High on a chalk cliff, above the River Seine sits a castle that was once the residence of a king of Scotland.
My first sight of this castle took my breath away. Its crumbling white walls held a touch of magic and mystery. Exploration was a must – and I was fascinated to discover some Scottish connections.
David, the infant son of Robert the Bruce, began an eight-year period of exile here, along with his child wife – Joan of The Tower, sister to Edward III. David’s sisters, Margaret and Mathilda, accompanied them on the dangerous journey. After a staggering loss to the English at the battle of Halidon Hill in 1333, it was far too dangerous for the royal household to remain in Scotland. Exile – the only option!
Can you imagine what that flight from familiar shores to a foreign land must have been like? These youngsters had experienced the loss of their mother and father during a tumultuous time indeed, and now faced life in a strange castle in a far-off land. In Anglo-Norman Britain at that time, they would have been familiar with the language but meeting the French king for the first time must have been a daunting experience. Phillip VI offered the Scottish royal family sanctuary, another solid link in the connecting chain of the Auld Alliance between Scotland and France.
But what of this castle and the land of Normandy?
Had the Vikings looked up on their way to ravage Paris, they would have seen little bar smoke rising from a collection of thatched hovels – now the bustling villages, upper and lower, of Les Andelys – which nestled in the folds of the hills. No doubt the villagers soon learned to dowse their hearths and scramble into the forest until danger had passed – if they were lucky…
It was Richard the Lionheart who saw the strategic potential of the landscape. At the end of the 12th century, a bevy of stone masons arrived to begin carving out huge blocks of chalk from the hillside. In record time the dramatic profile of towers and walls took shape, above the bend in the river.
Richard boasted that he could defend this position even if the castle was made of butter, a claim which was put to the test on many an occasion. Sadly, the fact that chalk could easily be undermined by sappers in a siege meant the castle was vulnerable to attack. Fortunately, the use of three enclosures, separated by dry moats, added to the security. Though it was Richard’s favourite residence in Normandy, he spent little time there, dying a few years later from an infected arrow wound to his shoulder, caught whilst besieging another castle in France.
Eventually, Chateau Gaillard was regained by the French.
Fast forward to early 14th century, the chateau became a prison for two of the wives of the French royal family who were charged with adultery in the Tour de Nesle affair. Their alleged partners were tortured and executed. The women, Margaret and Blanche of Burgundy, had their heads shaved and were locked away indefinitely. Such philandering could not be tolerated, potentially sabotaging the veracity of the royal lineage.
When the Scottish contingent arrived, they must have breathed a sigh of relief to be safe from their English enemies. As David grew into adolescence, he must have absorbed the French way of life and its customs. Keeping Scottish traditions alive in a foreign court would have come down to the accompanying adults. But to be exiled from one’s own country for so long must have been a confusing experience for this Scottish lad, especially trying to find his own identity, over-shadowed by the exploits of such a famous and revered parent.
David went on to fight for the French king in a battle in France, before returning to Scotland in a bid to take back his crown. Shortly after, he was captured in England at the Battle of Neville’s Cross near Durham, and endured eleven years of incarceration in the Tower of London.
I wonder if he ever yearned for the freedom of Chateau Gaillard and his youth in France.