Cliff Castles and Cave Dwellings of Europe/Chapter VI

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Castles and Cave Dwellings of Europe by Sabine Baring-Gould
Chapter VI: Cliff Castles—Continued

CLIFF CASTLES—Continued

I took the third of the classes into which I have divided my subject of cliff castles, first of all; and now I shall take the others in the category.

The Seigneurs were not greatly, if at all, to be distinguished from the Captains of the routiers in their mode of life and in their fortresses, save only this, that the latter were elected by their followers, and the former were on their hereditary estates and could demand the services of their vassals. In the matter of scoundreldom there was not a pin to choose between them. But the routier chiefs were not tied to any one castle as their home; they shifted quarters from one rock to another, from one province to another as suited them, whereas the seigneur had his home that had belonged to his forefathers and which he hoped to transmit to his son.

I will give but an instance.

Archibald V. (1361-1397) was Count of Perigord. He was nominally under the lilies, but he pillaged indiscriminately in his county. Surrounded by adventurers he planted his men in castles about Perigord, and from that of La Rolphie "hung over the city like the sword of Damocles," menaced Perigueux. One little town after another was pillaged. He intercepted the merchants on the roads. At S. Laurent-du-Manoir his captains added outrage to injury, for they took all the women of the place, and cut off their skirts at the knees; and one who made strenuous resistance they killed.

In 1385, the Seneschal of Perigord, in the name of the King of France, ordered Archibald to desist from his acts of violence. When he refused, his lands were declared confiscated. But who was to bell the cat? He mocked at the sentence, and was roused to fresh incursions and pillages. At last in 1391 the Parliament acted, and summoned the Count to appear along with twenty-three of his accomplices before its bar "to answer for having overrun with his troops the suburbs of Perigueux; for having assaulted the city, and neighbouring places; for having wounded and killed a great many persons; for having incarcerated others to extort a ransom from them; for having, like common highwaymen, seized cattle, fired granges, mills, houses; and for having committed crimes so infamous, so ferocious, that one would feel pain to disclose them."

Archibald paid not the slightest regard to the summons or to the sentence pronounced against him in contumaciam. The law could not enforce its judgment, and six years later in 1397 he died. The King refused to recognise his son Archibald VI. as Count of Perigord, but Archibald disregarded the refusal, and openly sided with the English. He successfully resisted the troops sent against him, and continued in the same courses as his father. At last he was brought to bay in Montignac, where he was constrained to capitulate. He was sent to Charles VI., but effected his escape and fled to London in 1399. Thence he returned in 1404, and captured Auberoche, much about the time of the English victory at Agincourt. He died in undisturbed possession of his county of Perigord in 1430.

Few portions of France so lent itself to the requirements of the feudal tyrants of the Middle Ages, as they did also to those of the routiers, as the volcanic district of Auvergne. There the floods of lava that flowed from the volcanoes have formed caps to hills, with precipices on every side, cut through by the streams, that have separated portions from the main current. Every such peak or fragment of plateau was laid hold of by the seigneurs of old, as sites for their fortresses. From the number of these strongholds and the almost impregnable nature of most of them, the feudal tyrants of Auvergne were able to hold their own, long after the rest had been brought to their knees; and it was not until Richelieu with iron hand moved against them that their career of rapine and violence was curbed. Beginning in 1626, Richelieu ordered the demolition of all feudal fortresses that were not necessary for the defence of the frontiers, and which were a permanent menace to the King's authority, and an object of terror to town and country, and to the nobles afforded reminiscence of past lawlessness. The demolition was entrusted to the communes themselves. And in order to bring the culprits to speedy judgment, he renewed the institution of the Grand Jours; that of Poitiers in 1634 condemned over two hundred nobles convicted of exactions and crimes.

But it was impossible in many places, notably in Auvergne, for the communes to get hold of the castles and blow them up. There, for some thirty years longer, the seigneurs defied justice, and it was much the same elsewhere. On the 31st August 1665, the Grand Jours were announced for all the centre of France, but notice that they were to be held had been given so long before that the guilty were allowed plenty of time to escape out of the country, go into hiding or come to terms. Great were the expectations of the people. Right was at length to prevail over Might. The Day of Judgment was coming on the oppressors. The Mighty would be put down from their seat and the humble would be exalted in their room. A peasant wearing his cap before a noble, the latter knocked it off his head "Pick it up," said the peasant, "or the King will cut off your head." The seigneur obeyed.

But the result was disappointing. Only one noble had his head cut off. Few executions were carried into effect, many were on paper. One of the latter, a ruffian steeped in blood, defied the sentence and was banished. Fléchier in his amusing and instructive book, Les grands Jours d'Auvergne, has given us a dramatic account of the trial.

Every description of intrigue was had recourse to, in order to neutralise the effect of justice. The fair ladies of Clermont, les chats fourrés, as Fléchier calls them, did their utmost to reduce the severity of the judges. The Great Days lasted three months, and ended in disappointment. Many of the worst offenders, convicted of atrocious crimes, entered the Royal service and fought in the armies of the King.

But if justice spared the culprits, the opportunity was accorded to destroy their strongholds, and now little remains of these Towers of Iniquity but the foundations, and some fragments of their massive walls, which were generally constructed of basaltic prisms taken from the rock that sustained the castles, laid horizontally. "Puzzolana was mixed with the mortar used in these constructions, and without the binding quality communicated by this ingredient, probably no cement would have taken effect on the smooth a rid iron surfaces of the prisms."[1]

The King had indeed desired that greater severity should be used. He wrote to the judges: "You must manage to banish oppression and violence out of the provinces. You have begun well, and you must finish well." At the conclusion he had a medal struck representing a slave rising from the ground, under the protection of the sword of royalty, and with the expressive device, Salus provinciarum repressa potentorum audacia.

It was, however, rather the destruction of the nests than the punishment of the Vultures that effected the work.

