Oh no, I turned 40 in June. For years I escaped Belgium for my birthday. I even managed to do so last year, in between COVID-19 related leisure travel lockdowns, visiting my sister Florence in Switzerland. This year leaving the Realm proved to be very impractical. But Danny, his boyfriend Sam, Oriol and myself booked a getaway weekend to Florenville and visited Orval Abbey and Bouillon with its medieval castle.
In Belgium, Bouillon is probably mostly associated with Godfrey of Bouillon (1060-1100), leader of the First Crusade. This Lord of Bouillon and Margrave of Antwerp had a castle, which he sold to the prince-bishop of Liège to finance the crusade.
Thus the castle is ‘properly medieval’. Ask a child to draw a typical medieval castle, and it could resemble this. High on a mountain, grey, very thick walls, impressive towers.
An earlier fortification, possibly created in the time of the Celts, was located just south-west of the current castle at a height called La Ramonette. It was first mentioned in a letter from Archbishop Adalbero of Reims to his brother Godfrey the Prisoner in 988.
It was a fortified watchtower belonging to the Ardennes-Bouillon family, who kept its treasure and minted it there. The settlement around it was the only urban center in the seigniory of Bouillon. The rulers gave the administration of the castle to a hereditary viscount and placed the Abbey of Saint-Hubert under their protection.
In the 11th century, the fortification belonged to Duke Gothelo I of Lorraine. In the period 1050-1067 his grandson Godfrey II with the Beard built a castle on the present site, works for which he demanded landowners from the abbey.
Under his rule a large keep was erected, a fortified castle tower measuring 26 by 13 meters and consisting of three floors. That structure survived until it was demolished in 1824 to make way for barracks. On his deathbed in 1069, Godfrey the Beard handed over all kinds of possessions to the monks, but his successor Godfrey II of Lorraine thought it was too much to respect.
In 1076 Godfrey of Bouillon inherited the glory of his childless uncle Godfrey III.
Just before his departure to the Holy Land with the First Crusade in 1096, his territory pawned it to the Prince-Bishopric of Liège in order to obtain money.
Because Godfrey of Bouillon did not return alive from the Crusade and neither he nor his brothers had male descendants, Bouillon fell to the prince-bishopric.
Bouillon remained in the possession of the Prince-Bishops for five centuries, but not unchallenged. Reginald I of Bar claimed rights to Bouillon in 1129 because of kinship with the dukes of Lower Lorraine. He captured the castle in 1134, but Prince-Bishop Alberon II of Namur was able to take the castle back in 1141.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, the castle and the county of Bouillon were a point of contention between the Prince-Bishop of Liège and the House of La Marck. In 1482 William I de la Marck succeeded in taking over the castle and the lordship of Bouillon.
During the Franco-Habsburg rivalry leading up to the Italian War, Robert III de la Marck, on behalf of the French King Francis I, attacked Luxembourg, which was owned by the Habsburg Emperor Charles V.
In 1521 an Imperial army of 5,000 men and 1,500 horses entered the the La Marck area. In reprisal, all of the La Marck’s property was destroyed. The castle of Bouillon was destroyed and Charles V returned the lordship of Bouillon and the castle to the prince-bishopric.
The castle was rebuilt under Prince-Bishop George of Austria. The keep was preserved as a residence and expanded. More platforms came to set up cannons. The Austrian Tower of 1551 dates from that time, which still dominates the castle. The De la Marck family regularly interrupted the reign of the Prince-Bishops.
For the reinforcement of the borders of France, Louis XIV had defensive belts built under the direction of the military architect, engineer and fortress builder Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban.
On the northern border, Vauban established a double defense line, for which he built new fortresses and strengthened cities and old fortresses. The castle of Bouillon was reinforced by Vauban into a fortress that could also withstand modern artillery by an additional wall filled with earth and reinforced with nine bastions. Three of these have been preserved.
Grand Duchy of Luxembourg
The last conversion into barracks was carried out under King William I of the Netherlands as Grand Duke of Luxembourg between 1815 and 1830. Among other things, the medieval keep was demolished and barracks were built to house troops. After the Belgian Revolution in 1830, Bouillon was assigned to Belgium and the military significance of the fortress diminished until it fell into disrepair. In 1853, the abandoned castle became a tourist destination.
After the Battle of Sedan in 1870, some parts of the castle were used as a hospital by the Prussian army.
In 1892-1893, buildings from the Dutch period, which were no longer considered appropriate for the castle, were demolished again.
We visited under coronavirus countermeasures, which meant the tour of the castle was relatively swift. The route is not always logical or easy to find. The cheese cellar is unimpressive.
We skipped the fauconnery as we’r not into falcons or birds and we dread getting involved as an audience.
Some signs can use an update. More information is welcome. It took me some time to find out what the coats of arms are.
Coat of arms
From left to right:
- Lord of Bouillon.
- Prince-bishop of Liège.
- Érard de la Marck, prince-bishop of Liège. Later also Charlotte de La Marck, duchess of Bouillon and princess of Sedan. She married Henri de La Tour d’Auvergne, titular Duke of Bouillon iure uxoris, count of Montfort and Negrepelisse, viscount of Turenne, Castillon and Lanquais.
- La Tour d’Auvergne, here as viscounty of Turenne.
- Kingdom of the Netherlands.
- Kingdom of Belgium.
Thank you to Gauthier Jacques for explaining the heraldry.
So yes, the visit could be better organised. Check out the website for many activities though. I sound underwhelmed, yet I do recommend visiting, as the castle is a prime example of a medieval castle.
In your ticket is is also included: the Ducal Museum of Bouillon and the Archéoscope. More on these next week.