At the dawn of the second millennium, the first incarnation of the Château de Fougères was built to defend the north-eastern border of the Duchy of Brittany, the Breton Marches. This primitive fortress, located at the crossroads of several major trade routes, was intended to keep watch over the Duchy's powerful neighbours and prevent any incursions into Breton territory. To the north, Normandy was united with the Kingdom of England, and very keen on further continental expansion. To the east, Anjou and Maine were under the aegis of the King of France, determined to establish his authority over his whole kingdom.
Fougères was therefore a crucial component of the Duchy's border defence system. Over the next five centuries, the castle would be the focal point of near constant power struggles. As battles raged and lords of the castle came and went, the fortifications were continuously upgraded: successive building campaigns transformed the Fougères into a formidable fortress, built to withstand sieges using the latest technologies of the day.
Over a thousand years after its foundation, the Château de Fougères is remarkably well-preserved. As the largest medieval fortress in Europe to survive in such good condition, the castle provides a fascinating insight into the evolution of building techniques during the High Middle Ages. But Fougères is more than that: the castle bears witness to the epic struggles which shaped the history of the Breton Marches, the Duchy of Brittany and the Kingdom of France.
From wood to stone - five centuries of construction
Le site - The castle in the year 1000
From the outset, Fougères stood apart from other feudal-era constructions on account of its location. In the heart of the narrow Nançon Valley, surrounded by hills and plateaux, the first wooden "motte and bailey castle" was built in the early 11th century. The rulers of the day selected this location because of the rocky outcrop which offered a certain degree of protection, standing tall over the river and surrounding marshland. The foundations of the Château de Fougères were laid in a meander. In the 12th century, the first stone houses were built within the wooden defensive walls.
1166 - The first stone castle
In the late 12th century, King Henry II of England arrived in Normandy with a sizeable army. They promptly reduced the Château de Fougères to a smoking pile of ruins. Baron Raoul II, leader of the aristocratic resistance to the English raids, suffered the full force of his neighbours' military might. Far from giving up, in 1176 he embarked upon the first major rebuilding campaign. The castle was rebuilt, this time in stone. The majority of the new fortifications were built in schist, a cheap stone mined from the surrounding hills. Granite, more solid but also more expensive, was used for the most sensitive areas: doors, windows, the bases of the towers and walls. The castle's distinctive crescent shape was dictated by the lay of the surrounding land. The first defensive keep, the Gobelins Tower, was built shortly after. The rectangular gate towers of Coëtlogon and Saint-Hilaire also date back to this period.
13th Century - the first line of fortifications
The descendants of Raoul II de Fougères, and thereafter the Lords of Lusignan, made significant additions to the castle. The main focus of this work was to reinforce the castle's defensive structures.
The castle was made up of three main sections, with three courtyards each serving a different function. The first was the barbican. The two gate towers were the only points through which attackers could enter the castle, and they could thus be trapped and contained in the square formed by the circular towers and the curtain walls. The ditch in this courtyard also served to slow down would-be assailants. The main gate was protected by a heavy portcullis and solid wooden grilles. A retractable drawbridge, also made of wood, was used to span the Nançon, which served as a moat for the Saint-Hilaire Tower. The bridge could be removed or destroyed in the event of an attack.
The circular Hallaye, Guémadeuc and Coigny Towers bear witness to the evolution of architectural techniques: square towers were replaced with round ones to allow for 360° defensive surveillance with no blind spots. Round towers also offered greater resistance to siege engines.
The 14th century: the outer ward, the curtain walls and the Mélusine Tower
Around 1350 the Château de Fougères came into the possession of the Count of Alençon, brother of the King of France. Further construction work was undertaken, for aesthetic as well as defensive purposes. The castle's outer ward was much altered by this work.
This space, protected by the outer walls, was the theatre of day-to-day life in the medieval period. It also provided a place of refuge for the civilian population in times of war. The outer ward was also home to the castle's key military resources (stables, forges, barracks, grain storehouses) as well as the manor house. Marie d’Alençon, widow of Count Charles II and mother of his successor Pierre, commissioned a huge programme of renovations on the manor house: the ceremonial hall and chapel were fitted out to reflect the wealth and power of the lords of the castle. Unfortunately, few traces of these interior renovations have survived, with just the occasional hint of the manor's former glory.
Pierre II and his son Jean I would continue adding to the Château de Fougères until the early 15th century. The ramparts were made taller and thicker, and the second keep (the wonderful Mélusine Tower) was built. In later years this building work was wrongly attributed to the Lusignan family.
15th Century: Major additions by the Dukes of Brittany
The castle came into the possession of the Duke of Brittany in the 1430s. As a key component in his border defences, the Château de Fougères was once again expanded and embellished. The postern and Ambroise Tower date from this period. After the town was successfully captured by François de Surienne in 1449, the Duke commissioned more repair work. In order to strengthen the defences on the south side, and adapt to the widespread use of cannons in siege warfare, the imposing Raoul and Surienne Towers were constructed, two magnificent examples of late-medieval artillery towers.
The end of the Middle Ages - destruction and modification
In 1515 Claude de Bretagne, Duchess of Brittany, married King François I of France. In 1532 Brittany officially became part of the Kingdom of France, putting an end to centuries of rivalry and war. With Brittany now part of France, the Breton Marches were no longer a frontier zone and the Château de Fougères lost its strategic interest. During the Ancien Régime era the castle saw a succession of military governors, some of whom showed little interest in its conservation. But the castle was built to last and its military fortifications stood firm, making it difficult to use the space for anything else. In the late 18th century the castle was turned into a prison. The owner in this period was the Baron Pommereul. In the 19th century the outer ward became an immense landscaped garden. A museum was established in the Mélusine Tower. During the Industrial Revolution, a shoe factory set up shop in the castle grounds. This was a sign of the times: Fougères was a thriving hub of industry, and not even the old castle was safe from the spread of factories.
Restoration and opening to the public
The City of Fougères took ownership of the Château in 1892. It had been a listed Historical Monument since 1862. A major campaign was launched to clean up the castle walls. While the castle had retained many of its original features, some of the curtain walls needed to be cleared and certain sections required major repairs. The changes made in the 18th century were "reversed," and the castle was finally open to visitors. The first campaign of archaeological excavations, conducted in 1925, unearthed the ruins of the manor house.
Since then, the Château de Fougères has welcomed tens of thousands of visitors every year. The castle's excellent state of conservation, and the historical interest of its architecture, make Fougères an invaluable window onto the Middle Ages. From great lords to simple builders, generations of inhabitants have left their mark on these walls.