Rennes-le-Château and Rennes-les-Bains

Rennes-le-Château and Rennes-les-Bains

Couiza - the Castle

Medieval days in Couiza
As seen from the air

Was it really a castle, used for defence in the usual way?  One would expect it to be up the hill a little bit, not right down by the junction of two rivers, on floodable land.  Fortressses were built on top of mountains overlooking the countryside, never on low flat land beside the river that might flood.  And the shape of it is so strange!  I have seen several versions and none of them are square, although the castle looks to be at first sight.

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  The last image is a model seen in the window of the Couiza Tourist Office.  The strangest map must be the following;


Drawn by a French researcher, our whole region is a star-map with the implication is that the ground plan of the château represents the constellation of Cassiopea.  But who built the castle to this plan, was this back in Visigothic times or was it in the time of the Joyeuse family?  Who were the star-gazers?  Could they have even been the Celts?  I ask this because the flat land here by the junction of the river Aude and the River Sals was a Celtic Nemeton in Celtic and Roman times (400BC - 200AD).  Nemetons were not just sacred places as we understand them, but also meeting and trading places, as archeological finds of coins here have proved. The river Aude in those days was used to carry goods, towards Limoux and then Carcassonne.  Some nemetons had small temples on them, often with a stone floor but wooden walls and roofs.

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The castle by the river junction - today and in1956.  It was and is very close to the water.

 Official history tells us Couiza castle was built in the 16th century but surely no-one would built a new defensive castle on a floodable region down by the river, when there were many suitable sites on the mountains?  No, the Joyeuse family must have built it on the foundations of a previous building - but when was that previous one built and what was it?

  It was no surprise when the web-site (unusual south) told me the castle was "first built in the Visigothic period."  I have a ground plan of the Visigothic-built chateau in Rennes-le-Château, and it is similar to that of Couiza.  (The part coloured pale yellow, beside the round tower, was not part of the original construction.)


 Could both châteaux have first been built around the same time? I believe so.  It's known that the Visigoths made a settlement at Couiza, around their church to St. John the Baptist, and the oldest part of the village began in Visigothic times.  The founding of Rennes-le-Château has been dated at 414AD with the building of the castle a short time later, they were thinking at the time that the threat would come from the Vandals in Spain to the south.

  I have a small book published by SESA, the Société d'Etudes Scientifiques de l'Aude, all about Couiza, written in 1891 after a conference on 19th April that year. The well-known "son of Couiza", Louis Fédie the historian was there, as well as Isidore Gabelle who wrote "Couiza et ses environs," this booklet.  Here's a map of the village as it was in 1891.  Note the road passing in front of the château is called "Chemin des Visigoths" and goes straight to the church that they also founded. SESA thought it continued up the "rue de Quatre Coins" which was then straight.  Maybe the Visigoths forded the Sals.


 If so, they would have done so where now is the low concrete bridge (decorated here for Christmas.)  I believe this same spot was where the Battle of the Sals took place in Cathar times.


Back to 1891;  Isidore Gabelle of SESA tells us he explored the castle, the lower of the three "storeys or parts responding to three epochs," finding vaulted crypts dating from Visigothic times, by descending from the "glacier" or ice-house; which is unfortunately not marked on the map supplied!  It was possibly "caveau et souterrain"?  He decided it was an escape tunnel before it was made into a glacier.  He also found some of the underground "crypts" blocked with mud from the river. 
      This castle is classified as an Historic Monument, and is described as Renaissance because "there are few parts of it that can be dated pre-1400, even though the chapel by the entrance indicates the period of François the first, (1494 to 1547)” the rest is in the style of Henri II.  It  all hints at a building being there before that. . . . “and the floods of the Aude soon rendered the cellars uninhabitable.”     In no way would a defensive castle have been built on this spot; Château Joyeuse was a "stately home." 


 He goes on to explain that the part of the castle nearest the woollen mills is the oldest.  Wool?  Sheep-farming was the largest industry in the region; the wool was refined and then went to Esperaza for the hat industry.  These mills still exist between the castle and the main road.  They are now converted into offices and the canoe centre, from where you can paddle your own canoe northwards to Alet-les-Bains. They bring you back in a mini-bus because no-one could paddle their canoe past some of the rocks and rapids of the river Aude.

