One member of the BBC’s Merlin family drama I haven’t really mentioned, yet, is Pierrefonds Castle, which is as much a member of the actors’ ensemble as Richard Wilson, Angel Coulby or Anthony Head.
Prior to the First Crusade in 1096 most of the “castles” and fortified houses were wooden structures perched on earthworks affording good views across the countryside in case anyone was foolish enough to attack the knight and his entourage.
From the start of the 11th century onwards the aristocracy began to litter the European landscape with fortified mansions and castles. By the arrival of the 100 year war between France and England northern France in particular resembled one gigantic Fort Knox.
Pierrefonds Castle is located roughly in the middle of Flanders, around 80 km north of Paris; it formed part of a fierce defence line along the Seine River to guard the metropolis. In medieval times, Paris was one of the largest cities in Europe, with more than 200,000 inhabitants before the plague decimated European populations everywhere.
The citadel is beautifully located on the southeast edge of the Forest of Compiègne, between the villages of Villers-Cotterêts and Compiègne, where the BBC’s actors and crews are staying during the two months or so of filming in France.
Pierrefonds Castle as we see it today is really a 19th century romantic dream brought to life by a rich man called Eugène Viollet le Duc. The original castle dates back to the 12th century, but was rebuilt before 1407 by Louis d’Orléans; later the castle fell into disrepair after parts of it were destroyed after a successful siege in March 1617.
It is one of the few fully restored castles in Europe of that era. Pierrefonds was of course rebuilt and enhanced to 19th century ideas of what the Middle Ages were like – and oddly enough, we still imagine the Middle Ages in very much the same way today.
Hollywood in particular has played a great part in our idea of what medieval times were like – think Errol Flynn and Robin Hood or Robert Taylor and Ivanhoe. Film makers give us a “flavour” of the Middle Ages, not the real thing, which historians often lament but which, thankfully, most film makers ignore. The one film that springs to mind which did have a whole army of historians on hand to get the “look” and production values right was The Name of the Rose; it is a film adaptation of Umberto Eco’s novel set during the religious upheaval of the 14th century, starring Sean Connery as the monk turned sleuth.
The stark look of the surroundings and the squalor the monks lived in put some cinema goers and critics off – but people were either grindingly poor or fabulously wealthy with little else in between – not unlike Britain today, come to think of it!
A middle class or rather affluent merchant class was beginning to emerge, most notably in my home town of Lübeck and the other free city states of northern Germany, where the merchant guild The Hanse was founded. Most people, however, lived off the land and were very poor, which the film makers tried to incorporate in their depiction of medieval life at a monastery.
Before the arrival of gun powder and canons, castle keeps surrounded by walled fortifications were the only real defence an overlord and therefore his king had against invaders from outside the realm. Villagers and peasants flocked to these walled mini-cities, where market days were eventually introduced to provide a place of commerce that brought in taxes for the lord of the manor and cloth, food, drink, livestock and various household goods to the ordinary men and women living in and around the citadel and outlying homesteads.
It was rare for castles to be taken by brute force – unlike the great battles envisaged in Peter Jackson’s and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, medieval attackers relied on sieges and patience to wear the occupants of a castle down rather than attack. With the arrival of gun powder castles became less useful and so eventually fell into disuse and ruin.
Most prominent at Pierrefonds are the many statues and gargoyle-type critters, fantastical creatures that the producers and writers of the show used to great effect in one episode (where flying monkeys came to life and attacked the castle’s occupants). Nine Valiant Knights are depicted as statues that stand guard in the recesses of Pierrefonds’s towers. They are the counterpart of the famous Nine Worthy Women at Castle Le Ferté-Milon just a few miles down the road.
Chateau de Pierrefonds has been used many times in films and TV series like Highlander, les Visiteurs, and the film The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, the 1998 version of the Man in the Iron Mask and now, of course, the BBC’s Merlin.
For more information on this lovely part of France and pictures of Pierrefonds Castle try these links:
The region also has castles at Berzy-le-Sec, Septmonts, Crouy-sur-Ourcq, Le louvre, Vincennes, Blandy-les-Tours and the aforementioned La Ferté-Milon. Visitors must hire a car or use pedal power to get to these wonderful places – sadly, there appear to be no train links or other useful public transport options.
The second part of this blog will be dealing with the different components of a castle such as the great hall, the private apartments, the gates, galleries and watch towers. I’m off now to start incorporating the magic of Pierrefonds and medieval castles into my epic adventure of Merlin fan fiction!
(source of animation: heathersanimations.com, all picture credits Wikipedia)