We decided to take a day trip to the Château de Vincennes on the far east side of Paris. Dating back to the 12th century, a little before the Louvre, Vincennes is one of the few castles which, from the Middle Ages to our time, has consistently found itself at the center of French History. In 1178, Louis VII (1137-1180) signed a deed at Vincennes which proves that there was a royal residence there. Thus, the first major construction period probably dates back to the middle of the 12th century, that of the original manor, followed by consistent repairs and additions up to the middle of the 14th century. A few kilometers east of Paris, in a wooded estate belonging to the monarchs, Vincennes was a sort of secondary residence or hunting lodge which Saint Louis, Louis IX (1226-1270), turned into his main place of stay after the Palais de la Cité (La Conciergerie). This is how it remained through the 13th and 14th centuries. Between 1361 and 1380, the construction of the donjon (central keep and tower) and of the enceinte (enclosed outer area) of the Château of Vincennes was without a doubt one of the biggest building endeavors in Europe. Before he was King of France, from 1364 to 1380 (during the Hundred Years War), the young Charles V, born at Vincennes, was Regent during the captivity of his father, Jean II the Good, in England (1356-1360) and met with the Parisian revolt of Etienne Marcel and the Jacquerie. He had to accept the disastrous Franco-English Treaty of Brétigny (1360). With the help of Du Guesclin, he took part in the reconquest of almost all the territories relinquished to the English, managed to defeat Charles the Bad, in 1364, and pushed back the Free Companies into Spain.
In 1854 the Emperor Louis Napoleon, and his new Prefect of the Seine, Georges-Eugène Haussmann, decided to transform the Bois de Vincennes into a public park. Haussmann had three major projects for Paris; to improve the traffic circulation of the city, for both practical and military reasons; to build a new system to distribute water and take away sewage; and to create a network of parks and gardens all over the city. The purpose of the Bois de Vincennes was to provide green space and recreation to the large working-class population of eastern Paris, similar to the Bois de Boulogne, which Louis Napoleon had begun building in 1852 for the more affluent population of the west side of Paris. At the 1900 Summer Olympics in Paris, most of events took place in the Bois de Vincennes. The Velodrome, which seats 40,000 spectators, was built for the cycling events. A commentator on NPR has described the Bois de Bologne and the Bois de Vincennes as the “Lungs of Paris”, providing large green spaces much like Central Park provides for New York. I have written a fair amount on the Bois de Bologne because we were staying in the 16th arrondissement which is nearby: the Bois de Vincennes is all the way on the other side of Paris.
The Tour du Village, seen above, was the gateway to the castle door for Vincennois. With its 42 m high, its architecture and carved decoration of an exceptional quality, Tour du Village is the largest of the nine towers in the wall of Charles V. It is also the only one to survive today in its original elevation and largely in its structure. The clock on the external entrance tower is by the famous French horologist Jean-André Lepaute (1720-1789). Before he was received maître by the clockmakers' guild in 1759, he had made such a reputation with several public clocks, notably at the palais du Luxembourg, the Château de Bellevue and the Château des Ternes that he was given lodgings in the Luxembourg. His clock at the École Militaire, Paris, still runs, as does the one at Vincennes. Lepaute's name appears on both dials, but with different dates, one in 1768 and one in 1818. At the outset, a single dial was provided on the courtyard, for the military, but inhabitants of Vincennes demanded a side on the city, where the installation of a second dial on the north side of the tower was created in in 1822. Today, the outer dial, toward the city, is dated 1768.
The outer wall is 1,200 meters long, with a moat, lined with nine towers originally 40 to 42 meters high, surrounded by a 27-meter wide moat filled with water until the end of the 17th century, the size of the enclosed area or enceinte is equivalent to that of a small medieval town. At the end of 1372, when the construction of the donjon and its enceinte were completed, Charles V extended his initial project by ordering the construction of a vast enceinte aimed at protecting the existing buildings: the primitive manor, the Saint-Martin Chapel built under Saint Louis and the various residential and utility buildings. Its construction from 1373 to 1380 required 260,000 stone blocks solely for the external wall facing. The walls of the enceinte and towers are made of limestone blocks approximately one foot high, assembled using thin joints. While most of the blocks are 0.80 meters long, some exceed two meters in length. The 8-foot thick (2.60 m) curtain wall, rises some tenmeters (32 feet) above the average level of the interior courtyard and 18 m (60 feet) above the bottom of the current moat. The enceinte is made up of ten sections of curtain walls, eight being between 68 and 70 m (75-77 yards) long on the north, east and south, while the two sections of the west curtain wall measure 133 m on the north of the donjon and 92.5 m on the south.
From being a simple hunting lodge in the reign of Louis IX (l226-I270), the manor became a family residence and a place of power. Louis IX, known as Saint Louis, is strongly associated with Vincennes because of a passage in Joinville's memoirs. Joinville was a crusading companion, who describes the king dispensing justice beneath an oak tree in Bois de Vincennes woods. The young oak planted at the end of the northern lawn in 1952 is a reference to this legendary occasion which gives a picture of a king close to his subjects and master of his judicial administration. Louis IX placed at Vincennes fragments of the relics of Christ's Passion that he had acquired in 1237. lt was here that he said his farewells to his family when he left on crusade in both 1248 and 1270. The remaining manor buildings were finally demolished in 1654 when new buildings were constructed in the chateau. Archaeological excavations, carried out from 1992 to 1996, revealed the foundations of the buildings, two vaulted cellars, decorated tiled floors and the water supply networks, all dating from the 13th and l4th centuries.
With Louis XI (1461-1483) a fundamental change took place in the use of the château. The sovereign then abandoned the King's apartment in the donjon and had a single-story pavilion built in the south-west corner of the enceinte. This building was subsequently rebuilt under Francis I (1515-1547). Francis I and Henry II, who had the Sainte-Chapelle completed, stayed there at times. After the murder of Henry IV, Mary of Medicis ordered the construction of a new building on the site of the former pavilion of Francis I as a safe residence for the young Louis XIII who spent all his youth at Vincennes. During the events of the Fronde (1648-1652), the Court and Mazarin took up premises at the Château of Vincennes. Mazarin, who became governor of the château in 1652, commissioned major construction work placed under the management of the architect Le Vau in 1654. The first stage of the work consisted in the modification of the pavilion of Mary of Medicis. A second, much more ambitious phase of work took place from 1656 to 1658. Mazarin and Louis XIV wished to turn Vincennes into a great residence. Openings were made in the south enceinte wall and the tour du Bois, serving as the main entrance, was trimmed down and transformed into an arch of triumph. The Queen's pavilion was built in perfect symmetry with the King's pavilion in the south-east corner of the enceinte. To the north of the pavilions, an arcade wall was built, separating the royal courtyard from the rest of the château.
The chateau was abandoned by the royal family in 1671, when King Louis XIV decided to move to the just completed Versailles Palace. The Louvre palace in the center of Paris was abandoned a year later. Vincennes became the site of the Vincennes Porcelain factory, the precursor to Sèvres and then served as a state prison, housing such infamous personalities as Diderot and the Marquis de Sade. Napoleon used it as an arsenal in 1840, it was also in use as a military fortress. Most of the tall towers around the castle were leveled off during that period. The Château de Vincennes is much like the Tower of London in England with its White Tower built by William the Conquerer in 1078. I will cover the donjon or central keep and Sainte-Chapelle in separate posts.