Chateau de Vincennes – From a royal hunting lodge to a fortress
The Chateau de Vincennes consists of a series of buildings erected over the centuries around two distinct courtyards.
The medieval fortress includes the Donjon, various outbuildings and the Chapelle Royale.
The 17th century royal country residence is laid out around the Cour Royale.
The medieval fortress
In the 5th century, the Merovingian Kings built a hunting lodge in Vilcena, a wooded area well outside the city wall.
Seven centuries later, King Saint-Louis replaced the old mansion with a small fortress.
In 1370, Charles V demolished this fortress to build the turreted keep or Donjon, which he used as residence.
The ramparts and the moats were completed in the early 15th century.
They turned the Chateau de Vincennes into a traditional fortress with three tower-gates and six defence towers.
The impressive 42m tall Tour du Village opens onto the town of St-Mandé; it is the only tower that has retained its original height.
The Tour du Gouverneur is located on the eastern side and leads into the woods.
The Tour du Bois leads from the Cour Royale to the Esplanade and Bois de Vincennes.
The Tour de Paris, Tour du Réservoir des Fontaines, Tour du Diable, Tour de la Surintendance, Tour de la Reine and Tour du Roi are defence towers.
Amazingly, the prestigious Manufacture Royale de Porcelaine de Sèvres was founded in the Tour du Diable in 1738.
Charles V commissioned the construction of the Chapelle Royale in the mid 14th century; it was completed in 1552.
Modelled on the Sainte-Chapelle, it temporarily hosted some fragments of the Crown of Thorn and boasts superb 16th century stained glass windows depicting the Scenes of the Apocalypse.
It shelters the grave of the Duke of Enghien, the pretender to the French Crown who was accused of plotting against Napoleon I and was executed in 1804.
The 52m tall keep or Donjon is a superb illustration of 14th century Military architecture.
It is part of the defence wall and is defended by a barbican and accessed by a drawbridge.
The Donjon de Vincennes is the only remaining medieval royal residence left in France and the tallest remaining keep in Europe.
It was converted into a jail at the French Revolution.
Napoleon I turned it into an arsenal, removed the crenellations from the ramparts, lowered the towers and fitted them with canons during the Hundred Days.
The fortress became then the setting of one of the most popular anecdotes of French history.
Daumesnil, who was nicknamed Peg Leg after loosing a leg at the Battle of Wagram in 1809, was then governor of Vincennes.
He indeed refused to surrender the fortress to the Allies and proclaimed:
“Je rendrai Vincennes quand on me rendra ma jambe – I will surrender Vincennes when I get my leg back”.
The Donjon now houses a small museum with an audio-visual relating the castle’s history.
The 17th century royal country residence
In 1650, the Prime Minister, Cardinal Mazarin, commissioned Le Vau with the construction of the Pavillon du Roi, Pavillon de la Reine and the North and South Porticoes on the southern side of the medieval fortress.
The architect integrated the Tour du Bois to the South Portico to turn the latter in a triumphal arch and state entrance for the Cour Royale.
The North Portico, which delineates the two courtyards, was pulled down in 1837 and rebuilt in the 1970s.
A commemorative stele, located in the moat below, marks the spot where the Duke of Enghien was executed in 1804.
The Chateau de Vincennes was integrated to the City Paris in the mid 19th century and bequeathed to the French Army.
Most buildings were altered, the land converted in training grounds and the Hôpital Militaire built.
Vincennes served as a defence fort during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870.
The ramparts were reinforced, a casemate built on top and the openings blocked, adding further degradation to the fortress.
Vincennes was once more severely damaged during WWII, as the Germans blew some of the ramparts and the Pavillon du Roi and burned the Pavillon de la Reine before retreating on August 24, 1944.
The French Army reinvested the old fort and the barracks after the war.
Vincennes has since been fully restored; the Pavillon de la Reine today hosts the Museum of War.
The visit takes a good hour; it is very popular with children as Vincennes is a genuine fortress!
Directions – Avenue de Paris – Vincennes
Metro: Chateau de Vincennes on Line 1
Coordinates: Lat 48.843196 – Long 2.436079