Royal palaces of the Hundred Years’ War
Made famous in popular history by the battle of Agincourt, Joan of Arc and Edward the Black Prince, the Hundred Years' War was an epic conflict between two nations, England and France. As Anthony Emery explains, over the course of the war the balance of architectural power moved from religious to secular domination; the Gothic style of architecture continued to develop and the palace-fortress became the pre-eminent form of a residence
In Seats of Power in Europe During the Hundred Years' War, Emery studies 60 residences of the crowned heads and the royal ducal families of the countries involved in the conflict. Here, writing for History Extra, Emery explores nine of the most significant royal palaces built during the period…
The Hundred Years' War began in 1337 and lasted until 1453 – a span of 116 years – but in reality, the war arguably extended a further 30 years until its final conclusion in 1483 with the deaths of Edward IV of England and Louis XI of France.
The war was not a continuous conflict but one of battles, sieges and armed conflict interspersed with periods of comparative calm or even peace, at least in England. Nearly all the fighting occurred in France, with England suffering only from sea raids and the threat of invasion between 1370 and 1390. However, the war had wider European ramifications, for it extended into Scotland, Flanders, the Iberian Peninsula and even the Holy Roman Empire.
The reasons for building during a war varied from the likely presence in a region of armed forces to a person's financial capabilities and standing in society. The shape and character of a residence during a war was similarly determined by the leader's position in society, but also by his technical knowledge and as a demonstration of his lordship, power, and wealth.
The anticipation of conflict often determined the defensive character of the palaces built by the key protagonists, but it should be remembered that castles as well as palaces were as much a residence as a fortification, with considerable flexibility in their design. Even in war, kings and nobles were just as capable of building a manor house as a fortress, depending on that person's reaction to the political and military circumstances in the region.
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The following nine examples show how the different protagonists reacted to the Hundred Years’ War in their desire for an up-to-date residence that necessarily fulfilled several roles in medieval society…
Windsor Castle, England (1355–70)
After a financially ruinous start to the war, Edward III experienced a sequence of successes including victory at Crécy (in 1346) and Poitiers (in 1356 which included the capture of the French king and two of his sons). It was followed by the surrender of Calais and an accord of peace and financial benefit at Brétigny (in 1360).
Edward signaled his achievements by the wholesale remodelling of the residential apartments within the defensive outer walls of Windsor Castle. He began by rebuilding the keep to provide temporary accommodation for himself and the queen (1355–57) so that the rebuilding of the apartments in the upper ward could progress without hindrance. This new work was developed round three courtyards with the principal apartments at first floor level above undercrofts (1357–70).
The courtyard facade was the earliest example of the new Perpendicular style in a domestic residence, a form characterised by vertical motifs. It was dominated by two gatehouses built for show, with the great hall and chapel positioned back-to-back in a unified design holding two extensive suites of royal apartments for the king and queen. The work was marked by its decorative character as exemplified by the surviving Rose Tower, for most of Edward's work has been overlain by that of Charles II and subsequent occupiers.
Edward III's work at Windsor was the most expensive domestic royal building project throughout the Middle Ages. It still forms the framework for the state apartments today. Equally important is that his development of this royal palace reflected the euphoria of a monarch seen to be of European standing. Despite its fragmentary survival, this work is of outstanding significance – historically, architecturally and artistically.
Windsor Castle in the time of Edward III. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
Vincennes Castle, France (1361–80)
During the later Middle Ages, the French royal demesne covered only two-thirds of the kingdom that became France. Paris and the Île-de-France were at the heart of the crown lands, with much of the remainder divided into semi-automatic regions – particularly Flanders, Brittany and Aquitaine. These great fiefs played a major role in determining the course of the war through their opposition to the French monarch. As a consequence of the king's generosity to his youngest son during the 1350s, Burgundy became a fourth and almost independent state.
