Tickets: Free for under age of 26 (self guided tour)
8.5€ for guided tour
Gift and book shop free admission
Hours: From Sept. 22 to May 20: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. everyday (low season)
From May 21st to Sept. 21: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. everyday (high season)
Closed: Jan. 1, May 1, Nov. 11, and Dec. 25
Metro: Ligne 1, Château de Vincennes
Recommended 2 hours for visit. Guided tours are available and audio guide tours are available in French, English, German, Spanish and Italian. Tours are also available to disabled visitors, including visually impaired, handicapped and hearing impaired.
Château de Vincennes is a testament to its era: a stronghold of the French monarchy, a reminder of the human fault, but also, a symbol of resolution and triumph. This medieval fortress, located to the east of the center of Paris in the suburb town of Vincennes, is a majestic remnant of the past. It’s structure has endured sieges, remodels, and world wars. Its walls have house French royalty, Parisian courts, and the most heinous criminals-accused traitors of the monarchy. Its dry moats have experienced countless deaths by gunshot, one victim whose remains now rest in the chapel. The architecture is extraordinary and well preserved. Walking through the courtyards and the donjon is the closest to which one can actualize an authentic experience of days of old.
The castle grounds are extensive. The site contains the original walls with medieval towers, the Sainte-Chapelle, the donjon, two pavilions, and an ensemble of annex buildings. The castle is one of the largest constructions of the medieval time period and served as residency for French royalty from the 12th to 14th century. Like many great attractions of Paris, Château de Vincennes had humble beginnings and as time passed, evolved with each distinct generation/cycle of residency. The donjon is Europe’s highest medieval fortified structure–Its six levels measure 50 m high. The free tour includes access to the Sainte-Chapelle, the donjon, and the central courtyards.
The donjon also houses seasonal art expositions. When I visited, the expo was “ZEVS Noir Eclair” (http://www.zevs-noireclair.fr). This exposition used modern and urban pieces placed among the castle to create a great contrast but also links to the past.
My favorite piece was a sculpture of the word “YES” made of the symbol of the yen, euro, and dollar with the texture of melting gold. Though most of the modern art seemed out of place, this sculpture’s significance of money’s power over society seemed timeless after walking through the kings’ medieval treasury and experiencing the luxury of the monarchy during this time period. There is also an exhibit in the annex of the donjon about the renovations of the castle and in the clock tower.
Video source: http://www.montjoye.net/chateau-de-vincennes
During the 12th century, the Capétian monarchs (relating to or denoting the dynasty ruling France 987-1328) established a hunting lodge in the Bois de Vincennes (forest of Vincennes) and it served as a royal residency during the 12th to 18th centuries. The first evidence of a French monarch’s stay was an act of Louis VII (1137-1180) in 1178. Later, Louis IX, known as Saint Louis (1226-1270), made Vincennes the official residence.
During the 13th century and the beginning half of the XIV century, the isolated annex buildings of the the capétien manor were developed into a quadrilateral of about 200 to 230 feet (60 to 70 meters) with a central courtyard, in the middle of which was a feeding basin. At this time the rural manor was a moderate aristocratic residence without fortification or defense.
At the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War, Philipe VI established foundations for a new donjon (1336-1340) to the west of the old manor. After his return from British captivity, Jean II le bon (known as John the Good,1350-1364) confirmed the project of Vincennes as a reaction to the threats to the monarchy in Paris from both internal revolutions and the British, construction of the new fortress began around 1136.
His son, Charles V (1380-1414), completed the donjon construction in 1365 and styled it as a comfortable family manor. The donjon became the new royal residence rather than the old manor. Charles V also built the present donjon to house his collections of art and manuscripts. Charles V then commenced the construction of the protective wall with nine towers which surrounds the entirety of the manor.
Though a chapel existed inside the donjon and oratories in the ancient manor, in 1379 Charles V founded the building of a chapel that would face his study. The facing structures are architectural and symbolic juxtapositions, “Politics and religion came to terms in a same power and momentum, face-to-face the Sainte Chapelle has called divine protection with its Gothic flamboyances.”ii
Charles V died during the early stages of building the Sainte-Chapelle (Holy Chapel), “whose portal was to be one of the first high Gothic masterpieces.”i The addition of the Saint-Chapelle de Vincennes to the fortress was a dream of Charles V and his plans were finalized in 1390. The church was modeled after the Sainte-Chapelle of the Palais de la Cité in Paris. The construction of the church, north of the old manor, didn’t begin until 1939 by Charles VI. The Saint-Chapelle, and though unfinished, was first used in 1403. Its construction wasn’t completed until the first half of the XVI century by Henry II (1547-1559), taking more than a century and a half and the contribution of several kings.
Unique aspects of the Saint-Chapelle include large dimensions (12 meters/40 feet wide and 40 meters long; about 40ft x 130ft), one story, two oratories (one dedicated to the king on the left and another on the right for the queen), and early Gothic architectural characteristics such as the nave windows. Also, on the north east side of the building is the sacristy and the treasure room.
During the turmoil of the 16th and 17th century, the monarchs would seek protection behind Vincenne’s fortified walls. Henri II, Catherine de Médicis, Charles IX, Henri III and la Cour found refugee during the Wars of Religion. According to the Château de Vincennes website, “The building affirms the power of the monarchy: it guarded the capital, whilst at the same time protecting the kings against uprisings.”
Vincennes offically housed the French monarchy and it’s court until Louis XIV (known as the Sun King, 1643-1715) moved to Versailles in 1682. Even after the move to Versailles, Vincennes was still used by several generations of the monarchy as a residence.
