Medieval Castles > Life in Medieval Castles > Castle de Coucy

Castle de Coucy


But to picture the medieval castle fully, one or two typical structures must be chosen. Coucy in France, near Noyon, and Pierrefonds near Compiegne are admirable examples, the latter restored from moat to watch-tower summit, and the former carefully studied by that greatest of authorities Viollet-le-Due.

About 1225, when Louis IX., called the Saint, reigned in France, Enguerrand III, Lord of Coucy, and most powerful vassal of the crown, built him a castle so great that it has remained the typical
feudal dwelling. Let us consider broadly what necessities it had to meet. First it should contain the apartments of the lord and his family, for daily life went on, and one could not always be at war even in those troubled times; next it should hold a garrison and provision for the same; lastly the enemy was to be kept out and if possible at a distance. This enemy, in the thirteenth century, had cross-bolts and long arrows for missiles, catapults, mangonels, and trebuchets to throw stones and beams and firebarrels, mattock and spade to undermine the walls, and battering rams to breach them. To oppose them there stood four sturdy towers ahundred feet high, while from the platform of the donjon, nearly two hundred feet above
the moat, fragments of stone from the engines could be sent
crashing into the distant country wherever outworks of attack might appear. Joining tower to tower, and flanked and raked by
the same, battlement was a loop-hole, narrow on the outside, splaying widely within; and behind each loop-hole stood an
archer watching for the glint of armor among the trees, or waiting for the enemy to step for a moment from behind the mantelet. Soon it was found that the patrol walk was needed for manoeuvres, that the platforms of the towers were crowded by the engines and the heaps of missiles; beams were therefore set in the walls outside the battlements, and roofed wooden pent-houses, called hourds, were constructed; the archer stepping out between the crenelations were the curtains or walls of stone affording a patrol walk, a means of communication between the towers and lined with battlements; piercing each found himself quite covered and could fire with more ease, and the patrol walk was left free.

So much for keeping the enemy at a distance; at closer quarters the gates were the main point of attack. At the first approach of danger, the draw-bridge swung up and the portcullis of grating
slid down in its grooves, so that the enemy if they got so far found before them a wide water-filled moat, a blank wall, and but one opening grinning at them with iron teeth. If they were desperate and fortunate enough to force moat and portcullis, they found a second
grating, and heavy doors shod with iron; if aye and fire destroyed these, the assailants rushed into a long narrow vaulted passage, to be overwhelmed with stones dropped through machicolations or open spaces in the roof, by soldiers stationed in the room above. Meanwhile if the cat approached the walls, and under its roof of thatch and hides the battering ram struck the masonry, shaking it and opening wide cracks, men kneeling above at similar machicolations or openings between the battlements dropped stones, shot fire arrows, poured boiling oil, and the castle spat its venom
from a hundred mouths.It was almost impossible to take such a building by assault, and a year's provisions, with a spring of fresh water inside the walls, enabled it to defy any but a long siege.

If the postern or sally-port (a small gate at a level with the moat) was attacked, gratings and doors again had to be forced, and the assailants at last emerging upon a kind of blind alley, between
the donjon and a second inner wall that protected it, were crushed by missiles from one hundred and eighty feet above or destroyed by the guard of the inner wall. Did the enemy attempt to mine, the castle pioneers posted in a subterranean gallery at the foot of the walls listened for the sound of the pick and countermined. No wonder that the possessors of these "inexpugnable castles built even at the very steps of the throne" felt themselves secure, and whether provocation had been given through petulance or malice, were tolerably sure to obtain at least a compromise.

From the eleventh century to the middle of the thirteenth Europe rang as loudly with the mason's trowel as with the sword. This simultaneous growth of castles is an historical phenomenon.
Everywhere they were a menace to king and people. The Normans planted them upon each English river, in France they towered over plain and forest, in Swabia they crowned every hill-top, and in the
north they began their perpetual "watch on the Rhine." But from 1240 to 1360, comparatively few French chateaux were built; gentlemen by hundreds had mortgaged their territories for the arms and horses of their followers, and had swept eastward upon the great wave of
the crusades, to leave armor and life under the walls of Ascalon or in the Delta of the Nile, while the grand vassals who afterward absorbed their domains were broken by St. Louis.


