The build: Chateau Gaillard was constructed by King Richard I in the late 12th century. Otherwise known as “Richard the Lionheart”, this legendary English ruler engineered the castle to counter French attempts on England’s holdings in continental Europe. His castle builders turned this vision into an unparalleled stronghold in less than two years. Perched high above the River Seine, its knife-like keep, arced-stone wall and multiple baileys speak to its military purpose and its King’s fiery character.
The siege: This castle was attacked by Richard’s archenemy, Philip II of France. Bolstered by medieval weapons like the mangonel Phillip Augustus led an army through Normandy in 1203, arriving at Chateau Gaillard in the latter part of the year. He attacked a river fort and the adjacent town of Petit Andely, before even reaching Chateau Gaillard. The gruesome battle went on through the winter, claiming many lives and intensifying the historical struggle between English and French.
- It’s believed that Richard I dammed up two rivers to form a lake that acted like a giant moat to guard the defensive complex below Chateau Gaillard.
- Legend has it that the fiery Richard I once had three French prisoners thrown to their deaths off Chateau Gaillard’s cliffs after some of his Welsh mercenaries were massacred.
- When King John came to the throne, he signed an agreement with Philip Augustus stipulating that he was the French King’s vassal for all of his holdings with the exception of England. Philip later used this treaty (and, apparently, John’s bad behavior) as grounds to invade Normandy and lay siege to Chateau Gaillard.
- Chateau Gaillard sits on a spur that measures approximately 16,000 square metres.
- Richard I is believed to have spent between £15,000 and £20,000 building Chateau Gaillard – the total expenditure for all of his castle building in England was just £7,000.
- Chateau Gaillard’s inner ward measures approximately 1,800 square metres. Its one-of-a-kind ear-shaped design features 17 convex protrusions.
- Chateau Gaillard has two wells, both located in the inner part of the castle. One of them, positioned close the keep, is approximately 100 metres deep. Well diggers would have had to work by oxygen-sucking, smoke-billowing torchlight, and the debris they generated would have had to have been hauled up to the courtyard.
- According to French chronicles, Chateau Gaillard’s middle ward was attacked via a latrine window … but historians question the truth of this account. The wide-held view is that the men actually entered via a chapel – and, since the French could not boast about fighting in a holy place, they came up with a toilet of a tale.
- When Philip Augustus and his French army arrived, preparations for the siege included a naval operation. French swimmers braved the River Seine – and English fire – to dislodge river pilings designed to thwart ship traffic to clear the way for French vessels to navigate through.
- After Philip Augustus arrived at Chateau Gaillard King John made an attempt to end the siege. He arranged for a force of more than 7,000 men and some 70 transport ships to approach the castle under the cover of darkness. But he miscalculated the current of the River Seine, and the fleet failed to show up on time. The attack failed.
Featured Structure: Keep
A key part of the classic 10th century motte and bailey layout, the keep, or donjon, was one of the earliest elements of a castle. As building techniques evolved, it was also the first feature to be constructed out of stone. The keep was the last line of defence – the place that a garrison would retreat to when all else was lost to make a desperate final stand. The word ‘donjon’ is believed to have derived from the Latin word ‘dominus’, meaning lord or master. In addition to its defensive function, a castle’s keep was often home to a king or castellan. The keep underwent a significant change in the 12th century when square configurations gave way to more rounded forms.
At Chateau Gaillard, Richard the Lionheart’s donjon is a shape of its own. Its exterior walls are sloped outward. At the front they join and project forward at a sharp angle. This unique form makes it more resistant to projectiles. On the opposite side, the keep backs onto a sheer cliff, making any approach from this side virtually impossible. Inside, the last line of defence is a mere eight metres in diameter. The current point of entry is believed to date from a later period, as the original door would have almost certainly been positioned above ground and reached by a ladder or stairway. With no evidence of a fireplace, well, or latrine, it appears that this particular keep was built primarily for defence.
Chateau Gaillard’s motion comic reveals the plight of Roger de Lacy, the man who defended Richard the Lionheart’s stronghold and the legacy it represented against all odds. The castle’s build, as well as this siege, is profiled in Battle Castle Episode 2: Chateau Gaillard. This comic contains stylized violence.