This giddying excitement is almost too much for a girl to take so I can’t imagine how you are coping! Here we are on the second Monday in a row and I’m still keeping the promise that I will devote each start of the week day to a post in the series chronicling the tale of our restoration of a former Medieval Watch Tower in Southern France.
Today, by way of wrapping up the satiating feast of retrospective posts I delivered last week, I thought I would write a little about the history as we now know it, which, it turns out, is rather different to the original tale we were told at the start of this neverending story.
When we first laid eyes on the reality of the place on a freezing cold late January day in 2013 we were assured that the tower, built in 1203, simply fell into neglect and disrepair over the years and the that villagers had, quite understandably, swiped what they fancied and upcycled it into their own abodes. Not so, mes braves. In fact the tower was wilfully destroyed at some point in the early 1790s when news filtered through that the revolution had brought down the Monarchy and flattenened (for a while) the old feudal systems, replacing them with a République that had no need for visible signs of the rule of church and king, hand in glove.
The correct name for the tower as it stood was ‘un tour seigneurial’. Ours was the first place built in what would become the village of Marcolès. It was inhabited by a feudal Lord who was, as in many cases, also the priest. After it was constructed, and satisfied that he could survey everything around him, a church was built, and then another. I think we can rest content that our Seigneur was a man of some excess. Two churches within what is a tiny city wall seems a trifle indulgent. Rather the medieval equivalent of those, so much richer than I, who bring out my most churlish streak by insisting on parading an endless array of unfeasibly expensive motor cars a single one of which would buy me a perfectly good house in which to live a quiet and unobtrusive life. At this time, the population was several thousand in the minuscule area that constitutes the walled ‘cité’ … these days in the whole commune, which is one of the largest in hectarage in the whole of Cantal, we number barely 500 in the village and all it’s hamlets. It must have been quite something.
The present Eglise de Saint Martin was built in the XVth Century and at that time was one of two churches surveyed by the Tour Seigneurial
Thus, during the revolution the tower was deliberately toppled but in fact much of it remained. To attic level for a little less than half of the building and up to first lintel height for the rest. My mind conjures an image of zealous villagers, positively inebriated with joy at the news of the fall of the Monarchy and the old-guard, advancing vigorously on that ancient and extremely sturdy construction and giving it utter hell for some while, bearing off their plundered stone with fervored delight. After the first flush of frenzied looting I imagine them losing steam, scratching weary heads and agreeing that honestly? Honestly, enough was enough, they’d done their bigger than needed bit and shrugging they retired to a hostelry to congratulate themselves over jugs of rough red wine. Vive la France! Now to get on with the important things. It’s entirely imagined and wholly affectionate, but I have a sneaky feeling there might be a bitty grain of truth in the notion.
Fireworks at the village fête de quinze août represent the fervour of the revolution
It should be noted that by now there was a fine chateau called les Poux, built in the early 17th Century which had hopped about between owners as such places often did at the effect of tussles and scurmishes but which, hold the thought, had been snaffled by Huguenots early on. By 1666 as London fried to cinders, its lethal combustion blamed for ever on an unfortunate baker who, in turn, protested his innocence for the rest of his life, yes, as London blazed, the present owners were already the incumbant lairds. I find this significant. It means that they escaped with their heads intact as the villagers, enraged and full of hope that the rich would no longer dictate to them, razed the tower that stood as a symbol of all things archaic and readied themselves for their brave new world.
The tree-lined avenue at Les Poux and a view back to the village from it’s land last winter
In the early 1820s that same sassy seigneur decided something should be done about, what must have been something of an eyesore in the middle of the village. It was surely safe to pop his head above the parapet by this time since the Republic had been abolished in 1804 in the run up to Napoleon declaring himself Emperor. This is not a French history lesson but suffice to say we are, at present, languishing in the fifth Republic of France and that 1824, which is credited as the year this chap decided it was safe to rebuild, was nestled neatly between the first and second. I rather think he thanked God himself for the fact that he still had a head. I think this not because I am harboring pious thoughts but rather because what he did, was to order the building you see now, but not as a house. Instead he created a hospice. Nursing nuns were installed to tend to the sick of the parish and to debilitated nuns from their Mother Priory in Aurillac which lies about 25 km North East of Marcolès and was, and still is, the most important town in the close area. In fact these days it is the préfecture, county town if you will, of le Cantal.
