On the southern side of the Dordogne River, between Domme and Beynac, Castelnaud is a magnificent castle, with splendid views across miles of rolling countryside. It is is built on a rocky outcrop and offers a splendid panorama on the Dordogne valley. The Château de Castelnaud is a medieval fortress that was erected to face its rival, the Château de Beynac. The oldest documents mentioning it date to the thirteenth century, when it figured in the Albigensian Crusade; its Cathar castellan was Bernard de Casnac. Simon de Montfort took the castle and installed a garrison; when it was retaken by Bernard, he hanged them all. During the Hundred Years War the castellans of Castelnaud owed their allegiance to the Plantagenets, the sieurs de Beynac across the river, to the king of France. In after times it was abandoned bit by bit, until by the French Revolution it was a ruin.
Today the picturesquely restored château, a private property open to the public, houses a much-visited museum of medieval warfare, featuring reconstructions of siege engines, mangonneaux, and trebuchets. The castle is listed as a monument historique by the French Ministry of Culture.
The Castle of Castlenaud could have been built in the 12th century, but if mention is made of a certain Raoul de Castelnaud around 1150, nothing suggests the existence of a castle at that time. There is even mention of an old chapel, according to a 19th century account, although there is no proof of such a construction dating from the 12th century. It was in 1152 that Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine, married the Duke of Anjou, Henry Plantagenet, future King of England, thus opening one of the most important periods in history for the region, in which Castelnaud would play a critical role. The first trace of a castle dates back to 1214 when Bernard de Casnac, lieutenant of Aymeric of Castelnaud, a follower of the Count of Toulouse, controlled the domain. Casnac was a fervent believer in the Cathar faith and was renowned for his cruelty towards Christians. For this reason, Simon de Monfort, leader of the crusade against the Albigensians (the name given to the Cathars) and against the Count of Toulouse, seized Castelnaud in 1214 and drove out Bernard de Casnac, having taken the fortresses of Montfort and Domme. De Casnac retaliated by taking Beynac. The following year, in 1215, Casnac took back his castle and hanged the entire garrison left there by Simon de Montfort. This was a short-lived revenge, as later that same year the Archbishop of Bordeaux drove the heretics out for good and burnt Castelnaud to the ground. Not much remains from this period. It is thought that there would have been a keep, surrounded by a wall and a main building.
In 1240, Aymeric de Castelnaud swore allegiance to the king, St Louis, which lasted until the Treaty of Paris in 1259, when the King of England-Duke of Aquitaine, Henry III, became the vassal of the King of France, receiving part of Aquitaine in return. This delicately-balanced situation led to the Hundred Years War, in which Castelnaud was involved, as the castle came into English hands in 1259. Bernard de Cadillac, Seneschal of the duke-king, then became the first English lord of the castle, succeeded by the marshal, Jean de Lalinde. In 1273, the castle returned to the legitimate line of Castelnaud, who paid homage to the King of England. It was at this period in the middle of the 13th century that the castle was rebuilt and reinforced, and from which the square keep, the curtain wall (the wall separating the two towers and topped by a covered way) and, to a lesser extent, the remains of a first barbican (construction protecting the curtain wall and the entrance gate), date. In the 15th century a second barbican was built and it was at this time that the castle took on its present appearance, masking the old 13th century constructions.
