Caen Castle and the Palace of William the Conqueror

The Château de Caen

The Château de Caen is located on the plain of Caen, on the southern edge of a plateau overlooking the lower valley of the Orne River where the ancient city of Caen developed. At the top of this plateau is a vast area surrounded by mostly square towers, about 250 by 225 m in area. To the west and south, the wall runs along a slope overlooking the old city center and carved to be even steeper. To the east and north, a ditch was dug into the rock, separating it from the Vogyo area and the countryside. Its defenses were improved over the centuries. One after another were built: the Guillaume Tower gate, the square donjon of Henry I and the quadrangular corner tower of Philip Augustus. A deep moat, which was doubled later, isolated them from the plateau.

From the 10th century the town of Caen, situated in a rich agricultural plain, developed rapidly on the left bank of the Orne. The first fortifications date to 1025, when Caen was named a city in the charter of Richard II. At any rate, it was William the Conqueror in 1060 who erected a veritable citadel on a rocky spur overlooking the lower Orne valley. This allowed control over the growing city. The lack of communication between the castle and the city at the time – the only gate was to the north – seems to confirm this thesis. Remembering the rebellions of the Cotentine barons in his youth, William wants a secure base in Lower Normandy. The site of Caen Castle, close to the sea and equidistant from Rouen and Cotentin, was specifically chosen by William the Conqueror to build his fortress. The construction of the castle, as well as the foundation of two abbeys, male and female, shows the sovereign’s will to establish a second capital in the western part of the duchy.

Nevertheless, in its origins, Caen Castle seems to be more of a royal residence where the duke-king expresses his power and prestige than a fortress with a military role. The most important element of the castle is indeed the palace, consisting of the apartments, the chapel and especially the Great Hall, the ceremonial room. The castle is protected by moats and a rocky escarpment, and at the end of William the Conqueror’s reign the simple palisade which surrounded the plateau was replaced by a stone wall. But the castle already suffers from its archaism in military terms. The presence of civilians in it, the village clustered around the church of Saint-Georges behind the fence, may be a nuisance; but the castle would provide a role of refuge throughout the Middle Ages. More seriously, its mid-slope location makes it very vulnerable: it overlooks the city, which develops at its foot to the south, but itself dominates the hillsides to the north. Moreover, its area is too large (5 hectares) and is protected only by a simple gate tower to the north.

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William the Conqueror’s son, Henry I of Boclerc, attempts to solve the latter problem in the twelfth century by building a donjon near the tower gate. This square tower, perhaps surrounded by a wall, is the actual castle within the castle. Built about 1120, it is one of many donjons built by the kings of England. A new Great Hall, now known as the Chamber of Exchequer, was erected in it. Henry Bocklerc’s successor, Henry II of England and his sons (Richard the Lionheart and John the Soothless ) organized a lavish Christmas ceremony in 1182 to demonstrate his court’s superiority to his opponents, including King Philip II of France. The residence of Caen is one of the most frequented by the dukes-king. In the latter half of the twelfth century, the military interest of English sovereigns in Caen Castle diminished. The Duchy of Normandy had no domestic problems, but the threat emanating from the border with France to the east forced Richard the Lionheart to concentrate his efforts in the Seine valley. After his brother’s death, John the Soothless uses the castle as a prison in conflict with Arthur I (Duke of Brittany), and with Count Hugo IX de Lusignan . He also sheltered his wife Isabella of Angoulême in the castle.

The castle of Caen was seized by Philip Augustus without a fight in 1204. As elsewhere in the duchy, the king of France undertook work to modernize the fortress. To improve the defense from the north, the fortress is surrounded by a wall, protected at each corner by a round tower and a deep moat. To the east, a fortified gate, the Porte de Champs, is built. Two towers are built to the east, the tower of Matilda and to the west, the tower of Pujot at the junction with the city’s fortifications at Caen. This gives Philip Augustus a safer citadel, and also demonstrates his power in one of the main cities of this newly conquered territory. The castle has since been governed by a governor, the king’s lieutenant.

Caen Castle is no longer a royal residence; Henry IV stayed there last on September 12, 1603; his successors preferred to stay in the town during their visit to Caen. During the English occupation, the castle also occasionally hosted distinguished guests such as Richard of York, Lieutenant General of Normandy and Governor of France and Normandy. In the 14th century, the strategic importance of the castle was confirmed during the Hundred Years’ War. The fortress becomes a key element of the Normandy defense system. Defensive works are carried out after the capture of Caen in 1346: instead of the simple southern gate towards the city, the fortified Saint-Pierre gate is built and a barbican is built in front of the Port-de-Champ gate. Negotiations between France and England reduce the external threat and activity slows down. The rebuilding came to a complete halt at the beginning of the English occupation, which began in 1417 after the English King Henry V seized the city and castle. Construction resumed from 1435, when the French undertook to recapture Normandy; the English built a barbican in front of the gates of Port St. Pierre to protect themselves from attack from the city. After the French conquest in 1450, the castle finally lost its national strategic interest.

