Napoleon Series Discussion Forum

Chateau du Vincennes

Dear All,

As I mentioned in a previous post, I recently went on another research trip/holiday to Paris and thought members might like to hear about my visit to the Chateau du Vincennes.

Strangely some guidebooks imply that it is difficult to reach from Paris. Trust me - it isn't. Buses are available from the Gare du Lyon and it is the last stop on Line 1 (yellow) of the Metro and travellers don't even need an extension for the standard inner zones tickets. Chateau du Vincennes Metro stop is directly outside the castle (as you would expect) and the statue I'm about to mention is also only 5-10 minutes walk away. Getting there by car should also present few difficulties.

The chateau is a marvellous site and is the French equivalent of the Tower of London in many ways with a history dating back to the medieval period. It has been used as a royal residence, hunting lodge, fortress and prison. At least three French kings died here along with Henry V (of England) whose body was preserved before being sent back to London. It is a very large site with eight large towers along the curtain wall and a massive 50 metre tall four towered keep. This is surrounded by a square stone lined moat and roofed parapet wall. Used many times as a prison, it retains many cell doors and bars on the windows, probably because they were too difficult to remove. A local noble narrowly dissuaded a huge Revolutionary mob from trying to destroy the chateau because it was seen as a symbol of tyranny second only to the Bastille. The Royal Chapel is quite wonderful being large and ornate with an incredible round rose window. It has a gallery that the public can access via stairs (no disabled access yet) and is worth the trip in itself.

Yet I expect that most of you will have heard of Chateau Vincennes due to the execution of the Duke d'Enghien, which took place there on 20 March 1804. One of Napoleon's few calamitous political errors, his official kidnap from Baden, swift trial and execution were in retaliation for attempts on the life of First Consul Bonaparte. Domestically it helped deter further attempts but internationally it was a disaster since no direct links with the duke and assassination attempts were established (although he admitted to conspiring with enemies of France). Consequently, many considered him innocent and he became a martyr for the Royalist cause. Fouche commented that this act was 'Not just a crime but a mistake.' In my view, Napoleon should have reprieved the death sentence and imprisoned him. To this day, allegations about who was truly responsible for this ruthless act rage and there is evidence that Talleyrand tried to cover up his role in the affair. Ultimately, Napoleon took the bulk of the blame as head of state.

His place of execution is now marked by a small monument - a stone pillar with a plaque and he was initially buried at the spot where he was shot by firing squad. Although I knew he had been disinterred and reburied during the Restoration, I had encountered difficulties in finding exactly where this was during research. Therefore, I was very pleased to discover his tomb in the Royal Chapel of Vincennes 'hidden' in the north oratory. Napoleon III had the tomb moved here from a previous more prominent position in the chapel hoping to distract attention from the event that damaged his uncle's government so badly. It is an imposing tomb with four allegorical statues representing France, Crime, the Church and the Duke d'Enghien himself. Sculpted by Louis-André Deseine it is well worth a photograph. It is best to exit the chateau to photograph his execution monument but there is no access to the moat itself, which is 20-30ft deep and the best vantage point is rather distant even with a telephoto lens. Nevertheless, I noticed two people on the same mission as myself during my brief walk there and back so it seems the duke is far from forgotten.

The other interesting incident for our period is the defence of the chateau during the Battle of Paris 1814 (an event that is often ignored by historians or quickly glossed over). General Daumesnil, who had lost a leg at Wagram 1809, held the chateau with a garrison of at least 300 men. Although the Allies had a vast army for their attack on Paris, they took one look at the chateau and deemed it too tough a nut to crack. Previously Napoleon had reduced the height of the curtain wall towers to adapt them for modern artillery and made the chateau an arsenal.

It lay on the extreme right of the French defensive line and, since the Allies wanted the munitions held within, they offered Daumesnil generous surrender terms. Indicating his wooden prosthesis he famously responded 'I will surrender the castle when you return me my leg.' Subsequently the Allies simply masked the chateau but Daumesnil refused to surrender the fortress until he received a direct order from Louis XVIII to do so. There is a statue before Vincennes Hotel de Ville (town hall) of Daumesnil pointing to his wooden leg and delivering his defiant words. It is an unusual statue and well worth photographing.

I have only briefly explored the history of Chateau Vincennes and could also go into great detail about its famous prisoners (including the Marquis de Sade) and the graffiti and paintings they made on their cell walls. Napoleon III continued to use it as a prison and the Germans imprisoned and later shot a number of French resistance fighters and spies in the moat towards the end of the Second World War. The site is a historians paradise in many ways and well worth visiting next time you are in Paris.

I hope that was of interest.

Regards,

David

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