High upon the chalky cliffs of Andely stands the twelfth-century stronghold Château-Gaillard, once the mightiest castle of its time. Now a romantic ruin, it began life as an insolent bully, a bastion of astonishing proportions and capabilities unlike anything Western Europe had ever seen before. Flung up in record time in the face of Richard Lionheart’s archrival, Philip of France, it effectively called a halt to French encroachments in Richard’s hereditary lands in Normandy. But even more forcefully, it sent a direct signal to Philip that Richard, king of the English and ruler over half of France besides, was Philip’s superior in everything that mattered to a medieval monarch.
Not that this was anything new. Ever since William, duke of Normandy, seized the English crown in 1066, English monarchs had run circles around their French counterparts, outshining them in glamour as well as in territorial possessions and sheer power. Significantly, glamour counted—as much in those distant days as in our own. Richard Lionheart was the culmination of more than a century of larger-than-life forebears, from William the Conqueror to the equally legendary Henry II of England and his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, who seized the state of Western Europe and bestrode it like colossi. Beside them, the kings of France appeared pitifully weak and—in some intangible way—less kingly.
Richard, the golden child of Henry II and Eleanor, came to center stage with the confidence of a legend in the making, having extraordinary abilities of his own. The heir of a by-then magnificent empire, he was also an unrivaled warrior and leader of men. By comparison, Philip II of France seemed distinctly lackluster.
And yet Philip, like his forebears, possessed an amazing degree of tenacity. Despite the odds, he refused to give up. In a lesser man, this might have placed him directly on the short road to trouble, but Philip also possessed great abilities of his own, including a talent for administration and a remarkably clever—some would say scheming—mind.
Early on, this intelligent and crafty man set his sights on redressing the long-standing imbalance of power between the two royal houses. Not surprisingly, as he watched Château-Gaillard spring forth upon the Rock of Andely, Philip seethed. "Were its walls of iron, I nonetheless could size it!" he contemptuously cried.
"Were its walls of butter, I could defend it!" Richard roared back.
Verbal posturing, to be sure, but even more an exercise in raw power, for the medieval castle was both symbol and embodiment of dominance, and the presence of a state-of-the-art bastion like Gaillard on the very boundary of the French royal domain signaled a fundamental challenge to the French monarch. Philip read the challenge rightly and responded in kind.
What follows is a story of a remote time and a deep-rooted conflict, whose unexpected denouement here, on the Rock of Andely, set the stage for epic struggles between the French and the English for centuries to come.
By Mary McAuliffe