The castle of Saint-Germain-en-Laye is known as the Château-Vieux (Old Castle) and is closely linked to the history of France. Surrounded by dry moats, the castle and its large circular towers today house the National Museum of Archeology, the world’s largest collection of prehistoric art.
The castle of Saint-Germain-en-Laye takes the shape of a pentagon as it was gradually built on the foundations of an earlier medieval fortress.
With the inner courtyard and the moats, the castle covers an area of 12,000 m2.
The two colours of the walls form the special feature of the castle. The combined use of pale stone and red bricks refers to the Italian Renaissance. At that time bricks were an expensive material and reserved to the richest households. Paris also has famous examples of bricks and stones buildings: Place Dauphine and Place des Vosges.
The castle consists of five wings:
– Wing of the King (Aile du Roi) from the 16th century, looks onto the gardens.
– Wing of the Queen (Aile de la Reine) from the 16th century, overlooks the Plain of Nanterre.
– Wing of the Children of France (Aile des Enfants de France) from the 16th century.
– Chapel St. Louis (Chapelle Saint-Louis or Sainte-Chapelle) from the 13th century.
– Wing of the Banquet Hall (Aile de la Salle des Fêtes) from the 16th century, facing the parish church and the RER station.
A bit of History
Its pentagon shape partly comes from the foundations of a former medieval castle that was built by Louis VI in around 1122. On 15 August 1346, during the Hundred Years’ War, the castle was burnt down by the Black Prince and later rebuilt by King Charles V (from 1364).
King François I commissioned from Pierre Chambiges the construction of a new castle. The architect included in the new residence the chapel that was edified by Saint-Louis in 1238.
The castle of Saint-Germain was frequently visited by the kings of France from François I to Louis XIV. During his reign King François I stayed over 1,000 days at Saint-Germain which is double the time he spent at Fontainebleau. He was so fond of the fortress that he embellished it from 1539 with Renaissance elements. He commissioned from Chambiges the reconstruction of the façades. The architect introduced a building technique that was unprecedented in France: the use of combined stone and brick to provide the façades with polychrome features.
In 1559 the castle covered 8,000 m2 and included 55 apartments, a banquet hall (or party hall), 7 chapels, one kitchen, a prison in the vaulted cellars of the keep tower.
On the 10th February 1638 it was in the castle of Saint-Germain-en-Laye that King Louis XIII published a royal declaration dedicating the Kingdom of France to the Virgin Mary.
His son, Louis XIV made the castle of Saint-Germain his residence from 1666 to 1681 before moving definitely to Versailles with his court. From the 1660s to 1682 the castle hosted most of the first theatrical plays in France by Corneille, Racine, Molière without forgetting concerts by Lully.
Once installed in Versailles, Louis XIV turned the castle over to his cousin King James II of England (1633-1701) who fled England following the 1688 Glorious Revolution.
During the French Revolution the castle was turned into a prison. One of his famous prisoners was Rouget de Lisle, composer of La Marseillaise, the French National anthem.
In 1855 Napoleon III commissioned from Eugène Millet (a student of Viollet-le-Duc) the restoration of the castle. Millet demolished the pavilions originally added by Louis XIV which had never been entirely completed. The castle was listed as a historic monument by the French State in 1863.
It was in the castle that was signed the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye on 10 September 1919 which officially ended the WW1 hostilities between the Allies and Austria. The treaty ratified the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
During the German occupation (14 June 1940 – 25 August 1944), the castle housed the headquarters of the German Army in France.
The chapel of the castle was built by King Louis IX (or Saint-Louis) in Rayonnant Gothic style and is orientated East-West. It was considered as a Sainte-Chapelle as it housed a relic of the Crown of Thorns before it was moved to the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. The chapel of Saint-Germain was a prototype to the Sainte-Chapelle built 10 years later by Saint-Louis on the Île de la Cité.
The chemin-de-ronde (wall-walk) that surrounded the castle ran half-way of the façade. Thus Pierre de Montreuil decided to create rectangular windows instead of the traditional Gothic-style arched windows in order to give more light to the nave.
The chapel measures 24 metres long by 10 metres wide and consists of three spans. The nave is 17 metres high and the carved keystones of the rib vaults are decorated with seven heads in the round including those of Saint-Louis and his mother, Blanche of Castille.
On the West wall of the chapel are the sharp tracery details of a fine rose window. Under the reign of François I the rose window was obstructed by the creation of the vast banquet hall.
Many historic religious events took place in the chapel such as François I’s wedding with Claude of France (1514), the Te Deum sang with great ceremony to thank God for the birth of Louis XIV, the baptism ceremony of Louis XIV aged 4.
The keep was probably built by Raymond du Temple under the reign of Charles V in the 14th century and was part of the castle’s first construction phase. Situated between the Wing of the Banquet Hall (Aile de la Salle des Fêtes) and the Wing of the King (Aile du Roi), the keep is 38 metres tall and is topped by a 8 metres high campanile similar to the one at the Louvre.
For a certain period of time, the keep housed the royal treasure as well as the royal archives and rare books. Part of the precious books gathered by the King were amongst the first items to form the National Library’s collection.
The inner courtyard shows beautiful Renaissance features and for a moment the visitor might think to have been transported over to Italy. The Venetian influence is seen in the combination of pink brick and stone and the use of round arched opening surmounted by a pediment for the windows of the main floor. The courtyard has an awkward superimposition of one two-floor structure on another.
The flat roof is decorated with balustrades, sculpted vases and ornate chimneys. It offers a spectacular view down to the inner courtyard, the gardens, the forest, the town of Saint-Germain-en-Laye and the valley of the Seine River as far as La Défense.
Find out more about the roof of the castle.
The Banquet Hall
The Salle des Fêtes was also known as Salle de Mars (Mars Hall). Wanted by François I it was renovated on many occasions and most particularly by Mansart. It features a monumental fireplace in bricks which bears the emblem of François I, that is a salamander.
Madame de Sévigné wrote: ‘There are bals, plays and mascarades every nights in Saint-Germain’. During the time when Louis XIV resided in the castle with his court, most of the first theatrical plays by Racine, Corneille and Molière took place in the hall without forgetting concerts and ballets produced by Lully.
The National Museum of Archeology
In 1867 Napoleon III created the Museum of Celtic and Gallo Roman Antiquities within the walls of the castle. It now houses the National Museum of Archaeology and has on display the world’s largest collection of prehistoric art, including the famous Dame de Brassempouy.
The collection of the museum traces the life of man in France from the Prehistoric time to the Middle Ages with nearly 30,000 artefacts on display out of 2 million kept in the castle’s storerooms.
The Dame de Brassempouy (or Venus of Brassempouy) is arguably the most famous artefact on display in the museum. It consists of a tiny head carved from mammoth ivory about 25,000 years old. The fragmentary figurine is one of the earliest known realistic representations of a human face. In 1976 a French stamp depicted the Venus of Brassempouy.
Other views of the interior of the castle of Saint-Germain-en-Laye:
BACK TO SAINT-GERMAIN-EN-LAYE HOMEPAGE…
Discover the département of Yvelines (Versailles, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Rambouillet…): Tourisme en Yvelines.