The castles of France hold the key to understanding the monumental social and political changes in that area during the Middle Ages.
There are countless medieval castles in France. However, most of the oldest castles have disappeared or are now ruins. Perhaps the oldest castle still standing is the Forteresse de Montbazon in the Loire Valley. Work on that castle began in 991, making it well over a thousand years old.
Castles are defined as ‘private fortified residences.’ They are strongly associated with the diffusion of military power, which was part of the feudal system.
The Emergence of Castles in France
The early construction of European castles is associated with the late Early Middle Ages and the early High Middle Ages. The Carolingian Empire began its swift collapse with the death of Charles the Fat in 888. The forces keeping modern France and Germany together dissipated as the local nobility took charge of the various regions that once made up the Empire.
Local leaders soon found themselves fighting amongst themselves over the carcass of a once-proud empire. The Lords were also forced to defend themselves from murderous Viking raids without any central government assistance.
As local fiefdoms emerged, they centered on castles built by the most powerful nobles. At first, these structures were erected to defend the noble household from attack. However, they grew into military centers designed to protect the population from attack and cement new conquests.
Styles and Trends in Castle Construction
Lords created the earliest castles primarily out of wood. Therefore, most of the earliest examples no longer exist. However, wood is susceptible to rot, termites, and most disturbingly to fire. Vikings and marauding feudal armies would often try to burn their way to victory.
Therefore, eventually, construction turned to stone, which is a far more durable material. Castle defenses became more sophisticated over time. During the 12th and 13th Centuries, many of the features we associate with castle defenses were developed. These included the arrow slits and towers. Later castles also feature moats and battlements.
The Crusades played a role in improving fortification technology in France. Many French warriors traveled to the Levant and participated in protracted military campaigns there.
While raiders and temporary feudal armies tested fortifications in Europe, the Crusaders fought against better-organized military opponents and endured long and painful sieges. Therefore, they learned a good deal about both fortifications and siege tactics.
The Forteresse de Montbazon
The Forteresse de Montbazon is likely the oldest castle still standing in France. It is also a great example of the development of these magnificent structures in the Medieval period.
When its foundations were laid in 991, the structure was a basic set of wood fortifications. However, the Count of Anjou Foulques III Nerra consistently improved on the original system. One hundred twenty feet tall walls soon surrounded the improved structure. The walls were also 10 feet in thickness.
The Count was the premier medieval builder in the Loire Valley and left no less than 50 structures behind, including monasteries, churches, abbeys, and other castles. His son Geoffrey II expanded the territory of Anjou and the fortifications of the Forteresse de Montbazon.
The castle would later be a landmark in the ceaseless battles between England and France’s emerging kingdoms. Henri II Plantagenet, son of Anjou’s Count, took over the castle in the late 12th Century. Under his auspices, new features inspired by the Crusades were added to the castle. The additions included crenelated walls and an enclosure around the castle.
The Birth of France and the End of an Era
In 1205, Phillipe Auguste ended the control of the Counts of Anju and their descendants over Montbazon. He added the castle to the territories of what would become France.
Phillipe added many of the features of the castle as it appears today. In those days, the round towers were added, and he ordered the construction of new internal and external walls.
The invention of gunpowder signaled the end of the castle era. Heavy stone walls were no match for heavy artillery. The period of strong feudal lords controlling lands ended, and a new generation of centralized government began.
The Forteresse de Montbazon was paradigmatic of all these profound social and political changes which shaped and reshaped what we now call France. Thank goodness this vital testament to the medieval era still stands.