Pierrefonds Castle: the story of a reconstruction

Pierrefonds is an imposing fortified castle in the department of Oise, in the Haut-de-France region. Built as a medieval fortress at the end of the 14th century, its massive structures embody an era when architecture and defence were inseparable. Destroyed at the request of Louis XIII in 1617 during the Fronde war, Pierrefonds lay in ruins for two centuries before being restored in the 19th century by the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. Listed as a historic monument since 1862, the château is also famous for having been used as a film set. Let’s find out more about the history and architecture of this famous castle perched on the edge of the forest of Compiègne.

History of Pierrefonds Castle

In the 12th century, Lignage des Nivelon, Lord of Pierrefonds, had a castle built on his land before it was bequeathed to King Philippe II at the end of the 12th century, becoming the royal residence. In 1392, Louis d’Orléans, brother of King Charles VI, received the castle as a privilege. At the time, France was made up of kingdoms and disputed lands, each with its own defensive fortress. Pierrefonds, with its imposing fortifications, embodied both power and prestige in this context of territorial warfare. In 1396, Louis d’Orléans had almost the entire castle rebuilt. Strategically, Pierrefonds also had to facilitate trade between Flanders and Burgundy, in particular by ensuring the security of transactions. In 1411, the castle was occupied by Charles VI before being taken over two years later by the Duke of Orléans. Louis XII, who was born in the Castle of Blois, inherited the estate at the end of the 15th century, before bequeathing it to François I, the future King of France.

Dismantled by Louis XIII

In 1588, Captain Rieux seized Pierrefonds castle before twice repelling the royal army. He was finally captured and hanged in 1594. Pierrefonds was then entrusted to Antoine d’Estrées, Governor of the Ile de France. During the Regency period, Pierrefonds, damaged by bombardments, was besieged in 1617 by the troops of the Governor of Compiègne. Louis XIII decided to demolish the castle to prevent it being used as a stronghold by the insurrectionists. The towers were destroyed, the floors and timbers were burnt and the external structures were razed to the ground. Abandoned, the château fell into ruins and was sold as national property in 1796. Finally, Napoleon the First acquired it in 1813, giving Pierrefonds the gentle nickname of “romantic ruin”.

Reconstruction of Pierrefonds Castle

In 1850, Napoleon III, now emperor, visited Pierrefonds. Fascinated by the Middle Ages and keen to recapture France’s medieval grandeur, he commissioned the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc to restore the castle. Viollet-le-Duc is also known for having supervised the construction of Notre-Dame and Carcassonne. Work began in 1858, but a total reconstruction project was launched in 1862 to transform the Château de Pierrefonds into an imperial residence. He reinterpreted, imagined and rebuilt the château in line with what he perceived as the medieval ideal, while incorporating the innovations of his time. On his death, the work was taken over by his son-in-law Maurice Ouradou, but due to a lack of funds, the decoration of the rooms remained unfinished. The reconstruction of the château combined modern techniques with ancestral know-how, blending civil art with military architecture. The silhouette of Pierrefonds was enhanced by modern roof accessories (dormer windows, weathervanes, etc.) and the use of iron was generalised in the frameworks and floors, as well as for the gates and drawbridge, thus strengthening the structure. A precarious central heating system was even installed in the castle’s rooms!

The main courtyard of Pierrefonds castle and the equestrian statue of Louis d'Orléans
The main courtyard of Pierrefonds castle and the equestrian statue of Louis d’Orléans

Exterior architecture

The quadrilateral castle measures 65 metres by 85 metres and has 8 large towers. On the curtain walls and towers, the castle has a defence system consisting of two superimposed walkways. The lower walkway is protected by a roof to prevent climbing. The upper walkway is a second defence and its crenellations are aligned with those of the towers to facilitate communication. A third tier of defences was also added to the Charlemagne and Julius Caesar towers. Pierrefonds has 8 towers, each named after a Preux (historical hero). They bear the following names: Hector, Alexander, Julius Caesar, Joshua, Judas Maccabaeus, Charlemagne, Arthur and Godefroy de Bouillon. The Julius Caesar and Charlemagne towers are the largest, with exceptional diameters of 15.50 metres and 16 metres respectively. The other towers are between 10 and 12 metres in diameter. In the centre of the château, the main courtyard leads south-west to the keep housing the king’s flats and north-west to the main building housing the state rooms. The kitchens and guest flats are to the north-east of the courtyard, and to the south are the chapel and provision courtyard. To the delight of visitors, the Renaissance facades overlooking the courtyard of honour resemble theatre sets. The arcades on the façade of the grand logis surmount a 57-metre long gallery. An equestrian statue of Louis d’Orléans stands in the centre of the main courtyard.

The interior of Pierrefonds castle

Several rooms make up the interior of Pierrefonds. The chapel is located inside the Judas-Maccabé tower. Its façade is reminiscent of medieval holy chapels, such as the one at Vincennes. The interior features a gallery for the castle guards above the choir. Sculptures by Louis d’Orléans and Valentine Visconti adorn the portal. The reception room is a bright and richly decorated room. Sculpted panelling adorns the room with chimeras. The working plaster room is a space without wall paintings where various statues destined for the château were fashioned. The study is the best furnished room in the keep, including Viollet-le-Duc’s study. A cupboard door conceals a toilet with a flushing system operated by a water basin above! The decor is stencil-painted and the fireplace features drawings of bees symbolising fighting spirit. Napoleon III’s bedroom, which has no furniture, is located in the centre of the keep and is bathed in light. The flat of Empress Eugenie is located just above that of Napoleon III. Octagonal in shape, it is entirely painted and its adjoining salon occupies half of the keep. The grand logis houses plaster sculptures commissioned by Louis Philippe for the Palace of Versailles national museum. The guards’ room housed the soldiers who could be watched from the intermediate gallery. The Salle des Preuses, once a courtroom, is now the jewel in Pierrefonds’ crown, bearing witness to the splendour of the Second Empire through its architecture and decoration. It was used for receptions and balls. Lastly, the guest wing initially comprised the kitchens, with lounges and guest bedrooms on the upper floors. However, this part of the château was never completed, and today (like the spire of Notre-Dame de Paris) is home to the work of the Monduit workshops, renowned for revolutionising artistic plumbing. A typical Renaissance double staircase with two banisters that never cross is reminiscent of the one at Castle of Chambord.

The Hall of the Preuses at Pierrefonds Castle
The Hall of the Preuses at Pierrefonds Castle

Pierrefonds in film

With its majestic towers and imposing walls, Pierrefonds castle has also become an iconic film location. For decades, its vaulted rooms and vast courtyards have provided the backdrop for numerous film and television productions. Among them, works such as “The Hunchback”, “Peau d’Âne”, “The Visitors”, the “Merlin” series, “Joan of Arc”, and many others, were filmed in the guardroom. Walt Disney, for his part, allowed himself to be captivated by the magic of the place, bringing to life immortal tales such as Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and Snow White, enchanting young and old alike. This grandiose setting also provides the perfect backdrop for young adventurers to immerse themselves in their own fantastic quests. The BBC series “Merlin” also used the castle as the main residence of the young magician and King Arthur. The timeless beauty and evocative atmosphere of Pierrefonds has captured the imagination of film-makers, who have shot epic battle scenes, royal court intrigues and moments of enchanting romance here.

For more information, visit www.chateau-pierrefonds.fr


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