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The Largest Self-Built Castles in the World

The Bory Castle

In August 2019, so before the entire Covid-pandemic kind of ruined any plans for travel throughout Europe, I visited the Hungarian city of Székesfehérvár. This city, beautiful as it was, really sprung out to me because of a castle that was hidden quite a bit outside the city centre. Anyway, that castle was built by a man and his wife over the course of decades which got me thinking: what are some of the most incredible self-built castles in the world, and how did they come to be?

The castle I visited is the Bory Castle. It was built by Jenö Bory, a Hungarian architect and sculptor. Together with his wife, over the course of 41 years, he built the castle up from the ground. And that isn’t a figure of speech: he literally built it up from more or less nothing. Back in 1912 Bory bought about 2.5 acres of land in Máriavölgy, Székesfehérvár. At the time there was just a small holiday-home with wine cellar between rows of grapes growing there. During the initial years, Bory expanded the initial modest house with a studio on the second floor. The Bory’s visited it during their summer holidays, living elsewhere. 

Jenő Bory and his family

The castle I visited is the Bory Castle. It was built by Jenö Bory, a Hungarian architect and sculptor. Together with his wife, over the course of 41 years, he built the castle up from the ground. And that isn’t a figure of speech: he literally built it up from more or less nothing. Back in 1912 Bory bought about 2.5 acres of land in Máriavölgy, Székesfehérvár. At the time there was just a small holiday-home with wine cellar between rows of grapes growing there. During the initial years, Bory expanded the initial modest house with a studio on the second floor. The Bory’s visited it during their summer holidays, living elsewhere. 

Now, in 1914 the First World War broke out. Bory served in the Austro-Hungarian army, and he was involved in planning and constructing the memorial of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Archduchess Sophia. They were shot in Sarajevo, marking the beginning of the war. Although the memorial was finished, authorities removed it in 1919 due to the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire following the war. Bory required a new challenge, and amidst the remnants of the old empire and the chaos and turmoil within Hungary, he managed to land a job at the Technical University. With this new job he was finally earning enough to realise the dreams properly, he had for his summer house building, albeit incrementally. Around 1922 Bory slowly began dedicating more time to the plot of land and its constructions. 

Yet Bory never wrote down a fully structured plan to build the castle. He simply went along as he saw fit, incrementally expanding his house with small buildings, gardens, rosebeds, a tower and shed here and there. It’s amusing that when I went there, I realised it was in the middle of a residential neighbourhood. Honestly, the entire building seemed very out of place. Over the years it became an oversized mansion and eventually a castle, with multiple towers, a courtyard and with lots of special attention to Hungarian symbolical architecture. 

Within the castle are lots of statues of prominent Hungarian figures. The walls are decorated with paintings by his wife. There is mosaic art both in- and outside and the garden is filled with fountains, flowers and steps leading to different parts of the castle. In total, the castle has seven towers and thirty rooms. There are many round anticlockwise stairs and little hidden tower rooms. On top of the castle, you have a view that spans over the entire residential neighbourhood. The castle shows a mix of architectural styles, from Scottish to Gothic to Roman. 

During the Second World War, Bory lived in the castle and near the end of the war, the front came to his doorstep, more or less. The castle was bombed multiple times and the entire structure was badly damaged. The next fourteen years Bory spent rebuilding the castle, until he passed away in December 1959 at the age of 80. His wife continued living there for another 15 years. 

And, well, the Bory Castle has earned its place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest building someone constructed on his own. It truly is a magnificent piece of architecture, and all the more imposing once you realise a man spent decades building it with his own hands. Yet Bory’s castle isn’t the only castle that started as a project and was built from the ground up. There are surprisingly many, located all over the world.

Bishop Castle, Colorado

By Hustvedt – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6306856

Over in the United States, there’s another fascinating ‘one-man project’. It’s the Bishop Castle, named after Jim Bishop who built it. The castle is far from finished, but it’s a massive structure already. Its main tower is over 49 metres tall, it has three large cathedral windows and on top of the front building, there’s even an iron fire-breathing dragon. The castle accepts visitors that can climb its ladders and staircases to get around and look at the mountainside from the arched windows. The castle has a rather fairytale-like atmosphere around it, with the stones it is built out of adding to that. 