The priory still stands in Aurillac though these days it is occupied as apartments. Gerbert of Aurillac became France’s first Pope in 946 AD declaring his papal name to be, rather splendidly, Sylvester II
The nuns worked gently and serenely, one hopes, for the rest of the century administering to the needy. In 1914 as yet another war, that war that was to end all war, which I still find the most tragic epithet of all time, seered and permanently scarred the fields of Northern France, they departed. I have much research still to do, but I imagine that, skilled as they were, they were summoned to tend the wounded and maimed boys despatched as cannon fodder from France and around the globe. The building became empty and silent.
In 1917 another bevy of revolutionaries, this time in Russia unleashed hellfire on the Czar and aristocracy. They overthrew their own feudal rulers and a chaotic bloodbath ensued. That is the nature of revolution. Sitting and intellectualizing its manner and outcome is fine and dandy but the reality will take it’s own messy course peppered with unknowns and unthought ofs. Some years earlier the daughter of the Chateau les Poux had been dispatched to Russia to be governess to an unfeasibly rich family. She loved her Russian life, took to it like a little French duckling to water and had no intention of ever returning to the middle of no-where-land to pass her days as a spinster. That French was the first language of high-born Russians at the time and that all things French were considered to be the most elegant and sort after of treasures amongst the wealthy, explains why she would have been an appealing appendage to the family she served. It was actually very common for well-educated desmoiselles who had been unsuccessful in securing a husband, leaving all around them scratching their heads and wondering what on earth to DO with such an embarrassment, to be floated discretely off to Russia to live the fine life as an educator of the children in that strange limbo that governesses inhabited – something between family member and servant. 1917 therefore must have come as a colossal blow to her …. the family would necessarily have packed hastily and in their own chaos pointed her back towards France on the turn of a sixpence. All fine and dandy. Except of course France was at bloody and terrible war. Take a moment to imagine what her journey might have been like over sea, overland and eventually, in heaven knows what state, returning to the familial home in far-flung, and blissfully erased from her mind, southern France.
What we do know is that she turned up at Les Poux and was soon installed in the now empty Maison Carrée as it afterwards became known. There are still people who remember her. She habitually wore long, rather old fashioned clothes complete with astrokhan or fur-trimmed coat sweeping the floor, her unusual height exentuated by a tall velvet or fur toque depending on the season. She was a forbidding woman by all accounts and insisted on speaking Russian even though no-one understood a word she was saying. I rather fancy that when this apperition turned up at the bucolic chateau, her sister-in-law ordered her husband to get rid of her, and that is why he cunningly requisitioned the house for her, given it was conveniently empty of nuns. Wholly unsurprising that she was what the French call un peu spécial, which translates as odd, weird or barking mad depending on context. Poor love, she was sent to Russia, fell in love with the place and who knows, maybe with a beau too, only to have to rudely flee for her life back to a place that was less than welcoming and which by then had little to do with who she had evolved into. I have a huge fascination with her, not least because I too, am frequently the lankiest bird in plain site and am, undeniably foreign. Not forgetting odd. If the toque fits, I’m happy to wear it ….
Our not-Russian Russian lady lived in the house til her death, around the time that I was born, when it was inherited by a woman, widowed or divorced, no-one can remember which, and which fact I find quite charmingly indicative of the lack of busybodiness that is part of the fabric of being French. But whichever had rendered her alone she had two daughters and was, in some way yet to be discovered, related to those pesky poux. On her death the house was sold to the aberration of a man who preceded us in tenure, his wife and their two daughters. Therefore, since the destruction of the tower and it’s rebirth in 1824, my husband is only the second man to have resided there. I am comfortable that, wherever he registers on the eccentricity richter scale and which I am far too decorus to have an opinion on, he is also the only vaguely sane man ever to have lived in the building since the Revolution of 1789.
Finally Cast your minds back to the early 17th century. I mentioned the Huguenots. I have spoken before about my father-in-law, cheese guru and eccentric delight. His name was Patrick Rance. Therefore my name, since he was my father-in-law was also Rance at that time. In fact, had I not chosen to revert to my maiden name after that husband and I terminated our matrimonial bond, I would have been Mme Rance at the time I first set foot in Marcolès. The name is Huguenot. It derives from de Rance, a family of that provenance who lived in southern France. The river that Marcolès is built above is called la Rance. Sometimes, things just feel as though they are meant to be …..
PS: The quote is Alan Bennett from his glorious play ‘The History Boys’ :
“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”
Discovering the history of this place feels exactly like that. Even though it is not written in the conventional sense, so much of it is being pieced together from scraps of records and jumbles of recollections often told by extremely old people, we feel led towards it by the hand. And the hand undeniably belongs to la Maison Carrée