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As seen from the main road with the castle behind, and as seen from in front of the castle.

SESA tells us that at the time of their visit, the castle was encircled by a moat full of water. 

  History needs more info on the early life of the castle.  Another source told me that the very early castle, possibly Visigothic, was re-built around 1211 (some say 1231 or it took 20 years to do it) by Pierre de Voisins.  He was a commander of Simon de Montfort who also gave him Rennes-le-Château after the "Battle of the Sals" against the Cathars.  This battle of the Sals was Couiza against the armies of Simon de Montfort, on his way up to Rennes-le-Château - and Couiza lost.  As Rennes-le-Château was not a particularly Cathar town many think Simon de Montfort had heard tales of hidden treasure at Rennes . . . but I digress.  Pierre de Voisins, says SESA, in order to build the château, displaced the road to Spain which reached the ditch destined to conduct the river water to the front of the mansion/castle.  The Voisins became a big family in the region and later built the donjon at Arques in 1294.

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The château as it is today, from the playing fields in front of it, and its main entrance.

Then Couiza suffered, as did much of the region, from subsequent wars and also plague, which kept coming back.  Then Jean de Joyeuse married Françoise de Voisins, the last of the Voisins.  (Previously, another Voisin daughter married Pierre Raymond d'Hautpoul and the castle of Rennes-le-Château became not Voisin, but Hautpoul in 1422.)  Françoise owned other properties, including Arques and Puivert, which explains why there are models of Puivert and Arques in today's castle.

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  So in 1524 Couiza passed from Voisin hands to Joyeuse hands, and the couple started campaigning for the rights to local industries, such as wine, olive oil and wheat, to be signed.  Official historians step in here to say the castle was FIRST built then (implying there was no building on this spot before) because the family wanted to be near the old mills from where their wealth now came.  Apparently they do not believe a château of sorts was already there but the SESA evidence (I am a member) is good enough for me.)

  Jean Joyeuse was the governer of Narbonne and the lieutenant general of the Languedoc.  They built a château between 1540 and 1550, “employing a talented architect to build a sumptuous palace.”  Nicholas Bachelier was a famous Renaissance architect and the Joyeuse family was the richest in the region.  It was hardly a feudal castle.  Approximately square with four round towers at each corner, the construction was ordered by this Jean de Joyeuse and his son Guillaume de Joyeuse finished it in 1562.


Guillaume de Joyeuse III (1520-1592), himself the Bishop of Alet-les-Bains and the future Marshall of France in 1561.  He was a most interesting man, torn between his military career and his love of the Franciscans, with their motto of peace and love to all.  He was in Limoux working with them in 1591, they begged him to return to Couiza because of the plague, but he wouldn't leave where he was needed, and so died of the plague.

  Guillaume’s first son Anne was born in 1560 in the château de Joyeuse.  He was the oldest of several brothers and sisters, his brother François de Joyeuse later became a cardinal.  Anne was reared in Toulouse and attended the Collège de Navarre, starting in August 1572.
    In 1577, the Protestants of Alet-les-Bains pillaged the castle, as they had done the cathedral at Alet a few days before, and for a short while the vicountess and some of her children were held prisoner and maybe ransomed. 

  After college, Anne accompanied his father in the annual expeditions against the Huguenots in Languedoc and Auvergne.  In 1579, he was appointed governor of Mont Saint-Michel. In 1580, he took part in the siege of Fère-en-Tardenois.
    To the English ear, the name Anne for a man is very confusing!  The bar St. Anne is named after him.  Many times I had thought it so nice, that Sainte Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary and the grandmother of Jesus, should be remembered in Couiza!  Then I noticed that the name of the café was St. Anne, not Ste. Anne.  There must have been a spelling mistake!  I looked at all the notices in the café about rugby fixtures and the like.  In them all it said Bar St. Anne.

