Even if the history of the city of Saint-Germain-en-Laye dates back to the Palaeolithic era, and even if Roman roads have been discovered, the rise of the town is closely linked to the construction of its castle – which we have already mentioned here – whose matrix is the “palatium” built around 1124 by King Louis VI.
The castle will not stop from this date to be enlarged, looted, burned, besieged, rebuilt and transformed. Saint-Louis had the Sainte-Chapelle built there in 1226. Pillaged and burned during the Hundred Years War, it was rebuilt and transformed into a fortress. Pillaged again, it was occupied by the English from 1417 to 1440. François the First made it his favorite residence, after having it rebuilt – once again – but this time in the Renaissance style that we know today.
However, it would be more accurate to say that the city of Saint-Germain-en-Laye flourished as a royal city around the construction not of its castle but of its castles. Because there were two castles: the Old Castle which has just been mentioned above and the New Castle of which there is almost nothing left today.
The construction of the New Castle began under King Henri II in 1559 but was not completed until the reign of King Henri IV, who set up his Court there around 1600.
The whole building was daring since the New Castle descended the 107 meters hill of Saint-Germain-en-Laye to end with its gardens along the Seine river. Many stairs provided access to the French gardens spread over five terraces and caves have been dug to install entertaining automatons.
King Louis XIII died there.
King Louis XIV was born there.
The New Castle in 1637 by Auguste Guillaumot
A recent reconstruction of the New Castle
The revolt of the nobility forced the very young Louis XIV aged 11 to leave Paris to take refuge with his mother in the Old Castle, empty of furniture but better fortified. This night of January 5, 1649 will have lasting consequences on the continuation of the reign of the king and on the future of Saint-Germain-en-Laye: the sovereign retains a deep hatred for the Old Castle and perhaps for the city itself, which explains the subsequent establishment of a sophisticated system of Court subjugating the nobility and the creation ex nihilo of the future palace of Versailles.
But Versailles will not be built in a day and the Court of Louis XIV will move to the New Castle before definitively deserting Saint-Germain-en-Laye for Versailles in 1682.
In the meantime, Louis XIV had André Le Nôtre develop the Terrace.
Following the departure of the Court, the New Castle gradually fell into oblivion. Louis XVI gave it as a gift to his brother, who planned to demolish it and rebuild it entirely. But when the Revolution arrived, the New Castle was seized as national property, sold, demolished and subdivided into private properties.
Of the New Castle, there is almost nothing left, except for a straight staircase which I do not know if it is original, two ramps, a terrace, retaining walls, the Sully pavilion (known as the “Gardener’s pavilion”) and the Henri IV pavilion, converted into a hotel-restaurant.
One of the terraces
The Southern ramp
The Lions wall
The Gardener’s pavilion or Sully pavilion
The Henry IV pavilion
For the record, legend has it that two recipes were created in the Henri IV pavilion by Chef Collinet: the Béarnaise sauce – so named in honor of Henri IV – and the puffed potatoes invented involuntarily in 1837 following the delay of the train inaugurating the brand new train line between Paris and Saint-Germain-en-Laye, which transported Queen Marie-Amélie and who was expected for dinner at the Henri IV pavilion.
The Henri IV pavilion adjoins the Terrace designed by Le Nôtre between 1669 and 1673. It offers an impressive panorama of Western Paris and Valérien Mount behind which the tip of the Eiffel Tower can be seen, about twenty kilometers away.
The city developed with the constant presence of the royal Court within the castle(s).
Mansions are legion since the Court sat for a long time in Saint-Germain-en-Laye until its departure for the Palace of Versailles.
Mansion of Madame de Maintenon, the indigent widow of Scarron who became the governess of the royal bastards of Louis XIV and Madame de Montespan, who became the secret wife of Louis XIV, what a destiny!
De la Feuillade mansion
De Tilladet mansion
De la Rochefoucauld mansion
Vieil Abreuvoir street and Montausier mansion
De Guise mansion
The Priory now houses the Maurice Denis museum but it was built under the aegis of Madame de Montespan, favorite of Louis XIV, in order to accommodate the poor in what was at the time the Royal General Hospital of Saint-Germain-en-Laye.
The church faces the Old Castle.
It houses the mausoleum of the King of Great Britain Jacques II, dethroned and exiled to Saint-Germain-en-Laye from 1689 until his death in 1701.
The Paris-Saint-Germain line was the first railway line put into service in the region in 1837. However, due to the technical difficulty of getting trains to the hill of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, the first line stopped on the banks of the Seine river, in the Pecq village, which is very cute.
After ten years of operation, the locomotives becoming more powerful, a viaduct spanning the Seine river was built a little further, thus diverting the line in its last kilometers, to pass under the gardens of the castle and arrive at the foot of the church and of the Old Castle.
The commissioning of the Saint-Germain-en-Laye railway will have caused an immense impact, particularly beneficial to the city.
From 1900 to 1921, pedestrians could then take a monumental elevator to reach the Terrace.
A “Sleeping City” neglected by Louis XIV, Saint-Germain-en-Laye has experienced a craze that has not waned since, and with good reason: the city is absolutely charming.
June 2, 2023