On the other side of the Channel the barons were powerful, but under Edward I the England from which we spring was beginning to form, and in France the king and people grew yearly. Art, which for centuries had worn the monk's frock, now stepping forth from the convent doorway, put off cowl and scapulary, and slipping on the mason's
tunic walked straight to the gates of the city, where the rising cathedral spires soon pointed upward toward a freer atmosphere. Between the king whom he longed to defy and the people whom he
despised, the lord sat at home, made his chapel more splendid, painted his walls with legend and story, listened to the jongleurs, and watched the ladies embroider, but, for all that, gnawed his fingers in despite at the peace which turned escalader and thief, since the quiet times robbed him of half his revenues, and
ennui mounted his walls in defiance of crossbolt or catapult. The hundred years' war with England gave the French chivalry a new lease of life, and Pierre-fonds is the type of the later chateau:
built at the end of the fourteenth century, blown up under Louis XIII, in 1617, and restored in every detail by Viollet-le-Duc, it is one of the most remarkable objects in Europe.

Coucy was a fortress with habitable rooms; Pierrefonds, outcome of a more luxurious nobility, was a fortress palace, what Leland called in his itinerary "a castel with loggyns." Every castle was
a labyrinth. A labyrinth to the armored minotaur who, as suzerain, devoured villages and towns. The medieval tactics of defence necessitated this complication, but in the thirteenth century the
garrison was sometimes caught in its own toils. The network of passages and staircases prevented free movement, and it was captured before there was time to utilize its resources. Duguesclin with his ruses and escalades pointed out the weak spot, and a dozen burning castles were so many warning beacons to the barons. The mercenaries were unsure troops; treason might occur; it was therefore desirable that each post should be isolated and yet capable of communicating with all the others. Pierrefonds fills every condition: an entering enemy might lose himself hopelessly even if no one opposed him, so many are the blind alleys, bottomless staircases, gaps in floors, and unexpected doors; and yet the officers who knew their way could lead the defenders rapidly from point to point. Though the castle held its head no higher in 1395 than in 1225, it had grown to be a high-shouldered affair. The engines had become more powerful, and to better avoid their projectiles, as well as to shelter the tall buildings in the courtyard, the curtains of Pierrefonds rose almost to the level of the towers, eight mighty Promachi, bearing the names of warriors historic or legendary, Caesar and Charlemagne, Alexander and Hector, Godfrey and Arthur, Joshua and Judas Maccabaeus, each having upon its front the statue of its eponymous hero. Instead of the single line of defences at Coucy, the curtains of Pierrefonds have a double row, battlements and loop-holes at the upper line, the
same with the addition of machicolations at the lower, while the
towers wear about their shoulders a triple necklace of parapets. Such is Pierrefonds, massive and portentous, so individual that it seems almost a thinking organism, hydraheaded with its eight towers, belted with moat and battlement, calling defiance from its bells, ready to strike from its thousand loop-holes, overawing a whole province in its day. The modern visitor may not hope to find upon its newly quarried white stone the time-stained, ivy-covered loveliness of many an English or Rhenish castle. But the latter are ruined or changed by habitation, since no one could now endure the gloom of a feudal dwelling, while Pierrefonds is just as it was when
Louis of Orleans, in 1395, thought that the would-be regent of France, in managing the affairs of his insane king and brother, needed strong castles for himself. As the huge mass rises above the
trees our first impression is of inaccessibility. How could one get
either into or out of such a pile? Below is a blank, forbidding mass of masonry; above is the dominance of threatening embattled summits, behind which the skyline is fantastic with a host of pointed tower tops, vanes, weather-cocks, and statues. At the foot of the walls is
a castle in miniature, with curtains and turrets, looking a toy beside the other, yet this is the first entrance, the chatelet or barbican, the tiny throat of the whale. Behind the barbican and
defended by it is the drawbridge, heavy enough to give passage to a squadron, light enough to be raised by a single soldier; under it flowed the moat, now dry, while between the foot of the walls and a stockade lining the inner edge of the moat were the lists, a patrol walk surrounding the castle. After the drawbridge comes the gate, and in another part of the walls the postern, narrow and low, mere mouse holes in the masonry and behind which descended the iron cat's claw of the portcullis. High above is the first line of defences, the crenelations or openings between the merlons of the battlements resembling the ports of a man-of-war. Over them appears their sloping slated roof, for in the fourteenth century the inflammable