The reign of Charles V of France from 1364 to 1380 was in marked contrast to the decline in English fortunes at that time. The development of Vincennes Castle near Paris was part of Charles's plan to revive the standing of his country. Between 1361 and 1380 he erected a vast fortress on the site of a royal manor house and built within it a castle for his own use.
The royal castle consisted of a walled enclosure, gatehouse protected, guarding the imposing tower-house that held the king's own apartments. The six-storeyed tower house is marked by corner towers, a projecting gallery at roof level, and a surprising absence of supporting buttresses [a structure of stone or brick built against a wall to strengthen or support it]. Each floor consisted of a spacious central chamber with a smaller room in each of the corner towers. The royal apartments were those on the first and second floors. They were vaulted and heated, embellished with decorative sculpture, wall paintings and paneling. The rooms above were for senior staff and servants.
During the restoration of 1994 to 2007, architects discovered that above the vaults of the second and third floors are diagonal and medial arches spanning the width of the building, helping to support the central column in each central room with iron rods. Iron bars were also inserted in the outer walls and three hoops of iron bars encircle the tower between the fourth and fifth floors.
Vincennes Castle has a very clean and ‘muscular’ layout, with the all-commanding tower house now the tallest medieval one in Europe. The rooms are comfortable and with tapestries and cushions, probably luxurious. The massive fortress that enclosed it was on the scale of a fortified city, protected by nine lofty towers for members of the royal family and household officials, and capable of accommodating several hundred people within the walled circuit.
Vincennes Castle. (© Kovalenkov Petr/Dreamstime.com)
Kenilworth Castle, England (1373–80)
John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, was Edward III's third son. His marriage in 1371 to Constance, the heir to the throne of Castile, gave him a claim to the throne of Castile and León. For the next 16 years he conducted himself as a king-in-waiting of one of the most powerful realms in Europe. In 1386, he sailed to Castile to press his claim to that throne but failed to achieve success. Two years later, he abandoned his claim to the Castilian throne. It was during Gaunt's absence abroad that Charles VI of France prepared his massive invasion of England that he had to abandon, primarily on financial grounds.
In 1373, Gaunt initiated the conversion of the long-established stronghold at Kenilworth into a palace-fortress for himself and his wife. His purpose was not only to provide an up-to-date range of reception, family and staff apartments, but a sequence of great hall and chambers that would outshine all other royal residences in Britain.
His work now stands as a ruin but its scale, richness and comfort can still be appreciated. The first floor great hall above a vaulted undercroft was approached by a grand stair opening into an impressive apartment. It was marked by deep-set windows rising to the roof, a dais bay window, and six fireplaces to help heat the apartment.
Little remains of Gaunt's private apartments, but they were two-storeyed with the family apartments on the upper floor as a sign of status, and were developed in a sequence of increasing privacy. Though in a ruined state, Gaunt's remodelling of Kenilworth Castle is the finest surviving example of a royal palace of the later Middle Ages in England, significant for its scale and the quality of its workmanship.
Kenilworth Castle. (© Davidmartyn/Dreamstime.com)
Saumur Castle, France (1368–1400)
In 1356, John II of France gave the duchy of Anjou to his second son, Louis, who initiated the construction of Saumur Castle in the Loire valley. Louis maintained a lavish court at Angers, where the several sections of the Apocalypse Tapestry commissioned by Louis are hung today as a reminder of its pomp and luxury. Saumur Castle displays the same culture, in a residence that had to be capable of repelling enemy forces of either an English army or bands of mercenaries. But by its scale and magnificence this castle also had to declare Louis' royal position and political authority.
The consequence was one of the most commanding residences of the Hundred Years' War that is both fortress and palace. It stands relatively complete, crowned by a roofscape of projecting galleries, an embattled parapet, tall chimneys and high-pitched conical roofs. The castle is depicted in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry [the most famous and possibly the best surviving example of French Gothic manuscript illumination] to the extent that there is little difference between the manuscript illustration and the structure that stands today overlooking Saumur town and the river Loire.