The Marquis de Canillac, one of the worst, escaped into Spain. He had maintained twelve ruffians, whom he called his Apostles, who catechised with sword and rod all who rebelled against his exactions. He levied taxes on necessary articles of food, and when his vassals abstained from food he fined them for not eating. He allowed none to marry without paying into his hands half the dot of the bride. His kinsman, the Vicomte Lamotte-Canillac, was the one culprit executed.

The river Vézère, opposite to the prehistoric caves of Moustier, makes a sudden bend about a wall of chalk 300 feet high and 1500 feet long. "Of all the rocks that have served for the habitation of man, this is the most striking for its dimensions and for the number of habitations it contained, if one may give that name to the excavations which the hand of man has appropriated to his use. Staircases were carved in the rock, carried half-way up the height, to where the cliff has been excavated, its recesses enlarged and divided into compartments."[2]

This bluff is called La Roche S. Christophe. It arrests attention at once, for half-way up it is furrowed horizontally as though worked by a giant's tool. If the visitor approaches the cliff, he will find that the masses of rock that have fallen from above, as well as others that have formed spurs, have been extensively worked to form town walls, gateways, a church, a monastery, and dwelling-houses.

One gateway, bored through the rock, has a guard-room or sentinel's watch-chamber scooped out of a pinnacle. But not a roof remains, not a living soul is to be seen in the street, not a huxter's stall in the market-place, only tiles strewn about and white rocks blackened with smoke show that man lived there.

By a flight of stairs cut in the rock, the visitor can ascend to the furrow in the face of the cliff, and there he finds that the whole has been elaborately utilised. There are chambers excavated in the chalk that were formerly closed by wood partitions, with recesses for beds, cupboards, seats—clearly the bedrooms of ladies. The grooves into which the planks were fitted can be made out. Doors were fitted into rocky rebates to move on their hinges, the hinges being round prolongations of the door frame turning in holes sunk in floor and roof. The kitchen is there, the bakehouse with its oven; the guard-room with its benches for the troopers, cisterns, store-chambers, closets, cellars, a chapel, and the latrines. All but the last are on a level in one long row, with the cliff descending precipitately from the gallery that precedes the apartments and gave communication between them and which, in part, had been widened by means of a wooden balcony and railing. The chapel, if that be the walled structure in a hole of the rock, is now inaccessible. Its destination is uncertain. The peasants so designate it.

Fragments of earthenware vessels and of tiles lie on the floors. I could find nothing else.

Above the principal gallery are others of less importance that can only be reached from the top of the cliff.

This Roche Saint Christophe has a history. It was first fortified by Frotarius de Gourdon to resist the incursions of the Northmen. He was assassinated at Mourcinez in Coursac in 991. There was a priory in the town below, mention of which is found in a charter of 1187.

The remarkable range of chambers and structures in the face of the precipice formed the castle of the family of Laroque. It was a worthy family, greatly respected in the neighbourhood, and loyal to the crown of France. The seigneur was the protector of the little town that lay below.

On Passion Sunday, 1401, the townsfolk and the occupants of the castle were gathered in the church, when a cry was raised that the enemy had swarmed over the walls and were in the town. Adhémar de Laroque was the seigneur at the time. He hastened from the church, but already the street was full of English, and escape to his castle was cut off, as they had secured the stair.

Adhémar had a personal enemy, one Jean Ducos, a kinsman of the Baron de Limeuil. These men, calculating that the garrison of La Roque would be off its guard on that holy day, arranged with the English garrison of the Rock of Tayac to surprise the town.

They came upon it unobserved, and breaking in, massacred the people and the guards; then ensued a general pillage, and a conflagration. Every house was fired after it had been ransacked, and the English Ribauds running along the platform with torches in their hands, applied the flame to everything combustible—doors, galleries, partitions, rafters —all blazed, and the only portion of the castle and town that was left unconsumed were the latrines, to which they did not consider it worth their pains to apply their torches.

From that day to this the town of La Roche Saint Christophe has been abandoned. No cottager has ventured to repair the ruined habitations for his own use; as the place is esteemed haunted, notably on the night of Passion Sunday, when a ghostly train of the dead is seen flickering in and out of the rocks and ruins by the light of the Easter moon.

But the castle was again tenanted for awhile by a band of Huguenots, who committed such depredations in the neighbourhood that on 30th March 1588, the Viscount of Aubeterre, Governor of Perigord issued orders— "as the enemies of the King occupying this Castle are doing incredible mischief to the poor folk of the neighbourhood," that they should be expelled and the castle be utterly destroyed.[3]

Quite as curious, and with a less tragic history is La Roche Gageac on the Dordogne, below Sarlat. "Ma chère patrie," wrote the old chronicler, Jean Tarde, "une petite ville bien close et très forte dépendant de la temporalité de l'evesque de Sarlet, la quelle ne fut jamais prinse par les Anglais."

The white Jurassic limestone dappled orange, fawn colour, and silver grey, rises 250 feet above the river, the lower portion is in terraces, very narrow, on which are the houses clinging to the rock, cramped between the Dordogne and the cliff which rises 140 to 160 feet above. The old houses are echeloned along the face of the rock, superposed the one on the other, calcined by the sun as they face south, and the rock behind cuts off all northern winds and reflects the glare of the southern sun. This explains the vegetable precocity of the spot, where wallflowers, cactus, roses, luxuriate. It would be too hot were it not for the abundant springs, and the proximity to the Dordogne down which a cool air is wafted.

The habitations are either partly or wholly caves, they do not reach half-way up the rock which overhangs to the west. In the face of the cliff are two castles built into its recesses, one pertained to the Bishop of Sarlat, and the other to the Fénélon family. Both were ideals of a stronghold in the Middle Ages, impossible to escalade or to undermine. In the fifteenth century La Roche Gageac was a walled town containing five châteaux of noble families, juxtaposed and independent of each other, although comprised within the same enclosure. Originally indeed all were under the Bishop of Sarlat, but the Popes had set the example of jobbery for the benefit of their sons and nephews, and the Bishops were not slow to follow the lead. One Bishop made over the principal castle to his brother as a hereditary feof, and others disposed of the rest for money down, so that by the second half of the sixteenth century the town had been dismembered. Although it had held out against the English, when thus broken up among several, it could not defend itself against the Calvinists, who took, burned and sacked it in 1574. They killed three Sarlat priests. It was retaken by the Royal troops in 1575, but it again fell into the hands of the Calvinists in 1588, and the wreckage of its ecclesiastical buildings dates from those two captures.

