In our latest special episode we look at Chateau Gaillard, a magnificent castle built by Richard the Lionheart. It was the most advanced castle of its time in Europe and went on to be the subject of a dramatic siege. The episode is available for purchase here or you can read on to find out more and hear a clip.
Richard the Lionheart was king of England from 1189 to 1199 and one of the most impressive military leaders of the age. The son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine (for whom he was the favourite son), Richard was both warrior king and troubadour. He ruled over a vast number of territories: King of England (with dominance over Scotland and much of Wales); Lord of Ireland; Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine; Count of Anjou. He ruled, in effect, “the left of France”, though technically he owed homage to the actual King of France, Philip II.
Philip was determined to put a halt to Angevin dominance and wanted to take back control of ‘French’ land. A wily and tricky ruler, he was highly effective at playing Richard and his brothers off against their father, Henry II. In 1189, Richard wanted to go on the Third Crusade but feared his father would grant all the lands to his younger brother, John, in his absence. Tensions between father and son spilled out into war, with Richard allying with Philip against his own father. Henry was driven into submission and forced to submit, pay homage to Philip and acknowledge Richard as his heir. Henry died just days later.
In 1190, with his inheritance secure, Richard went on the Third Crusade alongside Philip, but they fell out along the way and Philip went home in something of a huff. After overseeing the successful Siege of Acre, Richard eventually made peace with the great Muslim leader, Saladin, before setting back home in October 1192. However, he was taken prisoner in Austria on his way home and Philip saw an opportunity to get one over on his rival. He persuaded Richard’s brother, John, to join a conspiracy against Richard – John did homage to Philip for the French territories in return for his support in a bid to replace Richard as King of England. In 1193, Philip conquered the Norman Vexin and the key surrounding towns, going deep into Normandy, thoughJohn’s efforts in England were somewhat less successful. In 1194, Richard was finally released and began a grand campaign to retake Normandy.
BUILDING CHATEAU GAILLARD
Having made a significant advance back into Normandy, Richard now needed to fortify the new border both to protect what remained but also to act as a stepping stone for another attacking campaign. The perfect location for such a base was in the manor of Les Andelys – close to the new front line and perfectly placed with a dramatic cliff top overlooking a bend in the river Seine. Inconveniently, Les Andelys was owned by the Archbishop of Rouen, who refused Richard’s generous offer of purchase. Delegations were sent to Rome by both sides to argue the case with the Pope, who eventually persuaded the Archbishop to sell, though it transpired that Richard had not bothered to wait for the decision and had started building anyway.
This was not simply a case of building a castle, but rather Richard was planning a much grander project in Andely to transform the whole area into the perfect outpost for the coming wars. The castle would be the centrepiece on top of the cliff overlooking the whole endeavour. On the Isle of Andelys (an island in the Seine), Richard built a fortified palace with fortified bridges linking it to both sides of the river. An octagonal tower ringed with a double set of wooden palisades provided an effective garrison for the river, which itself was fortified with lines of sharp stakes driven into the riverbed, allowing Richard to control access. He also built a new town on the eastern edge of the Seine, which became known as Petit Andely.
The castle was built high on top of the chalk cliff that stood directly above a bend in the river, overlooking the Norman Vexin that Richard was planning to reconquer. This was a very ambitious castle that consisted of 3 baileys (an outer, middle and inner bailey) with a keep (or donjon) in the inner bailey, which houses the king’s chambers with large windows providing magnificent views of the river and Normandy. Richard had taken inspiration from his time on the Crusades, with Gaillard being one of the first European castles to employ concentric design (two or more curtain walls where the inner walls were higher than the outer – effectively a castle within a castle). The towers projected outwards, allowing the defenders excellent line of sight against would-be attackers without significantly exposing themselves to attacking fire. The towers were also round, making them harder to effectively bombard than square towers as projectiles were more likely to glance off without the weakness of a sharp angle to hit. The walls themselves were very thick and made of two different stones (one light, one dark), which gave a magnificent striped look to the castle. Anyone approaching Chateau Gaillard certainly would have been awestruck at the imposing fortress on display.
The whole enterprise was a significant undertaking. Usually, large castles are the result of various phases of construction – often over decades, sometimes centuries – but Chateau Gaillard took just two years to build, starting in 1196 and largely complete by 1198. All of this, of course, cost money. Generally, Richard was not a big spender when it came to castles and spent less money than his father (only about £7K during his reign). In contrast, Chateau Gaillard cost £12K. In Angevin currency, this was £45K when the annual income of the duchy of Normandy was just £80K. This was clearly something of a passion project for Richard and he took great pride in the endeavour. After the first year of construction, Richard gathered his entourage and declared, “Behold how fair is this year-old daughter of mine!” Philip feigned being unimpressed with news of Chateau Gaillard’s strengths, claiming that he would take it “though its walls were made of iron”. Richard responded that he could hold it “though its walls were made of butter”.