Before the betrayal to the ancient residence, Louis XIV introduced the pre-classical architectural renovations of Louis Le Vau, beginning in 1654. The King’s Pavilion and facing Queen’s Pavilion were finished in 1658, expanding the castle grounds significantly. Le Vau added a “portique” known as L’Arc de Triomphe, gardens, a gazebo, an icebox, and reconstructed the water supply system; all of which has been lost.
Vincennes was a known venue for art and theatre. The first opera played there, La Pastoral d’Issy, premiered in 1659.
Though the castle had held captives before, after the move to Versailles it was then used a prison during the 16th to 19th century. Famous prisoners included Fouquet, Marquis de Sade and Mirabeau. The demand for prison cells rose after Napoleon I destroyed the prison du Temple. In addition to convicts, Vincennes received the security door and stove from Marie-Antoinette’s cell.
In violation of state laws, Napoleon I brought the Duke of Enghien from Ettenheim during the night of March 20 or 21, 1804. Napoleon convicted Enghien of royal conspiracy and had him shot in the moat then buried on site. In 1816, the Marquis Bernard Emmanuel of Puivert, governor of Vincennes, had the remains exhumed and placed in the chapel. In 1825, the sculptor Louis Pierre Deseine created a monumental tomb. Napoleon III, though proud of his uncle’s actions and was going to remove it, confined it on the north side of the chapel where it may be found today.
Napoleon I fortified the castle, adding barracks and arsenal. The fortified castle protected Paris during invasions during the 19th century. The fortress came under attack and was blockaded from March 26 to April 12, 1814. Vincennes was not prepared for a defense but Daumesil, Duke of Wurtemberg, improvised the resistance against the Austrians. Daumesil had lost his leg at Wagram in 1809 and had replaced it with a wooden leg. When the invaders asked for Vincenne’s surrender he replied, “I will render Vincennes when you give me back my leg!”(Misme, pg 14)
Additional towers were erected during this time: the King’s tower in 1818, the Devil and Salves’ towers in 1819, the Governor and Réservoir towers in 1820.
Later Vincennes was used as the innovation center for firearms. In 1866, the Chassepot gun was created and used in 1870-1871 against the Prussians. Due to the medieval castle’s size, it was easily visible and was used during the development of military airplanes. In 1909, Louis Blériot crossed the Manche.
After the revolution of 1848, infantry battalions remained in place until the end of World War I. The Military School administration operated at Vincennes from 1855 to 1939. The castle’s buildings were adapted for military uses. In 1819, the Weapons pavilion was built and in 1751, Vincennes became the Royal Military School. During this time the Queen’s Pavilion was transformed into barracks for the students. The school moved in 1756 to Grenelle, leaving Vincennes without a trace.
In 1871, the castle was taken over by members of the Commune, a revolutionary group. The castle that had stood as a monarchial power for generations flew the red Commune flag on April 28 and was being used against the king now at Versailles. The siege didn’t last and nine rebels joined the other capital executions, being shot in the south moat.
The fortress tasted battle again during World War I. It was used to defend the capital and was used as a military weapon forgery, just as the century before. The first world war brought many executions to medieval fortress. Mata Hari was convicted as a double agent, and she was executed October 15, 1917. Then the following April, Marie-Paul Bolo was shot for falsifying financial and press affairs, adding to the moat’s body count. It seemed it didn’t matter if you were innocent or guilty, known or anonymous, the ancient royal residence experienced many captivities and capital executions.
Vincennes fought its most enduring battle during World War II. The medieval defenses had to adapt to the use of new military weapons and air planes. Vincennes was under German occupation for 1,532 days. The medieval castle once again became the place of many executions. During the days of the French liberation in August 1944, the SS shot dozens of prisoners and buried them in the moat.
The monument suffered severe damage during World War II and since has undergone extensive remodeling and reparations. Before the Germans withdrew from the fortress, they used explosives to blow up several buildings. The king’s pavilion was damaged and the Queen’s pavilion was incinerated, but, Vincennes stood firmly and protected Paris.
After World War II, Jean Trouvelot reinforced the battle wounded buildings. The restoration project began in 1947. From 1953 to 1978, both pavilions were restored. Trouvelot and André Malraux recreated Le Vau’s portique. In 1954, the Ministry of National Education organized a sound and light show at Vincennes to celebrate “Vincennes, a thousand years of French History,” but caused fire damage to the fortress. Since 1948, the Historical Service of all the four military services established the renovation and protection of the medieval fortress.
Despite evolutions, Château de Vincennes has kept its medieval characteristics. Though many features are no longer original, restorations done according to drawings of the time have allowed archeologist to reconstruct Vincennes to the highest authenticity. The capétien manor was destroyed during the 17th century by an intervention of Le Vau but archaeological evidence has been found. The Sainte-Chapelle and the donjon reopened in 2007 after twelve years of renovations. The original décor of the donjon has been restored and stabilized the castle’s structure. Since 1994, the archeological work at the site has led to many discoveries pertaining to the Middle Ages, revealing the many phases of the construction, the use of iron to consolidate the structure and an extensive hydraulic network.
Special thanks to Christina Lake and William Broussard.
Sources and endnotes
- i. Centre Des Monuments Nationaux. Vincennes Castle. N.p.: Centre Des Monuments Nationaux, n.d. Print.
- Ayala, Roselyne De. Dictionnaire Historique De Paris. Paris: Librairie Générale Française, 2013. Print.
- Château De Vincennes: Programme Éducatif-2016/2017. N.p.: Centre Des Monuments Nationaux, n.d. Print.
- ii. Misme, Elizabeth. Le Château De Vincennes. Paris: Editions Du Patrimoine Centre Des Monuments Nationaux, 2010. Print.