Merlinians (official name for fans of the BBC’s hit show Merlin) know there are few places more beautiful or inspiring than the Great Hall at Pierrefonds Castle. In episode 13, at the end of series 4, King Arthur finally gets to marry his Guinevere and we see a beaming Merlin and what looks like a cast of thousands fill the gorgeous throne room – achieved with the aid of modern CGI magic, which duplicated a handful of extras many times to achieve such spectator numbers at Arthur’s wedding.
The Great Hall in any castle was – apart from the walled fortifications – the most important room in the entire citadel. Castles started off as military strongholds that required constant change in design in order to impress and dissuade any potential attacker.
Curtain walls were reinforced, new gates installed with an even stronger portcullis, higher towers were built with differently designed arrow slits to allow easy aim at the besieging army camping below the defensive walls and deeper, wider moats were dug to deter attackers from reaching the curtain walls in the first place.
Throughout the centuries the design of castles changed with the increase and decrease of the threat of war. Tastes changed, too, and overlords began to seek greater creature comforts for their living quarters. The most common designs for princely castles that were built “from scratch” were the triangle as seen at Castle le Cain in Poitier and the trapezium, which was chosen as the layout for Castle Saumur at the Loire River in the region of Anjou. Pierrefonds on the other hand sports a simpler layout with a rectangle.
The more the 100-year war between England and France progressed, the higher curtain walls and towers became. When during the middle of the 14th century new techniques in attacks with scaling ladders were introduced, the curtain walls and towers had to be adapted yet again. Some changes must also be put down to the invention of “better” weaponry such as the crossbow becoming a metal bow (ballista), increasing its deadly efficiency in the process.
Crossbows had gone somewhat out of fashion after the Vikings had used them extensively on the population of Paris during the siege of 885 to 886. At some point the use of the crossbow was even banned, but that didn’t stop someone to shoot a bolt at Richard the Lion Heart in 1199 and end his life.
With the resurgence of the much improved crossbow, arrow slits had to be moved further up the castle’s defences, as a skilled crossbowman was quite capable of hitting the defender from quite low down. Mobile siege towers also played their part in changing the design of castles, but that’s a subject for another blog!
How castles changed with the misfortunes of time can be seen at Angers, also a Loire Castle in Anjou. There are Norman style and Gothic kitchens as well as Gallo-Roman curtain walls that date to the 13th century. The facade of the towers and gates display René of Anjou’s coat of arms, but one was added in around 1435 and the other in 1453 – the same man or father and son?
The Great Hall was generally not furnished with more than the throne for the princely butt, except for later centuries developing an expensive taste for tapestries. Tapestries and other wall hangings were as much a means to keep the draught out as they were a means to advertise the owner’s status.
When furniture was needed, simple benches and trestle tables would be brought in. Feasting was always a joyous occasion and singers, dancers and musicians would entertain the guests, while an army of servants like the long-suffering Merlin would see to the overlord’s and guests’ every need. Interestingly, early medieval knights, who had been called to arms by their overlords, were expected to provide their services for free and to pay for their own upkeep for around 3 months, after which they could either go home or receive pay. This, of course, puts quite a different spin on these banquets!
While in France the troubadours entertained with witty songs, ballads, romantic poetry and wisdoms, Minnesänger performed this task in Germany. Two of the most famous names are Walter von der Vogelweide and Wolfram von Eschenbach. There has been much debate about the latter, whether or not he really was of noble blood. What is certain is that both contemporaries were incredibly gifted poets and it is a joy to still read their work after so many centuries have passed.
At Poitiers Castle, which is located in the border region between Anjou and the Auvergne, the ducal Great Hall was renamed to reflect its most frequent use: La Salle des Pas Perdus means the Hall of Lost Footsteps and forms part of the law courts – implying that anyone expecting justice might as well get lost…no, actually, it’s called that way because the hall is so vast.
The architect Jean de Berry fashioned the Great Hall’s refurbishment at Poitiers and gave the northern gable a “modern” facelift as well as adding three gigantic fireplaces to keep the noble backside warm. A huge and very beautiful glass window was also inserted, so that Henry II Plantagenet’s castle could have more light and heat at to please the dukes of Poitiers.
The noble backside would be seated on a chair that was placed on a pedestal, from where the king or duke would hear debates and discussions, decide over disputes between his subjects or intervene in any matters pertaining to his lands.
The Great Hall was really a very public living space that could be totally bare and forbidding at one moment and sumptuous and regal the next.
Here are some links to the castles mentioned in my blog:
Château de Poitiers http://www.ot-poitiers.fr