The principal castle, that which belonged to the Bishop of Sarlat, occupies one of the profound horizontal furrows in the face of the rock, that are so common in the limestone and chalk formations. It consists of three towers, two of which are square and one round, with curtains uniting them, and a gate-tower, to which a flight of steps cut in the rock gives access for a part of the way. But to reach this flight one has to mount by a series of posts serving as steps driven into sockets in the rock, with only here and there a sustaining iron bar. Below the structure are chambers, possibly prisons, but more probably store rooms dug out of the rock. In this castle one of the Bishops of Sarlat, in stormy times, lived continuously, and there died. How was his body carried down the stair? Probably it was lowered by ropes.

I cannot quit La Roche Gageac without a word on one of its most illustrious natives, Jean Tarde, born there in 1561 the friend of Galileo, and who, the first in France, five years after the great Florentine had begun to search the skies with his telescope, invented one year previously, erected his tube here at one of the openings of this eagle's nest, and during ten consecutive years pursued his astronomic studies. He was a remarkable man in many ways. He was the first to map his native Perigord, and the first to write a chronicle of the diocese of Sarlat, a valuable work for any who would compile a history of the Hundred Years' War, the first also to repudiate the accepted attribution of the dolmens as altars of sacrifice, and to indicate their true character as sepulchres. His account of the ravages committed by the Huguenots is also valuable. The year before his birth, in 1560, at Lalande, the Calvinists got into the town through a hole in the wall, killed the first Consul, the Vicar, and six other priests, and massacred a hundred of the inoffensive citizens. Sixty took refuge in the church. The Calvinists forced such as could to ransom their lives, and slaughtered such as were too poor to do this. He was but six or seven years old when the Huguenot captain, the Sieur d'Assier, took La Roque, "killing the priests and burning the churches." He was aged twelve when Captain Vivant took Sarlat, suppressed the bishopric, and killed three of the canons and several of the citizens. At La Chapelle- Faucher in 1569 the heretics drove 260 peasants into the castle and massacred them all. He was made Vicar-General to the Bishop of Sarlat, and it was after having made a tour of the diocese in 1594 that the idea occurred to him to write the history of his country and repair as far as possible the loss of so many of the archives that had been burnt. In 1599 he was made honorary chaplain to Henry IV., and in 1626 was published his Description du pais de Quercy. His history of Sarlat, after remaining in MS. was at length published in 1887, but only 150 copies were printed. Happily one is in the British Museum, and I possess another.

Gluges is on the Dordogne near Martel, where high up in the cliff, difficult of access, is the fortified cave-castle of Guillaume Taillefer, son of Raymond IV., Count of Toulouse, who was created Lord of Quercy in 972. Nearly on the level of the river is a cave half walled up, with traces of fresco on the walls, of course much later than the time of Taillefer. A modern house has been built on the platform that has been levelled, and much of the wall demolished; the upper fortified cave has an opening in the wall, pointed, of the thirteenth or fourteenth century. In much the same condition is another cliff castle in the rocks of the valley of the Alzou, between Grammat and Rocamadour, a little above the cascade of the mill Du Saut.

I have elsewhere[4] given an account of the curious castle of La Roche Lambert at Borne in Haute Loire, built in a basaltic cleft through which roars the river. It is the theatre of George Sand's novel, Jean de la Roche. "I may say without exaggeration that I was reared in a rock. The castle of my fathers is strangely incrusted into an excavation in a wall of basalt 500 feet high. The base of this wall, with that face to face with it, identically the same rock, forms a narrow and sinuous valley, through which winds and leaps an inoffensive torrent in impetuous cascades. The Château de la Roche is a nest of troglodytes, inasmuch as the whole flank of the rock we occupy is riddled with holes and irregular chambers which tradition points out as the residence of ancient savages, and which antiquaries do not hesitate to attribute to a prehistoric people.

"The castle of my fathers is planted high up on a ledge of rock, but so that the conical roofs of the tower just reach above the level of the plain. My mother having poor health, and having no other place to walk save one tiny platform before the castle on the edge of the abyss, took it into her head to create for herself a garden at the summit of the crag on which we were perched midway."

In Cantal at Roqueville are the remains of a castle excavated out of the rocks. Between Jung-Bunzlau and Böhm-Leipa in Bohemia is the rock- castle of Habichstein. Two lakes lie in a basin of the hills that are well-wooded up their sides, but have bare turfy crowns. The upper lake is studded with islands. Between this and the lower lake stands an extraordinary hump of sandstone, on a sloping talus. This hump has much resemblance to a Noah's Ark stranded on a diminutive Ararat. The rock is perforated in all directions with galleries and chambers, and contains a stable for horses and for cattle, which, however, is no longer accessible. On the summit of the rock rises a keep very much resembling a Pictish broch. Habichstein belongs to the Wallenstein family that possesses a stately schloss at the head of the upper lake. It has been abandoned for, probably, two hundred years, as it can never have been a comfortable residence; moreover, the sandstone is continually breaking away. Below the hill and castle is the village. In 1811 there was a fall of the rock, and again in 1815, when it crushed three of the houses beneath.

Another and still more curious cliff castle in Bohemia is that of Burgstein. There are several on the frontier of the Wargau and the Hardt in North Bohemia, where the German and Czech languages meet, but it is not possible here to describe them all. Burgstein is the most curious. It consists of an isolated mass of sandstone springing out of level land, an outlying block of the Schwoik chain. Formerly it rose out of a lake or marsh, but this is now drained. The entrance is through a narrow gap in the rock by a flight of steps that lead into a court on all sides surrounded by sheer precipices except towards the North-west, where a gap was closed by a wall. Out of this court open caves, one was formerly the smithy, another the guard-room, a third the stable, and in a recess is the well. From the court access to the main structure is obtained by a rift in the sandstone commanded by the guard-room, and up which ascends a stair of 15 steps that leads to a second rift at right angles, up which leads a further stair of 76 steps, and from the landing 37 descend to a lower portion of the rock, a platform with a breastwork of wall, important for defence of the entrance.

