article | Reading time6 min

History of the castle of Villers-Cotterêts

gravure du parc et du château de Villers-Cotterêts époque Renaissance

High place of the French history and architecture, the royal castle of Villers-Cotterêts knew a tumultuous history. Let us go up the thread of time...

A royal destiny

A castle dear to François I

The fame of the Retz forest, in the Aisne, does not date from yesterday. In 632, Dagobert I was already hunting there! The kings who succeeded him also appreciated its wealth of game and built an unpretentious residence there.

The great history of the castle only really begins with the future François I, who receives from his cousin King Louis XII the duchy of Valois and the castle when he is only 3 years old!

In 1528, a few years after his heavy defeat at Pavia in Italy, the sovereign launched a series of construction projects, from the Louvre, which he enlarged, to the castle at Fontainebleau, which he built.

To indulge in his favorite activity, hunting, a symbol of the elite, he built a royal palace in the middle of the Retz forest, the largest in France at the time.

Villers-Cotterêts, then a modest village, also had the advantage of being the geographical heart of the Duchy of Valois, the dynasty from which Francis I came.

Portrait of François 1er, King of France, by Jean Clouet
Portrait of François 1er, King of France, by Jean Clouet

© RMN - Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre) / Michel Urtado

One of the few royal residences in Picardy

With its rich decoration, the imposing castle rivals the most beautiful achievements of its time.

A masterpiece of Renaissance architecture, the chapel was the first in France to break with the Gothic tradition. As a sign of monarchic power, the king's emblems (salamander, fleur-de-lis and crowned initials) replaced Christian symbols in this place of prayer.

Over time, the great names of architecture worked in Villers-Cotterêts, from Philibert Delorme (1514-1570), the first architect of King Henry II who participated in the construction of the Louvre, to André Le Nôtre (1613-1700), the famous gardener of Versailles who transformed the park at the request of Philippe d'Orléans, brother of Louis XIV.

Drawing of the Château de Villers-Cotterêts on a wooden panel
Drawing of the Château de Villers-Cotterêts on a wooden panel

© David Bordes / CMN

Villers-Cotterêts, beating heart of the kingdom of France

Loved by the kings of France, in particular Henry II who hunted deer there for seven or eight hours at a time, Villers-Cotterêts became a sort of ephemeral capital of the kingdom where politics were decided.

In 1539, François I signed a historic decree imposing the French language in administrative and legal acts.

Henry II also made important political decisions there.

These stays irrigated the whole economy of the region. Merchants, farmers, innkeepers and craftsmen were called upon to feed and serve the court and its prestigious guests.

During a single stay of François II, no less than "219 poulletz and pigons", 10 pigs, "twelve tourtezelles" and 94 capons were ordered!

Stone sculpture of a salamander
Stone sculpture of a salamander

© Pierre-Olivier Deschamps - Agence Vu' / Centre des monuments nationaux

"Having fun as in Villers-Cotterêts": the "Mon Plaisir" castle parties

If the castle is the seat of the economic and political activity of the country during the stays of the kings, it is also the theater of festivals. " Mon Plaisir", the nickname that François I would have given to the castle, is revealing!

These festivities and the local festivals of the following centuries gave rise to the saying that was born in the 19th century: " have fun as in Villers-Cotterêts ".

The Orléans, who received the castle as an apanage from Louis XIV in 1661, led a life of games, conversations and receptions.

Louis XIV stayed there several times, including once for a masked ball in 1680.

The Regent, Philippe II of Orleans, organizes a party for the coronation of Louis XV where 1 000 guests swallow 80 000 bottles of wine of Burgundy and Champagne and applaud 140 actors of the Opera.

Painting representing a ball in a room of the castle
Painting on canvas, Bal à la Cour des Valois, 1580

© MBA, Rennes, Dist. RMN - Grand Palais / Jean-Manuel Salingue

Decadence and rebirth

From royal splendor to beggars

The turbulences of the Revolution sound the knell of the glory of the castle, seized as national property in 1790. History then accelerated, and the demolitions with it.

A barracks of the Republican army was briefly installed there in 1789, then a begging depot in 1808 for the poor of the department of the Seine, which at the time covered a small part of the present-day Île-de-France (Paris and the neighboring communes within a radius of about ten kilometers).

In order to accommodate up to 1,800 recluses, work was ordered that would degrade part of the sumptuous architecture of the past.

Refectories, infirmaries and dormitories were built, such as the men's dormitory in Louis-Philippe's former theater, or the dormitory for infirm women in the former royal chapel. The walls were knocked down to create large rooms to facilitate surveillance. Similarly, bars and fences were attached to the windows to discourage escapees and prevent accidents.

The castle will then become a retirement home from 1889 to 2014.

Villers-Cotterêts retirement home, main courtyard
Villers-Cotterêts retirement home, main courtyard

© Reproduction Benjamin Gavaudo / CMN

A castle miraculously saved from the Great War

Villers-Cotterêts had a front row seat when the First World War was declared. Close to the front line, the town was taken over by the army health service, which set up a military hospital in the former royal castle and its grounds. On July 18, 1918, the artillery thundered. We are in the heart of the second battle of the Marne.

Lurking in the forest of Retz, the Allies decided to attack the German counter-offensive after their defeat on the Chemin des Dames, from Villers-Cotterêts with General Mangin's 10th Army.

In this fierce confrontation, the castle emerged almost unscathed except for its western wing which was partially destroyed and its roof damaged by shell impacts. The war damage document mentions only a few broken windows, a handful of missing light bulbs, the tearing out of a dormer window on the second floor and the destruction of the ceiling of the corridor in front of the chapel.

View of the Cour des Offices before restoration
View of the Cour des Offices before restoration

© Benjamin Gavaudo / Centre des monuments nationaux

A new future for the castle

According to the wishes of the President of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron, the monument will become, at the end of a major restoration campaign, the Cité internationale de la langue française.

Assigned to the Center for National Monuments, which manages about a hundred monuments throughout France, the work will create a permanent tour that will invite visitors on a journey through the French language and the French-speaking world.

Open to all, the site will be animated by a multidisciplinary program of exhibitions and shows.

Artists, researchers and entrepreneurs will be welcomed in residence, along with training and awareness activities in French, educational workshops and a "laboratory" for research and innovation on linguistic issues.

View of the Cour des Offices worksite
View of the Cour des Offices worksite

© Centre des monuments nationaux

Souvenir of the castle before restoration

Would you like to discover the castle as it was before the restoration work began? Follow the YouTubeur Mamytwink in his nocturnal exploration in the heart of the monument, in January 2020!

Exploring the abandoned château

video | Reading time19 min

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