Three of the four courtyard ranges survive, for the great hall filling the fourth side was destroyed in the 17th century. The ranges were filled with apartments and suites of rooms, which are now used for museum purposes. Saumur Castle is a rare survival of a semi-royal residence of the late 14th century, combining artistic taste with a statement of royal power and a defensive capability if the war spread to its gates.
Saumur Castle. (© Pedro Antonio Salaverría Calahorra/Dreamstime)
Pierrefonds Castle, France (1394–1407)
Louis, Duke of Orleans, was Charles VI’s only brother, four years younger than the king but always a disturbing presence at court. When he was in his early twenties, Louis initiated a tower-house at Pierrefonds near Compiègne, which he subsequently developed into a far more imposing quadrangular fortress of eight towers with linking curtain walls.
Charles V had followed a similar practice a generation earlier at Vincennes, though that was on a much larger scale. Even so, Louis’s work (built between 1397 and 1407) converted the site into one of the largest fortresses in France. Work was nearly finished when the duke’s assassination in 1407 brought an immediate end to building.
Unfortunately, the castle's defences were destroyed in the early 17th century on the orders of Cardinal Richelieu. The ruins stood in gentle decay until 1857, when Napoleon III decided that Pierrefonds should be restored as an imperial residence by the architect Viollet-le-Duc (1857–70). The result was a mixture of historical erudition and creative imagining round a genuine architectural core. For many, it is a child's idea of a romantic castle: for others it is a genuine response to the historical structure, overtaken by the highly colourful imagination of Napoleon III's architect.
Of the original structure, a sequence of defensive outworks preceded the heart of the castle – four ranges round a central courtyard broken by D-shaped towers. Usually four floors high with 30-feet-thick bases, each tower was surmounted by a roofed and machicolated wall-walk, with a second walk tiered above open to the sky. Pierrefonds was therefore protected by two parapet circuits that provided an unbroken route encircling the whole fortress, facilitating speedy military movement.
Viollet-le-Duc sought to restore the original character of the towered circuit during the 1860s, but his reconstruction of the internal apartments was haphazard and illogical. Today the visitor traverses a sequence of empty rooms of a Victorian dream that came to nought, enclosed within a carapace of spectacular restored towers and curtain walling.
Pierrefonds Castle. (© Philippehalle/Dreamstime.com)
Tarascon Castle, France (1402–35)
Like the earlier castle at Saumur in the Loire valley, Tarascon Castle in the Rhône Valley stands as a testimony to the power of the Valois dukes in southern France during the Hundred Years' War. Tarascon was always a place of military and strategic importance, poised between the independent county of Provence and what subsequently became the state of France.
Externally, Tarascon is a fortress: internally, it is more obviously a palace. It is the work of a single period (1402–35), of quadrangular plan with prominent angle towers to the river and to the town. The castle is divided into two major units: an oblong outer court for staff rooms that rarely survive in other castles, and the formidable square bulk of the castle proper. The latter rises from a rock base with few outer windows, a projecting gallery at roof level through which missiles could be dropped, and a totally flat roof. Unlike the multi-towered roofline at Saumur or Pierrefonds, that at Tarascon was replaced by a new wartime development of a stone terrace to support artillery guns.
Internally, the castle was divided into four functional units, the entry towers and kitchen, the reception hall and royal suites, two chapels, and separate apartments for the queen. Though the castle's defences were never put to the test during The Hundred Years' War, it reflects a vital aspect of the ambition of the Valois royal line in France. It stands in cultural contrast to their work in the Loire valley, though it is on an equal platform to the family's royal way of life. Furthermore, through little post-medieval changes, the castle's internal layout is relatively clear.
Tarascon Castle. (© Claudio Giovanni Colombo/Dreamstime.com)
Chinon Castle, France (1427–61)
Joan of Arc's success at Orleans (in April 1429) was not marked by an immediate French recovery, but it was helped within a few years by the death of the capable English commander, the duke of Bedford, and by the duke of Burgundy showing his true colours when he transferred his politically motivated support for the English cause to the French king (1435).
