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It is on a hill, it is square with a tall tower at each corner; it has turrets, battlements and even 2 drawbridges which overlook the moats.
The design reflects the château’s former role as a military fortress. There is only one entrance, and exit, which is through the east facing wall. The moats, draw-bridges, portcullis, iron-studded oak doors, corbels, machicolations and meurtrière (murder-holes) are all contemporary reminders of the challenges the numerous besieging armies needed to overcome, in order to capture the château.
These mediaeval features continue around the south wall and to some extent the north wall, however, the west wall and most of the north wall reflect the somewhat more peaceful times of the Renaissance and the 18th century Enlightenment periods. They reveal the style and comfort of a nobleman and his family, clearly of considerable wealth and influence at the Royal Court, rather than that of a regional war-lord.
The façade of the East Wall and Main Entrance comprise features primarily from the 12th through to the 15th centuries. The roofs, however, were re-constructed in 18th century and have been periodically renovated since then.
The central, square tower through which one gains access to the château interior is made of granite and dates from 15th century and is interesting for several reasons. Firstly, the construction of the tower evinces the increasing change in use of the château from fortress to stately home, since within its walls is contained the family chapel. Its location being indicated by the first floor windows and the cross at the apex of the roof.
The family crest or blason is described in heraldic terms as “azur, with lion d’or armed and langued gules” or in plain English as “a bright blue background, with a golden lion displaying its teeth and claws aggressively and showing a rose red tongue”. This is mounted with a marquis crown indicating the Bonneval family’s noble rank; as well as the S.P.Q.R. cypher. The whole design is then surrounded by the family motto or devise:
“Victorios A Tots Lous Azars”
Which means “Victorious in (or against) all hazards!” expressed in medieval Occitan, the ancient language of the Limousin and Aquitaine regions. Jean Mouzat (1905 – 1986) Professor of Language and Literature at Limoges University and noted expert on Occitan, expressed the opinion that this version dated from the early 14th or perhaps late 13th century.
Above this is a slightly smaller but more complicated engraving comprising 4 individual coats of arms, grouped in pairs; and each pair including the “fleur de lys” arms of the King of France. The combined group also includes a “porc-epic” or porcupine, emblem of Louis XII, and the “salamander” of François Ier ,“Roi de France”.
The Main Entrance comprises a low, narrow pedestrian gate and a higher, wider gate for carriages, carts and cannons. Both gates are protected internally. by a portcullis and meurtrière and externally, by the raised draw-bridges and machicolations. The type of draw-bridge seen at Château de Bonneval is typical of other regional châteaux of the 15th century in particular Château du Lieu-Dieu and Château de Pompadour. However, the examples at Château de Hautefort are of a later, 17th century design.
The actual draw-bridges are 19th century renovations but the wrought iron door and inner, wooden studded door are from the 16th century.
Immediately to the right of the central entry tower in the angle between the tower and the wall, is a curiously positioned watchtower. Its design is similarly curious, comprising a singularly designed corbelled base, consisting of eight finely craved granite arcs of increasing radius.
To the left is another tower, known as Le Donjon, or “the Keep” of the original fortress. This is another curiously shaped architectural feature, in that it is not circular but is distorted with an almond-shaped spur facing in a south-easterly direction. One explanation proposed for this unusual military design is that it reduces the size of the “blind spot” at the base of the Keep, which would be otherwise created by a circular tower. If the tower was circular then this “blind spot” would be the “shadow” which could not be covered by observation from the other, neighbouring towers. This unusual shape is, therefore, an innovative way of reducing the area where attackers would be safe from defensive fire and, thereby, improving the defensibility of the Keep.
The South Wall is distinctive as being the most austere and “militaristic” in its appearance. It is virtually unchanged since the 14th century and is the aspect of the overall château which gives the clearest impression of having been witness to the great struggles of the Middle Ages and the subsequent Wars of Religon. This curtain wall is topped with great corbels, machicolations and crenelated gallery, which is now roofed. This gallery is a walkway from Le Donjon to the massive tower in the south west corner with the sinister name of La Tour du Diable (The Devil’s Tower).
The architecture of the West Façade evokes a completely different set of images and emotions than the sombre and forbidding South Wall and Devil’s Tower.
This is the wing of the château which comprises the majority of the state rooms, ballrooms and living apartments, each afforded wonderful views across the estate; as well as being lit by the warm afternoon sun. Here we see the grandeur, balance and tranquillity of an 18th century palace rather than the muscular and intimidating menace of a mediaeval citadel.
The West Facade exemplifies the major works undertaken during the 18th century renovations by the architect Joseph Brousseau (1733 – 1797), on behalf of Hyppolyte de Bonneval, the then Marquis and occupant of the château. For the nobility of the second half of the 18th century, Brousseau was one the “must have” French architects; but especially for the new builds (e.g. the Bishops Palace in Limoges, and the châteaux of Beauvais, Saint Feyre and Salvanet) as well as important renovations (e.g. Château de Bonneval, General Hospital at Limoges and Limoges Cathedral) across the Limousin.
Brousseau followed 18th century architectural conventions by enabling the state rooms and ball rooms to extend easily to the outside, to take advantage of the warm regional climate, by providing a vast terrace, accessible through the many tall, ground-floor windows.
Similarly this flat terrace, with its elegant Lion topped balustrades, also ensures that the stunning views from within the staterooms remain uninterrupted; whilst at the same time providing a viewer from the outside, with perspective lines and hence, drawing their eye towards the serene classicism of the remodelled façade. Or, as one noted historian states: “In order to accentuate the beauty (of the façade) with its character of nobility and simplicity and the serene quiet of the place.”
The North Wall and Façade offer yet more examples of architectural curiosities. In some ways, the North Wall shares many of the characteristics of the South Wall.
The evidence of 12th century defences is clearly demonstrated by the massive curtain wall sitting between two identically huge towers, each of which is more than 12m in diameter; and the walls are more than 2m thick. These constructions are adorned with features typical of mediaeval military architecture; parapets, crenulations, machicolations and arrow slits or balistaria. However, their protective integrity has been seriously compromised by the inclusion of a number of large windows introduced during renovations in the 17th century.
Once again we witness the external signs of the evolution of Château de Bonneval from formidable citadel to elegant stately home. However, it is not until you enter the château that you truly experience the grace and sophistication that makes Château de Bonneval such a jewel of French heritage.