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Our Lady Collegiate church in Vernon
A whole site dedicated to this monumeent (in English)
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Vernon half-timbered houses
A whole site about our numerous old houses (In French only, sorry !)
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Vernon Giverny Website auf deutsch

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The Old Mill in Vernon
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Monet's house and garden at Giverny
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The XIIth c. castle keep in Vernon
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Visits, indeed, but there are so many other things to do in Vernon
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Walking and cycling around Vernon
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Museums in Vernon (paintings by Monet) and Giverny
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A walk in the streets of Giverny
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The water lily pond at Giverny
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Tourelles castle in Vernon
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The former Royal Castle





Located in Normandy, Vernon  was boundary town, over which the kings of France and the dukes of Normandy - also kings of England - fought  for years and years.  This isi why, as soon as 1120, duke Henry I  then Henry II had the town  walled in and a first castle built, from which almost nothing remains : it was probabbly only  an  levee topped with  fences around a large wooden tower and perhaps a few parts made of stone, as the north west  corner tower - still existing, now called  Tour  des Farines ( Flour tower).

Whereas many castles were wilfully demolished , that of Vernon simply fell down into ruin once it had lost its military  importance in the 16th century. The 1940 bombings  destroyed  most of the few remaining parts.

As it is today, you can see the main tower (the keep)  built by king Philippe Auguste in 1194, and Flour Tower ( elliptically-shaped, about fifty years older than the other) and about 80 meters of walls betwwen them as well as another short section of wall set at right angle towards today's entrance. At the southern end of the castle there also remains a small corner tower with a potern.


  The castle in the town: at the bottom of the drawing the only remaining parts :
Flour Tower ( left) and the keep ( right)


The keep (Archive  Tower) and the wall


Archives and flour...

The main tower was almost  given up to demolition workers' picks at the very beginning of the 19th century, when it was decided to use it to store the town's archives, which saved it. It has kept the name since, Archive Tower, The keep was also formerly called the "Sixteen Knights Tower": this dates back to the 12th c. when Richard, lord of Vernon, owed  his suzerain the service of sixteen knights, as the Red Book Roll mentions  in 1180.
As to Flour Tower, the name is recent; it was given in the  1930s when  a few baker's baskets were found there abandoned..



It is difficult  to imagine today that this place was an important fortress but also a royal palace where all the French king from Philippe Auguste to Henri IV  stayed for weeks with their court for over four centuries.

Built by Philippe Auguste, after he had conquered the town and surrounding places, it was part of a larger military organisation that included the city walls, a fortified bridge  and another castle on the  right bank of the river (chateau des Tourelles, today) - a bridgehead  to defend  access to the bridge. These constructions were aimed at opposing the powerful fortress the king of England was building at the same time in Les Andelys, Chateau Gaillard.



The capture of Vernon by Philippe Auguste

A chronicler, the minstrel of Rheims, described the siege. Careful, though, he was writing  around 1260, that is over  sixty years after. Moreover he is known as a fierce supporter of king Phlipppe. 100% objectivity cannot be guaranteed...
 
"King Philip had lead his army straight to Vernon, a very beautiful, well located and strong castle. The king had had the tents and the standards pitched in a meadow along the Seine, together with all his barons. Then he  lost no time setting his war machines at work but in vain because those in the castle were well trained and the castle was too strong. When the king saw what the situation was, he ordered the assault to be halted but swore he would continue besieging the city for seven years. In the mean time the city dwellers were observing; they were anxious for they knew that the king would not leave before he had seized the city by storm. The king remained there all through the winter until St John's day. Everyone was expecting king John [*] to come to the rescue but he did not and sent no-one.

When the captain of Vernon saw he would have no help from his Lord, when he also saw that king John was hopeless and when he also saw the power, intelligence and wealth of king Philip, he asked him a safe-conduct to hold a parley with him, a request that was granted.
The captain went out with nine knights, went straight to the king's tent, greeted him and said :"Sire, I have come to talk with you. You have been besieging Vernon, the captain and defender of which I am in the name of king John [*] I want you to know that we have asked him for help and we have had neither help nor relief from him. Here are the keys of the castle, I am giving them to you, do as you want. Take them, I hand them over to you". The king was happy to accept these keys and he entered the city where he garrisoned his men and everything that was necessary."

[*] The chronicler is mistaken here. In 1294, when the French  captured Vernon, the king was Richard Lionhearted who was away crusading and who  had  made his younger brother John his regent. (This explains why the captain of Vernon asked John for help.) John became king four years later, after  Richard's death.
 


The castle played a big part during the Hundred Years war. It protected the town from English raids, as on July 12th, 1346 when the English army burnt the outskirts of the city. Ten years later, war was raging again and that time the town was  taken in assault and almost completely burnt down, but once again the castle resisted. A chroncler writes :" The English went to Vernon where there is a good and strong castle; then they burnt down the town and the whole countryside on the right  and on the left, but they did not damage the castle." Another chronicler says that the town " was completely burnt and looted, and nothing remained but the castle."  In 1417 the Bailiff had  the fortifications restored in haste, which did not avoid the English capturing the town, as well as the castle, where they remained until 1449.
 
