The site of Falaise, situated on the edge of the first foothills of the Armorican massif, has been occupied by man since at least the Mesolithic Age (around 7000 BC). Different types of settlement succeeded one another over the centuries, and it seems that a fortification already exists on the rock in the Carolingian era.
Taking advantage of this protection, the town develops on the rocky spur formed by the two valleys of the Ante and Marescot rivers. The beginning of the 10th century saw the creation of the dukedom of Normandy (the land of the northmen) after the Viking chief Rollo was granted land by Charles III “the simple”, king of franks, in 911. In this new political scene, the town and castle develop and change greatly and Falaise was to become one of the first cities of the new duchy.
Around the Year One Thousand, the dukes’ fortress is particularly effective and protects a vast domain.
Built on the model of “motte and bailey” castles, the fortress is therefore protected by solid ramparts and dominated, at the top of the rocky spur, by a “keep”, the base of which at least is built with stone.
As a place of power for the new rulers of the country, the city is the place of birth of the most famous of them: William the conqueror (1027-1087). At this time, Falaise is a prosperous town that has 3,000 or 4,000 inhabitants.
Only slight traces of William’s time castle remain and the construction of the oldest of the buildings that form today the fortified place is due to Henri I Beauclerc (1070-1135), the youngest son of William. Having become king of England in 1100, Henry directly draws his inspiration from the Norman stone keeps, built in the English kingdom after the conquest of 1066, to improve the family’s castle of falaise; he reproduces their square plan, with the interior space devoted to the dwelling of the lord and an entrance situated on the first floor, and well-defended by a forebuilding (a fortification containing the stairwell leading upstairs to the entry door). The great square keep of Falaise is a typical Norman English fortification. Henry I also did a lot for the town and had numerous buildings constructed there, especially religious ones.
At his death, conflicts rock the Anglo-Norman territory for twenty years: His daughter, Mathilda the Emperess and Stephen of Blois, one of his nephew, fought each other for control of England. Finally, it is Henri II Plantagenet (1133-1189), Mathilda’s son, who inherits the double title of king and duke. His marriage with Eleanor of Aquitaine as his own heritage places him at the head of a vast domain incorporating: in France, Normandy, Maine, Anjou, Aquitaine and Limousin; in Great Britain, England.
He also exerts strict control over Wales and Scotland. In the second part of the 12th century, the Anglo-Norman empire, also called the Plantagenet empire, has never been so strong. This huge territory will necessarily excite the covetousness of the French kings, whose own domain is much smaller. At the same time, the castle of Falaise enlarges with the creation of the “Small Keep”. This latter protects the western front of the fortress while fulfilling a residential purpose.
At the end of the 12th century, the French king Philippe II Auguste frequently opposes to the kings-dukes: to Henry II Firstly, then to his sons, Richard I The Lionheart and John Lackland. It is against the latter that Philippe will win a decisive victory; Normandy is incorporated into the French royal domain in 1204.
The annexation of the duchy by the French crown brings an end to the saga of the dukes. The new master of Normandy needs local support. He shows himself very conciliatory towards the people of Falaise and rebuilds a number of buildings destroyed during the siege of the city. The third keep of the castle is built in 1207: it is a cylindrical defence tower, 35 meters high, well-designed to withstand a siege and symbolising the king’s power. Within the castle enclosure, Philippe Auguste erects a fortified gatehouse at the entrance to the upper ward.
Dans l’enceinte, Philippe-Auguste aménage un châtelet qui remplace l’ancienne tour-porte qui mène aux donjons.
He also builds flanking semi-circular towers along the surrounding wall or transforms the existing ones. A dwelling, destined to be used by a viscount (royal officer) is also erected against the north wall.
Long years of peace follow the wars of the 12th century. But the 14th century is catastrophic: the French people are weighed down with taxes by the Capetian kings, famines and plague strike the kingdom.
The Hundred Years’ War breaks out in 1337.
Aux guerres du XIIe siècle, succèdent de longues années de paix en France. Le XIVe siècle est quant à lui catastrophique : les rois capétiens grèvent lourdement le peuple français ; des famines puis la peste s’abattent sur le royaume.
La guerre de cent ans débute en 1337.
Before the English occupation (from 1417 to 1450), it is not sure whether or not Falaise was severely hit by the war. On the contrary, the surviving documents give an impression of real prosperity.
At this era, the ponds running along the south wall of the castle are converted into fishponds. A deep well in the lower ward supplies the inhabitants of the castle with drinking water. It was situated in the centre of a vast residential complex in the south part of the enclosure. These buildings have disappeared today, but the written English documents from the 15th century allow us to imagine what they looked like. But their precise location will only be able to be given after a complete excavation of the area. The English occupation of the castle, which starts in 1418, launches a new phase of defensive improvements, along with the construction of additional buildings for the new administrators of the town and the viscountcy. Cannon-ports are made in the ramparts to adapt the castle to new techniques of war.
In France, the 16th century is heavily marked by the Religious Wars and the decline of the religious institutions. The crowning of Henri IV, protestant king of France, will cause a series of conflicts in Normandy, as in the rest of the country. The town of Falaise, particularly hostile towards the new king, undergoes a brief but severe siege led by the monarch himself.
In January 1590, the royal army destroys the western wall of the castle, “with 400 cannon shots”: the old ramparts have no effectiveness faced with modern artillery. A few days later, the catholic governor of Falaise gives himself up; advances in artillery warfare demonstrated the inevitable demise of the medieval castle as the ultimate defence. The decline of the stronghold is confirmed, the keeps are abandoned and the buildings deteriorate.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, the town experiences a general economic development. Beautiful private mansions are built, along with the present town hall; the gates of the town, symbols of the medieval defences, are knocked down except one of them. Falaise is modernized: new roads are built and new urban spaces are created.
On the eve of the French Revolution, the town has 15,000 inhabitants.
The ditches of the castle are progressively filled in during the 18th century.
The roofs and floors of the square keeps cave in and disappear; one wants to knock them down, but the cost of the work is so great the idea is abandoned. In 1790, the building is intended to be used for administrative functions. The neo-classic arcade is raised in the vestibule of the viscount’s lodging and finally, it is a school that is built. The chapel of the lower ward is partially destroyed.
The keeps are abandoned.
It will not be until 1840, in the spirit of a general acknowledgement of ancient monuments and by the will of the first “ministre des Beaux-Arts”, Prosper Mérimée, that the castle is listed as a national heritage monument. Thanks to this first restoration, the surrounding walls and the keeps of the castle are saved.
But the damage of time and the destruction caused by the last war necessitate new renovations. That the reason why, in the 1980s, the state and the town of Falaise (owner of the castle) develop a vast programme for the restoration of the keeps. Since 1996, a reception building has been created and the upper ward leading to the keeps has been restored. Now, the restoration of the surrounding walls needs to be undertaken.
Ducal residence, royal residence, symbol of central political power during centuries, the castle then sunk into oblivion for a long time. Today, it is reborn for the memory, and the pleasure of visitors.
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