For anyone visiting France for the castles or medieval history, Guédelon is a must. Over 300,000 people visit each year, and for a not insignificant number they have been before – more than once. The castle, strictly speaking a castle fort, even features on niche itineraries that explore castle architecture of the mid 13th century – including the Louvre in Paris. Guédelon clearly keeps good company. But it is not a castle built in the Middle Ages. And it is not a replica of one either. Nonetheless, Guédelon really does have to be experienced, and not just visited.
(Re-opened 11 June 2020)
The information on this page was last checked and/or updated on 24 July 2020
The story of how Guédelon came to be is one of serendipity. A chance remark in the conclusion of a research report was seen by the right person at the right time, leading to an extraordinary project that archaeologists, researchers and visitors alike have been watching develop since 1998.
Since then a team of stonemasons and builders, craftspeople and artisans have been building a medieval Château Fort on a disused quarry in a forest in Burgundy. They are dressed in period garb and use only period-specific construction techniques and methods.
Their work is both informed by and adds to archaeological research about medieval castle construction. All the while they are also actively engaging with interested visitors. Guédelon then is not simply a tourist attraction to be visited, it is at once a scientific endeavour and experiential archaeology for people from all walks of life with varying levels of interest in and understanding of the medieval history.
Guédelon: A 13th Century Castle Fort
Guédelon Castle has a backstory – a fictional narrative if you like. Creating the story and establishing specific details is necessary because it determines the look of the castle being built today. The social and financial position of any would be castle builder in the Middle Ages would have dictated all aspects of the castles appearance, not least its shape and size, and what features are included.
The chapel tower, to the left, linked to the western flanking tower by a crenellated curtain wall with parapet, which visitors can walk along.
Construction of Guédelon began in 1228, two years after Louis IX was crowned in Reims. The builder, known to all as Guilbert, is a low-ranking local lord. His overlord is Jean de Toucy, who is himself a vassal to the king. Guilbert is given permission to build a fortified manor house with crenellations.
His castle fort is typical of the 13th century, and follows principles of design and layout favoured by Philip II. Guédelon then shares certain architectural features with the Louvre Castle (the foundations of which can be seen in the basement of the Louvre) but would have not been anywhere near as grand. For example, the stone used to create the building blocks of Guédelon castle would not have been as finely dressed as those we can see at the Louvre Castle.
Guilbert’s castle does not have a drawbridge at the entrance because that would have been beyond the status and financial means of this castle builder had he existed in the 13th century.
Castles of this type built in the 13th century shared a number of features that are being employed at Guédelon. The castle has a polygonal layout with high curtain walls made of stone and surrounded by a dry ditch. One of the flanking towers is always higher and larger than the others and a twin-drum tower protects the entrance gate. These are features visitors can see, or at least observe the construction of, when they visit.
Guédelon is not a Replica
The castle is not being built on the ruins of a pre-existing castle, and neither will the completed castle be a reconstruction or replica of one that exists elsewhere. Guédelon is essentially a new build 13th century castle in the 21st century – where the purpose of the attraction is the construction of the castle.
The project team chose a construction date, designed the layout and are in the process of building that castle such that neither the building nor the methods used would have been out of place in the 13th century.
For this the team draw on a wide range of sources to inform their project. These include the canon and standards used for castle forts and manor houses at the time, the surviving buildings and their characteristics from this period and the results of archaeological research. What you see at Guédelon is a coming together of features and details that exist in a number of different places, but never all in one building.
Wall paintings in the bed chamber, the imagery from a church in nearby Moutiers-en-Puisaye.
For example, archaeologists have no evidence that wall paintings were ever used to decorate a bed chamber such as we see at Guédelon. That wall painting existed at this time, and in this area, is not in doubt. It is not inconceivable that a man of Guilbert’s status would have had some decoration in his bed chamber. The imagery used in the bed chamber at Guédelon has been taken from a church of this period that is in the nearby village of Moutiers-en-Puisaye.
So although the project is keeping true to what we know about such buildings and their owners, it is also pushing at the limits of knowledge by asking questions that might not otherwise have been asked in the normal course of archaeological research.
Medieval Building Techniques and Methods
The building site chosen for the construction of Guédelon Castle is a disused quarry, abandoned in the 1950s. What makes the site appropriate is the availability of the various natural resources required to build the castle, not just stone. These include wood to burn and for construction, clay for the roof tiles and ceramic vessels, ochre for pigment and sand for the mortar and other uses. Our local lord Guilbert would not have had to deal with the considerable costs of transporting these materials to his land.
Everything required for building the castle is made on site using existing knowledge of traditional methods. And where that knowledge is missing, or limited, experiments are carried out to find a solution that not only works but is in keeping with the period. To fire the unbaked clay roof tiles and vessels, the potters built five different kilns before having a kiln that worked. This exercise has added to knowledge of clay firing in 13th century France.
There are no modern mechanical cranes onsite to do the heavy lifting. Only traditional techniques are employed. Here a wooden treadmill is used to lift pieces of stone into place.
Medieval scaffolding in place at the entrance, between the two towers that make up the castle’s gatehouse.
A stonemason working on one of the steps for the spiral staircase.
Construction of one of the towers that make up the gatehouse – you can see the spiral staircase towards the back on the left.
Health and Safety at Guédelon
It may seem to some that building a 13th century castle using medieval techniques and methods is a somewhat academically high-minded exercise. After all, construction sites even today can be dangerous places. Surely methods have improved for good reason. While the work is closely watched by a group of archaeologists, historians and architects, ensuring that the castle and its construction remains true to the period, there are necessary concessions to health and safety regulations of today.
