Open any book on Scottish castles and sooner or later mention will be made of Chateau de Coucy in Picardy, France. This, the greatest castle of the middle ages, is seen as the inspiration for castles such as Dirleton, Kildrummy and Bothwell.
Coucy was built in the 1220s by Enguerrand Lord of Coucy (1182-1242) known as ‘The Great’. Enguerrand had a distinguished military career and was a member of the French force which invaded England in 1216 to depose King John. A famous rhyme is associated with him: 'Je suis ni roi; ni prince aussi: Je suis le seigneur de Coucy'.
However, it is with his daughter Marie de Coucy that the connection with Scotland becomes a reality. On 15 May 1239 she married King Alexander II of Scotland at Roxburgh and as a consequence gave birth to the future king, Alexander III, whose tragic accident at Kinghorn was to precipitate the Wars of Independence. The marriage brought an alliance between the Scots and the Lords of Coucy and for the rest of the 13th century they exchanged soldiers and money. Alexander died in 1249 and 2 years later Marie returned to Picardy, although she would frequently revisit the Kingdom of Scotland. It is to be noted that her steward was none other than John de Vaux, builder of Dirleton Castle. So, unless the Scots travelled to France with their eyes in their pockets, Coucy would have been as well known to them as any castle in Scotland.
All went well with Coucy until the mean little wars of ‘The Fronde’ in the 1650s when it was held against the young Louis XIV. After a 3 months siege to re-assert royal authority Cardinal Mazarin had the gate, chemise and the vaults blown by gunpowder. Fortunately the donjon survived these violations with only a crack in its wall.
In the mid 19th century Napoleon III commissioned his architect, Viollet le Duc, to restore Coucy but abandoned the project due to cost, choosing instead the Chateau de Pierrefonds which was preferred by the Empress as nearer to Paris. Viollet le Duc was permitted, however, to attach 2 metal bands around the top of the donjon to counteract the effects of Mazarin’s engineers.
Upon the outbreak of war in 1914 the Germans invaded northern France and occupied Coucy le Chateau (town and castle were one). In March 1917 they were forced to retreat and an order was issued for the destruction of the donjon to prevent its use as an observation post.
The scene was now set for the most calamitous episode in the history of Coucy but the order to destroy was not well received. Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, commander of the Sixth Army, urged that it be spared advising General Ludendorff, Chief of General Staff, that since the Germans had found no use for the castle neither would the French. Any destruction, he argued “would only be a useless blow to our own prestige.” Ludendorff did not take kindly to being lectured in military matters by a princeling and decided to make it an example of superior values. The donjon with its 4 flanking towers were rammed with 28 tons of explosives. Not only this but the town gates and every building, including the church, were likewise prepared - then the order was given. Three days later when the French army entered Coucy nothing was to be found but rubble.
The destruction caused so much outrage that in April 1917 the ruins were declared ‘a memorial to barbarity’. War reparations were used to clear the towers and to consolidate the walls but the ruins of the great donjon were allowed to remain as they fell. Today Coucy is in state care.
Article by Scottish Castles Association member Brian McGarrigle