The end of the 13th century was a calm and prosperous period in the eventful history of Castlenaud, despite the incessant feuds with the Barons of Beynac castle for control of the region. This mutual animosity had no real consequences and lasted until 1337 when the terrible Hundred Years War broke out. Castelnaud was taken by the English seven times, mostly in the first few years of this war. The first major battle was that of Crécy (Sommes), won by the English archers in 1346. The Black Death increased the number of deaths, claiming a third of the entire population of the Occident. In 1360, the Treaty of Brétigny (Beauce) freed the King of France, Jean the Good, and gave Aquitaine to the English, now controlled by the Black Prince (Edward, Prince of Wales, son of Edward III King of England. He won the Battle of Poitiers and took Jean the Good prisoner in 1356). Castelnaud therefore became English once again, before Magne de Castelnaud, the only heir, married Nompar de Caumont, a Lord from Agen, in 1368. Their descendants were to own the castle right up to the Revolution. The Caumont stayed loyal to the English for a long time, and in 1399, Nompar was appointed as Seneschal of the King of England, Henry IV, for the Agenais region. This sparked off disagreements with the Lords of Beynac, on the French side, once again. Until the 15th century the lords fought for both sides, depending on circumstances, and this is why Archambaud and Bertrand d'Abzac, successive captains of the castle, frequently changed sides to save face, while the Caumont family, the legitimate owners, always fought for the English crown.
Castelnaud, therefore, changed sovereignty several times until 1442 when the French King Charles VII, inspired by the victories of Joan of Arc against the English, ordered the siege of Aquitaine, which included Castelnaud. On 7 October 1442, the castle was under siege for three weeks and the English captain Pascal de Theil was driven out of the region. The English were finally beaten at the famous battle of Castillon in 1453, which brought the Hundred Years War to an end. In the same year, Castelnaud was returned to Brandélis de Caumont, who assumed the overlordship and started the reconstruction of the castle around 1463, which lasted until the end of the 15th century. François de Caumont, Brandélis' son, continued with the renovation and transformation of the old 13th century feudal fortress, and combined the requirements of defence with the new Renaissance style. The castle was extended with a lower courtyard, protected by a wall flanked with two semi-circular towers, interspersed with cannon loopholes. A new drawbridge and barbican were built and the main building, served by a spiral staircase, was modified and embellished to match the adjacent keep. The rib-vaulted kitchen and the large banquet hall with moulded windows were built in the Gothic style at the end of the 14th century.
At the same time, Castlenaud's artillery tower was built in 1520 to strengthen the fame of François de Caumont. De Caumont had the Château des Milandes built in 1489, the Renaissance comfort and modern style of which were far more to his taste. This comfortable residence, made famous by Josephine Baker in the 20th century, gradually became the main residence of the Caumont family. However, this is not the end of Castelnaud's history. The castle, whose owners opted for the reformed religion by becoming Calvinists (Huguenots), was affected by the Wars of Religion around 1540. It is in this context that Geoffroy de Vivans, born in Castelnaud in 1543, enters the castle's history. The Huguenot captain of the castle, he was feared throughout the region, and it was with him that Geoffroy de Caumont took refuge after the Saint-Barthélemy massacre, before being poisoned. Geoffroy de Vivans was still captain in 1580, a troubled period in the life of Anne of Caumont. In 1588 he seized the bastide town of Domme, a Catholic stronghold. As a result of the terror caused by the captain, Castelnaud was spared the Wars of Religion. Castlenaud's period of glory now came to an end and the castle was gradually abandoned, with the Caumont family leaving the Château des Milandes for the Château de la Force near Bergerac
At the end of the 16th century and at the beginning of the 17th, the northern section of the castle was modified for the last time, in the style of the period. The drawbridge and barbican were replaced by a fixed bridge, the moat was filled in and the interior re-decorated. After the Revolution, the castle was abandoned to nature. In 1832, it was used as a stone quarry to build a slipway for river trade, which was undergoing expansion, and which today has disappeared. In 1966, Castelnaud became a listed building and has gradually been rebuilt by its private owners to its original medieval form. The difference can be noted between the yellowish, eroded original stone and the newer, greyer stone which is in perfect condition. This is now one of the most visited châteaux in France. There is a Middle Ages Siege Warfare museum inside the castle, with weapons and war-machines, a number of videos on life in a fortified castle, as well as the chance to take part in imitation medieval "jousts" for younger visitors. A sound and light show introduces visitors to the history of the château and the charms of the fortress at night.