Chateau Gaillard was not just a vanity project. It protected approaches to Rouen but was also a staging post for attacks by Richard into the Vexin. With Gaillard built, he was for the first time able to billet a large number of troops to both raid and police the region at will, using Gaillard as a base. The tide turned decisively in Richard’s favour and by 1198 he had regained nearly all of the territory that had been lost by John in 1193. Unfortunately, he did not have long to enjoy his victory. Having concluded peace with Philip, he went on to besiege the small castle of Chalus in April 1199. The castle was largely unmanned but a lone crossbowman was firing pot shots from the wall. Richard, in his arrogance, neglected to duck when going to have a look and was hit in the shoulder. The wound turned gangrenous and he died at 41, at the height of his powers.
The Siege of Chateau Gaillard
John succeeded Richard as king and his accession marked a decisive reversal of fortunes for the Angevins. In 1200, John and Philip resumed the Normandy wars, and after the mysterious disappearance of John’s nephew and rival, Arthur of Brittany, whilst in John’s custody, support and momentum was very much with Philip. By 1203, Normandy was isolated and Philip had a clear run to Chateau Gaillard. By September, he controlled the land in the bow of the Seine and was dominant elsewhere in the valley. Chateau Gaillard was isolated, allowing Philip to besiege it without fear of imminent attack.
However, John was not going to abandon Gaillard to its fate. Along with William Marshal (the greatest knight of the age and himself the subject of a Rex Factor special episode), John devised an ambitious plan to relieve the Angevin forces and see off the French. William Marshal would lead a joint land and naval attack, with the land army clearing the soldiers on the bank while the ships would smash through a newly-constructed French bridge across the river, isolating the rest of the army and resupplying the island garrison. The Marshal delivered his part of the plan to great success, but unfortunately the navy took much longer to arrive than planned and were several hours late. Consequently, the French were able to regroup, rout the Marshal and then easily saw off the navy when it finally did arrive, the element of surprise now somewhat lost. Philip’s men then captured the island fortress, prompting the townspeople to flee up the cliff to take refuge in the castle.
Thus began the siege itself. The French surrounded the castle, digging large ditches lined with fortifications (seven wooden forts erected at regular intervals). Philip had crude huts built as housing for the soldiers, indicating that he was expecting this to be a long haul. The castle was commanded by the experience Roger de Lacy, who led about 300 troops in an effective defence of the castle. They were supplied to last a year but unfortunately these supplies were quickly being depleted by the c. 1,500 townspeople that had been admitted. De Lacy soon realised that they could not hope to hold out for long with so many “useless mouths” to feed. He took the hard-headed decision to expel the townspeople in large groups. The first groups were allowed to pass by the French, but when Philip got wind of this he ordered the last group to be held back and they were forced to spend the winter stuck outside the castle, with most dying from starvation or exposure.
Still, with the “useless mouths” now gone, De Lacy was able to defiantly hold out over winter. In January 1204, Philip decided to take direct action and ordered the construction of great siege engines, catapults and stone-throwers as well as belfries (mobile protection for battering rams). The French targeted the large tower at the apex of the outer wall, that being the one part of the castle that was vaguely accessible for attacks. Sappers (specialist miners) dug under the tower to ‘undermine’ it, bringing it down and filling the ditch, allowing the French to get inside. The defenders retreated into the middle bailey and the French were once again stuck until a resourceful soldier called Boggis discovered a way into the chapel via a latrine chute. He was now technically within the middle bailey but he only had a small troop of soldiers with him and the latrine chute/chapel entrance was not going to do for the whole army, so he decided to make a lot of noise in the hope that it would scare the defenders off. Remarkably, it worked! They assumed the defences had been breached, so fled into the inner bailey, allowing Boggis to open the main gate to the rest of the French army.
The endgame was now underway. The defenders had nowhere else to go and all their supplies had been left behind in the middle bailey. Once the French had breached the walls of the inner bailey, De Lacy accepted the inevitable and surrendered after five months of hard fighting. With Gaillard lost, the rest of Normandy soon followed, and after John’s attempt to take it back in 1214 failed, Normandy was lost to France.
Buy the Episode
In the podcast, we also explore subsequent historical events that involved Chateau Gaillard. It would also be linked to a French royal sex scandal, an exiled Scottish king and change hands numerous times during the Hundred Years War. By 1573, the castle was uninhabited and in a ruinous state, but still considered a potential threat to the local population (if it were to be repaired). Following a request from the French States-General, Henri IV ordered the demolition of Chateau Gaillard in 1599. Some of the building material was reused by Capuchin monks for monasteries until the demolition process was complete in 1611. In 1862, the ruins were classified as a monument historique, while archaeology work in the 1990s found an addition to the north of the castle to enable the use of guns (likely added in the 16th century).
If you’d like to hear more about the building of the castle, the siege and the later history of the castle then you can buy the full episode here:
- AL Poole, From Domesday Book to Magna Carta, 1087-1216
- Dan Snow, Battle Castles: 500 Years of Knights and Siege Warfare
- F. M. Powicke, The loss of Normandy (1189-1204) Studies in the history of the Angevin empire
- Marc Morris, King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta
- Michael Penman, David II
- Robert Liddiard, Castles in Context: Power, Symbolism and Landscape, 1066 to 1500
- Thomas Asbridge, The Greatest Knight