By Hustvedt – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6306856

Bishop bought a plot of land for 450 dollars in 1959, near San Isabel National Forest in southern Colorado. He initially wanted to hunt and live on the land. He married his wife, Phoebe, in 1967 and two years later he started the construction of what was meant to become a family cottage on the property. However, he kept expanding the building and incrementally the cottage grew into what it is now, nearly 50 years later. Together with his family, the house was developed into a manor, until it eventually could be described as a mini-castle. 

The story isn’t entirely over roses though. Bishop has had a lot of trouble with the local government. Among issues was the way he gathered the rocks he used to build his castle. He gathered them from the nearby National Forest, which caused anger among bureaucrats that considered him to be stealing from state property. He caused another dispute when he put up his own makeshift roadsigns to guide visitors to his property, something the local government eventually solved by putting up officially issued roadsigns. All in all several reviews and articles describe Bishop as having a bit of an aversion against the government, something that is hardly a surprise if you imagine he’s the type of person that decides to build a castle on a whim. 

Guédelon Castle, France

Back in Europe, in the middle of France near the small commune of Treigny, the Guédelon castle stands. Now, construction of this castle began most recently from the other castles discussed. As a matter of fact, where the Bishop castle still required a bit of construction, the Guédelon castle is a real work-in-progress. And technically the castle isn’t built by one man, but by a team of 70 enthusiastic members, both full-time employees, interns and volunteers. I still think the story behind the castle is so fascinating and inspiring that I chose to include it in the list.

By Stéphane D – Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60566449

Back in 1997, the building of Guédelon Castle started as a project by Michel Guyot. Guyot wasn’t a stranger to reconstructing and revitalising old castles. Twenty years earlier he bought the ruins of the Chateau de Saint Fargeau. Originally a hunting residence, it was destroyed and rebuilt in the 15th century and improved over the next couple of centuries. When in 1996 Guyot received the results of an archaeological study of his Chateau, it became clear the 900-year-old remains of another castle lay beneath the surface and within the red-brick walls. This study gave Guyot the idea to replicate a castle such as that one using the original, medieval methods. That means no bulldozers, electricity-powered tools or any other type of modern techniques. In addition, Guyot decided to use materials, primarily stone and wood, from the local area. 

Yet the idea to replicate Saint Fargeau was quickly abandoned, as Guyot and his enthusiastic team decided it would be much more adventurous to build a new castle, inspired by the architecture of fortresses and castles in the region. They decided to build their castle in the style of the first half of the 13th-century. Initially, the team raised funds from the European Union and French government and commercial entities.

Nearby the forest of Guédelon, to which the castle thanks its name, this massive construction project started in June 1997. The location was ideal with timber, sandstone, clay and water closeby. The next year the construction site was opened to the public. According to its website, they have over 300.000 visitors each season, which in turn, combined with gifts and sales, finances the entire construction of the castle. 

Guédelon is valuable and fascinating because it shows exactly how those giant medieval castles were erected using technologies from that time, where resources and materials were gathered, how they were transported and what tools and lifting gears were used. Art historians, archaeologists and castellologists support the team that’s building the castle. 

As for the castle itself, there’s a chapel tower which once finished will be 23 metres in height. On the ground floor, there’s a cistern with a 6-metre depth. It took two stonemasons several months to mine the rim of the cistern out of a 1.6-tonne brick. The ground floor is decorated with pointed arches made of limestone. There’s a so-called Tour Maîtresse, a tower that once finished should be the tallest, standing at 28.5 metres in height. Inside is a spiral staircase, and to adhere to realism there’s even an opening in the ceiling that allows for the dropping of projectiles on potential intruders. On the first floor are the living chambers of the feudal lord. The living space is 18 by 6.8 metres. It’s built on the inner side of the northern wall, with a kitchen, fireplace and oven on the ground floor. 

By Benoît Prieur / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32959542

I’ve already touched upon the fact all materials are gathered from the nearby area. Closeby is a quarry where masons gather their sandstone from, which once transported to the construction site are bonded together with a mixture of limestone, sand and water. Oak logs are cut from the nearby forest for crucial beams, but they create their own hoisting equipment and work floors from pine trees. The primary hoisting tool used is a so-called Tredmill, a medieval tool. Some centuries-old etchings survive of this instrument, forming the basis. Even the roof tiles are made in true 13th-century fashion. Roof-tilers craft both roof tiles and floor tiles. They use clay from nearby the site, press it into wooden moulds, dry it for several weeks and then bake it in an oven on-site. The fact Guyon and his team literally revive 13th-century castle-building methods is incredibly fascinating and makes the story worth telling all the more. 

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