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As a symbol of power, Caen Castle nevertheless remains the target of those who challenge royalty. Charles of Valois, Duke of Berry, claimed the royal throne and fought his older brother, the French king Louis XI. During these events, from 1467 to 1468, the captain of the castle and his garrison sided with Charles. François de Seeley, bailiff of Caen in 1503, fortified the castle walls by building high earthen ramparts to make them more resistant to cannonballs. On March 1, 1563, the Protestant troops of Admiral de Coligny blew up the wall of the castle from the cemetery of the church of Saint-Julien; at the end of the third day of the siege a breach was made in the walls, and a detachment of 2000 men under the command of Francois du Plessis de Richelieu finally captured the castle on April 14, 1563. In the conflict between Louis XIII and Marie de Medici, the governor of Normandy, Henri II of Orleans, Duc de Longueville, sided with the Queen Mother. Captain Prudent, loyal to the governor, who entrusted him with the post of commandant of the castle, pointed cannons at the city, which asked the king to intervene. From July 14 to 17, 1620, the king, aided by César de Choisel du Plessis-Praslin, besieged the castle, which eventually surrendered. Some suggested at the time that the castle should be destroyed, but the king chose to keep the fortress despite its low military capacity. The castle was stormed by revolutionaries in 1789, then by royalists in 1815, but on both occasions the castle garrison offered no decisive resistance.

There was a garrison in the castle. The number of soldiers fluctuated over time. After 1450, the garrison consisted of 50 soldiers and 100 archers. During the period of unrest associated with the Wars of the Religion in Normandy, which were very violent, the number of the garrison rose to 250 men, and then in the next century decreased to 50 men. At the end of the 17th century, during the reign of Louis XIV, a home for the disabled was built. On the eve of the Revolution, this company of invalids consisted of 70 men and five lieutenants. The castle was occasionally used as a prison. During the war with Spain between 1639 and 1648, captive Spanish officers from Flanders were held here.

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On July 18, 1789, the townspeople seized the castle and confiscated the weapons kept there. Charles François Dumurier, recently appointed governor, agreed to wear the tricolor cockade, and the situation quickly returned to calm. During the French Revolution, the castle was regularly used by the city as a prison for enemies of the Revolution. During the Federalist Rebellion of 1793, the captured Commissars of the National Assembly, Claude-Antoine Prieur-Duvernois and Charles-Gilbert Romme, were held in the castle. They were released a month after the defeat of the Federalist forces at the Battle of Brecourt. To punish this affront, the Convent decreed on August 6, 1793, that “the fortress and castle of Caen, where liberty and national representation have been violated, shall be demolished. On the ruins of the fortress a column will be erected on which will be inscribed the names of the deputies who have been declared traitors to the fatherland. The old donjon was torn down to the ground, but the walls and gates were preserved. In 1791, the last civilians – actually the remnants of the old Invalides Company – were expelled from the castle. The military prison becomes an enclosed space inside the castle fence, but it is considered too small and was finally closed in 1881, when the entire castle was turned into a barracks.

On July 23, 1881 the castle was finally removed from the list of fortresses, but remained in the ownership of the state, assigned to the Ministry of War. Barracks were erected in the castle and the 36th Infantry Regiment was quartered there. The castle accommodated 1,600 men. The 36th Regiment was mobilized on August 5, 1914, and returned triumphantly in 1919. But in 1923 it was finally disbanded. In 1938, a monument to the regiment’s fallen soldiers and officers was erected near the old chapel.

After the surrender of France, the troops of the Third Reich occupied the castle. During the Normandy landings, British and Canadian prisoners of war were imprisoned there. During the Battle of Caen, the castle was the target of aerial bombardment and artillery fire. The castle and its surroundings were severely damaged. After clearing the ruins of Caen in 1946, it was decided to rebuild the castle. The barracks were destroyed in December 1958. The castle was restored to near medieval condition. In December 1963, the Museum of Normandy welcomed its first visitors to the Logis des Gouverneurs (Governor’s House), rebuilt for the occasion. In 1967, the Museum of Fine Arts was opened. Since 2007, several works have been installed around the museum, notably “One Man, Nine Animals” by Huang Yong Ping.

