Chateau Gaillard

High on the Andelys cliff in the region of Haute-Normandie, France, stand the ruins of Chateau Gaillard. Though no longer inhabitable, the remains speak to the impressive structure the Chateau once was. Originally called "the Castle of the Rock," Chateau Gaillard, "Saucy Castle," was the strongest castle of its age.

Chateau Gaillard

Chateau Gaillard in Normandy, France
Adaptation of a photo by Philippe Alès, made available through the Creative Commons license

The construction of the fortress was the result of the ongoing conflict between Richard the Lionheart and Philip II of France. Richard was not the only king of England, but he was also Duke of Normandy, and his onetime friendship with Philip had turned sour over events that took place on their expedition to the Holy Land. This included Richard's marriage to Berengaria, instead of to Philip's sister Alice, as had been agreed to before they'd set off on the Third Crusade. Philip had returned home from Crusade early, and while his rival was occupied elsewhere, he took control of some of Richard's lands in France.

When Richard finally returned home, he began a campaign in France to recover his holdings. In this, he was markedly successful, though at no small cost in bloodshed, and by the end of 1195 negotiations for a truce had begun. At a peace conference in January 1196, the two kings signed a treaty that returned some of Richard's lands to him, but by no means all. The Peace of Louviers gave Richard control of portions of Normandy, but it forbade the construction of any fortifications in Andeli, because that belonged to the church of Rouen and was therefore considered neutral.

As relations between the two kings continued to be strained, Richard knew he could not allow Philip to expand any further into Normandy. He began to negotiate with the Archbishop of Rouen with a view to taking possession of Andeli. However, the Archbishop had seen most of his other properties subject to severe destruction during the preceding months of warfare, and he was determined to hold on to his most prestigious asset, where he'd constructed a toll house to collect fees from ships passing on the Seine. Richard lost patience, seized the manor, and began to build. The Archbishop protested, but after several months of being ignored by the Lionheart, he left for Rome to complain to the pope. Richard sent a delegation of his own men after to represent his point of view.

A Swift Construction

In the meantime, the Château Gaillard was built with astonishing speed. Richard personally oversaw the project and never let anything interfere. It took barely two years for thousands of workers to complete the fortifications, which were set on a base carved out of the rock on the 300-foot limestone cliff. The inner citadel's enclosing wall, which you can see from the photo is curvilinear, left no dead angle. Richard claimed the design to be so perfect that he could defend it even if it were made of butter.

The Archbishop and Richard's representatives returned in April of 1197, having worked out an agreement under the direction of the pope. It was believed at the time that Celestine III felt sympathy for a Crusader King whose lands had been appropriated in his absence. At any rate, Richard was free to finish building his Saucy Castle, which he did by September of 1198.

Conquered at Last

Philip never tried to take the fortress while Richard was still alive, but after the Lionheart's death in 1199, things were rather different. All of Richard's territory passed to his brother, King John, who did not share the Lionheart's reputation as a military leader; thus, defense of the castle looked a little less formidable. Philip eventually laid siege to the castle, and after eight months captured it on March 6, 1204. Legend has it that the French forces gained access through the latrines, but it is more likely that they got into the outer ward through the chapel.

A Storied History

Over the centuries, the castle would see a variety of occupants. It was a royal residence for King Louis IX (Saint Louis) and Philip the Bold, a refuge for the exiled King David II of Scotland, and a prison for Marguerite de Bourgogne, who was unfaithful to her husband, King Louis X. During the Hundred Years War it was once again in English hands for a time. Eventually, the castle became uninhabited and fell into disrepair; but, as it was believed to pose a serious threat should armed forces inhabit and repair the fortifications, the French States-General asked King Henri IV to demolish the fortress, which he did in 1598. Later, Capuchins and Penitents were permitted to take building materials from the ruins for their monasteries.

Chateau Gaillard would become a French historical monument in 1862.

Chateau Gaillard Facts

  • Located at Les Andelys, Normandy, France
  • Built-in 1196 to 1198 by Richard the Lionheart
  • Owned by the French government
  • Classified as Monuments Historiques in 1862
    Also classified among the Great National Sites in France
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Snell, Melissa. "Chateau Gaillard." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Snell, Melissa. (2023, April 5). Chateau Gaillard. Retrieved from Snell, Melissa. "Chateau Gaillard." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).