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Histories Greatest Castles: France

Today we will be taking a look at some of the greatest castles in France, at least in my opinion. There are many more castles than these 8 but these are the ones that I chose.


First off, what exactly is considered a castle?

A castle is a type of fortified structure built during the Middle Ages predominantly by the nobility or royalty and by military orders. Scholars debate the scope of the word castle, but usually consider it to be the private fortified residence of a lord or noble. This is distinct from a palace, which is not fortified; from a fortress, which was not always a residence for royalty or nobility; from a pleasance which was a walled-in residence for nobility, but not adequately fortified; and from a fortified settlement, which was a public defence – though there are many similarities among these types of construction. The use of the term has varied over time and has been applied to structures as diverse as hill forts and country houses. Over the approximately 900 years that castles were built, they took on a great many forms with many different features, although some, such as curtain walls, arrow slits, and portcullises, were commonplace.

European-style castles originated in the 9th and 10th centuries, after the fall of the Carolingian Empire resulted in its territory being divided among individual lords and princes. These nobles built castles to control the area immediately surrounding them and the castles were both offensive and defensive structures; they provided a base from which raids could be launched as well as offered protection from enemies. Although their military origins are often emphasised in castle studies, the structures also served as centres of administration and symbols of power. Urban castles were used to control the local populace and important travel routes, and rural castles were often situated near features that were integral to life in the community, such as mills, fertile land, or a water source.

Many northern European castles were originally built from earth and timber but had their defence's replaced later by stone. Early castles often exploited natural defences, lacking features such as towers and arrow slits and relying on a central keep. In the late 12th and early 13th centuries, a scientific approach to castle defence emerged. This led to the proliferation of towers, with an emphasis on flanking fire. Many new castles were polygonal or relied on concentric defence – several stages of defence within each other that could all function at the same time to maximise the castle's firepower. These changes in defence have been attributed to a mixture of castle technology from the Crusades, such as concentric fortification, and inspiration from earlier defences, such as Roman forts. Not all the elements of castle architecture were military in nature, so devices such as moats evolved from their original purpose of defence into symbols of power. Some grand castles had long winding approaches intended to impress and dominate their landscape.

Although gunpowder was introduced to Europe in the 14th century, it did not significantly affect castle building until the 15th century, when artillery became powerful enough to break through stone walls. While castles continued to be built well into the 16th century, new techniques to deal with improved cannon fire made them uncomfortable and undesirable places to live. As a result, true castles went into decline and were replaced by artillery forts with no role in civil administration, and country houses that were indefensible. From the 18th century onwards, there was a renewed interest in castles with the construction of mock castles, part of a romantic revival of Gothic architecture, but they had no military purpose.

Historians have interpreted the widespread presence of castles across Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries as evidence that warfare was common, and usually between local lords. Castles were introduced into England shortly before the Norman Conquest in 1066. Before the 12th-century castles were as uncommon in Denmark as they had been in England before the Norman Conquest. The introduction of castles to Denmark was a reaction to attacks from Wendish pirates, and they were usually intended as coastal defences. The motte and bailey remained the dominant form of castle in England, Wales, and Ireland well into the 12th century. At the same time, castle architecture in mainland Europe became more sophisticated. The donjon was at the centre of this change in castle architecture in the 12th century. Central towers proliferated and typically had a square plan, with walls 3 to 4 m (9.8 to 13.1 ft) thick. Their decoration emulated Romanesque architecture and sometimes incorporated double windows similar to those found in church bell towers. Donjons, which were the residence of the lord of the castle, evolved to become more spacious. The design emphasis of donjons changed to reflect a shift from functional to decorative requirements, imposing a symbol of lordly power upon the landscape. This sometimes led to compromising defence for the sake of display.

Why is history full of castles? Castles could serve as a centre for local government, administration and justice. They were also used by powerful lords to display their wealth and power through lavish architectural styles and decoration. Castles were not only built and used by the crown. In fact, the majority of castles were granted by the king to his loyal lords and nobles along with large areas of land. In return for these grants, the king expected his nobles to control and administer these lands on his behalf. The castle itself also represented a whole group of people who contributed to its function from constables, masons, blacksmiths and servants to name a few.

So let’s get into the castles!


Chateau de Chantilly

The Château de Chantilly is one of the finest jewels in the crown of France’s cultural heritage. It is the work of a man with an extraordinary destiny: Henri d’Orléans, Duke of Aumale, son of the last King of France, Louis-Philippe. This prince, who is considered to be the greatest collector of his time, made Chantilly the showcase for his countless masterpieces and precious manuscripts. The Château survived down through the centuries and remains as it was when the Duke of Aumale gave it as a gift it to the Institut de France in 1886, making it the perfect place to take a journey back in time to the heart of a princely residence. In tribute to his illustrious predecessors, the Princes of Condé, the Duke of Aumale called the series of rooms housing his collection the “Condé Museum”.


