Situated in an odd corner of suburban Paris, this castle is seldom on the itinerary of the cultural tourist. After an extensive renovation ending in 2010, in It deserves a visit.
Originally Vincennes was a hunting lodge built in the outskirts of the Forest of Vincennes in the 12th century. Archaeological excavations have revealed the foundations of this manor, which was gradually rebuilt and extended during the 13th and 14th centuries. As far as can be known from old maps and descriptions, the manor – called a domus – was a rambling and rather unstructured complex of buildings, which had been added over the years. In a map from 1654 it seems as if there was an old donjon, next to a large hall (the Sainte-Luis Hall). However, most of the buildings seems to have been added in a more or less haphazard way.
Nevertheless, the French kings, beginning with Saint Louis considered it a favourite residence. In the 13th century a fountain was built in the centre of the courtyard. Rebuilt in the 14th century by Charles V, the fountain is the only remaining part of the original Capetian manor. The water feeding this fountain – and the palace itself – was channelled from Montreul via clay pipes. A dam was also constructed at Saint-Mandé, in which fish was raised. During this period Vincennes was repeatedly called the ‘Bois de Vincennes’. Apparently it was an attractive place, and members of the royal retinue seem to have been busy building a series of manors or hunting lodges in the vicinity, to be able to keep company with the royal family while enjoying their stay in the country-side.
100 years war
At the start of the 100-years war, King John II (1350 – 1364) began the construction of the impressive keep, which even today stands at the centre of the moated castle. This building phase was carried on by his son, Charles V, until ca. 1370, when a protective wall with a length of 1100 meters and nine towers was constructed around the keep and its outer baily.
The plan was to transform Vincennes into a proper fortified city with room for the whole court. Each tower was 40 to 42 metres high and was used both as living quarters and as a defensive structure. One of these towers – at the main gate – still stands at its original height. As was the case with the other towers, this was originally adorned with statues.
At the centre stood the impressive square keep, reaching 52 meters up, measuring 16.2 meters on each side. The walls are more than three meters thick. At the corners were four turrets, each with an external diameter of 6.6 meters. Against the north side stands a rectangular tower, 5 meters wide and 6 meters long on the outside, containing latrines on every floor.
The huge square tower, was divided into six floors with four centrally arched rooms (the four first floors). Each archway rested on a single, slender central column. From this central room there was access to smaller rooms in each corner-tower. At the fifth floor the construction was less elaborate. The sixth floor was a blind room, only two metres high at the top.
A wall with a deep moat in front protected the keep; this moat was originally filled with water.
In its time the keep was a truly remarkable architectural feat and a visual demonstration of the royal power. It was built quickly and with a political determination to create a safe haven for the royal family and its invaluable treasure.
Entrance to the keep was though the chatelet, where visitors used to be greet by life size statues of Charles V, Jeanne de Bourbon and Saint Christopher. Above them was a relief of the Trinity creating a sense of divine protection. The keep was also decorated with carved sculpture. It is possible to get a glimpse of angels fiddling away as musicians on the sculpted windows framing the windows on the second and third floors. The second and third floors of the châtelet were reached through a spiral staircase mounted on the outside of the building. Perhaps the same type of architecture was used for the great staircase at Louvre.
The châtelet or gateway was the preferred working space for Charles V. In his study on the second floor, he used to receive visitors. His secretaries had offices in the two adjoining turrets. From here the king could pass directly to his private living quarters. The footbridge or gangway would be watched over by a clock, installed in 1369. (This was one of the first clocks ever installed in a private residence). The gangway was the only way to get into the keep itself.
The Royal Apartment
The donjon had a total of eight floors counting the terrace. The ground floor had a well and may have been used as a kitchen. However, with smoke drifting up in the royal apartment, it is more likely that this was a general storeroom and servants hall.
On the first floor was the council room. This was the first room, a visitor would enter. Some of the original oak panelling may still be seen here. A tiny oratory was cut into the northern wall. Dendrochronology has documented that the oak panelling could be dated to 1363 and most probably stemmed from trees felled at Gdansk (Poland).
The second floor held the royal bedroom. Fairly similar to the council room, we find major traces of the decoration from the time of Charles V. The ribs and vaults are decorated with fleur-de-lis painted with gold on a blue background. This room appears to have been panelled with oak, but only a few hooks remain. A magnificent fireplace may still be seen there.
In 1380 after the death of Charles V an inventory of the royal treasure was made, which gives a hint of what the room looked like, when he was alive. In the western window opening near the daylight a box was located containing 31 manuscripts of a religious nature, including two psalters, which used to belong to Sainte-Louis. In the turrets a large number of manuscripts, jewels and relics were found here.
The rooms further up are believed to have been used by the kings servants and entourage. It was formerly believed that the queen had lived here. However, it is likely she stayed in more comfortable surroundings with the children in parts of the old manor.
It is interesting to notice that the layout of the Kings apartment at Vincennes seems to have been organised after the same formula as at Louvre, with a formal entrance through the châtelet and over the gateway into what may have been used as the ‘salle de roi’. On top of that and thus more “private” was the royal bedroom.
In the middle of the wider grounds Charles V began to build a chapel in 1379. It was modelled on the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, except it only had one floor. On each side, oratories were reserved for the queen and king, while to the north east a small building contained the sacristy and the treasury of the chapel.
Daily Life of Charles V 1338 -1380. By Medieval Histories
How did a late medieval king conduct his business? What did his daily life look like? Recent studies of Charles V, King of France (1338 – 1380) reveals a way of life that is quite different from what we might first think.
In 1364 Charles V (1338 -1380) was crowned as king of France in Rheims. The following year he commissioned a beautiful manuscript to commemorate the event – the so-called Coronation Book of Charles V.
Une histoire de Vincennes. Mémoire pour l’an 2000.
By Jean Chapelot , Claude Troquet, Charles Kauffmann, et al
Vincennes municipal de l’information et des Relations publiques, 1999
Château de Vincennes. Source: Wikipedia.