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The parking lot is located in front of the castle entrance and can be seen in one of the photos. Admission to the castle grounds is free.

Open July-August: every day, the rest of the year: Tuesday to Sunday The museum is closed on public holidays: January 1, May 1, Ascension Day, November 1, December 25. Hours of operation on weekdays from 9:30 to 12:30 and from 13:30 to 18:00 on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays 11:00 to 18:00.

Entrance fees From 3,50 € to 5,50 € . Variable rate according to current exhibitions. Free every day until the age of 26.

Joint ticket for Museum Normandy + Museum of Fine Arts Caen: from 6 € to 8 €. Variable price according to the number and nature of the current exhibitions.

Caen Castle

The Château of Caen is a fortress founded in 1060, preserved in the historic center of Caen. The Château de Caen is one of the largest medieval castles in Europe.

Château de Caen

Château de Caen, photo by Cyradis

The Château de Caen is a fortress founded in 1060, preserved in the historic center of Caen (Lower Normandy) . Château de Caen is one of the largest medieval castles in Europe.

From the outside the castle looks powerful and significant, but inside its gigantic walls the destructive effects of time are noticeable. The old walls are blackened and little has been preserved of the impregnable fortifications. Despite the restoration, several structures have been lost forever.

Château de Caen

Château de Caen, photo by Francois Levalet

History of the château

The powerful William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, founded the castle in the 11th century. The formidable citadel became his stronghold and residence. The fortress complex consisted of several buildings on an area of five hectares. The protective walls were surrounded by moats. The location of the ramparts has not changed since 1080, and the ditches are now drained.

Château de Caen

Château de Caen, photo by Jean-Pierre WIART

In the 12th century, the area of the Caen castle continued to be built up. Henry I, son of William, built the church of Saint Georges, a square donjon (the tower was demolished in 1783) and the Great Hall of the Ducal Court.

Château de Caen

Château de Caen, photo by Cyradis

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At the celebration of Christmas in 1182 in the Castle of Caen gathered Henry II, John the Soothless and Richard the Lionheart, more than a thousand knights. The feast was organized in order to demonstrate to opponents the superiority of Henry’s court.

Château de Caen

Château de Caen, photo by Cyradis

In 1204, the castle of Caen was taken without a fight and passed under the authority of the French crown. The French king took further steps to modernize and strengthen the fortress. The donjon was fortified separately – it was surrounded by a new wall with corner towers and a protective moat. Instead of the former northern entrance, the eastern gate was built.

Château de Caen

Château de Caen, photo by Cyradis

The eleven towers along the perimeter of the fortress walls were built during the thirteenth to fourteenth centuries. Over the next three centuries, the walls and towers were continually rebuilt and repaired. The fortress survived a lot of sieges, but since the XVII century, its defense function declined, and the towers were no longer restored.

Today’s Castle

Château de Caen

Château de Caen, photo by Cyradis

Originally all the defensive buildings were roofed, today the structures are preserved to varying degrees. The oldest parts of the Gothic Matilda Tower date back to the beginning of the 13th century.

Saint George Church (Église Saint-Georges)

Church of Saint George (Église Saint-Georges), photo by Jean-Pierre WIART

The Église Saint-Georges, built on the Romanesque foundations of the first church, was rebuilt during the 15th and 16th centuries. It has kept its appearance since that rebuilding.

The Treasury (Salle de l'Échiquier) (12th century)

Treasury (Salle de l’Échiquier) (12th century), photo by Philippe_28

The Treasury, preserved since 1100, is the most remarkable structure in the territory of Caen Castle, an example of early secular architecture. The building has changed its purpose – in different periods it served as a hall for receptions, stables and a smithy.

An interesting sight on the territory of the fortress is the Apothecary Garden (Jardin des Simples) . It is planted with medicinal and spicy herbs, there are also poisonous plants. A collection of herbs has been cultivated since the Middle Ages.

 Musée de Normandie

Musée de Normandie, photo by Cyradis

On the west side of the castle grounds is the Musée de Normandie . It contains exhibits on the history of Normandy and cultural artifacts. In the eastern part of the former fortress is the Museum of Fine Arts. Its exposition includes works of painters of the XV-XX centuries, prints and engravings, ceramics.

Tourists have access to the fortress walls, which offer a panoramic view of Caen.

Château de Caen

Château de Caen, photo by Cyradis

Château de Caen 14000 Caen France

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