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Guedelon A Medieval Chateau Built in 21st Century France


In the small village of Guédelon in the départment of Yonne in Burgundy, between the towns of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye and Saint-Amand-en-Puisaye an extraordinary project is underway. A medieval chateau is being constructed using 800 year old methods and tools – it is the biggest archaeological project of its kind in the world and it is extraordinary.

The Castle of Guédelon is a “follie”, the idea of local French chateau restorer and owner Michel Guyot. He and his brother Jacques have a passion for historic buildings and cut their teeth restoring an abandoned and almost derelict chateau with huge success. The work inspired in him a passion to learn more about building a castle from scratch. So where do you start when you want to build a 13th Century chateau just as it would have been done 800 years ago? “Materially” says Sarah Preston the Press officer for Guedelon “the first challenge was raising enough funds to get the project off the ground. Funding a suitable site was crucial, as well as finding the raw materials required in the construction. We were fortunate to find an abandoned quarry, which as well as having the largest deposit of sandstone in the area, was also surrounded by oak forests, and had rich supplies of sand and clay”.

From those humble beginnings in 1997 has grown a most magnificent undertaking. One that has seen several hundred volunteers join the paid members of staff over the years.  They are united by their passion for this huge adventure, the chance to learn about old techniques of building and living, in a way that’s never been tried before now.


“It will take our team at least 25 years to complete the castle. This is considerably longer than it would have taken in the early 13th century. We will easily take twice as long as our medieval counterparts because we don’t have the experience that they had. We have had to learn so much, like how to quarry by hand, make lime-mortar, even how to hoist loads. We’ll also take longer because we are open to the public and spend at least half of our time talking to visitors and explaining our work.”

And learn they have. There are few if any rule books for medieval methods of construction and when you arrive at Guédelon you won’t hear the sound of machinery or power tools. You won’t see sacks of plaster and supplies from a builder’s merchant.  Materials on site – sand, stone, wood – are transported by horse and cart. Timber felled in the forest is also hauled using horse and pole arch. Here almost everything is created from scratch – just as it would have been done in the 1200s. Blacksmiths make nails and hammers, carpenters build wooden structures from trees felled in the nearby woods, paint is created from powder found in the local soil, masons chisel out blocks that can take weeks for a single slab.

“We have to have a reference for every feature within the castle, every window, door, fireplace, tile or mural painting. We have a variety of different sources for these features: castle remains; the results of archaeological research; illustrations on manuscripts; stained glass windows. When it came to researching paving tiles we also made visits to the British Museum which has a fine selection of paving tiles from this period.

On site, methods of construction are worked out by trial and error. “One of the project’s principal raisons d’être is to demonstrate and explain to as many people as possible, the craftsmanship of our forebears” says Sarah.

“Each new season brings new challenges but undoubtedly the building of the first cross-rib vault was a turning point in our story. The question of how to raise the final roof timbers when the gable wall had already been built was also one we puzzled over. Equally learning to master the incredibly hard ferruginous sandstone which we find in the quarry was also a great challenge.

“Challenges include learning to produce flour with the water mill which we have built in partnership with INRAP (French National Institute of Preventative Archaeological Research)”.

The attention to detail, the willingness of the workers to try, try and try again is incredible. Everything is as authentic as possible, even down to the clothes worn on site. “The costumes which we wear are loosely based on illustrations which we find on illuminated manuscripts. We are though mindful of the fact that the workers are 21st-century employees: their comfort and safety is paramount. They wear shirts and tunics…with safety shoes, protective gloves and hard hats”.

Sarah explains that the team at Guédelon created a fictional lord for the castle, Seigneur Guilbert, a low-ranking nobleman, of modest social and economic status. “We have had to learn the importance of matching the quality of finish on dressed stones to the social status of our fictional patron. Guédelon is not a royal castle and the lord would not have been able to afford to use ashlar blocks. At the beginning of the project, we were giving the stones too good a finish; we had to study local castles and understand the need to adapt our working practices”.

Around the castle itself a little “village” has naturally grown. There are the woodcutters; the tilers and their tile kiln; the dyers’ hut; and the workshop where pigments are made for painting the walls of the castle; a forge, a rope-maker, a wood carver, a mason’s yard and a weaver.

It is an astonishing, astounding achievement and it is solving many questions and puzzles about the buildings of the past. That knowledge is even being used to help restore the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris…

Love castles? Have a listen to our Amazing Castles of France podcast! 

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