Chateau de Fontainebleau

Fontainebleau is not just one monarch’s palace, it belonged to them all, a “family home” for the kings of France, passed down from generation to generation from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. While the medieval origins of the castle are still visible in the former keep – which dominates the Oval Courtyard – it was Francis I, seduced by the site and the forest teeming with game, who in 1528 commissioned spectacular redevelopments. He had the medieval palace completely rebuilt and turned it into a large Italianate palace, as a reflection of the power of a learned and art loving king. To this day the château retains significant vestiges of the decoration and ornamentation from the French Renaissance, the principles of which were imported by Italian artists invited to Fontainebleau by Francis I (such as Rosso Fiorentino and Primaticcio. The successors of Francis I continued his work: as the favourite château of Henri IV who revived its heyday, the birth of the future Louis XIII in the King’s apartment would make it the cradle of the Bourbon dynasty. The young Louis XIV asserted his absolute power there, while Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, on the eve of the French Revolution, created enchanting spaces to get away from it all far from the pomp of Versailles. Having become the Imperial palace after the Revolution, Fontainebleau bears the mark of the renovations by Napoleon I and is home to the only Napoleonic Throne room still in existence. The place where Pope Pius VII was held captive between 1812 and 1814, Fontainebleau became the stage for the fall of the First Empire in April 1814. The young Louis XIV asserted his absolute power there, while Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, on the eve of the French Revolution, created enchanting spaces to get away from it all far from the pomp of Versailles.


Chateau de Versailles

The Palace of Versailles, whose origins date back to the seventeenth century, was successively a hunting lodge, a ​seat of power and​,​ from the nineteenth century​,​ a museum. With the gardens and the ​​Palaces of Trianon, the park of the Château de Versailles spreads over 800 hectares. The Hall of Mirrors, the most famous room in the Palace, was built to replace a large terrace designed by the architect Louis Le Vau, which opened onto the garden. The terrace originally stood between the King’s Apartments to the north and the Queen’s to the south but was awkward and above all exposed to bad weather, and it was not long before the decision was made to demolish it. Le Vau’s successor, Jules Hardouin-Mansart, produced a more suitable design that replaced the terrace with a large gallery. Work started in 1678 and ended in 1684.


Chateau d'Amboise

A place of residence for French kings from the 15th to the 19th centuries, its destiny is inextricably linked to the history of France. Numerous literary figures and artists were invited here, like Leonardo da Vinci whose tomb is preserved at the château. This royal château is thus the expression of French-style luxury. From its balconies, its roofs and its terraced gardens, visitors can take in the Loire landscape and delight in what the kings enjoyed.


Chateau de Chambord

Placed on the first list of historical monuments in France in 1840, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1981, Chambord is one of the most amazing constructions of the Renaissance. Far from being a residential palace or a hunting lodge, Chambord embodies a true utopia: that of a brilliant work of art that has yet to reveal all its secrets. In Chambord, you will discover an ideal place, made of harmony and modernity. Because preserving the heritage of mankind is not a fixed attitude, but on the contrary, a perpetual questioning to make it sensitive to the largest public. Thus, each year, new developments and projects are presented to visitors and a rich program of cultural events punctuates the seasons.


Chateau de Val

An essential site in our region, the Château de Val is one of the best-preserved and most remarkable historical monuments in Haute-Auvergne. Pointe limousine in Auvergne belongs to the town of Bort while being located in Cantal, in the town of Lanobre. It enjoys an ideal environment, combining both tranquility and dynamism thanks to the water reservoir that surrounds it. Built on a rock more than 30 meters high, its environment has been modified following the flooding of the valley it overlooked. Narrowly saved from drowning, its silhouette is now reflected in the waters of the Bort dam, giving it an exceptional setting. It is now nestled on a small peninsula on the edge of the lake.


Chateau des los Baux

Overlooking the famous village of Les Baux-de-Provence, the Castle of Les Baux is sitting on a rocky outcrop. This location perched atop the plateau of Les Baux and naturally fortified enabled the occupants to be protected and to observe the surrounding countryside, which explains why the site was inhabited early on and almost continuously up to the contemporary era.


Palais des Papes

The Palace of the Popes stands as the mighty symbol of the church’s influence throughout the western Christian world in the 14th century. Construction was started in 1335 and completed in less than twenty years under the leadership of two builder popes, Benedict XII and his successor Clement VI. The Popes’ Palace is the biggest Gothic palace in all of Europe (15,000 m2 of floor space, which is the equivalent of 4 Gothic cathedrals). The visitor can see over 20 rooms, scenes of historic events, in particular the pope’s private chambers and the frescoes painted by the Italian artist Matteo Giovannetti. The Popes’ Palace also offers the visitor continuous cultural activities throughout the year. A major art exhibit is displayed in the Great Chapel during the summer ("Les papesses" in 2013,from June, 9th to November,11th ), and the most prestigious performances of the Avignon Theater Festival, created by Jean Vilar in 1947, are given in the Honor Courtyard of the Popes’ Palace during the month of July. The Popes’ Palace has welcomed 700,000 visitors. It is one of the most visited monuments in all of France.


Hope you enjoyed today's post. Do you have ideas for a future post that you want to see? I gladly take suggestions :)


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