The Underground Mysteries of Château de Brézé
Pretty and charming on the outside, but deeply enigmatic and ancient down below: Château de Brézé is a place of many mysteries. Located in the scenic Loire Valley in France, this castle and the entire region boast a long and exciting history that spans many centuries. France itself has a rich medieval heritage, and its landscapes are dotted far and wide with magnificent castles and strongholds. But the Château de Brézé – the Brézé Castle – is unique in many regards.
One of the oldest in the Loire Valley, Château de Brézé hides a well of secrets beneath its foundations. Old tunnels spread beneath it in an underground labyrinth that stretches some 1.9 miles (3 kilometers). Many niches and nooks still remain to be explored, lending secrecy and mystery to this seemingly idyllic castle. Join us as we recount the tale of this great wonder of France’s medieval heritage, as we descend into the depths of these tunnels to find the true purpose of their construction.
Ancient and Proud: The History of Château de Brézé and Its Underground World
The first thing that strikes you about Château de Brézé is the magnificent, idyllic look. The luxurious design of its terraces, balustrades, and the complex façade clearly date to the Renaissance period, when the castle underwent some serious work and face lifting. But it is much, much older than that. Although it has been dated to around 1060 AD, this castle is believed to have existed in some form even before that. Scholars suggest that it was originally built for defense purposes against the Viking incursions. From between 830 and 911 AD, Viking raids were a regular occurrence in many parts of France, and that gave rise to towers and fortified houses, which eventually grew into castles. Château de Brézé is a clear example of a defensive structure that grew into an elaborate castle complex over the years and centuries. Its original layout and appearance are not known, but it was most certainly a very simple structure.
The first proper document related to Château de Brézé is dated to 1063 AD. It was recorded in the Abbey of Saint Florent at Saint Hillaire that a castle exists at that location, known as the “Rock of Brézé”, hinting at an earlier date of construction, which ties in with the theory of a defensive building against the Vikings. Almost a hundred years later, we learn that Brézé is an important fiefdom of medieval France. The Lords of Brézé are known to have made numerous donations to the Abbey of Fontevraud in that same region, which indicates the early significance of this castle and the lords that possessed it in the early and middle medieval period.
The next important mention of Brézé is dated much later, to 1302. And that is where the castle’s history enters its most important period. Its holder, Geoffrey de Brézé, divided his estates in this year, and Brézé Castle and its lands became the property of his daughter, Catherine. It can be safely assumed that the nobles of de Brézé were without a doubt an influential family with various lands in their possession.
Sixteen years later, in 1318, we learn that the daughter of that same Catherine de Brézé – Jeanne de l’Etang – married the nobleman Pean de Maillé. Records from that period survive that tell of a kidnapping of young Jeanne. Whether Pean did this out of love or out of interest, remains unknown. Either way, the marriage took place and Pean de Maillé received the lands of Brézé as the dowry. This is the beginning of the family of Maillé-Brézé which would rise to become one of the most powerful noble families of the region, rising to prominence and ruling Brézé from the 13 th to 17 th centuries AD.
The Rise to Power of the Maillé-Brézé Family
A crucial date for the castle was the year 1448 AD. It was in this year that King René of Anjou, known as the Good King René, allows the lord of the castle, Gilles de Maillé-Brézé, to carry out further works on his castle and add fortifications and a garrison. It is believed that these were the first major works on the castle in its history, and that the first outlines of the moat were created during this period.
But about a century later, in 1560, Arthus de Maillé-Brézé, the reigning lord of the castle, decided to rebuild the castle. The rebuilding construction work took 20 years. By 1580 the old, medieval castle had been completely rebuilt in the Renaissance style. It is believed that the castle’s extensive underground tunnels were finished in this period.
The Château de Brézé moat is the deepest in all of Europe. (Gerd Eichmann / CC BY-SA 4.0)
It is clear that Arthus de Maillé-Brézé had a clear idea of what he wanted to achieve. Château de Brézé boasts an incredible defensive layout that follows a U-shape pattern. During the rebuilding of the castle, the moat was deepened to its final depth. As the castle stands on limestone bedrock, which is easy to work with and carve, the builders simultaneously dug down into the rock to create a much deeper moat. The stone excavated from the moat construction was used for building the new castle. The final result is now the deepest moat in Europe with a depth of 18 meters (60 ft). And as the castle sits on limestone bedrock, the builders also dug out deep tunnels beneath the foundations, excavating many kilometers of swirling corridors that served a variety of purposes. And that is where the story of the castle becomes really interesting.
In the Darkness Beneath the Earth
The subterranean tunnels of Château de Brézé are a true wonder of the medieval world. Dubbed as the “castle beneath the castle,” these tunnels are a mix of hand carved tunnels, fortified walls and barriers, staircases, and light shafts. The entire design of the tunnels serves a defensive purpose, resembling a system of medieval “bunkers.” The underground complex was designed to allow the defenders to “disappear” into a complex system of corridors, where they could survive for a period of time, and defend themselves too. As you might expect, the underground complex has sleeping chambers, bakeries, kitchens, stables, and defensive positions as well. Food storage rooms and cellars allowed for ample supplies to be stocked, and the cool environment helped this further. Unique stables were carved into the bedrock featuring feeding troughs and tying posts made with great attention to detail. Sloping ramps for cattle still remain under the castle today.
