Driving through the area around the town of Montmédy the fortress looms over the road. The town has a chequered history as territory passed from one nation to another.
The site of Montmédy guards one of the major routes between modern France and its neighbours. Situated on a hill over 150 metres higher than the surrounding countryside its strategic importance is more than evident as you approach from below.
In 1221 Arnould III the Count of Chiny (Across the border in modern day Belgium) constructed the château of Mady and this became the centre of the County stretching up to Virton and Neufchâteau.
Over the next few years Mons madiacus (Montmédy) increased, in size and fortifications, to become a castle or château fort in French.
French history is incredibly intricate, and by marriage and conquest the County passed into the hands of the Dukes of Luxembourg (Who had fought against the English at Crécy in 1346).
From there it went into the hands of the Dukes of Burgundy (Who fought with the English against Jeanne d’Arc).
At the demise of the Burgundian Duke, Charles the Bold against the French King Louis XI at Nancy in 1477 the Burgundian territories should have passed back to France but by a very quick marriage of the late Duke’s daughter to Maximilien the future Holy Roman Emperor, Montmédy found itself within the empire. (This marriage also explains why Arras and all of Flanders and Artois also went to the Empire).
When Maximilien died in 1519 his inheritor was his grandson Charles. Charles had already inherited the Spanish empire in 1516 and in so doing had become, as Charles I, the first Spanish monarch to inherit both Castille and Aragon.
He is better known in France and Belgium (where he was born in Gent) as Charles Quint using an old word for fifth. He may well have been Charles I of Spain but he was also now the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.
For the English he was also the father of Phillip II who sent the Armada against England.
Realising that Montmédy protected the southern approaches to his Spanish Netherlands, Charles Quint began encircling the town with defensive walls and towers in 1544. These would be augmented right through into the 17th Century and have given the fortifications the greater part of their current appearance.
In 1639 the Louis XIII (Of the three musketeers and Richelieu) began a campaign to reconquer the lost Burgundian territories taking Hesdin that year and Arras the following. The campaign would be continued by Louis XIV who had Vauban invest Montmédy in 1657 — Vauban’s first siege.
The 19 year old king and Cardinal Mazarin followed the siege with great interest as the 736 defenders held out for two months against at least 10,000 French troops, who lost at least 4,000 of their number.
Following the Treaty of the Pyrénées in 1659 the French conquests were basically confirmed — in return they stopped aiding Portugal against Spain.
In 1791 during his flight from Paris, Louis XVI had Montmédy as his preliminary destination. He and Marie-Antoinette were to be sheltered by the monks of Orval. Recognised at a coaching station (By his likeness on the coins) he was arrested at Varennes.
Some work was carried out after the 1870 Franco-Prussian War but the reality was that around the turn of the century almost all of the northern forts were declassified one after the other.
Montmédy was right in the firing line within the opening weeks of the war. On the 26th August 1914 Longwy (30km to the east) fell to the Germans after a stout defence by the garrison for five days. In the end the Germans had brought up 305mm guns which had little difficulty in smashing up the old walls.
On hearing of the fall of Longwy the garrison commander decided that opposition in the face of the German heavy artillery was pointless and ordered the destruction of his eight canon and equipment.
On the 29th the garrison of 2500 men attempted to make its escape. Sadly they were by then well behind the German lines and their attempt to fight their way through led to their destruction.
To get into the citadelle you climb up the hill, make rattling noises as you cross the wooden planked outer bridge and then drive over the inner bridge and through the tunnel.
I was really surprised on reaching the main square — people live here ! Some of the houses have been put on the market and have been refurbished and occupied.
The ticket office provides a short guide and plan which explains everything along the circuit as you pass by bastions, demi-lunes, and other bits all working together to make the structure so strong.
The promenade divides half way round offering a choice between a short and a long version. The latter goes down through the tunnels and the casemates (gun ports) into the moat.
Return to the main square via the wooden drawbridge and visit St Martin’s church which is the dominating structure on the grounds. Apparently the original church was in such a dilapidated condition in 1748, with pigs and other farm animals roaming about the interior, that in 1753 a decision was made to rebuild the church in its present form.
The building has seen better days but is interesting none the less. Notice that the organ pipes are missing — taken by the Germans in 1917.
There other interesting sites close by. The Ardennes battlefields of 1914 are close to hand as well as the Trappist Abbey of Orval — famous for its beer. The castle at Bouillon is everything that a castle should be, perched on top of an imposing cliff.