The steps lead to various chambers, and to an open court that looks out over the precipice, and has on one side scooped out of the rock a watchman's chamber, and on the other an armoury, where pilasters on each side supported shelves on which helmets and breastplates were laid; and beyond this is a guard-room. The summit of the rock has on it a lantern that lights an underground chapel, and formerly contained a bell, also a modern summer-house. As the rock was commanded from the south by a spur of the Schwoik range, when cannon were introduced, a new mode of access was devised on the north side, a passage in loops was constructed leading to the upper court. The castle called in Czech, Stolpna, or the pillar, is first mentioned in the fourteenth century. The great highroad to and from Böhmisch-Leipa passed near it, and it became the stronghold of a Raubritter, Mikisch Passzer of Smoyn, who became such a terror to the neighbourhood that the Sixtowns league of Lausitz in 1444 attacked it with 9000 men, broke down the dam that held back the water, and made of the rock an islet in a lake and constrained Mikisch to surrender. Soon after, however, he recommenced his lawless proceedings, and was again attacked in 1445, and after a siege that lasted five weeks, forced to quit his fortress. At the end of the seventeenth century Burgstein was converted into a hermitage and Brother Constantine, the first hermit, either enlarged or dug out the present chapel and built the lantern above, through which it obtains light. He did more, he carved a figure of himself looking through a telescope, life size, and planted on the summit of the rock. On the occasion of the Prussian invasion of Bohemia the image was assumed to be a spy, and the Germans fired at it and greatly damaged the figure, and were much puzzled at being unable to prostrate the dauntless spy. The present possessor of the rock castle has had the figure restored. Burgstein remained the abode of a hermit till 1785, when the reforming Joseph II. abolished all hermitages, and turned out every hermit in his dominions. And now, back to the Jura limestone again. A few words must be given to Kronmetz in Tirol, at the mouth of the Val di Non, opening into the Etschthal.

This castle belonged to the Bishops of Trient, and was intended by them to serve as a place of "ward and custody" against invading or marauding bands.

But quis custodiet custodies? It was granted in fief to two brothers Von Leo, who turned it into a robbers' nest, so that the neighbourhood rose in arms in 1210 and stormed it. Then the bishops confided it to the Herren von Metz, and they carried on a feud with their overlord, the bishop.

At last it came to the Counts von Firmian, who, in 1480, built a more convenient mansion at the foot of the cliff, and turned the old castle into a hermitage.

The castle, that is in a fair condition, occupies a broad cleft in the rock, only accessible by a narrow path cut in the rocks on the west side. It consists of an outer court and an inner court, protected on the side of the precipice by a stout wall, behind which were originally chambers, as windows in the wall and beamholes show to have been the case. There is a donjon that reaches to the overhanging rock and a ruinous chapel with apsidal east end. The cleft runs further east, but is blocked with a wall.

Another cliff castle, of which Merian, in his Topographia, 1640-88, gave a picture to arouse interest and wonder, is that of Covolo, at one time in Tirol, now over the Italian border. His description of it is as little accurate as his illustration. As a matter of fact, although it is certainly a cliff castle, constructed in a cave, it is accessible on foot, and it is by no means necessary to be conveyed to it by a windlass. Indeed it would not be easy to erect a crane on the platform of the castle that could haul up men and provisions from below.

A more famous fortress in a cave is that of Schallaun in the Puxerloch. Here is a grotto in the face of the precipice, 75 feet above the valley. The cliff itself is 4500 feet high. The castle consists of two stages, the outer court is at a lower level than the face of the cliff, and the opening of the grotto. Entrance was obtained through this outer court that was reached by a path cut in the rock, and from it by a stair also rock-hewn. A second court was reached, above this was again a third within the cave. On the right hand the cave branches out into a long inner cleft that was closed at one time by a door, and was probably used as a cellar. The main cavern also runs by a narrow passage deep into the heart of the rock to a pool of crystal clear water, never failing. The main building—hardly a donjon, was occupied till late in last century by an old mason who patched it up and made it habitable. At a little distance to the east is a smaller cave also with a wall in front of it, and this is said by the peasants to have been the kitchen of the castle, and to have been reached by a wooden gallery from the main building. According to tradition, Schallaun derives its name from Chalons. In the time of Charlemagne a knight of Chalons named Charlot eloped with a Saxon princess, and took refuge in this cave. It became a den of thieves, and Margaret Maultasch (Pouchmouth) took and dismantled it. According to another story the castle served as the haunt of a shadowless man. Unlike Camizzo's hero, he had not sold his shade to the devil, but by a lapse of nature had been born without one. This proved to him so distressing, and so completely interfered with his matrimonial prospects that he took refuge in the Puxerloch, where he was in shadow all day, and his peculiarity could not be noticed; he issued from it only on moonless nights, on one of which he carried off a peasant maid—and she never knew that he was shadowless, for he never allowed her to see his deficiency. Historically very little is known of the Schallaun castle, which is to its advantage, as when these castles are mentioned in chronicles, it is to record some deed of violence done by the occupants. In 1472 it belonged to the knightly family of Sauran, but they sold it. It is now the possession of the Ritter von Franckh.[5]

Perhaps the nearest approach to the Puxerloch castle in France is the Roc de Cuze near Neussargues in Cantal. In the face of the cliff is a cave that has been converted into a castle, a wall closes the mouth, and there is a tower. Another fortress completely carved out of the rock is at Roqueville.

I will now deal with the third class, rock towns and castles combined. And I can afford space to treat of but one out of the many that would enter more or less into the category.