Chinon Castle in the Loire valley had long been held by the French crown but because the English and their Burgundian supporters currently held Paris, Charles VII and the royal court had to use Chinon Castle as their prime residence. They occupied it almost continuously from 1427 to 1449 and then more occasionally until Charles's death in 1461.
Charles made use of the royal apartments that had been reconstructed by the Duke of Anjou between 1370 and 1380. The two-storeyed reception halls boasted fireplaces at ground and first floor level, with the latter being the more important apartment. It is traditionally claimed that it was in this prime reception hall that Joan of Arc first met Charles VII in February 1429 – the more public audience in the hall is likely to have been the second occasion of their meeting.
The apartment range had been developed in the late 14th century and was not changed by Charles VII. The apartments lay in ruins until their restoration in 2007–09, when the apartments beyond the halls were reroofed and floored. They had consisted of staff rooms at ground level and four royal apartments open to the roof at the upper level, but they are now used for exhibition purposes reflecting the castle's importance as a royal refuge during the later stages of the Hundred Years' War.
Joan of Arc at Chinon Castle during the Hundred Years' War. Original artwork from a contemporary tapestry in Orleans. (Photo by Henry Guttmann/Getty Images)
Plessis-les-Tours Manor, France (1464–66)
French success at Orleans (1428–29) gradually marked the turning of the tide in France's favour, with similar success in Maine by the late 1430s, in Normandy by 1450, and in Aquitaine by 1453. No English army survived on French soil after that year. The peace and stability that followed encouraged building to flourish in its wake. Initially it was with a military facade like that built by Louis XI at Langeais Castle, but the future was more accurately reflected by Louis at his manor house at Plessis-les-Tours, three miles west of Tours.
Built shortly after 1464, it is where the king spent the closing years in fear for his life. Plessis is a manor house, not a fortress, brick built with stone dressings, and only two-storeyed. These characteristics, as well as the several tall windows to the ground as well as to the first floor apartments, and the decorated dormer windows, were a foretaste of changes to come. The fortresses of the past were being replaced by large-scale houses that openly faced the countryside.
As he approached his 60th birthday, Louis XI suffered from a wasting illness and spent the last two years at Plessis-les-Tours surrounded by 400 archers – such was his fear of assassination. Yet the manor was gay with colour, decorated with paintings and full of fresh air. It was here that Louis died in 1483.
Portrait of Louis XI. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Eltham Palace, England (1475–80)
Edward IV's foreign policy was underpinned by his keenness to re-establish good relations between England and Burgundy. This culminated in the marriage of Edward's sister to Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, in 1468. A few years later, Edward threatened to embark on a military expedition that would re-open the war with France. It is probable that Edward's intention was to exact territorial concessions from Louis XI, but he settled for a financial agreement that included an immediate payment of 75,000 gold crowns and an annual pension of 50,000 gold crowns thereafter.
There had been little royal palace building in England during the 15th century, but Edward IV's financial position suddenly improved in the mid-1470s as a result of his financial agreement with France. One of the consequences was the construction of a new great hall at the royal palace at Eltham in Kent between 1475 and 1480. The earlier, out-of-date hall was demolished and the foundations for a larger one were laid at right angles to it. The new hall was among the largest apartments in medieval England and forms the principal feature of the site today.
Eltham Palace. (© Truecapture/Dreamstime.com)
It is brick-built, faced with stone and lit by high positioned windows. The raised platform for the king and queen is enhanced by bay windows on each side, while the apartment is crowned by a magnificent hammer-beam roof. The hall depends for its external impact on scale and massing, not on decoration. Internally, the roof creates a magnificent impact: richly moulded, generously proportioned, with suspended decorative carvings and delicate woodwork. Most significantly, this structure was paid for out of French goodwill to avoid any further extension of the Hundred Years' War with England.
Anthony Emery is the author of Seats of Power in Europe During the Hundred Years' War (Oxbow Books, 2015).
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