One of the most memorable monuments of Upper Normandy is perched looking west on a height of 90 meters, over-looking the Seine River Valley, at Les Andelys. It is called Château Gaillard, and was a state-of-the-art example of medieval fortress architecture when it was built at great expense by Richard-the-Lion-Heart in the remarkably short period of just two years, 1196-1198.
It is today a romantic ruin warning those who take notice the potential risks of mis-placed pride and overweening complacency. As it neared completion, Richard could not help proclaiming “Behold, how fair is this year-old daughter of mine!” Such hubris might be expected from the man who was simultaneously King of England and Duke of Normandy! He meant Gaillard to be impregnable, and he believed with all of his might that it was.
However, it succumbed on its first test, a siege led by King Philip Auguste of France in 1204. Gaillard incorporated advanced technology, such as machicolations and concentric barbicans, but its foundations were chalk, a soft substance through which the besieging French forces burrowed. Further penetrations of the inner walls were improbably made through latrine chutes, thereby truly violating the impregnable fortress.
Few sites in Normandy command as sweeping a view as what you see looking west from this fortress. The entire Seine River Valley can be seen nearly all the way to Rouen, 40 kilometers distant. Each time I see it, I am struck how eloquently it epitomizes the ephemerality of human existence and power, both political and military.
Gaillard combines easily with a tour that includes Claude Monet’s home and gardens in Giverny, the iconic rustic village of Lyons la Foret, or the splendid 17thcentury château Champ de Bataille, with its luxuriant gardens. Rouen is also near-by.