Although Nottingham town does not occupy the top of a rock, its castle that does cannot be passed by without notice, because that rock is perforated with galleries and has in it a subterranean chapel.

The castle, now bereft of its ancient splendour, of its coronet of towers, was built by William the Conqueror on the summit of a precipitous height rising above the river Leen. It was dismantled by Cromwell, and what remained was pulled down by the Duke of Newcastle, who erected on its site the uninteresting and unpicturesque mansion that now exists.

The castle was long considered impregnable; and to it Queen Isabel fled with Sir Roger Mortimer, whom she had created Earl of March, and she held it with a guard of one hundred and eighty knights. King Edward III with a small retinue occupied the town. Every night the gates of the fortress were locked and the keys delivered to the Queen, who slept with them under her pillow. Sir William Montacute, with the sanction of the young king, summoned to his aid several nobles on whose fidelity he could depend, and obtained Edward's warrant for the apprehension of the Earl of March. The plot was now ripe for execution. For a time, however, the inaccessible nature of the castle rock, and the vigilance with which the gates were guarded, appeared to present an insuperable obstacle to the accomplishment of their designs. However, Sir William Eland, Constable of the Castle, was won over, and he agreed to admit the conspirators. In the words of an old chronicler, the Constable said to Montacute, "Sir, woll ye unterstande that the yats (gates) of the castell both loken with lokys, and Queen Isabell sent hidder by night for the kayes thereof, and they be layde under the chemsell of her beddis-hede unto the morrow ... but yet I know another weye by an aley that stretchith out of the ward, under the earthe into the castell, which aley Queen Isabell ne none of her meayne, ne the Mortimer, ne none of his companye knoweth it not, and so I shall lede you through the aley, and so ye shall come into the castell without spyes of any man that bith your enemies." On the night of October 19, 1340, Edward and his loyal associates before midnight were guided through the subterranean passage by Eland, and burst into the room where the Earl of March was engaged in council with the Bishop of Lincoln and others of his friends. Sir Hugh Trumpington, Steward of the Household, a creature of Mortimer, attempting to oppose their entrance, was slain. The Earl himself was seized, in spite of the entreaties of Isabel, who, hearing the tumult, rushed from her chamber, crying "Fair son, spare my gentle Mortimer!" Both were secured. The next day, Edward announced that he had assumed the government, and summoned a Parliament to meet at Westminster on the 26th November. No sooner had this Parliament met than a bill of impeachment was presented against Mortimer. The peers found all the charges brought against him to be "notorously true, known to them, and all the people." And he was sentenced to be drawn and hanged as a traitor. Mortimer was executed at Tyburn, and the Queen Mother was sent under ward to the manor of Rising. The passage by which the conspirators entered, and by which the Earl was conveyed away, goes by the name of Mortimer's Hole to the present day.

If I were to attempt to deal with castles and towns on rocky heights I would have to fill pages with descriptions of Capdenac, Najarc, Minerve, Les Baux, San Marino, San Leo, and many another, but inasmuch as they are on rocks instead of being in rocks, I must pass them over.

A fourth class of cliff castle, neither the habitation of a routier nor the residence of a feudal seigneur, is that which commands an important ford, or the road or waterway to a town, and which was, in point of fact, an outpost of the garrison.

I can describe but a few.

The Emperor Honorius had conceded to the Visigoths all that portion of Gaul that lay between the Loire and the Pyrenees. The Visigoths were Arians. Far from imitating the Romans, who respected the religion of the vanquished, and cared only that the peoples annexed to the Empire should submit to their administrative and military organisation, the Visigoths sought to impose Arianism on the nations over whom they exercised dominion. The bishops and priests protested energetically against this tyranny, and the Visigoths sought to break their resistance by persecution and exile, but gained nothing thereby save bitter hostility. In the year 511 an event took place that gave to the Aquitanians their religious liberty. The Franks were their deliverers.

Clovis, who coveted the rich provinces of the South, profited by the religious antagonism existing between the Aquitanians and the Goths to gain the confidence of the bishops to whom he promised the destruction of Arian supremacy. And as he had obtained the strongest and most numerous adhesions in Poitou he resolved there to strike a decisive blow.

He prepared his expedition with such secrecy and moved with such celerity that Alaric II., King of the Visigoths, did not become aware of his peril till the army of Clovis was on the confines of his realm. He threw himself into Poitiers, and assembled all the forces he was able to call together. Clovis crossed the Loire at Tours, and directed his march towards Poitiers; he passed over the Creusse at Port de Pilles, and reached the Vienne. The season was the end of September, and there had been so much and such continuous rain that the river was swollen, and he could not cross. Accordingly he and his army ascended it on the right bank seeking for a ford.

He reached Chauvigny, where was a ford, but this was now found impracticable. On the left hand of the present road to Lussac-le- Chateau is a stony, narrow, waterless valley, up which formerly ran the old Roman highway. At the 21/2 kilometre stone is a dense thicket of oak coppice, clothing the steep side of the valley. By scrambling down this, clinging to the oak-branches, one reaches a bluff of chalk rock, hollowed out by Nature at the foot to the depth of 10 feet, and running horizontally to the length of from 32 to 34 feet, and terminating in a natural barrier of rock. It contracts in one place so as to form two chambers. Now this gallery is closed towards the valley by a screen of six huge slabs 8 and 9 feet long, 8 and 9 feet high, and 4 feet thick. They have apparently been slung down from above, and caught and planted so as to wall up the open side of the recess. And at the north end another block, now broken, was set at right angles so as to half close the gallery at the end, leaving a doorway for access to the interior. The attempt to plant these huge slabs on a steep slope was not in every case successful, for a couple slid down the incline, but these served to form a heel-catch to those who did remain erect. Local antiquaries pronounce this to be a fortified cave, unique of its kind, devised to protect the road to Lussac, at the strategical point where it could best be defended. I have myself no manner of doubt that it was a so- called demi-dolmen, a tribal ossuary of neolithic man. Not only is it quite in character with his megalithic remains scattered over the country, but treasure-seekers who in digging displaced and brought down one of the side slabs found two diorite axes, one of which I was fortunate enough to secure. Persons in Gaulish or post-Roman times would not have dreamed of going to the enormous labour and attempting the difficult task of forming the sides with stone slabs, but would have closed the recess with a wall. The cave goes by the name of La Grotte de Jioux (of Jove) which in itself hints its remote antiquity.

