During one of my last trips to Paris, I decided that I would approach my travel in a thematic way. And so, I took the opportunity to explore some of the lesser known castles and fortresses around the Île de France. I was thrilled that a considerable number of them still survived, though most were in states in disrepair. And even in their ruined state, these castles evoke a powerful connection to the glories of France’s medieval past that is largely unknown to North American travellers and historians.
One of the castles I visited during my trip was the former Château de Beynes which is a short 40 minute or so trip by the RER (Paris’ inter rail system). It sits just outside the Île de France in the department of Yvelines.
The château was originally built in late 11th century and formed one of the castles that ringed the Île de France as a protective wall, in case, it was meant as a defense against the Normans. During the Hundred Years War, it remained largely in the hands of the English. At the end of the Hundred Years War, the castle was turned into a residence in 1450 and by the mid 16th century, it was one of the many residences that Henri II gave to his favourite mistress Diane de Poitiers. This was the high water mark for the structure which fell into disuse by the 18th century and as is the fate for so many buildings like this, it was pillaged by local villagers for its stone which can be found in the many of the houses of Beynes.
Currently, the castle is undergoing major restoration work, funded in part by the local historical society. I will always have a soft spot for the château. When I arrived on a cold damp Friday morning, I came across the work crew working on the restoration work. I didn’t see any signs telling me I couldn’t be there, but a busy work crew is usually sign enough that perhaps visitors should visit elsewhere.
But I really wanted to see the castle and didn’t know if I would be able to come back later. Asking one of the workers if I could visit, he responded that he didn’t know but would ask his foreman. The foreman said that normally the castle was closed during the week. I explained that I was a professor of medieval French history and that I was very interested in the castle.
The foreman, very kindly, at that point offered to let me explore the ruins while he gave a personal tour not just of the history and layout of the castle which alone was more than cool, but of the kind of work they were doing. This lasted more than 45 minutes.
I have to say it was a highlight of that trip. Make sure, no matter where you go, that you take the time to get to know the local people, it will make your travels so much more rich and rewarding.
While not involved with many major historical events, the château’s history is nonetheless a fascinating thread in the rich tapestry of French history and the historian or traveler interested in experiencing less well known history and culture will be rewarded for venturing out into the byways of the country side.