When building in Normandy calls itself ‘the old castle of William the Conqueror’ it is best to believe it. Although we thought this one was probably a bit of an old folk tale. One of the Conqueror’s castles a private house? Surely a rare bit of Norman whimsy.
No whimsy at all, this home, occasionally glimpsed through rarely open gates on a sharp corner at Bonneville-sur-Touques played an important role in Norman, and English history.
The first château de Bonneville-sur-Touques was built for Charlemagne to oversee the coastline and entrance to the Touques river. By the 11th century the castle was a renowned Norman stronghold with five watchtowers linked by an impenetrable wall surrounded by a deep ditch. It was a favourite castle for William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy and would be the location of an infamous piece of English history.
Two faced, backstabbing battlers – it must be 1066
Back in the 1060’s Edward the Confessor King of England appointed William of Duke Normandy as his heir.
Edward’s mother Emma was from Normandy and he spent many years in the Dukedom, first as a child avoiding Viking raids then as an adult in exile while Cnut ruled England.
The dying king knew there could be trouble for his chosen heir from the popular Harold Godwinson, whose vast support across the country could be parleyed into a strong case for taking the English crown. So Edward sent Harold’s brother and son as hostages to Normandy and demanded a promise from Harold not to try for the crown after his death.
Knowing he had little time, Edward decided to further ensure the future he wanted for England by sending Harold to Normandy in 1064 to swear an oath of loyalty to William.
It was a terrible voyage. Harold’s boat blew off course to Ponthieu (now part of Picardy), he was imprisoned by Count Guy and had to be rescued by William, Duke of Normandy. Harold was then brought to the castle at Bonneville-sur-Touques.
Here, before a great council of Norman magnates, Harold swore an oath to support Williams’ claim to the English throne, saying he would surrender the castle of Dover and other fortifications to William and that he would become Williams’ vassal.
The fog of history
Or so the Bayeux tapestry suggests and contemporary Norman chroniclers William of Poitiers and William of Jumièges would have us believe. Yes plenty of evidence suggests William rescued Harold, who gave some sort of friendly oath. However non-Norman chroniclers say Harold knew nothing of Williams’ claims to the throne before he left England. But they would, wouldn’t they.
All we can be sure of is that during Harold’s visit with William in 1064 both were completely charming and entirely distrusting of the other. Any veneer of friendship would soon end in 1066 with an arrow in the eye for Harold and a coronation on Christmas Day for William, now the Conqueror.
Strategic base for invasion
The castle at Bonneville-sur-Touques served as William’s base as he assembled and built a fleet at Dives, to invade England and Matilda kept the castle as her main home while ruling Normandy in William’s absence.
A military prize
Château de Bonneville-sur-Touques continued to be an important strategic stronghold, hosting English kings Henry I, Henry II, Richard the Lionheart and the infamous King John who lost Normandy for the English and was forced to sign the Magna Carta by his disgruntled nobles. Between the 13th and 15th century the castle was alternately French and English five times, depending on who won the last battle.
Henry V was the last King of England to win it after laying siege for nine days in August 1417. He kept control until his death in 1442. By 1451 the castle was French again and has stayed that way.
Neglect and plunder
As the Touques river silted up in the 16th century Le château de Bonneville-sur-Touques quickly lost importance. So much so that in 1649 and 1742 permission was given to raid its stones to build Bonneville Church.
Enough was left to be sold in 1792 for 3000 livres. In 1830 part of the château was rebuilt as a house. In 1872 the castle was bought by the Leo family who still live there today.
Another war – WW2
During World War II the Germans used the château as their base for Todt, the organisation that created the Atlantic Wall. 700 forced workers from across German occupied lands were stationed in the area. It was also used by the Germans as prison for La Resistance.
After Liberation, from September 1944 it was a prison again, but now for suspected collaborators and Nazis. By December 1944 300 people were interned here.
Exploring the past
After the war the site was finally classified as a historic monument on 16 November 1964 and in 1965 Caen University undertook extensive excavations (link below). Sometime during the 1970s renovations secured what remains of the old castle for the future.
For now the interior remains a mystery as unlike many architectural monuments in France this one is not open to the public. A defensive fort, to the end.
Some sources and further reading
The Excavation report 1965 (French, with images and drawings) can be downloaded as a pdf from here.
More on William the Conqueror:
- How to invade England – 1066 and all that
- Hartlette, or was that Harlot? Of Falaise
- The ghosts of Normandy past, in Sussex England