Magnificent Château de Brézé in France: elegant and serene on the surface, but go deeper and you find yourself in the famous “castle beneath the castle.” Source: Adrian Farwell / CC BY-SA 3.0
One of the unique aspects of these tunnels is their defensive purpose. Great attention was given to finding the best strategic approach to building these tunnels. Thus, we can see long and perfectly straight corridors with nothing but a hole in the wall at the opposite end. Such corridors allowed the defenders to shoot arrows from a defended position, creating a bottle neck which allowed even a single defender to defeat a number of approaching attackers.
The other, natural defense mechanism was the sheer complexity of the tunnels. The numerous and seemingly random dead ends, swirling tunnels and complex crossroads are difficult to navigate for the first time. Many rooms are completely unreachable without proper knowledge and serve as the most secure spots in the whole system. In the very center of the complex is the so-called “castle beneath the castle,” consisting of stacked-stone barriers and walls, and several fully enclosed rooms that resemble a modern bunker. These “hidden” rooms also showcase the unique light sources: long shafts of light that connect the depths to the surface. Carved entirely by hand, some shafts exceed a depth of 8 meters (26 ft).
An Underground Fortress That Cannot be Stormed
Any would-be attacker who thought to descend beneath Brézé castle would face a challenge from the very first step. The builders thought of everything. There are only two ways to enter the underground complex: one is via stairs for humans, and the other is via the sloping ramp for cattle. Both narrow and hard to use in a hurry, these two entry points would have presented all kinds of challenges in an invasion or attack. At best, the attackers could only send down two men shoulder to shoulder, or more likely in single file one man behind another. This means that they would be an easy target for archers, or a skilled, well-armed, armored warrior. And if worse came to worst, the defenders could simply “disappear” into the belly of the earth, hiding or creating ambushes. And that is because these tunnels stretch for 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) underground. Filled with rooms of various sizes, nooks, niches, holes, and shafts, the tunnels of Château de Brézé provided an infinity of options for any defender.
The Lords of Maillé-Brézé continued to thrive after their castle was fully rebuilt. In 1615, the Brézé lands were elevated to the rank of a Marquisate. King Louis XIII thus made Urbain de Maillé-Brézé a Marquis, even though he was already the Marshal of France. Urbain then married the daughter of a very important figure: Cardinal Armand Jean du Plessis, Duke of Richelieu. This marriage brought Urbain and the house of Maillé-Brézé enormous wealth and prominence.
Urbain’s daughter, Claire Clémence de Maillé-Brézé, was married in 1650 to a highly important individual. She married Louis II de Bourbon, Prince de Condé, the Prince du Sang, and a cousin to the King of France. After Urbain died, the Brézé Marquisate thus passed into the hands of the Condé family.
A passageway between the outer walls and the inner structures of Château de Brézé. (Marc Ryckaert / CC BY-SA 4.0)
A Neo-Gothic Facelift
The Prince of Condé traded Château de Brézé and its holdings in 1682 for lands in Brittany held by Thomas Dreux. This resulted in the birth to the so-called Dreux-Brézé family, another important family in the history of this castle, which would control it until 1959.
After the wars of the early 1800’s, and with the arrival of new building trends and techniques, Château de Brézé received new important upgrades. In 1838, Master Decorator Charles Cicéri first applied elements of the extravagant neo-gothic style. These changes were followed with further work in 1850, when the whole château was significantly restored. Further neo-gothic additions were made by the famous architect Réné Hodé. Some drastic modifications on the upper levels were made, including the creation of the Great Gallery, the so-called Medieval Tower, and the Clock Tower. The tunnels beneath though, retained their aura of mystery and grimness, and were unchanged.
In 1959, Miss Charlotte de Dreux-Brézé was married to one Bernard de Colbert, the descendant of the very important Colbert Family. With this union, Château de Brézé passed into the hands of the Colberts. Even today, the château remains in the possession of this noble family, even though the complex is open to the public.
The famous vineyards of Château de Brézé. (98octane / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Château de Brézé also boasts its own line of fine wines. The entire region is well known for its vast vineyards and high-quality wines, and those of Brézé are no exception. The Tuffeau limestone that lies beneath the soil of this region gives a high calcium level to the soil. Consequently, the wines of Breze have unusually low finishing pH levels, making them unique in its taste and richness. Even during the late medieval period, the wines from Château de Brézé were famous in all the courts of France.
The world-famous wine cellar of Château de Brézé in modern times. (Gerd Eichmann / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Above and Below: The Two Faces of an Old Château
But even today, despite the rich and luxurious facades of the neo-gothic design, Château de Brézé hides a mysterious underground world below above-ground elegant dining halls and great galleries. The castle’s rough-hewn tunnels are a testament to ages long gone, when the prospect of a long siege or bloody warfare was highly probable. Strangely enough, the castle was never attacked and the defensive tunnels beneath it were never tested. The underground storage rooms and other features were certainly used. But no attackers ever descended into the grim and somber depths of the “castle beneath the castle”. But if some bloodthirsty medieval army would have been so foolish, we can be certain that their surprise would have been most unpleasant.
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Today, only a single kilometer (0.62 miles) of the tunnels are accessible. That means that there are plenty more nooks and depths to be explored which could easily yield more secrets. What mysteries might lie in the deepest tunnels can only be speculated on for now.
Top image: One of the famous and still largely unexplored tunnels of Château de Brézé. (Marc Ryckaert / CC BY-SA 4.0)
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