Situated in the picturesque Essone department in the Île de France, the sleepy town of Montlhéry is the very essence of French village charm. Anyone making their way to Montlhéry may be forgiven for being unaware that this idyllic spot for centuries had been the location of some of the most violent episodes in French history.
Standing on a fairly high hill (well, fairly high for the Île de France) is the tower of Montlhéry. Apart from some ruins, this tower is all that remains of the once formable castle that was overlooked the area. It’s a powerful reminder of the history that has infused this landscape.
Once a massive fortification – the remaining ruins give a sense of the scale of how large this castle once was. Like many of the towns that dot the area, Montlhéry developed and grew due to the importance of its strategic layout; in this case on the route between Paris and Orléans which represented the practical limits of royal political power.
Until the middle of the 8th century, Montlhéry was owned by the bishops of Reims when in 768 it was given to the Abbey of St Denis. Because of its location, it was the scene of numerous battles between the Capetian monarchy as it embarked on a program of asserting and expanding the royal domain and the nobles who, not surprisingly, were not too keen on the expanse of royal power, since in the zero-sum game of 10th century power politics, the crown’s gain was very much the nobility’s loss.
At 15 miles from Paris, Montlhéry was in a perfect position to be a source of discomfort to the monarchy.
According to Abbot Suger, Philippe I was overheard to say to his son, the future Louis VII that control of Montlhéry was vital to the interests of the crown because the “wickedness and disloyal plottings of its owner meant that I have never had a moments peace and quiet” (VLG, 38). Louis took his father’s advice to heart and spent a great deal of his reign trying to bring the baron on Montlhéry to heel.
During the 15th century, Montlhéry was one of the focal points of the Hundred Years War when it was the scene of the defeat of Louis XI by the Burgundian duke, Charles the Bold at the Battle of Montlhéry in 1465. The town suffered further devastation in the 1500s when it was left in ruins by the Wars of Religion, although it was quickly rebuilt by Henri IV.
A visit to the tower alone is worth the 30 or so minute trip to Montlhéry, but I cannot recommend enough to take some time and just wander through the town itself.
One of the jewels of the town is the small stone portal from the Hôtel de Dieu established by Louis VII, in 1149,
on his return from the 2nd Crusade to care for lepers. Sadly, the entire building has disappeared, but the remaining portals are a tantalizing reminder of the importance of the town to the French monarchy.
With its remaining town gates leading into the French countryside and its ruined tower dominating the landscape, Montlhéry is a perfect destination for anyone looking to explore a little further afield from traditional Paris hotspots.