Medieval Fortification, side-by-side with Renaissance Grandeur
During our one week stay in the French city of Périgueux, we took a little day trip to the nearby village of Bourdeilles, to widen our impressions of the famed region of the Périgord, which we hadn’t visited before.
The historical site of the Château de Bourdeilles with its twinned castles presents a unique opportunity to learn about both political strife and artisanal creativity through several centuries of French and English history, as it applies to the ancient Duchy of Aquitaine. One castle is a 13th-century fortification with strong ramparts and a donjon with a 35 m high, octagonal defense tower, the other is a renaissance style castle from the 16th century.
The village Bourdeilles takes its name from the first baronial family of the Périgord, whose roots in this region, according to legend, might go back to the fifth century. The earliest verified record referring to the family in what is now Bourdeilles dates back to 1183. Bourdeilles is a small village of fewer than 800 people. It is located in the modern French Département de Dordogne, a leisurely 30-minute drive outside of Périgueux. In addition to the two castles of such different periods, there is also a small 15th-century château, called Château des Sénéchaux or Governor’s House, which is available for vacation rentals. Its name refers to the fact that its original owner, André Bourdeille was named governor (Seneschal) of the Perigord by his king, Henry II of France.
As a matter of fact, Andy was quite the important person, his full titles read like this: Vicomte et Baron de Bourdeille, de la Tour Blanche et Autres Lieux, Premier Baron du Périgord, Chevalier de l’Ordre du Roi, était Capitaine de cinquante Hommes d’Armes, Lieutenant-Général des armées du Roi et Sénéchal du Perigord. His baby brother Pierre, no less titled, with a bishopric thrown in (but to his chagrin never the governorship, he so coveted) became famous as a historical chronicler of greater panache than accuracy.
In 1556 Vicomte et Premier Baron André married sixteen-year-old Jacquette de Montbron, the last member of the main branch of the house of Montbron. The young Vicomtesse de Bourdeille and Châtelaine de la Tour Blanche owned several properties in her own right, as she was also Vicomtesse d’Aunay and Baronne d’Archiac and Matha. She used her castle in Matha as a safe haven for persecuted faithful during the Wars of Religion, which earned her the wrath of the most powerful warlord, Louis de Bourbon, the first Prince de Condé. Only Louis’ unexpected demise saved her from serious consequences.
After her husband’s death, Jacquette de Montbron became, like the Vicomte, a servant to the crown by accepting an appointment as lady-in-waiting to Catherine de’Medici, Queen Consort to King Henry II. During Lady Jacquette’s service, the queen became the most powerful advisor and regent for three successive French kings, her three sons. One might say, Queen Catherine was finally showing her true mettle after her late husband had ignored her so completely in favor of his main mistress, the beautiful ‘cougar’ Diane de Poitier.
Even though her paying job was in Paris, Jacquette de Montbron frequently returned home to Bourdeilles and became well known as the designer, architect and building supervisor of her very own renaissance castle in Bourdeilles, often called Château Neuf. She was highly praised as a very intelligent and learned woman, as well versed in mathematics as in poetry. Nevertheless, it was unheard of in the 16th century for a woman to actually design and build her own castle – and to top it off, also sculpt some decorative figurines for her new place! All the while she maintained a much-appreciated presence at Court in Paris and Queen mom Catherine is said to have been very fond of her lady-in-waiting. Jacquette honored this favor by designing a Florentine palazzo à la Medici. There is some indication that the Vicomtesse de Bourdeille desperately hoped for a visit by Catherine de’Medici, during which she could have asked for a special stipend. When André left her widowed with six children, he also left her his huge war debts. Unfortunately, the queen mother died before she could help out, so the Lady Jacquette had to abandon her extensive beautification plans for her estate, leave her new castle unfinished and tighten her belt. Her management skills were so outstanding that she was able to pay off all of her late husband’s bills and keep her surviving children’s inheritance intact, who repaid their mother by finishing her castle for her.
These two main castles are not the only attractive sites to visit in Bourdeilles. The village also boasts a marvelous stone bridge from the 14th century, gracefully spanning the river Dronne with its eight arches. Then there is the ancient mill, a fortified 12th century ‘Moulin Seigneurial’, as well as a Romanesque style church, also from the 12th century. Right beneath the church, on the river bank, nature created yet another attraction. A rock shelter or overhanging buttress, called ‘Fourneau du Diable’ the devil’s oven, which shows bas-relief images of aurochs, dated to the Solutrean industry of around 18 000 BCE.
View over part of the village, the pointy roofs of the Château des Sénéchaux towers, the castle keep, Château Neuf, more village houses with the ancient mill at the river Dronne.
