Clovis gave Coucy and its surroundings to Saint-Remi, bishop of Rheims after the battle of Soissons in 486.

A first castle, probably a wooden tower with a stone base, was built towards 920 by Herve, archbishop of Rheims, eager to protect his territory of Coucy against the invasions.

In 1059 the territory belongs to Albéric or Aubry, who founded the Benedictine Abbey of Nogent; he is known to have followed William the Conqueror in England.

The dynasty of the Lords of Coucy starts in 1079 with Enguerrand de Boves, hero of the first crusade, whose descendants, during three centuries, were to make the mightiest men tremble. His son Thomas de Marle, famous for his armed robberies, supported the free town of Laon at the time of the insurrection against his bishop. Enguerrand II righted the wrongs of his father; he had the courtyard (or Bailey) chapel erected and died during the second crusade. Raoul died in the seat of Saint-Jean-d'Acre in 1191 letting his three sons share his property.

It is with the elder, Enguerrand III called " the Big " or " the Great " (in french "le grand"), that one allots the current castle. Untiring warrior, he distinguishes himself in the battle of Bouvines and during expeditions against Cathares (heretics). In 1216 he lands in England with the french prince Louis, who tried to keep the crown after the death of the king John. From 1226 he takes part in the conspiracy of the higher ranking French lords against the regency of the Queen Blanche of Castille (a Spanish woman!), mother of the young Saint-Louis. The legend claims that he wanted to take the crown and his disappointed hope would be the origin of the famous motto:

King am not, nor prince, nor duke, nor count either; I am the lord of Coucy.

This is probably when he fortified the town, the courtyard (or Bailey) and the castle. Exceptional builder, one owes him the disappeared castles from Saint-Gobain, Marle, La Fère, Folembray as well as a private mansion in Paris. After having returned in the good graces of the king, he died in 1242. Crossing a river near Vervins, he fell from his horse and was impaled on his sword.The lives of his descendants were marked by a number of exceptional events. His daughter, Marie, was married to Alexander II of Scotland. His son, Enguerrand IV, having hung three young noblemen for hunting on the grounds of Coucy without the benefit of a trial, was judged to have acted wrongly by Saint-Louis and was forced to pay a very large fine. But it is necessary to await the last character of this famous line to see further work on the castle.

This one, Enguerrand VII, had an exceptional life, grandson of the archduke of Austria, son-in-law of king Edward III of England (he married Isabel and became Earl of Bedford), and faithful vassal of the king of France. His life was characterized by military and diplomatic expeditions throughout the whole of Europe, and he transformed the old fortress into a sumptuous palace. The ground floors were rebuilt to support the new residential buildings: the room of honor, decorated by the statues of the Valiant knights, as well as the dwelling rooms. Such embellishments are typical of the period, also notable for King Charles V completing work on the Louvre and Vincennes. Enguerrand VII died in Turkey, after the battle of Nicopolis, without leaving a male heir. His life is related in a well known history book " A Distant Mirror , The calamitous 14th Century" by Barbara W. Tuchman, 1978.

In 1400 Louis of Orleans, brother of Charles VI and builder of the castles of Pierrefonds and Ferté-Milon, bought the land of Coucy to supplement the defense of his duchy of Valois. He completed the work begun by Enguerrand VII. These enhancements brought the period of medieval construction to a close. War in the 15th century made further construction impratical. After the assassination of the Duke of Orleans in 1407, the castle becomes a stake in the fight between Armagnacs and Burgundian. It is besieged and taken several times. Its first siege occured in 1411, its guardians surrendering after having nobly defended the castle for three months. In 1415, after the battle of Azincourt, Charles of Orleans was held prisoner for 25 years in England. And between 1423 and 1430 (Hundred Years War) the place is occupied by the English. In 1498, becoming king of France under the name of Louis XII, the grandson of Louis of Orleans makes Coucy a Crown property, thereby permitting eight kings of France to inherit the title of "Lord of Coucy" at their coronation, thus making lie their famous motto.

Towards 1540, new period of construction, the fortifications are modernized to adapt them to artillery and a new Renaissance dwelling is built in the castle by the king François 1rst.

In 1652 during the Fronde (political trouble during the youth of Louis 14th) the governor of the Duke of Orleans refused to give the castle to the royal troops. The place surrendered after a three months siege. At this point Mazarin decided to dismantle the fortress since it had become too much of a threat to the king's power. Engineer Métezeau destroyed the gates, the big round curtain of the keep, as well as the vaults of both the towers and the keep, making the castle militarily unusable.

Given up, plundered by the population, transformed into a prison during the French Revolution, then into a stone quarry until 1829 when Louis-Philippe buys it for 6000 Francs, thus saving it from total destruction.

Until 1914 several architects intervened to restore the ruins. In 1856 the castle becomes definitively property of the governement and the keep, shaken by an earthquake, is strengthened by the architect Viollet-le-Duc.

Unlike the city of Carcassonne or the castle of Pierrefonds, there was here no project to rebuild Coucy. However the ruins of Coucy and especially its keep became a very popular tourist site at the end of 19th century, being a mere two hours and thirty minutes from Paris by rail.

The First World War occurs then. The area is occupied since September 1914 by German troops, Coucy is 12 km away from the front and becomes a military headquarter and is also frequented by German dignitaries. Kaiser Wilhelm II (William II) even comes there twice! In 1915 the only notable modification is the instalation of a 380mm gun in the forest of Coucy-basse, placed there to bombard Compiegne. After the war this concreted slab becomes wrongly known as " Big Bertha ". Alas, in March 1917, at the time of its strategic come-back intended to obstruct the French offensive of the Chemin-des-dames and the British offensive on the Somme, the German army dynamites the keep and the 4 towers using 28 tons of explosives. It will never be known whether this act had some strategic military purpose (such as destroying a potential lookout post) or whether it was merely an act of barbaric mutilation. This destruction so outraged the public that in April 1917 politicians decided to preserve the ruins " as a memorial to barbarity ". Rebuilding of the city began in 1923; war reparations were used to clear the towers and to consolidate the walls. However the ruins of the keep were left in place.

 

Today, the Ministry for the Culture and the Centre of National Monuments continues the delicate mission of opening to the public an ancient monument in ruin, by regular work of maintenance and security, parallel with studies of development and conservation of the vestiges.

 

This is a personnal translation , please send me correction if you think it is necessary. Email

 

Corrected April 18 2001

Thanks to Deborah P. for her appreciable assistance

 

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