The picturesque Chateau de Pirou in Normandy is one of the oldest Norman castles in existence and is now a popular attraction.
The site has been occupied since the 9th century, although at that time it was a wooden construction and was updated to stone in the 12th century. It was built to defend the nearby harbour.
Surrounded by a moat, with granite towers and turrets, and defended by five gates, Chateau de Pirou is simply a wonderful building, constructed just as we might imagine a fortified castle would be built. It was built by the Lords of Pirou, one of whom found favour with William the Conqueror during the Battle of Hastings, and was rewarded with an estate in Somerset.
The Chateau is famous for a legend that is as old as the castle itself. Under siege from Viking invaders, the inhabitants were at a loss for how to resolve their situation. At one stage, the Vikings were surprised by the silence that had fallen over the Chateau. After waiting for a day, the invaders scaled the walls, and were confronted by an empty castle, save for an old man in bed. They promised to spare the old man’s life in return for learning of how the castle’s inhabitants had escaped. They were told that the family living at the castle had used spells from a book of magic, to transform themselves into geese and flown to safety. The Vikings had indeed recalled geese flying overhead the previous day. The castle was burned to the ground, and the geese were unable to recover the book to reverse the spell. Each year, the geese return to the castle in the hope of finding the book again.
During the Hundred Years War, Pirou came under siege numerous times, and ownership of the castle changed on many occasions. One inhabitant of note was the knight Jehan Falstolf, who was renowned for his bravery, and possibly served as the inspiration for Shakespeare’s character Falstaff. Although Pirou was spared demolition during the French Revolution, its buildings were used as barns. The Chateau began to fall into disrepair until restoration work was undertaken in 1968, and Pirou is now privately owned.
On entering the Chateau, one must proceed through four gates, before walking around the castle and proceeding through the fifth and final gate. Entrance into Pirou is across an arched stone bridge, which replaced the drawbridge in the 17th century.
In the lower courtyard there is an 18th century bakery, a cider press building, Saint Laurent’s chapel and the Salle des Plaids. The Chapel contains a wonderful 15th century altar, and statues of St John the Baptist and Saint Laurent. The guardhouse, complete with large fireplace, is also well worth a visit.
The Salle des Plaids was converted into a barn during the Revolution, but formerly had housed the justice room, which the Lords of Pirou occupied to collect taxes and solve disputes. It has now been restored, and contains one of the highlights of Pirou - the Pirou tapestry. At 58 metres in length, the tapestry is in the style of the Bayeux tapestry and tells of the Norman invasion of Sicily and the conquest of southern Italy. It is possible to walk up to the ramparts and walk along the castle walls, and this provides excellent views.