As early as the  end of the 15th century, the progress of artillery made the  old fortress unfit for modern war.  Military engineers tried adapting it to the new requirements of defence: the high  walls, towers and gates were retained but in front of  this,  low earth works were erected so as to  be equipped with cannons. These bastions were called boulevards and are mentioned in letters  of king Louis XI in 1474 relative to "repairs and  maintainance of towers, boulevards and  walls of Vernon". Two of these bastions existed in 1593, one in front of Bizy gate ( place d'Evreux, today) the other in front of the western side of the castle. Other works had been planned to re-inforce the city walls, in front of Rouen gate, near the Seine ( now Place Chantereine) , a large bastion in the south-eastern corner of the walls, another still in front of Gamilly Gate ( Place de Paris today). Among the projects : "It is also necessary to build an entrenchment with stakes in front of the castle gate and  even in the moat so that no-one can approach the drawbridge to blow it up." (Hardoin's map, 1615)

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The town in the 16th century
See how the castle was built exactly in the axis of the bridge. Notice also the twp bastions, as mentioned above.

Numerous building  leaning on the walls would enable housing the king and his court


  The castle was regularly maintained until about 1640, then it was  neglected. A 1719 report shows it clearly : " the gate of the castle facing the fields (opening today  onto  rue des Ecuries des Gardes) is in ruin... the walls around and the towers are in a very poor state of repair". One can also read that the buidings inside the yard are about to fall down : doors and windows had been taken away, floors had collapsed, roofs were almost gone.
 In 1752, all the buildings inside the walls  were pulled down, and barracks were erected for Gardes Grançaises troops, placed alond tha walls.There were stables on the ground floor and quarters  upstairs. Only one of these buildings  staill remains today, on the left of the entrance.


Military grounds - No entry
 Unlike what people might thought, the armed forces have not vacated the place for such a long time.
At the end of the 19th c. the former Guard buildings  were used as an  annex to the Vernon barracks housing a Service Corps regiment. After 1920, they were used to store the  military equipment necessary for possible  mobilization.  This is how, in 1939, all the mobilized  reservists  around Vernon  had to go there to be given their packs and indvidual weapons.


If  the fortress  experienced attacks and sieges, it also revelled in the coming of kings and queens who married  there, feasted and enjoyed themselves, met other princes, signed treaties or prepared their future  wars.

We have a few documents that enable us to locate and imagine the various buildings that could house a royal court in the early 15th century : on the left, a two-story building flanked by a small staircase tower, and two gables lit by windows. Other large constructions was leaning on the north-west wall. Repair bills dated 1400 mention - among others - the King's room, the Queen's Commun Chamber, the rooms of His grace Louis de France, His Highness the Dauphin's private recess. Other repair works  in 1452 mentioned "  complete new roofing of the chapel and the gallery of the King's Chamber, between the gallery and the small kitchen."  The chapel was in south-east tower and "was lit by five  one- foot wide  windows  opening onto the moat."

In the 16th century, in order to break with the monotony of garrison life, a "tennis" court  was built as well as a kind of theatre (located along today's avenue Victor Hugo)  to play slapstick comedies.



Bird-eye's view  
Drawing by Chastillon (early 16th century) 


Imagine a minute you are living in the Middle Ages : you have seen knights and  men-at-arms marching in the courtyard, horse-drawn carts and bombards and now you can hear the cavalcade of the Lords and  Ladies entering the castle, then the large rooms where they will be lavishly entertained.

 

For instance you could  evoke the grand way the duke of Limbourg was entertained in 1348, or His  Royal Highness the Dauphin  ( the future Charles VII) who stayed there the whole month of July 1399 together with Our Lords Louis and John of France and Our Ladies Monfort and Michelle of  France, and the same year in Octiober the visit of Queen Isabeau of Bavaria (pour demented Charles VII's wife)  that cost 2420 pounds for the Queen's household and 1332 for the Children of Fance. For instance, on that occasion, the Queen's grocer provided 25 kg of sugar-preserved fruit and nuts for a total of 35 pounds (i.e. 8400  pence)  - to be compared with  a workman's daily wages : 8 pence !



"Homeless" kings...

Until Louis XIII and Louis XIV in the 17th century, French kings had no fixed and unique residence, nothing that exhibited the size or the grandeur of the future Chambord or Fontainebleau palaces, even less  Versailles. The court  was itinerant, moving from one House to the next as in the High Middle Ages. It may have been because the king had to  "show" himself to the Lords and his people in order to give renewed life to  the  old  vassalic  link that united the  noblity to him. But also because, according to the economic theories of the time, the king had to live off "his own", i.e. off the ressources of the Royal Domain (various taxes, duties, tolls, judiciary fines, etc...) which,  quite often, were paid not in cash but in kind. Staying in a town enabled the king to  consume these products and he would  remain there  only the time necessary to use them up. Then the king and his court ( a number of counsellors and administrators) would move to another town. Vernon was part of the Royal Domain, and as such, its castle was part of the royal "tour".


