Vincennes was one of the earliest royal palaces of France. It still looks very much like a medieval castle, mainly because King Louis XIV lost interest in it around 1670 and stopped tearing down the medieval parts to make room for his own kind of buildings.
Unlike the larger and better-known royal palaces at Versailles, Fontainebleau and Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Vincennes borders directly on the city of Paris. The last (easternmost) station of line number 1 of the Paris Métro is called “Château de Vincennes” and is located directly in front of the castle entrance. You can get there on a normal “t+” Métro ticket with no extra charge.
You can also enter the castle compound for free, but to go inside the buildings you have to buy a ticket, which costs € 9.00 as of 2018.
The French word donjon means the massive inner tower of a fortress. It is related to the English word dungeon, and this donjon was indeed used as a prison in the 18th and 19th centuries, but originally it was intended as a safe residence for the king, particularly King Charles V of France, who lived from 1338 to 1380. The displays inside the donjon have to do particularly with the life, character and daily routine of Charles V.
In English the “donjon” is or was often referred to as the “keep” of a castle.
Starting from the king’s living quarters there is a covered round-way (chemin de ronde) going all the way around the walls of the enclosure. When I was there in 2015 only part of this round-way was open to the public, since the rest had been deemed unsafe and was being renovated.
From the terrace of the donjon you can have a look at rest of the compound from above. In this photo we are looking southeast towards the back wall of the compound, which was originally constructed in the 14th century under the reign of King Charles V. The trees in the background are part of the Forest of Vincennes (Bois de Vincennes), which since 1860 has been a public park belonging to the city of Paris. On the left is one of the two pavilions built in the 17th century by the architect Le Vau for King Louis XIV.
Looking north from the terrace of the donjon, we can see the Village Tower, now the main entrance to the compound, adjoining the then-village, now-city of Vincennes.
One of the most famous prisoners at Vincennes was the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), whose name gave rise to the words sadism and sadistic. There was certainly a lot of violence, cruelty and torture in his erotic novels, many of which he wrote while he was imprisoned in Vincennes and elsewhere. He was imprisoned for the “outrageous debaucheries” that he had committed in real life as well as in his novels. One of the rooms in the donjon has been identified as his cell, and his portrait (made when he was nineteen years old) is more or less constantly projected onto one of the stone walls.
Here a sample of de Sade’s handwriting is projected onto the wall of his cell.
Another famous prisoner who served time in Vincennes was the Count of Mirabeau (1749-1791). Mirabeau’s first prison, in 1774, was the Château d’If on a rocky island off the coast of Marseille — a prison that was later made famous by the novel The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870).
Mirabeau was kept locked up in Vincennes from 1777 to 1782. Like his fellow prisoner the Marquis de Sade, Mirabeau spent some of his jail time writing erotic novels. The two men met in prison but reportedly couldn’t stand each other. Mirabeau later became an influential politician in the early years of the French Revolution.
After his death in 1791, Mirabeau became the first person to be honored by being buried in the Panthéon in Paris — but also the first person whose body was removed, in 1794, because of suspicion that he had been in cahoots with the king all along. Today one of the bridges over the Seine in Paris is named after Mirabeau.
Another famous prisoner — a generation earlier than de Sade and Mirabeau — was the French writer and philosopher Denis Diderot (1713-1784), who was imprisoned in the donjon for several months in 1749 because some of his writings were considered dangerous by the authorities. Today one of the thirteen Paris universities is named after him. (See my post Diderot University in Paris.)
The Holy Chapel (Sainte-Chapelle) inside the Vincennes castle compound was built starting in 1380, shortly before the death of King Charles V, but wasn’t inaugurated until 172 years later, in 1552.
The chapel is no longer used for religious services and is quite empty inside except for a model of the castle compound.
On the sides of the chapel, near the back, there are two “oratories”, one for the king and one for the queen. The King’s oratory now contains the tomb of the Duke of Enghien, a member of the royal family who was suspected of plotting against Napoléon. He was judged (very quickly) by a military tribunal at Vincennes and was shot in the south moat of the castle in 1804. On his tomb there are four statues. The duke himself is standing in the background next to an allegorical figure representing fortitude. Below, in the foreground, there are two other allegorical figures representing crime, with a dagger, and France in tears. Presumably these statues were made after the fall of Napoléon, during the years when the royalists were back in power.
Unlike the royal palaces in Versailles and Fontainebleau, the one in Vincennes is more of a fortress than a palace. This is no wonder, since it dates (in its current form) from the 14th century, when kings were by no means in full control of what went on in their countries and were in danger of being attacked by the armies of rebellious aristocrats.
The castle compound is in the form of a rectangle surrounded by stone walls and a moat. The perimeter is more than a kilometer in length, which makes this one of the largest fortresses of medieval Europe.
The main entrance to the compound on Avenue de Paris in Vincennes. You can enter the compound for free, but you need a ticket to go inside the donjon and the chapel.
The ticket office, with a boutique and bookshop, is on the right in this photo, and the chapel is on the left.
This large and rather run-down building is identified as a Harnachement, meaning a place where harnesses and other equipment for the horses were stored and repaired — a place that was at least as important in former times as the motor pool is today.
At the northwest corner of the castle compound, at the corner of Avenue de Général de Gaulle and Avenue de Paris, stands this statue of Saint Louis, who in his lifetime was of course not yet a saint but simply King Louis IX (=the Ninth) of France. He was born in 1214 and was crowned in Reims at age 12 after the death of his father.
As befits a saint, he looks quite mild-mannered in this statue, despite the huge sword that he is holding in both hands.
This historical sign next to the statue says that “Saint Louis (Louis IX) had great affection for his now disappeared Vincennes residence. Writings tell of this Christian monarch dispensing justice under an oak tree in the Forest of Vincennes.”
The sign also says: “The 1906 statue by the sculptor Mony was presented to the Paris municipality in 1971 to mark the seventh centenary of the return of Saint Louis’ ashes to France.”
The reason his ashes had to be returned to France was that he died in Tunis (of dysentery, not on the battlefield) while on the eighth crusade in 1270. In a museum in Bordeaux I came across a painting by Guillaume Guillon (1760-1832) called “Saint Louis Visiting Plague Victims on the Plains of Carthage” These “plague victims” probably had dysentery and infected the king, who died of it himself a few weeks later.
After the death of Louis IX in 1270 he was succeeded by his youngest son, Philippe, much to the chagrin of his widow Marguerite de Provence, who considered Philippe a wimp and wanted to rule in his place until he was thirty. I have described this situation in my post on the Couvent des Cordelières in Paris.
My photos in this post are from 2015. I revised the text in 2018.
See also: The town of Vincennes.