History & architecture

Le Donjon

The Donjon de Vez lies in the heart of the Vallée de l'Automne. This striking medieval fortress goes back to Gallo-Roman times, when it was an army camp designed to protect Gaul against the Barbarians.

With the invasion of the Franks, Vez was made the military centre of an entire province. After the battle of Soissons in 486 it was the capital of the Valois region for five centuries. The stone and wood castle, of which nothing now remains, overlooked the valley from its hill-top position.

In 1214 Philippe Auguste, king of France, granted Vez to a certain Raoul Duchemin, who had distinguished himself by his protection of the king at the battle of Bouvines. Duchemin Latinised his name to "de Stratis", which in time became d’Estrées. Under its new master the castle was replanned, restored and fortified. Raoul d’Estrées added the three-story living quarters, of which there now remain only sections of walls and collapsed chimneys. He also built ramparts along the valley side and a wall on the side giving onto the plain.

In 1360, with the help of the local people, d’Estrée's great-grandson Jehan de Vez built the pentagonal Donjon and the second segment of the ramparts, thereby enclosing what was left of the old castle. Taken over and further fortified by Louis d’Orléans at the end of the century, Vez remained the capital of the Valois region for five hundred years.

Eugène Viollet-le-Duc

The 19th century saw the rediscovery of medieval architecture through the efforts of architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc and writer Prosper Mérimée, who was made Inspector-General of Historical Monuments in 1834 and held the post for almost thirty years.

Produced during the period 1854–75, Viollet-le-Duc’s copious illustrations and writings on France’s medieval heritage were collected in dictionaries of the nation’s architecture (from the 11th to the 16th century) and furniture. Volume 5 of his Dictionnaire Raisonnée de l’Architecture Française devoted a section to the Donjon de Vez:

Few 14th and 15th-century castles possessed donjons as extensive, handsome and well-suited to seigneurial needs as that of Pierrefonds. Most of the donjons of the period, although more comfortable and agreeable than those of the 12th and 13th centuries, comprised only a more or less well protected residential building.

An example of these seigneurial abodes, on a smaller scale, is to be found in the same region. The Château de Vez shows resemblances with Château de Pierrefonds; situated not far away on the fringe of the Forest of Compiègne, near Morienval, it stands on a high plateau overlooking the valleys of L’Automne and Vandi. Its military situation was excellent in that it complemented the lines of defence of the edge the forest, and was protected by the Château de Pierrefonds to the northeast, by the narrow gorges of the Forêt de l’Aigle and the river Aisne to the north, by the Champlieu plateaux and the town of Verberie to the west, and by the river Oise to the north-northwest. The Château de Vez is a very ancient site, at the tip of a promontory between two small valleys. Louis d’Orléans had to rebuild it almost entirely to ensure his safety north of Paris and resist the pretensions of the Duke of Burgundy, who was himself preparing fortifications to the south of the royal domains. Compared to Pierrefonds Vez is no more than a military post protected by a wall and a marvellously sited donjon built with the greatest care, probably by the architect of the Château de Pierrefonds.1

Figure 45

This donjon [illustration 45] stands at point A, at the angle formed by two curtain walls, B and C: B overlooks the steep slope B’, and C, with a watchtower at each end, is separated from a farmyard, or bailey, by a broad ditch. On the side marked G the plateau descends steeply into a deep valley; this means that the curtain walls H and H' were lower than B and C, and their parapet was at the level of the plateau, where the 12th-century residence K was almost entirely rebuilt in the early 15th century. This latter residence, now a ruin, was a charming building. The castle gate, defended by two small towers, is at the point marked I. Remains of the defences of the bailey E can still be seen, but have since become terrace walls.2

The donjon is detailed in the ground-floor plan X. Its original entrance is at L and consisted of a narrow postern3 reached by a balance bridge and giving onto a wide, full-height spiral staircase. Each floor had two rooms, one larger than the other, with fireplaces and recesses. There is a well at P. At F is the ditch and at M the entrance to the castle with its towers and balance bridge. The curtain wall C is defended by the projecting turrets O, while curtain wall B which, because of the steepness of the slope, had very little cause to fear an outside attack, was protected inside the site by the projecting turrets R. The turrets S and S’, built at the two ends of the high curtain walls, gave access to the parapet via staircases. At V was a postern descending from the platform onto the escarpment. Examining the situation of the plateau, one understands perfectly the plan of the corner donjon, whose outer walls follow the most accessible approaches to the castle. The full-height turrets form a secondary flanking defence in cases where the attackers are close to the castle.

Figure 46

Illustration 46, which provides the perspective elevation of the Donjon de Vez as seen from inside the compound, shows the layout of the turrets R of curtain wall B, the postern with its small ditch and balance bridge, the well, the machicolations and latrines, the staircase, and the top of the staircase in a tower serving as a lookout. From the first floor of the donjon one reached the parapets of the two curtain walls by small, well-protected doors. Thus, in the event of an attack, the garrison could promptly take up position on the curtain walls on the only two sides where attack was possible. If one of these sides was taken – C, the weaker of the two because of the nature of the terrain and the presence of the door – the defenders could still retain the other, B, reinforced by the interior turrets R (see the plans). If they could not hold this second side, they took refuge in the donjon either to go on the offensive again or ultimately to surrender. In such a skilfully laid-out stronghold a garrison of fifty could easily hold off an army for several days. Moreover the enemy, once held in check on this terrain surrounded by ravines, streams and forests, was very vulnerable to attack by a relief party. The Château de Vez was quite simply a fort designed to protect a given point on a well-chosen line of defence emplacements. Perhaps not enough attention has been given to the almost systematic relationship, in the Middle Ages, between the various fortresses built on a particular territory; they are examined in isolation, but not in terms of their overall importance and relative utility. From this point of view it seems that medieval fortifications offer a fresh field of study.

Such is the enduring influence of tradition, even in periods when that influence is supposedly ignored, that we see the last vestiges of the feudal donjon reappearing in châteaux built in the 17th century, when the fortified dwellings of lords had been forgotten. The majority of our 16th and 17th-century châteaux still have, at the centre of their residential buildings, a sizeable pavilion which is certainly not of foreign origin, but rather a last relic of the Middle Ages. Examples are to be found at Chambord, Saint-Germain-en-Laye and the Tuileries, and from a later period at the châteaux of Richelieu-en-Poitou, Maisons, Vaux near Paris, Coulommiers, etc.

1
The shape of the Donjon de Vez, together with its mode of construction and certain details of its defences are an exact match with those of the Château de Pierrefonds. Thus Vez dates from 1400.” – Viollet-le-Duc.
2
“This domain now belongs to Monsieur Paillet, who uses the donjon as his residence.” – Viollet-le-Duc.
3
“In the 16th century this postern was replaced by a ground-level window.” – Viollet-le-Duc.

Viollet-le-Duc
in Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture française du XIe au XVIe siècle. Tome 5, Donjon