Commarque, the giant fortress

The castle of Commarque is located in Sireuil, a tiny community that raised to fame when a local inhabitant discovered the statuette of a Neolithic woman in a farm track.

Commarque Castle
Commarque Castle

Sireuil has since merged with Les-Eyzies-de-Tayac, which is considered the French capital of Prehistory.

The ruined fortress (which is being restored) is perched on a rocky promontory nestled in the greenery, on the south bank of the Beune, a small tributary of the Vézère.

It indeed lies right in the heart of the Vézère Valley, a fertile area that has been inhabited for millennia and boasts the world’s largest concentration of Palaeolithic decorated caves.

This prestigious pedigree earned it the title of ‘Vallée de l’Homme’ and the ranking of UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Two ancient roads, one that links Bergerac to Brive, the other Périgueux to Cahors, pass through the valley.

It is at their crossroads that Gerrad de Commarque built his fortress.

Commarque, a Templar commandery

The first lord of Commarque bequeathed this strategic stronghold to the Knights Templar in the early 12th century.

Troglodyte dwellings by the Castle of Commarque
Troglodyte dwellings

The Templars transformed it into an impressive defensive complex.

They indeed built a stone dungeon in line with the cliff and added ancillary buildings, which they protected by ramparts and moats.

The fortified village was steadily extended between the 12th and 14th century.

The King of France bequeathed the Castrum of Commarque to the Hospitallers of Saint John of Jerusalem after the dissolution of the Templar Order in the early 14th century.

The Hospitallers built the current dungeon and sold the commandery to the Barons of Beynac.

Commarque, the castle of the barons of Beynac

The start of the Hundred Years War pushed the local lords to regroup within the fortress.

However, each family built its own fortified tower-house surrounded by its own ramparts and moats within the castrum’s enclosure.

Chateau de Lauzel near the Chateau de Commarque
Chateau de Lauzel

They turned Commarque into an important co-seigniory, as they worked out that ‘unity is strength’!.

However, the two dominant families, the Commarque and the Beynac (which were related by marriage alliances) steadily purchased the lands and rights of the other co-owners lords of lesser status.

Towards 1380 the Commarque became the principal owners of the fortress, which they reinforced and enlarged.

The two influential families rallied the Protestant cause and fought together during the Wars of Religion.

The Catholics eventually captured the fortress in 1569 after a long battle that left it in semi ruins.

The Commarque moved to the Chateau de Lauzel, which they built on the opposite bank of the river Beaune. Its ruined towers can be seen from the fortress grounds.

The last lord of Commarque died in his castle in 1656.

The deserted fortress slowly fell into ruins until 1968 when Hubert de Commarque acquired the castle of his ancestors to rehabilitate it.

 Slow but steady revival of Commarque

The impressive fortress, or at least what was left of it and although classified Historical Monument in 1943, was then buried under the dense vegetation.

A long and painstaking restoration work allowed the safeguard of the structures.

The French state and American foundations have since financial supported the work but also the archaeological excavations aimed at recreating the daily life at the Castrum of Commarque.

The Cave of Commarque

Commarque might have been deserted for 300 years, but the site had been inhabited since the Palaeolithic.

Troglodyte dwellings by the Castle of Commarque
Troglodyte dwellings by the Castle of Commarque

In 1915 Abbot Breuil discovered the rock shelter where our distant ancestors lived. The river then flowed about 20m from the entrance that can be see at the foot of the cliff, underneath the dungeon.

Not only did they live there, but they also decorated it with paintings of game, female representations (especially vulvas, a symbol of fertility) and human faces.

However, the most spectacular representation is the life-size horse carved in low relief.

The cave is protected and therefore not open to the public, but reproductions are visible in the dungeon.

The river carved many other rock shelters in the low cliffs that frame the fortress grounds.

These troglodyte dwellings, inhabited without interruption throughout the Middle-Ages, have retained countless traces of human occupation.

An impressive site to discover, tucked away from the road and in a peaceful setting, at the end of a farm track that runs through fields and woodland.

Department of Dordogne – Sireuil-Les-Eyzies-de-Tayac
Coordinates: Lat 44.936591 – Long 1.103375

Photo Wikimedia commons: header

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