A chance purchase of an intriguing old postcard in Honfleur took us to this charming ruin, the castle at Arques-la-Bataille. A castle not widely advertised. There are no tours, or a shop. No medal coins can be bought at its entrance for 2 euro. We could have missed a treat.
You may catch a glimpse of the castle’s silver stones as you zoom along the La Varenne valley, but with just one very small sign in the village centre for ‘chateau’, it is a bit of a hidden treasure. A very large hidden treasure.
Up a narrow tree lined road with more than a few potholes the strategic brilliance of the castle’s position is obvious. It has clear sight of all surrounding countryside and a particularly breathtaking view north east all the way to the sea.
This remarkable building may be a little worse for wear but that it still exists at all is down to a certain Mrs Reiset and no thanks at all to the sinister society of the ‘Black Band’, but more of them later.
Built during dangerous times
A castle has always stood on this rocky outcrop. The remains we admire today were built in the twelfth century, a volatile time when power needed thick defensive walls and high towers as much as strong armies.
It was built for Count William of Talou, uncle to the most famous Norman of all, William Duke of Normandy who would one day be William the Conqueror.
Uncle and nephew did not get on. William of Talou loudly questioned his nephew’s claim to the throne. Rulers, said Count William, are made by ‘the grace of God’. He added something along the lines of ‘they are not made by hooking up with tanners daughters’ ‘nor are their parents unmarried’. He modestly suggested his own lineage would be more suitable for the role of Duke.
The Duke of Normandy makes an expensive mistake
Despite this, or to win him over, when William Duke of Normandy secured power he could see his uncle could be useful. During Duke William’s youth, after his father’s death and before he came of age, Normandy had become a dangerous often lawless country. In an effort to win support and stabilise the region Duke William gifted the lands of Talou (now the region of the Pays de Caux) and Arques to his uncle. It would become an expensive decision.
Just how expensive became clear in 1049 at the battle of Domfront when William of Talou deserted the Duke in the middle of battle. Denouncing all oaths of allegiance the Count began organising his own rebellion.
Castle under siege
By 1052 William Count of Talou’s fortress castle at Arques was complete. It was an impressive indicator of his power and authority. The Duke of Normandy sent a polite request to the Count of Talou that he refresh his oath of allegiance. The Count told him what he could do with his oath.
Shortly afterwards a very disgruntled William Duke of Normandy turned up at the Count’s castle and laid siege.
The castle held out for many miserable months. Then as famine devastated the inhabitants in 1053 William, Count of Talou capitulated. He was not Count of Talou for very much longer.
He was also banished from Normandy and fled to the court of Eustace II, Count of Boulogne. In a clever twist the Duke of Normandy paid him a generous stipend. To stay away and to keep him quiet. It worked.
As the centuries rolled by the huge castle at Arques continued to play a central role in Normandy history. Some battling highlights include the year 1204 when it was the last Norman castle to surrender to Philippe Auguste king of France, uniting Normandy with his growing French lands.
Many battles took place at Arques during the 100 years war and poor Joan d’Arc was held here in 1431 before she was tried and sentenced to death in Rouen.
More sieges and battles followed with the castle particularly busy during the religious wars in the sixteenth century.
The best battle of all
Arques castle’s arguably most famous battle took place in 1589.
Henry IV of France and 7000 troops had retreated to the castle and were under attack from 30,000 soldiers commanded by the Duke of Mayenne. On velum it didn’t look good but the castle design was an asset worth many thousand men.
Castles evolve as battle styles change. The designers of this one have been particularly clever. Sometime around the 15th or 16th century (no-one is quite sure) not content with the defences offered by steep slopes down into the valley, an immense man-made moat was dug 20 meters wide and 15 meters deep, topped a high wall. With a single drawbridge entrance this ‘belt’ around the castle, possibly developed to defend against cannon fire, would prove almost impenetrable.
Fiendish foggy defenses
Henry IV not only defended the castle but on 21 September 1589, as an autumn fog that had hidden the castle lifted, he was prepared. As the first shard of sunlight reflected on enemy armour his bowmen came into action and inflicted significant losses.
The Duke of Mayenne and his men retreated ‘in disorder’ to Dieppe, with many riders mortally bogged down in the surrounding swamps.
It was in memory of Henry IV’s triumph that ‘la Bataille’ was added to Arques’ name in 1882.
An old castle, ‘unfit for service’
It is a sign of a more peaceful France that in 1688 the military left Arques castle forever. In 1708 Louise XIV declared it ‘unfit for service’. The dismantling of the castle began. Slowly but surely the towers and walls lowered as permits were issued to remove the silver stones.
Shiny new buildings appeared from Arques all the way to Dieppe where the Lord of Clieu used them to build his castle at Derchigny.
By the time of the French revolution the castle was a charming relic, sold by the town with 30 acres to Mr. Reins for the sum of 8,300 livres in 1793. By 1814 it was owned by Mr Larcheveque, who charged 20 cents for the privilege of a tour, but he did stop people taking any more stones.
When he died in 1836 his heirs decided to sell the Castle at Arques and it came to the attention of La Bande Noire, the Black Band.
The sinister ‘Black Band’
Very few people with heads left wanted France to return to pre-revolutionary days and government encouraged fresh ownership and usage of chateaux, abbeys and unfashionable monuments. One particularly group supported this view enthusiastically.
Membership of the ruthless Black Band was extremely secretive, with convoluted company ownership’s distancing the money makers from their investments, on paper. It is still a little unclear who many of them were, although there have long been suspicions that some revolutionary politics were influenced by financial gain.
Big on money, small on ethics
The aim of the Black Band was to make money, their ethics were non-existent. They used their connections to purchase historic buildings often before they were on the open market. Then they stripped out every ornament, tile, brick, stone and sold the lot. They did not stop until the building was just an outline on the ground and then they carried on to cut up great landed estates into small often unviable parcels.
Among the famous buildings destroyed were Château Mailleraye in Seine-Maritime, the vast and beautiful Château de Richelieu at Indre-et-Loire and historic giant Château de Chaumot in Yonne; a building started in the 10th century with fascinating additions up until the 18th.
It is said that many fortunes enjoyed by esteemed families in France today originated from an ancestor in the Black Band.
And they wanted the castle at Arques.
Rich and romantic; Mme Reiset
Fortunately, while some were making money, others who already had it developed more romantic sensibilities. One such romantic was the wealthy widow Mme. Reiset. She was horrified to hear the Black Band had sinister plans for beautiful Arques castle. So she bought it for 60,000 gold francs.
Which, pretty much, brings us to today. Except that now the government owns the castle, protecting it as a historic monument since 1875. Although they were not in a position to stop the German army occupying the site, or as they retreated, blowing up the munitions stored there, destroying the south gate.
Fantastic and free!
A walk around the outer belt of the castle is free. The interior is closed at the moment as it is too unstable to risk visitors. This should all change as a local band of enthusiastic supporters have plans for restoration, you can visit their website (French).
The views are magnificent but take care, some of the path is quite slippery and it is a long way down.