wooden hourds were replaced by corbelled parapets of stone, well covered and forming an integral part of the structure. At intervals rise the demi cylindrical masses of Arthur and Judas and their six companions, while from the sides of Charlemagne and Caesar two slender watch-towers shoot far into the air. From their tops men look like flies, and indeed the besiegers seem to have been flies to walk up walls, fish to swim the moat, moles to mine, and tortoises unmindful of missiles, when we read the story of such a siege as the taking of Chateau-Gaillard in 1204 by Philip Augustus; the wildest romance is not stranger than the drily told chronicle. Once the door and its corridor are passed and the interior of the castle is gained, all changes : a wide courtyard opens ; there are columns, traceried windows, stately staircases, a chapel larger than many churches, whose great rose looks across to the arcades of the grand
hall which, with its three stories, open balconies, and general lightness, might be the town-hall fagade of some northern city. On the side toward the donjon a handsome octagonal tower covered with mouldings, statues, and shield-bearing lions contains the staircase of honor, lighted by many windows and leading to the private apart-
ments. In a castle important posts such as the towers, and above all the gates, could if necessary be isolated, having each its garrison well, mills, magazine, and cellars. To provide all these, every chateau had connected with it, by entrances, yet separated by moat and walls, a second enclosure, fortified, but less strongly, a real fortress-farmyard, where the lowing of the cattle and the baying from the kennel mingled with the rattle of the weapons, and where the cackle of the geese may more than once have startled some mediaeval Manlius upon his post and saved the garrison from surprise. Beyond the walls of the second courtyard lay the orchard.
When spring came, the season so be praised and besung by poet and minstrel, so ardently desired by all the castle folk, the lute and the psaltery, the embroidery frame and the chess-board, even the
missal and the chair of state were carried into the orchard. What the garden was to the people of the Renascence the orchard was to those of the Middle Ages. It was not geometrically laid out with
bowers, statues, trim plots, and pleached walks, like the gardens of the Italian poets; in it reigned "a sweet disorder;" pear-trees and rose-trees grew side by side, and the forest encroached on its borders. Well without the castle walls it lay, a still, green place; dappled with. sun and shade, full of "leves and the odoure of floures and the fresh sight," the cool sound of running water, the rustle of breeze-stirred branches, where "smale fowles maken melodie," with fruit glowing in the sun and violets empurpling the shade. It was small wonder that to the castle dwellers, tired of the long dark days and the interminable evenings of winter, pining for fresh air and sunshine, the orchard became bower, dining-hall, and
council chamber during the fine weather. "A veray Paradise" it seemed to them with its great arched roof of branches so thickly
interwoven that twilight reigned under them at noon and the trunks of the century-old trees rose in the dim light like columns of
porphyry, its brave tapestry of living green " which May had peinted with his softe showres," its thick carpet of velvet sward starred with flowers ; on one side lay a meadow, on the other a row of
fruit trees all afoam with pale blassoms; in the shade were beds of tall white lilies; where the young trees let the sun through their frail branches, the roses flamed; beyond the espaliers the meadow
dipped toward the lake, and in the purple distance the hills rose faint and dream-like. When our Baron sat under the old trees hearing complaints and dealing out rough justice to his dependents, he was but following the example of Charlemagne and St. Louis and the
fair sovereigns of the Proven~al courts of love ; there, too, the story-tellers of the Decameron assembled in the cool darkness. Old carved ivory caskets and mirror-covers may show us our lady with her bower maidens gathering flowers, crowning themselves with garlands, whispering secrets, or dancing hand in hand to the sound of viol and
cithern. The orchard was the home of the mediaeval idyl ; there the lute throbbed,there the poets outsung the nightingales, there lovers met and parted, and the loveliest forms of mediaeval poetry, the Serena and the Alba, the evening song of ardent longing, the morning
song of reluctant farewell, were sung by lips tremulous with passion. But if the poets loved the gloom of the grove, the soldiers preferred the meadow which lay beside it, where the level sward was
all cut and trampled by the horse hoofs, for there every day bachelors, squires, and even the children of the castle practised horsemanship and rode at the quintain; a merry, bustling place it was, where the neighing of the horses, the dull thud of the lances on the shields, the laughter and shouts of the youngsters, and the commands of the old knight who was training them mingled in a joyous uproar. The last act in the ceremony of knighting took place here,
