequate for Louis' purposes, and in 1682 Louis moved court to Versailles.  Vincennes was little used by the royal family after that, so it was used for other purposes like housing for the military academy, a porcelain factory, an arms factory, an arsenal, an artillery academy, and a prison.  In 1804, the Duc d'Enghien was executed in the ditch on orders from Napoleon.  In the 1830s and 40s, some of the walls were modified as casemates, and in 1871 the Commune took possession of the castle before the rising was suppressed and some of its leaders executed in the castle ditch.  In 1936 an army headquarters was dug beneath the Queen's Pavilion, and it was here that Gamelin commanded disastrously in 1940.  The evacuating Germans in 1944 set fire to ammo dumps in the castle, blowing a hole in the wall and burning the king and queen's pavilions.  Restored after the war, Chateau de Vincennes is now a museum and a military archives.  In its time, the Chateau de Vincennes was something like Paris's version of the Tower of London.  It is well worth a visit, but compared to other tourist attractions in Paris, the Chateau de Vincennes is undervisted and underappreciated.

17th Century

Built on the site of a hunting lodge, Vincennes remained uncluttered until the late 1600s.  Featuring a concentric defense with a wet ditch, the keep (or donjun) was the primary royal residence.  The donjun also served as the treasury and as a prison.  By the late 1600s, rich nobles were building chateaux as grand or grander than the king's.  The king decided to transform Vincennes into something much more impressive.  The moat was drained, and two residences were built, one named for the king, the other for the queen.  The chateau would be the primary royal residence until Versailles was completed.  Sainte-Chapelle, based on the cathedral in Paris, housed relics of the cruxifition.  

Having arrived via Metro, we will walk through the nearest entrance at the Tour du Village

Tour du Village

Casemated walls modified in the early 1800s are visible above the bridge.

We walked through the entrance at right and face the Pavillon Officiers visible in the center of the panorama.  The open area at left was site to the medieval manor house that existed and a well.  Next we will walk through the passage at right and inspect the walls.

1944 Damage

Here you can see where the old wall has been replaced.  An explosion associated with the German evacuation in August 1944 destroyed this portion of the wall.  Only in relatively recent times has this been repaired.


Returning toward the entrance then beyond we see the site of the well.  Originally water was piped into the castle, but this could be cut off during a siege, making a well a necessity.  We will continue along the Pavilon des Armes then take a left to the Tour des Salves.

Tour des Salves

In the ditch we can see a cross in remembrance of members of the Resistance who were executed prior to the German withdrawal.

Sainte Chapelle

The castle's chapel was based on the famous cathedral in Paris shown in the panorama below.  Construction began in 1379 as the castle's walls were nearing completion, but it was only completed in the 1550s.

Statues commemorate the execution of the Duc d'Enghien.

King and Queen's Buildings

These palaces were burned during German retreat.  The restored buildings now house military archives.

From the Keep


After the destruction of Coucy Castle in the First World War, the keep at Vincennes became the tallest in Europe with a height of around 50 meters.  The plinth projecting from the bottom of the walls helped prevent enemy mining and allowed objects dropped from the wall to shatter or bounce further from it.

Crossing a drawbridge, we enter the keep by passing through a two doorways.  The niches above, now empty, had statues of the king and queen with Saint Christopher in between.


The vertical panorama at left is the keep tower viewed from the southeast corner.  The cutaway view at right is from the northeast corner.   To help hold together a building so large, iron bars to the extent of a kilomter and a half in length were included in the stone in keep construction.

1) wooden bridge
2) spiral staircase
3) council room
4) private apartments

In medieval times, there was no ground level entrance to the keep.  A visitor climbed steps then crossed the bridge to the keep.

Ground Level

Originally used for storage, the ground level was modified for use as a prison.  

First Floor

This floor was used as a council chamber.


Decoration remaining in this chamber implies a religious use.


Second Floor

Decoration remains from the king's bedchamber.

Side Chamber

Copyright 2012 by John Hamill

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