But, although I do not believe that this cave was constructed as a military vidette and guard-house, I have no doubt whatever that it may have been so used, and it is very probable that at this point took place the first brush of Clovis and his Franks with the enemy, for the valley bears the name of Le Vallon des Goths. Alaric knew, what Clovis did not, that there was a ford at Lussac, and if he had any military foresight, he would plant a body of men across the road in the throat of the valley to intercept the Franks on their way. As it was, the Franks pushed on, and seeing a deer wade across the river at Lussac, raised exultant shouts, plunged into the Vienne, and crossed. The result was the battle of Voulon, in which the Arian Goths were defeated, and their empire broken down.[6] The Grotto of Jioux was but an accidental outpost, but those I am about to describe were artificially contrived for that purpose.

In the broad valley of Le Loir below Vendôme, the great elevated chalk plateau of Beauce has been cut through, leaving precipitous white sides. At one point a buttress of rock has been thrown forward that dominates the road and also the ford over the river. Its importance was so obvious that it was seized upon in the Middle Ages and converted into a fortress. The place is called Le Gué du Loir. Not far off is the Château of Bonnaventure, where Antoine de Bourbon idled away his time drinking Surène wine, and carrying on an intrigue with a wench at le Gué, whilst his wife, Jeanne d'Albret, was sending gangs of bandits throughout her own and his territories to plunder, burn, and murder in the name of religion. But Antoine cared for none of these things. At Bonnaventure he composed the song:—

               Si le roi m'avait donné
               Paris, sa grande ville,
               Et qu'il me fallait quiter
               L'amour de ma mie,
               Je dirai au roi Henri (III.)
               Reprenez votre Paris,
               J'aime mieux ma mie
                  Au Gué,
               J'aime mieux ma mie.

Molière introduced a couplet of this lay into his Alceste.

The rock has been excavated throughout, and in places built into, and on to. Two flights of steps cut in the cliff give access to the main portion of the castle. That on the right leads first of all to the Governor's room, hewn out of a projecting portion of the rock floored with tiles, with a good fireplace and a broad window, commanding the Loir and allowing the sun to flood the room. The opening for the window formerly contained a casement. There is a recess for a bed, and there are in the sides numerous cupboards and other excavations for various purposes. This chamber is entered through that of the sentinel, which was also furnished with a fireplace. The stair leads further up to a large hall artificially carved out of the chalk, but not wholly, for there had been originally a natural cavern of small dimensions, which had a gaping opening. This opening had been walled up with battlements and loopholes, but the old woman to whom the rock or this portion of the rock belongs, and who is a cave-dweller at its foot, has demolished the wall to breast-height, so as to let the sun and air pour in, for she uses the cave as a drying place for her wash. From this hall or guard-room two staircases cut in the rock lead to other chambers also rock-hewn higher up.

The second main stair outside gives access to a second series of chambers.

Unfortunately, some rather lofty modern buildings have been erected in front of this cliff castle, so as to render it impossible to make of it an effective sketch or to take a satisfactory photograph.

Still more interesting is La Roche Corail below Angoulême on the river Charente, opposite Nersac and the confluence of the Boeme with the Charente. Where is now a bridge was formerly a ford. The castle of Nersac commanded one side of the valley, and La Roche Corail the other. This cliff castle was at one time very extensive. The rock rises from a terrace partly natural and partly artificial, on which a comparatively modern château has been erected that masks the rock-face. But on entering the court behind the château the bare cliff is seen with a yawning opening halfway up, and indentations in the wall of rock show that at one time there were hanging barbacans and chambers suspended before the rock as well as others hewn out of it.

To reach the interior it is necessary to enter a grange that has been built at right angles to the rock, and in it to mount a ladder to another granary that occupies a floor of solid rock. Thence a second ladder leads into the caves. Formerly, however, the ascent was made by steps cut in the side of the cliff, and openings from within enabled the garrison with pikes to precipitate below any who were daring enough to venture up the steps uninvited.

The ladder gives admission through a broken door cut in the rock into a long vaulted hall, that was formerly floored across so as to convert it into two storeys.[7] The lower storey or basement opens on the left-hand side into a second cave, and the upper by a passage cut in the rock communicated with another range of chambers looking out of the face of the crag by artificial windows. Immediately in front of one entering the hall is the portal of admission to another very large hall that had originally well-shaped windows, and a door leading on to the wooden balcony, but this has all been broken away forming the ragged opening seen from below.

In 1534 Calvin was staying in the adjoining parish of S. Saturnin with a canon of the cathedral of Angoulême, who had a good library, and was disposed to favour him. The house is pointed out, but it has been rebuilt or altered. A cavern there is also shown to which Calvin retired to meditate on his Reform. It is now a cellar full of casks, wheelbarrows, and rubbish. It was never a very pleasing resort, and he preferred to come to La Roche Corail where, in the cavern just described, he had more space, and less likelihood of being disturbed. And here it was that he wrote his "Institute of the Christian Religion." One is disposed to rest here for awhile and muse, and consider what a manufactory of explosives this cavern was. From this vaulted chamber was launched that doctrine which was to wreck nearly every church in France and drench the soil in blood. I do not in the least suppose that Calvin saw any beauty in the view through the gap in the rock—not in the island below with its poplars and willows whose branches trail in the bottle-green waters of the Charente—not in the lush meadows with the yellow flags fluttering by the waterside—not in the grey towers of Nersac castle and church rising above dark woods, flushed orange in the setting sun against a purple sky. I do not suppose that he noticed the scent of the wallflowers growing out of every fissure wafted in on the summer air. There was logic thought in his head, but no poetry in his heart, no sweetness in his soul. He looked across in the direction of Angoulême, and wished he had a ladder and a hammer that he might smash the serene face of the Saviour looking down on the city from the western gable of the cathedral. Five and twenty years must elapse before that wondrous domed pile was to be wrecked by the Huguenots, his disciples. But here it was, in this cavern, that he elaborated his system of reform, treating Christianity as a French peasant treats an oak tree, pollarding it, and lopping off every lateral, natural outgrowth. Assuredly, many a volatile superstition had lodged in its branches, and many a gross abuse couched under its shadow. But these might have been scared away without mutilating the tree till it was reduced to a stump. He desired, doubtless, to bring back the Church to the condition in which he supposed it had been when born. But one cannot reduce an adult to the simplicity and innocence of childhood by stripping off all his clothes, and denying him the conventional figleaf.