when the newly made knight in full armor, surrounded by parents, sponsors, and a host of friends, leaped on to his horse without touching the stirrup, took lance and shield, put the animal through its paces, and after a trial gallop rode straight at the quintain. This was the crucial test, and every youth must have felt that the decisive moment of his life had come, as he tightened his hold on
his lance and leaned forward in his saddle to strike. In earlier and ruder times a man's whole future depended on a good stroke. "I make thee Seneschal of my whole empire," cried Charlemagne to Renaud of Montauban when the split shields and the pierced hauberks fell be-
fore his lance. The wooden mannikin was often so arranged that if struck unskilfully it turned quickly and hit the awkward knight on the back with a bag of sand-a sad mishap, that brought upon him the laughter of the whole field. Few parents would have said with the terrible father of Eli of St. Giles, "An thou dost not hit the quintain I disinherit thee," but the act was felt to be a turning-point in a man's life, and no time nor pains were spared that he
might acquit himself honorably. So every day, in fair weather or foul, the meadow resounded with heavy lance blows, and the supply of shields and hauberks for the quintain was no unimportant detail in the long list of castle expenses. But it is time to re-enter the courtyard and pass into the hall. The great hall of the castle was the theatre of indoor ceremonial. There were banquets, trial, and allocution; there liegemen and vassals came to put their hands between those of their overlord and swore to be his men; there delin-
quents were summoned, from the knight who slipped into his sleeve the silver spoons of his prince, to the fiery lord who, unclasping his mantle, threw it upon the floor in token of defiance to his adversary. The hall is rectangular, with high stained windows and
wainscoting of oak; armors, scutcheons, and banners decorate it, and at the end, above the huge chimney place, the nine female champions, Semiramis, Tomyris, Penthesilea, and the rest, having exchanged their Assyrian jewels and Scythian furs for the triangular shields and straight swords of the fourteenth century stand in Amazonian guard above the banqueters. Even more important than the hall was the platform in front of the donjon door: there the ceremonial
of knighting took place ; the families of the young candidates thronged the courtyard, and the damoiseaux, all in white after their night of vigil in the chapel, bent to the accolade and arose licensed heroes and full fledged warriors. About them stood a group of the oldest and bravest knights, sponsors in this strange bridal, where the youth wedded battle and toil, and the richest marriage gift was the gaudium certaminis. An old lord stooped, and with fin-
gers tremulous but still strong fastened on the spurs of the aspirant; others with hands that had cloven many a casque
gave the undinted shield and helmet, and the suzerain himself buckled on the sword and belt. Then the father approached; the youth bowed his head; a heavy blow upon the nape of the neck conferred the accolade, and the boy who the day before had groomed in the stables and stood behind his lord's chair at the banquet arose a knight, the brother in arms of Roland and of Arthur, the beloved and protected of the warrior angels. Within the walls of Pierrefonds the nineteenth century cannot penetrate, and it is easy to imagine the young knight at his most earnest work, the defence of his beloved castle. The pavement clangs again with armored heels; the walls echo the orders of captains; windlasses groan and pulleys strain, as
baskets of missiles rise slowly from story to story of the towers ; the bow-strings twang behind the loop-holes; chips fly from the masonry as the cross-bolts strike it; battlements tumble inward
under the blows of the mangonel stones; the walls thud dully as the ram batters them, and the smoke from the hourds, fired by the tar barrels penetrates even the stone entrails of Caesar and Charlemagne, where the women and children are sheltered from all but the noise; or if the garrison is hard pressed we may see the chatelaine and her ladies, like the women before Jerusalem, carrying
stones in their long sleeves to the walls. But it was not always siege time, and the courtyard of a castle has echoed the procession of the whole Middle Ages; and as we see the people of the earlier times we wonder at fighting men gowned to the ground like women, forgetting that the mightiest warriors were centaurs. In the years when Britain was a vast anvil upon which sword and axe welded Saxon and Norman into Englishman, and when in the ears of Frank and German every trumpet sounded to Jerusalem, the Saxon white horse of Hen-
gist and the destrier of the Norman baron were equally beloved.
Ogier the Dane, sole survivor in his beleaguered castle, fed fresh oats to Broiefort and told him all his sorrows.