Walking around the Romanesque church …
… downhill toward the ramparts with its gate. The village of Bourdeilles appears so darn picture-book perfect that it’s a relieve to see a broken pipe! Do you see the green gate in the center, beneath the pink blooms of the prunelliers & next to the severely pruned tilleuls? It is a gate …
… to the Château des Sénéchaux. I was curious to see the courtyard, but I’m much too short, to look over the metal sight barrier. Holding the camera up with outstretched arms, I was rewarded with this ‘blind’ shot of a tranquil garden with wisteria climbing over pergola arches:
Walking past the seneschal’s home, we quickly approach the medieval fortifications and enter the inner sanctum through a mighty gate beneath the ramparts.
A last look back toward the church, after entering the castle fortifications.
Once you’re inside the Cour d’Honneur, the inner forecourt, protected by ramparts and tower fortifications, you can begin to appreciate the daily lives of castle residents all those years ago. In peaceful times the Cour d’Honneur would have been a lively space, populated with merchants, artisans and members of the baronial household. High ranking guest would have been greeted here, before being escorted to the Great Hall within the keep. Jousts might have been held here, and I can also see chickens clucking and pecking, while a petit couchon had a lucky escape from the butcher, running for its life. Blacksmiths might have been forging swords and horseshoes over glowing fire pits, while young apprentices with soot smudged faces fanned the flames with large leather bellows. However, peaceful times never last long, not then, not today. Therefore the safest part of this castle would have been the keep or donjon with its impressive arrow-slitted walls and échauguette, the central watchtower.
We stepped through the arched gate and looked around the cobbled yard of the keep while listening to the audio guide, which was included in the ticket, thanks to a coupon, which our landlady of “Le Logis de la Cathédrale”, our superb vacation rental, had so kindly provided.
Next, we moved on to the main feature of this donjon, the watchtower and it’s more than 200 stone steps leading up to the surveillance platform, or roof terrace if you’re of a more peaceful mindset.
Once in the yard, you’re staring at 35 Meters or 115 feet of daunting solidity. The tower walls are almost 2.5 m/8 ft thick and actual windows don’t appear until the third floor level.
The entry level of the keep consists of the ground floor level of the watchtower and the Great Hall. The front part of the Great Hall was dedicated to public functions like banquets and receptions, with private apartments to the rear. Unfortunately, most of the Great Hall was not open for visitors, when we were there, so we didn’t get a good impression of it.
From the Great Hall, we timidly entered the forbidding octagonal defense tower. And then the climb begins … stairs, stairs and more stairs … interspaced with a multitude of arrow slits, greatly appreciated by the local pigeon population.
Some of the openings in the tower walls provide sweeping views over the river and the countryside, and they’ve become tiny wildflower gardens!
You have to heave yourself all the way to the third floor to admire the charming living quarters. This level for the ruling family was very cozily appointed with all necessities:
– A beautifully arched vaulted ceiling for good ventilation, also providing nesting opportunities for pet pigeons.
– A large fireplace for s’mores parties.
– A comfy window seat to observe the enemy.
– And last but not least, a latrine. Being of a delicate disposition, I couldn’t very well show you the actual latrine. This is the view of the doorway (again, no door) to the latrine. Truth be told, there was nothing to show in the first place. The alleged latrine is actually a window-like opening, which, in combination with your overhanging buttocks, functioned as a latrine. Imaging the rest.
After this exhaustive examination of medieval domestic customs, we leave the third-floor apartment to experience the lofty heights of the roof deck. I thought it appropriate to show you the view looking straight down into the cobbled yard first, as a counterpoint to the looking-up picture earlier.
In the next picture, you experience the perspective of a terrified soldier, trying to target the enemy through the arrow-holes in the crenelations.
In peacetime, the 360º view up here is absolutely breathtaking. The audio tour explained some of the sites visible, including several more castles near the village and many other local features.
From the top of the watchtower, you can see how tightly the Château Neuf is squeezed between the Keep and the River Dronne.
Such beautiful countryside …
… in every direction!
Climbing back down from such lofty heights was a scary adventure, but eventually, we gained terra firma again and crossed the Cour d’Honneur once more to visit the renaissance castle next door. It is filled with hundreds and hundreds of period furniture and artifacts, distributed through a number of very poorly lit rooms – it’s no fun trying to take pictures in murky conditions and most items were kept safely behind museum ropes, so I didn’t even try. But a few times, I just couldn’t resist.
I wish you could actually see the gossamer chain-mail neck fringe on the little helmet in the foreground. The next picture shows a section of the most intriguing marble floor tiles in one of the apartments.
An elaborately carved hutch in a hallway and below a painted ceiling, I think in the salon doré, the over-the-top, ballroom size apartment with a gilded bed.
We’ve left the fortification behind, in search of a very late lunch in the village.