Having shattered the Catholic faith by the crowbar of his logic, he sought to build up a grotto out of its fragments, and call it a church. His "Institute of the Christian Religion" was published the following year. It produced the desired effect at once. There were many reasons why it should. Earnest and devout souls were troubled at the sight of a Christianity that was so in name but had little Christianity in its practice. They felt that the Church had drifted far out of its way and had grounded on quicksands, and they thought that the sole way of saving the hulk was to cast all its precious lading into the sea. Christ's Church had been founded on a rock, it had withstood the rain and the flood, but was crumbling down with dry rot. Calvin would have neither the rock nor the sand. Into the mud he drove the piles by the strokes of his genius, on which to erect the platform that was to uphold the conventicle of his followers, and if that did not stand, it would at least mark its site by their dejections. And dejections there are everywhere, where the Calvinists were, wrecked churches, mutilated monuments, broken glass, and shattered sculpture. Ruskin, remarking on some delicate carving at Lyons, under a pedestal, observes that the mediaeval sculptors exhibited absolute confidence in the public, in placing their tenderest work within reach of a schoolboy's hand. Such, however, was the love of the beautiful generally diffused, that objects of art were safe from destruction or defacement. But with the outburst of Calvinism all those affected were inflamed with a positive hatred of the beautiful in art. If this had been confined to the destruction of images to which idolatrous worship was offered, it would be explicable and justifiable, but it extended to the most innocuous objects. Delicate tracery such as adorns the west front of the church of Vendôme, a lace-work of beautiful sculpture representing trailing roses and vines, birds and reptiles, was ruthlessly hacked. Churches, cathedrals, were blown up with gunpowder—such was the fate of the cathedrals of Montauban, Périgueux, and Orléans. Beza himself rolled the barrels of gunpowder to explode under the great piers that sustained the central tower of Orleans.[8]

The cry for reform was loud, and rang from every quarter of Europe except from the Vatican, where the Pope, like Dame Partington with her mop, thought to stay its progress. The grandsons of the old routiers cried fie on this quiet life, and snuffed the air for rapine. The nobility were out of pocket and out at elbows, and looked with avaricious eyes on the fair and broad lands of the Church, and their fingers itched to be groping in her treasury, and they hoped to patch their jerkins with her costly vestments. Court favourites were abbots in commendam, held prebendaries, without being in holy orders, sixfold pluralists abounded, ecclesiastical hippopotami, that might fairly be hunted. All kinds of interests were enlisted against the Church, good and bad, sincere and hypocritical, only a spokesman was needed, a trumpet sound to call to the battle, and Calvin proved the spokesman, and his "Institute" was the trumpet note.

An outpost station that is curious and puzzling is La Rochebrune on the Dronne, below Brantôme. The road to Bourdeilles and Périgueux runs immediately below a chain of very fine chalk cliffs, and there is but just space for it between the steep slope below them and the river. At one point about a mile and a half below Brantôme, the cliff is broken through, where a lateral valley opens on that of the Dronne: here there is a talus overgrown with box and juniper leading up to a rock, of inconsiderable height, with some holes in it, overhanging, and capped with brushwood that at one time also covered the slope below the rock.

By the roadside, immediately under this rock, is the opening into a cave that admits into another much larger, and lighted from above, and in which at the extremity is a passage leading upwards, now choked with earth and stone.

The original entrance to the cave has been destroyed through the widening of the highroad, so that it is now impossible to tell whether it was effectually concealed or whether precautions had been taken for its defence.

At one spot only in the rocks above is there a gap, and through that gap, probably once walled up, access is obtained into a sort of circular courtyard, where there are traces of a fireplace, and where is a stone bench. From this court a spiral staircase, rock-hewn, leads to the platform on top of the rocks. In the wall on the right of the court is a doorway neatly cut in the chalk, square-headed and adapted for a framed door that could be strongly barricaded. Immediately within is a quadrangular pit sunk in the floor, now choked with stones. This, in such a position, could not be a silo, it probably was the opening through which those who entered the cave from below, by the road, made their way into the interior of the fortress. Stepping over this pit one enters a hall with six large round holes cut in the roof communicating with an upper chamber, and receiving a borrowed light through them. A spiral staircase at the side furnished with meurtrières through which the besieged could stab at their enemies, leads to the upper hall or chamber, which is lighted by two rude windows, one high up, the other low down, and with a bench recess opposite them. But the strange and perplexing feature of this room is that it has in the floor eight round holes, each large enough to let a man fall through. Six communicate with the chamber below, but the other two open under the overhanging cornice, outside the castle. One of the holes—opening into the nether chamber, is precisely where would rest the feet of men seated on the bench. There is no trace of a groove to receive covers to these holes.

