The fortress guarding the gateway to Brittany
At the turn of the first millennium, a first château was built in Fougères to defend the north-eastern part of the Duchy of Brittany’s border area, known as the Brittany Marches. This main objective of this early stronghold, located at the crossroads of important trade routes, was to keep a close watch on powerful neighbours and prevent incursions into Brittany. Normandy, to the north, belonged to the kings of England who were eager to expand over the continent. To the east, Anjou and Maine were under the control of the kings of France, whose ambition was to dominate the entire kingdom.
Fougères was therefore a pivotal element of the defence system on the Duchy’s borders. Over the course of five centuries, the castle lay at the heart of an intensive power struggle. With battle following battle and a succession of lords, the stronghold was constantly improved: various building programmes turned it into a machine for warfare able to withstand sieges and built according to the most advanced techniques of each era.
After almost a thousand years of existence, the Castle of Fougères is visually unchanged. The largest medieval fortress in Europe in this state of preservation, the castle is an amalgam of the building principles of the second half of the Middle Ages. But more than that, it bears witness to the great struggles and sagas that forged the history of the Marches, of the Duchy of Brittany and of France.
In wood and stone, five centuries of construction
The site – The castle in the year 1000
From the very beginning, Fougères stood out from other feudal buildings by its location. A first wooden castle, of a type known as a motte-and-bailey castle, was built in the narrow Nançon Valley, encircled by hills and the surrounding plateau, around the 11th century. The lords of the time chose this location for the strategic advantage it presented, with a small rocky spur for height, and protection afforded by the surrounding marshes fed by the river. They built the embryo of the present fortress in a meander of the river. In the 12th century, the first stone dwellings stood alongside wooden defensive structures.
1166 – The stone castle
At the end of the 12th century, Henry II, King of England, led his army to Normandy and attacked the castle, literally burning it to the ground. Baron Raoul II, leader amongst the local nobles of the resistance against English raids on the Marches, had been subjected to the monarch’s fierce anger. Far from being discouraged, he began the first major reconstruction in 1176. The castle was rebuilt in stone.
The neighbouring hills provided shale, an economical and conveniently local stone, for most of the fortifications. Granite, harder but more expensive, was used for the more fragile parts: doors, windows, and the base of towers and walls. The distinctive crescent-shaped plan was adopted to fit the layout of the land. A first keep, the Tour des Gobelins, was built shortly afterwards. The quadrangular gate towers, Coëtlogon and Saint-Hilaire, also date from this period.
The 13th century – The castle’s first courtyard
The descendants of Raoul II of Fougères and the Lords of Lusignan who followed them made significant improvements to the castle. The objective of the work undertaken was to defend and strengthen existing fortifications.
The castle was composed of three large ensembles, three courtyards, each of which had a specific function. The first was to ward off advances. The two gate towers were the only points where attackers could pass; they would then be trapped in the quadrangle formed by the circular towers and curtain walls. The trench running through it prevented them from advancing. The main gate was protected by a heavy portcullis and strong wooden panels. A drawbridge, also made of wood, spanned the River Nançon, which formed a moat in front of the Tour Saint-Hilaire. It could be removed or destroyed in the event of an attack.
The circular towers, Hallaye, Guémadeuc and Coigny, present evidence of architectural progress: right angles were replaced by complete circles, eliminating blind spots for surveillance and shooting, as well as making the constructions more resistant to war machines.
The 14th century: the bailey, the curtain walls and the Tour Mélusine
Around 1350, the castle belonged to the Count of Alençon, the King of France’s brother. New buildings were added to embellish and protect it. The castle’s second courtyard, the lower bailey, was very much marked by this work.
This vast area inside the ramparts was the main area in medieval everyday life. It was also a place of refuge for the population in times of war. It housed all the facilities necessary for military operations (stables, forges, barracks, granaries), as well as the lord’s private residence. Marie d’Alençon, Count Charles II’s widow and mother of Peter, his heir, undertook an extensive programme in the dwelling: the large reception hall and the chapel were designed to display the wealth and power of the lords. Unfortunately, these constructions have now mostly disappeared and only traces remain.
Later on, Pierre II and his son Jean I continued making improvements until the early 15th century. The ramparts were raised and made wider and the second keep, the fantastic Tour Mélusine, was erected. Over the centuries, this achievement became wrongly attributed to the Lusignan family.
Major construction work by the Dukes of Brittany
In the 1430s, the Dukes of Brittany acquired the fortress. As a key element in defending the borders, the castle once again underwent extensive work. They were responsible for the Poterne and the Tours d’Amboise.
After the city was captured by Surienne in 1449, they had repairs carried out. One of their main achievements was the construction of the impressive Tour Raoul and Tour Surienne, magnificent examples of artillery towers of the late medieval period, with the aim of improving the defences on the southern side, and in response to the development of firearms.
The end of the medieval era – destruction and modification
In 1532, the marriage of Claude of Brittany, daughter of the Duchess Anne, to François I, King of France, put an end to several centuries of cupidity and struggle. With the Duchy now belonging to the kingdom, the Marches lost their strategic interest, as did the fortress in Fougères. Throughout the Ancien Régime, it passed through the hands of several military governors, who sometimes showed little concern for preserving it.
However, the château was built to last, and its military architectural features endured, sometimes at the expense of the residential areas. At the end of the 18th century, the castle was even turned into a prison. Baron Pommereul was the owner. In the 19th century, the vast bailey became a huge pleasure garden. A museum was installed in the Tour Melusine. During the Industrial Revolution, a shoe factory was established within the castle. Reflecting the times, Fougères was now an industrial hub and the fortress played its part in this manufacturing boom.
Restoration and opening to the public
In 1892, the town council acquired the castle. It has been a listed building since 1862. Large-scale clean-up campaigns were carried out at the time. Although the building largely retained its original appearance, some of the curtain walls needed to be cleared and sections of the walls rebuilt. The 18th century alterations were removed and the castle was opened to visitors.
The first archaeological excavations in 1925 revealed the ruins of the dwelling. The castle hosted museum collections and, from 2009, an interactive tour. Today, several thousand people visit the castle each year.
Its high quality of conservation and exemplary construction make this an ideal place to learn all about the Middle Ages. The castle is a moving testimony to all the people, major historical figures and simple builders alike, who have passed through it.