The castle of Saint-Germain-en-Laye is known as the Château-Vieux (Old Castle). It 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. This is the world’s largest collection of prehistoric art. A must-see monument if you have time to discover the Western suburbs of Paris!
About the castle of Saint-Germain-en-Laye
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.
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.
- Chapel St. Louis (Chapelle Saint-Louis or Sainte-Chapelle) from the 13th century.
- Wing of the Children of France (Aile des Enfants de France) from the 16th century.
- Wing of the Banquet Hall (Aile de la Salle des Fêtes) from the 16th century, facing the parish church and the RER station.
The castle of Saint-Germain-en-Laye: a short 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. It was later rebuilt by King Charles V (from 1364).
King François I
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.
A royal castle West of Paris
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. It included 55 apartments, a banquet hall (or party hall), 7 chapels, one kitchen. Without forgetting 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.
Louis XIV and King James II of England
His son, Louis XIV made the castle of Saint-Germain his residence from 1666 to 1681. This 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). The English king had fled England following the 1688 Glorious Revolution.
From the Revolution to Napoleon III
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.
The Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye
It was in the castle that was signed the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye on 10 September 1919. The peace treaty officially ended the WW1 hostilities between the Allies and Austria. It also 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. It is orientated East-West. It was considered as a Sainte-Chapelle because it housed a relic of the Crown of Thorns. The relic was later transferred 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. It 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.
A historic sanctuary!
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, and
- the baptism ceremony of Louis XIV aged 4.
The castle’s keep
The keep was probably built by Raymond du Temple under the reign of Charles V in the 14th century. It 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. It 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. For a moment I felt I had been transported over to Italy!
The Venetian influence is seen in the combination of pink brick and stone. But also in the use of round arched opening surmounted by a pediment for the windows of the main floor. The courtyard features an awkward superimposition of one two-floor structure on another.
The castle’s roof
The castle’s roof is open to the public on rare occasions only. If you’re lucky to go up there you’ll be amazed at the flat roof’s decoration. Balustrades, sculpted vases and ornate chimneys… The roof offers a spectacular view down to the inner courtyard, the gardens, the forest and the town of Saint-Germain-en-Laye. Without forgetting 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) or Banquet Hall in English. 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, as well as 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.
The museum 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. Nearly 30,000 artefacts are 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:
Useful Links about Saint-Germain-en-Laye
- Saint-Germain-en-Laye Tourist Office
- National Museum of Archeology
- Tourisme en Yvelines
- Where to stay in Saint-Germain-en-L.
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