In the photograph above of the construction of the twin-drum entrance you can probably recognise (lower left) what is a safety helmet. It has been disguised with cloth. In the photograph below the young quarryman, extracting rock from the quarry, is wearing a mask and safety glasses. Construction workers also wear steel toecap boots. These are not only essential requirements on construction sites today but there would almost certainly have been medieval precedents. Medieval stonemasons and quarrymen, for instance, must have worn some form of eye protection. Otherwise they would have been blinded quite quickly by the chips of stone flying about.
A quarryman extracts rock from the quarry on which the castle was founded.
What is There to See at Guédelon?
In seven hectares of woodland you can see the construction of the castle, as it happens. And this is not just the laying of stone, but also a number of associated activities. From quarrymen, stonemasons and carpenters, to woodcutters, blacksmiths and tilers, as well as potters, basket weavers, carters and rope makers. There are in fact 11 different trades represented on the site. All of these may be busy in their tasks when you visit.
To visit Guédelon is to visit an active ‘medieval’ construction site. The various people will be doing what is required at that moment in time. There are no formal demonstrations, and there are no set times for when tasks will be carried out, as is usually the case on a so-called living archaeological sites. The workers are engaged in their job and they get on with it.
As visitors you are encouraged to talk to the workers, and part of their work is to engage with visitors. And from what I saw when I visited, they are only too happy to do so.
Of the castle itself, you can walk along the parapets of two of the exterior curtain walls (from where you get a great view of the courtyard). You can see the plan of the castle as the bases of the four towers and the twin-drum towers that make up the gatehouse are complete. You can go inside the great hall and the adjacent bed chamber with painted walls. The chapel, the kitchen and the guardrooms are also complete.
Beyond the castle and the activities surrounding it, you can take a short walk in the forest to see a medieval mill in action (weather and other conditions permitting).
Inside the castle’s great hall.
A vast a-frame timber constructions serves as the carpentry workshop.
Not only are the iron fittings required for the castle made onsite, but so too the iron tools required by the builders.
The kiln being loaded with unfired roof tiles.
The roof of the chapel tower was completed in 2019.
All the baskets that are required by the builders, for example for the lifting of ceramic roof tiles, are woven onsite.
The pigment workshop, where the pigments used onsite, whether in the wall paintings or in the colouring fabric, are made by crushing natural rock ochres found onsite.
When Will Guédelon Castle be Finished?
If you have not already been you may very well be wondering how much time you have left. The team think there is about eight to ten more years of construction. The estimated completion date then is 2030. And there are still a number of features left to witness being built. There is much work still to be done on the twin-drum gatehouse the great tower and the portcullis. So there is still plenty of time to plan your visit.
Because the construction has been the attraction, it will be interesting to see what becomes of the project in 2030.
The finished thing!
New for 2020
As this is a construction site, there is always something new to see. Hence the reason there are a number of people who return year after year. When I visited in September 2019 I got to see the near final stages of the construction of the pepperpot roof timber of the chapel tower. While you may have missed the building of certain features, there will more features to see. The website has a year-by-year account of the progress that has been made so far.
A functioning medieval flour mill, built in collaboration with the National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research, can be visited in 2020.
In last few years the builders have been working with experts from France’s National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research to create a working medieval flour mill. As of 2020 visitors can now follow a woodland path into the forest for about 500 metres and see this mill in action. A miller will show how the running of the water in the millrace turns millstones that grind the wheat to produce flour.
Also, during 2020 the currently incomplete crenellated wall-walk on the southern wall (see the photograph below) will be finished so that a platform can be created that will enable visitors to watch the building of the cross-rib vault in the Eastern Tower.
The incomplete southern wall of the castle will be extended (from the great tower) in 2020 to create a visitor platform.
Enjoy a Medieval Meal
What anyone will see when they visit Guédelon will differ day-to-day, even hour-to-hour. You are visiting an active building site, not an attraction offering demonstrations of medieval trades and crafts. For those who want to enjoy a few hours exploring all aspects of the castle’s construction, and the various related activities, an onsite restaurant allows you to take a break and enjoy a snack or a meal. In keeping with the times of course.
Herbs and vegetables that would have been known and used in the 13th century are grown in the kitchen gardens.
Up until 2019 catering onsite was contracted out. The attraction has now taken control of the restaurant with the view to extending the visitor experience of medieval Guédelon to the restaurant. Much of the food served in the restaurant is grown in the kitchen gardens, such as broad beans, peas, chickpeas and lentils. And the same ethos applies to what is offered as with the building of the castle. For example, white and red carrots are grown and served as there were no orange carrots in the 13th century.
A three course meal with dishes typical of the Burgundy region: escargot de Bourgogne, duck breast in a red wine sauce from the Yonne Valley, poached pear.
Where is Guédelon Castle?
Guédelon is near the village of Moutiers-en-Puisaye, Yonne Department in the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region. You can locate the site on our Interactive Map of Sites and Museums in France, as well as search for other historical places of interest nearby.
July/August Every day
4 July to 31 August: 09h30 – 18h30
September Closed on Tuesday and Wednesday
Monday, Thursday, Friday, Sunday: 10h00 – 17h30
Saturday 10h00 – 18h30pm
October Closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays
1 October to 1 November: 10h00 – 17h30
Last admission is no later than one hour before closing time.
Closed from: 2 November 2020 until spring 2021
Teen (14-17 yrs) €12
Child (5-13 yrs) €11
There is a small reduction if you buy your tickets online at least 7 days in advance.
Museum, Gift Shop, Restaurant, Picnic Tables, Parking (also for buses)