11 September 2011

Castle Hunting: Legacy of the Hundred Years War

The rather sleepy regions of Limousin and the Lot are home to an astonishing number of castles and fortresses. With a greater concentration than anywhere else in Europe, it's known as "the land of 1001 chateaux," a term with only slight hyperbole. The wooded hills are this packed with fortifications for a good reason - during the heart of the middle ages, this was one of the most fought over border areas in the west. From the beginning of the 14th century into the middle of the 15th, the division between the French and English forces ran through here, somewhat following the Dordogne. This was the epicenter of the Hundred Years war.
Above, the red stone bulk of Château de Castelnau-Bretenoux, near Carennac.
The Hundred Years war is actually a term that encompasses three wars that occurred between the house of Valoise - who are most often referred to as "the French" - and the House of Plantagenets - who are usually called "the English." The national identities are something of an oversimplification, as the Plantagenets were actually French lords (originally of Normandy), who had conquered England and taken the throne. In essence, it was a civil war at its genesis, with eventual defeat causing the entrenchment of the house of Plantagenet in Britain. Still, the soldiers were generally English and French, and the perception is still that it was the British who were attempting to conquer France.
The war brought about a change in the way Medieval European warfare was waged. Permanent fortifications were suddenly much more vital than they had been before, as the use of long-range weapons grew in importance and the supremacy of heavy cavalry declined. Castelnau-Bretenoux is an excellent example of the siege-based fortress. The advent of the English longbow was significant at the beginning of the war, when the square, 13th century keep (visible at the top right) was effective because of its compactness and tactical location. As the use of gunpowder increased towards the end of the conflict, the walls were expanded and platform-type artillery towers were added at the corners, where batteries of heavier weapons could be located alongside archers.
The Chateau de Jumilhac, like many of the castles in the area, was converted almost entirely into a residence after the conflict. It is described as having "the most romantic roofs in France," which is interesting to a point. There certainly are a lot of spires and peaks - it reminds me of a thicket of conifers. The 12th century origins of the castle are mostly hidden beneath the ornate exterior, but Jumilhac retained some of its defenses long into peacetime, only being fully converted and fitted with windows recently.
The Hundred Years war actually lasted a little longer than a century, spanning from 1337 to 1453. Despite being victorious, France was left much more destitute than England, which had profited somewhat from looting and from exploitative taxation while in power. Also, casualties in France were much higher than in England, with millions of civilian deaths in addition to the military losses. The country's population was cut in half, with some regions suffering even more - Normandy, for example, had only one quarter as many people after the war as it did a century before.
Fifteen years ago, I visited Les Tours de Merle on a family trip to France. One of the first castles I'd ever seen, the wooded ruins overlooking the river Maronne made a big impression on me. Known locally as the "citadel," the towers make up a very odd configuration, being generally separate from one another, and in very close proximity. From the 12th to the 14th century seven aristocratic families all built fortifications here, side by side, like a cluster of swallow nests. The defense of the outcropping was communal, though occasional fighting occurred between residents and residencies.
The towers are mostly in ruins today, though they were able to survive until the 17th century and only became decrepit because of disuse. Located deep in the steepest and most isolated part of the region, Merle was difficult to attack and also difficult to maintain. As the local population dwindled during the renaissance, the castle began to be seen as less important and was abandoned. Notice, though, the formerly lavish appointments inside. There are a multitude of old chimneys and hearths, which are rare in such old and compact structures. It is thought that the seven families were a tad competitive in the design department, putting an emphasis on comfort over safety.
France's great size and numerous castles were eventually the undoing of the English. The shift away from cavalry meant that conflicts took much longer to be decided. Instead of quick battles between mobile forces, the fighting turned more towards protection and attrition. Because all-out attacks on the new castles were so costly, sieges and patience were necessary. But in a land as large as France, with so many defended positions, it was difficult to maintain the armies and supply chains to make this type of war feasible. Even as British lords and soldiers profited from the war, the English crown was brought to the edge of bankruptcy, and popular opinion swung eventually against the monarchs. In the end, the resources simply weren't there, and a weakened English army was pushed back by the resurgent French.

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