   One day I tackled the owner for an explanation.  “Ah!” he said, “That’s because Anne was not a lady but a man!” 
    “Anne Duke of Joyeuse!” I said.  “But why is he a saint?”   “That I do not know,” he replied gravely. 
    In 1580 titles were heaped upon Anne; the 21-year old was made Grand-admiral de France in June and Commander in the Ordre du Saint-Esprit, the kingdom's highest, in December.   He had became a favourite of the king.  He was a "keeper of the king's chambers," a rank of glorified butler that carried great privileges around the court.
     The King arranged Anne's marriage to his sister-in-law, Marguerite, daughter of Nicholas, Duke of Mercœur. The nuptials were celebrated on 18 September 1581 with “unprecedented magnificence” that lasted about a week.  King Henry III made Anne a Duke, giving him precedence over all other dukes and peers of France, with the exception of princes of the blood.  In addition to more than 300 000 écus in dowry, he was given the seigneury of Limours, a few kilometres south-west of Paris - a private home for the happy couple.
  Back in Couiza, now the threat of the Protestants had eased, repairs and reconstructions were done to the castle, possibly to reflect Anne’s great status.  He was appointed governor of Normandy in 1583 and Le Havre in 1584, then the Joyeuse brothers were allowed to govern the duchies of Anjou and Alençon in the name of the king.
    Then Anne went too far.  His massacre of 800 Huguenots during a campaign in Poitou (the massacre de Saint-Eloi, 21 June 1587) incurred the displeasure of the King.  Maybe Anne remembered being a prisoner in his own castle.  Anne was received coldly at court and, anxious to be restored to Henry's favour, led royal troops against the king's arch-enemy, Henry of Navarre.  But Anne was defeated by the Huguenots in the Battle of Coutras near Bordeaux and was taken prisoner.  Although he offered a ransom of 100,000 écus, Anne Joyeuse was killed in revenge for the massacre at Saint-Eloi.
    Anne’s father Guillaume, died in January 1592.  None of the other sons, Antoine, Georges, Henri, Scipion et François were in the least interested in the chateau and eventually, in 1649, the only daughter of Henri, sold it to a nephew of the Archbishop of Narbonne, Claude de Réhé.   Clause invested in the villages, especially improving the bridges and the church.  However, by then the bridge over the Aude had already been built up to Montazels; the earliest document about it found was dated 1618.   It is now called the Pont Vieux or old bridge (the second bridge a little southwards is modern) and one wonders how the river was crossed before, I am pretty sure the Celts had a crossing or ford there.  Meanwhile, SESA tells us today's bridge over the Sals, on the D118, was built then to provide a direct route to Spain.
    After the Revolution, (many archbishops fled France) when the castle was declared property of the State, it became a hospital for the troops General Dagobert.  In 1891 SESA visited it; their map above represents this time.  When the roof fell in in 1928, rapid action was necessary, and the building was restored after the second world war into the hotel it is today. 

  One day last summer the castle was open to the public so I took the chance to visit, there were so many things I wanted to find out.  It seemed to be many roofs (ceilings) were very old, older than 1540?  That brickwork supported the towers, so the rooms beneath them around the courtyard could still be used, and are.

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  The courtyard is frankly sublime!  You can see all the features below in the map above, the tower, the minstrel's gallery . . .

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  (We didn't go upstairs, because these were the private rooms of the hotel guests.)  I was disappointed to find the chapel no longer existed and was now a shop.


Beside the chapel was a passage to a side entrance of the castle, called Porte Charretière, which meant that carriages came in that way at one time.  I did not know, that day, about "line-ups" to Visigothic roads.

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  But I realised, as you can see by the pictures, this entrance to the castle lines up with the church (originally smaller and Visigothic) - and the church itself lines up with the rue de Quatre Coins by the Place Bistan in the centre of today's village.  This, to me, proves the first building on this spot was Visigothic. They probably built it where the old Celtic temple was, just as, in Rennes-les-Bains, the church was built on the site of an old Celtic, then Roman, temple.


  The back of the castle faces west.  Wouldn't it be wonderful to explore those upstairs rooms and towers!

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