The region of Normandy which extends from the English Channel to the banks of the River Seine is an ideal place for a holiday. Its lakes and rivers, hills and verdant woods, lush meadows and fruit laden orchards beckon invitingly.
At a tight bend in the River Seine is the small town of Les Andelys. There, spread out on the rocky promontory of a cliff 100 metres high, are the white ghostly ruins of the Castle Gaillard and its fortifications. It overlooks the blue waters of the Seine as it meanders through pretty villages on its banks. Enclosing this basin protectively are white cliffs reminiscent of Dover.
Many centuries ago, Les Andelys was used by the Arch Bishop as his summer residence. But Richard the Lion Heart, King of England, thought it was an ideal place to build a fortress and reinforce his presence as Duke of Normandy. This elevated spot gave a clear view of the Seine for 20 kilometres on either side, which made it an excellent place for defence and reconnaissance against the armies of Phillip Augustus, King of France.
The construction began in 1197 and was completed in 1198. Access from the plateau was not easy, as there was a broad moat surrounding the fortress. Even from these ruins one can guess how impregnable the castle was. It had three concentric defences with towers, gates, ditches, guards and armed officers. The king and his officers stayed in the Keep or main tower, which was the safest place in the castle. The exterior wall of the chateau looked as though it was built of festooned giant scallop shells – 19 semicircular arcs which were pierced by narrow arrow slits. Two deep wells supplied water to the inmates, and large dark underground cellars kept their stocks of food and drink well preserved. When it was completed, Richard proudly exclaimed, “How beautiful she is, my one year old daughter!”
However, he did not live long enough to enjoy the benefits of this beautiful Chateau. He died a year later in 1199, and his brother John Lackland became the Duke of Normandy. Unlike Lion Heart the brave hero of the Crusades, he could not successfully repulse the attacks of King Phillip and signed a peace treaty with France in 1200.
But in spite of this treaty, King Phillip laid siege to the castle in 1202. Inmates of the chateau and fortress starved when supplies ran dry. About 1700 villagers also died of starvation as the duke could not supply them with food. After seven months of a blockade, Chateau Gaillard surrendered in 1204, and Normandy became a part of France.
In 1314, the castle became a prison for the daughters of King Phillip the Fair. During the 100 year war, the chateau was attacked alternately by the English and the French. France recaptured it in 1499. But gradually it fell into disuse, and armed gangs occupied the fortress and terrorized the locals. So France’s King Henry VI ordered its demolition. The stones were used by the Capuchin friars and later by the Penitents, to build their churches and convents. Demolition was stopped when the friars said they had enough of building material.
All that is left of that once impregnable fortress and chateau are its white ghostly ruins. Because the Keep was excluded from demolition, it remains the best part of the ruins. Here history mingles with romanticized tales about the brave Richard Lion Heart.
Les Andelys is also the home of the painter Nicholas Poisson, whose museum is worth a visit. J.P. Blanchard the first man to cross the English Channel in a balloon also lived here.
Among the other sites to see is the Church of St. Saureur built for the 6000 workers at the chateau. It resembles a Greek cross. The village surrounding this area is made up of unpretentious half timber houses and narrow winding streets.
The Notre dame Collegiate Church sprang up on the site of France’s first monastery built by Queen Clotilde in 511, who was the wife of Clovis the first King of France. She performed miracles from the spring in her courtyard, like changing water into wine, and healing a paralytic. So Les Andelys became a place of pilgrimage for some time.
Les Andelys is situated between Rouen and Paris. It can be reached by rail or road.
The ruins are open between March 15 and November 15, from 10 -1 p.m. Tuesday is a holiday.