It has been conjectured that this strange construction was a granary, in which the peasants concealed their corn; but there are difficulties in accepting this theory. The Rochebrune commands the road, and a hiding place would assuredly be located in the depths of a wood, away from a highroad, in some secluded valley. It has been conjectured that the holes served for discharging the corn into the lower chamber. But why carry it by a narrow winding stair aloft to pour it down into a nether cave, when the latter, the supposed granary, itself was at once accessible through the doorway? Moreover, two of the holes open outwards, and not into the supposed store-chamber. It may be said that these were for hauling up the sacks of corn, but the incline on which they open is so steep, that it would be a prodigious waste of labour to drag the corn up under the cornice in which they are, whereas the other ascent is easy. The precautions taken to provide means of stabbing at an assailant point to this having been a fortress. My interpretation of the puzzle is this: first, that the left hand stair leading to the summit of the crag enabled one of the defenders to light a beacon, so as to warn the people of Brantôme when danger threatened; that next, the garrison, which could not have comprised more than five or six men, as Rochebrune is very small, retired within the rock. If this courtyard were invaded, they escaped into the lower chamber and barred the door, and were able to thrust at assailants through the slots. But if the door yielded they would scramble up the rock stair into the upper apartment, and as the enemy broke into the lower cavern, they stabbed and thrust at them through the six holes in the floor. Should their position be rendered untenable, they could slip through the two holes that opened outwards, into the brushwood and so effect their escape; for these holes would not be perceived, or their purpose understood by besiegers unfamiliar with the castle.

Usually, over the floor, riddled like a colander, planks were laid, that on emergency could be turned up on their sides. I may add that the windows opening outwards are purposely so inartificially made that no one passing along the road underneath would suspect that there was a fortress above his head. He would certainly suppose that these holes were natural, such as are commonly found in the chalk cliffs. In fact the first time I visited Brantôme, and walked down the river to Bourdeilles, I passed this rock and entertained no suspicion that it contained anything remarkable, that it was as a matter of fact, a mere shell, with all the artificial work within.

Why was it that every city—nay, every little town—had to be not only walled about but to have its outposts? Because France was not a nation, only a congeries of individualities. As Michelet says of the fourteenth century: "The kingdom was powerless, dying, losing self-consciousness, prostrate as a corpse. Gangrene had set in, maggots swarmed, I mean the brigands, English and Navarese. All this rottenness isolated, detached the members of the poor body from one another. One talks of the Kingdom, but there were no States General, nothing at all general, no intercommunication, the roads were in the power of cut-throats. The fields were all battlefields, war was everywhere, and none could distinguish friend from foe."

How needful these outposts were may be judged from what Froissart says: "Rogues took advantage of such times (of truce), and robbed both towns and castles; so that some of them, becoming rich, constituted themselves captains of bands of thieves; there were among them those worth forty thousand crowns. Their method was to mark out particular towns or castles, a day or two's journey from each other; then they collected twenty or thirty robbers, and travelling through by-roads in the night-time, about daybreak entered the town or castle they had fixed upon, and set one of the houses on fire. When the inhabitants perceived it they thought it had been a body of soldiers sent to destroy them, and took to their heels as fast as they could" (Bk. i., c. 147).

Passing on from the outposts to towns, or defences to highways, we must glance at such as guard the approaches to countries, or such as Gibraltar that commands the great waterway between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Gibraltar is certainly the most complete and marvellous of all cliff castles. This is too well known to English travellers to need description here.

The French Gibraltar, Urdos, commands one of the passes through the Pyrenees. It is hewn out of the mountain in a buttress of rock, and rises in stages from the road to the height of 500 feet. Externally the mountain looks harmless enough. A cave opens here, and a rift there, and a few streaks of masonry may be noticed, but actually the mountain is riddled with galleries, batteries, and long flights of stairs, and hollowed out for ammunition and other stores; and it is capable of containing a garrison of three thousand men.

Faron also, 1660 feet high, with its magnificent precipices of salmon- coloured limestone, commanding both the harbour of Toulon and the Bay of Hyères, is capped with fortifications and pierced with batteries, casemates, and chambers for military stores, a position made by Nature and utilised with supreme skill. Nor must the chain of rock-forts of Campi delle Alte and of Mont Agel above Monaco, dominating the Corniche road be forgotten, ready to drop bombs amidst an army from Italy venturing along that splendid road, nor must Besançon be forgotten, occupying its inaccessible rock—inaccessible that is, to an enemy.

"Oppidum maximum Sequanorum," as Caesar described it in his day; "natura loci sic muniebatur ut magnam ad ducendum bellum daret facultatem."

Ehrenbreitstein faces the opening of the Moselle into the Rhine; and Frankenfeste holds the key of the Brennerpass; and Dover Castle commands the strait at its narrowest. Königstein crowning a precipitous rock 748 feet above the Elbe, though in Saxony is garrisoned by Prussians, guards the pass down the river from Bohemia; and Peterwardein is a rock-built fortress, that has been called the Ehrenbreitstein and Gibraltar of the Danube. What are these frontier fortresses but the same on an extensive scale as the Gué du Loir, the Roche Corail, and the Rochebrune? In the Middle Ages every city, every little town had to have its outposts and watch-tower on the look-out for the enemy, and to break the first impetus of an attack. But now it is not the town but the nation that has to gird itself about with frontier fortresses.


Footnotes[edit]

  1. Poulette Scrope, "The Extinct Volcanoes of Central France," Lond. 1858.
  2. De Roumejoux, Bulletin de la Soc. Hist. de Perigord. T. xix. 1892.
  3. La Roche S. Christophe is mentioned in the letters of Petrarch. Labbé. Frag. Bp. Petrarchi.
  4. "A Book of the Cevennes," Lond., J. Long.
  5. In "Unser Vaterland, Steiermark," Stuttgart, n.d., p. 47, is a representation of the Puxerloch, but it resembles much more Kronmetz. It gives towers and walls and gates that do not exist in the Puxerloch.
  6. This decisive battle is located at Vouillé to the north-west of Poitiers; but local historians are convinced that the site was Voulon to the south of Poitiers. See Thibaudeau, Abrégé de l'Histoire de Poitou, Niort, 1889.
  7. Actually the doorway and three lower openings look into the dark granary. In the illustration I have shown them as letting light in, as intended originally.
  8. In 1769 Montgomery was preparing to blow up the beautiful Cathedral of Condon, only consecrated thirty-eight years before, but accepted as its ransom from the inhabitants the sum of 30,000 livres.