Let's make mention of a few visitors : king Philippe II - Philippe Auguste -  (around 1200) who negotiated here the marriage of his son wth Blanche of Castille, or the lavish  festivities organized by Dauphin Jean, (future king Jean II,  mid 14th c.) or the wedding of young princess Marguerite of Burgundy with Louis, the future Louis X, which took place in the chapel of the castle in 1305.  The last monarch to come and stay   was Henri IV ( together wiht his fair mistress Gabrielle) in october 1596  when he  remained a week. Historians say Saint Louis (Louis IX) liked  Vernon very much and he particularly enjoyed staying in the castle. He would generally  come by boat  as on July 5th, 1239. A chronicler  writes  he had there " a castle  able to accomodate him and all his court comfortably"  and "other circumstances that contribute to the upkeep of a large number of princes and lords are to be found in this place."

During the Hundred Years War, it was the turn of English kings and lords to stay in the castle: Henry V  came several times for fairly long periods. After his death, his widow, Catherine of France, held her court there and entertained the  duke of Bedford, the English regent,  several times. "  The said regent, having married the duke of Burgundy's sister, then came to Vernon  with his wife, there making splendid festivities and  rejoycings. And there too, he held a  grand council  attended by a large numbre of lords."

Among all the glorious hours of the castle, there was the meeting between the French king Charles V (dubbed Charles the Learned) and Charles II of Navarre  (nicknamed Charles the Bad) in March 1371, that historians have called  "the embrace of Vernon". An embrace during which each of the two kings would have liked to smother the other one! They signed a peace treaty there, the treatry of Vernon, that both   hastened to break before its ink was dry... A historian, François Piétri (in Chroniques de Charles le Mauvais) writes : " It is six in the afternoon. Fruit and wine is brought and soon are also torches for a private dinner for two (...) They spend four hours together. These mutual good manners last several days and then, on Easter Monday, in front of the whole court assembled,  Charles of Navarre  solemnly pays homage to Charles of France as  count of Evreux and baron of Montpellier."



Charles of Navarre paying homage to the king of France in Vernon (15th  c.  manuscript - Bibilothèque Nationale)

 
Who could imagine today, seing the modest remains of the castle, that it was a royal abode, a "palatium regalis" (royal palace) ,as they said at the time, for over four centuries ?


Archive Tower around 1910
The picture of a time when neither aesthetic  nor historic or tourist concerns seem to have been a priority...


Archive Tower
 
Unlike most other keeps - more or less in the middle of a courtyard - the one here  is integrated in the walls an located exactly in the axis of the bridge - so as to  supervise its traffic.

The tower is 22m high. At the foot, the walls are 3.40 m thick, but only 1.33 at the top. Today's entrance door was  made  in the 18th - 19th century: access to the keep used to be on (today's) first floor, by means a a small drawbridge that could be   lowered onto the ramparts. One  can still see the corbels which, probably housed the swivel-pins hinging the bridge. The top of the tower,  a mere parapet, used to show battlements and machicolation. There was   a high conic-shaped roof, too.

inside, the lower room is quite small because of the thickness of the walls. It has a well. On the side a  small, hardly lit recess. The door leading to the stairs shows a lintel resting on corbels with a spandrel. In the staircse, one can notice several loop-holes, one of which was  transformed in the 16th century to use guns  instead of crossbows to batter the moat.

People would walk across the main room, on  the first floor, from one part of the wall to the oher. It was also used by guards. They could sit on a  stone bench  near the window. One can also notice the remnants of a large fireplace,  vanished for a long time. The point of interest in this room is the vault : intersecting gothic ribs   resting on consoles, the capitals of which are carved. Two heads can be seen, that of a woman, and one of a beardless man; two children in close embrace and mainly a man, almost bent double, holding his beard in his left hand while his right one is resting on his thigh. These are well-made carvings, certainly dating from the time of the building of the tower.  Edmond Spalikowki, who studied them says "these faces and figures are specific to Norman art, and because they are rare they are particularly  interesting".



Intersectiing ribs of the vault

Carved capital

Carved capital

Door to the stairs


On the floor above another room, formerly with a ceiling, displays therre large windows (north, south and east)  so as to kep wtach over the neighbourhood. One of them has got a stone bench.

Finally the top level, formerly with battlements and loop-holes, offers a fine view over the town and the valley.


Visit of the tower

It is open only to groups with a local  guide ( Contact  Vernon Tourist Office). It is also open to individual vistors on special occasions, such as Heritage Day (Journées du Patrimoine), in September.
Free and permanent access to the Garden of Arts, the former courtyard of the castle.

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Archive Tower (north side)


Archive Tower (west side)