A very brief History of French Castles over time
As far back as the 9th century, lords built wooden castles to protect themselves from the Vikings. Wooden lookout towers were built on a hill and surrounded by wooden fencing. It didn’t take them long to realise that wood wasn’t the most resistant of materials, especially when attacked by fire, and they soon opted for stone structures instead.
The 11th century heralded the arrival of mediaeval fortresses whose watchword was defence. The lord would live in the main tower which was surrounded by high crenelated walls with arrow slits. They were either built on a hilltop vantage point with clear views of the horizon to see an imminent attack coming, or on flat ground, protected by a moat. In either case, dungeons and drawbridges were the order of the day and living was rustic.
As the centuries passed and times became slightly less barbaric, the purpose of castles began to shift away from military defence and more towards comfort. The 15th century marked the beginning of the Renaissance era: Kings and Queens took centre stage while plumed and paintbrush-wielding artists like Da Vinci and Michelangelo enjoyed their heyday. Castles were less about keeping out and more about showing off. Ornamental mouldings, decorative sculptures and decadent gardens swathed royal residences in elegance and prestige, and interiors were decked out with plush, gilded furnishings.
The French Revolution in 1789 put paid to the monarchy and ended the era of royal residences. However, captains of industry kept the country’s chateau-building reputation alive well into the 19th century with palatial palaces designed to flaunt their newly-made wealth.
Centuries of architecture are still standing strong and just waiting to be admired. If you like the idea of delving into the stories of times gone by, then here are a handful of addresses where you can do just that. Whichever corner of France you’re headed to, we’ve got you covered.
Before we set off, here’s a quick timeline of French dynasties to help you navigate the tales you’ll hear along the way!
The Capetians: 987 to 1328. Rewind back to the Middle Ages. This mediaeval dynasty counted 15 kings and spanned more than three centuries.
The Valois: Reigned from 1328 to 1589. This period saw a succession of 13 kings on the throne, some of whom were dubbed the good, the wise, the mad, the cautious and the builder. Henri II lived from 1519-1559 and was married to Catherine de Medicis.
The Bourbons: Reigned from 1589 to 1795. Six kings, including Henri 4th and a string of Louis’ including Louis 14th, the Sun King who built the Palais de Versailles, and Louis 16th who was guillotined in the wake of the French Revolution. His wife, Marie-Antoinette, came to the same grizzly end a few years later.
The reputation of a castle often depended not only on the architecture but also its gardens, which, even today, are sometimes the main attraction. The Gardens of Villandry in the Loire Valley are a perfect example; although Villandry castle is suitably impressive, the reputation of its intricately designed gardens far surpasses the castle itself.
Initially no more than a place to grow food and feed animals, castle gardens became more creative and aesthetic in the 16th century. Some chateaux landscapers are just as eminent as architects – André Lenôtre, who designed the gardens of Versailles, for example.
Estate gardens might include vegetable gardens, rose gardens and water features, and are often split into two styles; French and English.
French gardens are formal, set out in neat, symmetrical lines with military precision. The layout usually creates a visual “lead up” to the castle to highlight the architecture. Trees are dotted along the alleys and low-lying plants are used around the building, sheared and shaped to within an inch of their existence. Water features may be used to enhance the effect.
English gardens are more informal - less orderly and more spontaneous with the emphasis on nature rather than architecture. Filled with bursts of colour and irregular lines, they generally require less maintenance.