The cas­tle of Blue­beard’s widow

Château de Las­say, Mayenne, France The seat of the comte and comtesse Aymeri de Mon­talem­bert

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs by Will Pryce

The mag­nif­i­cent Château de Las­say in the Mayenne dé­parte­ment has a re­mark­ably colour­ful his­tory, as Des­mond Se­ward ex­plains

This mag­nif­i­cent French cas­tle has a re­mark­ably colour­ful his­tory, as Des­mond Se­ward ex­plains. Its present own­ers have made heroic strides in restor­ing its fab­ric and are de­ter­mined to pre­serve it for the fu­ture

Own­ers of great houses in France face prob­lems un­known in this coun­try. not only was pri­mo­gen­i­ture abol­ished by napoleon (so that chil­dren share a par­ent’s es­tate equally), but the cur­rent eco­nomic cli­mate and swinge­ing taxes make things night­mar­ish. These are just some of the ob­sta­cles that have had to be over­come by the comte and comtesse Aymeri de Mon­talem­bert, who are de­ter­mined to save their an­ces­tral home of Las­say, a château fort that, ex­ter­nally, re­mains al­most as it was in the age of Henry V and Jeanne d’arc—even the draw­bridge works. It was also the home of Blue­beard’s widow, dur­ing a sec­ond and, one hopes, hap­pier mar­riage.

In the old prov­ince of Mayenne, among rolling coun­try­side with small hills that are often crowned by châteaux or manoirs, the pretty lit­tle town of Las­say-les-châteaux, 37 miles west of Alençon, is very much part of La France Pro­fonde. A leg­end links it with the Arthurian hero sir Lancelot and, be­neath the for­mer parish church, lie the bones of st Fraim­bault, sup­pos­edly Lancelot, who spent his re­pen­tant old age here un­der a new name.

The town takes its own name from three great châteaux in easy walk­ing dis­tance of each other: those of Las­say, Bois Thibault and du Bois Frou, al­though the last two are in ru­ins.

A small cas­tle had been built at Las­say in the 11th cen­tury by the baron de Mayenne as pro­tec­tion from their nor­man neigh­bour wil­liam the Con­queror, but on the spot where the parish church now stands. A sec­ond, much big­ger one was built in the 1380s on the present site and is known to have in­cor­po­rated eight tow­ers, pre­sum­ably an­tic­i­pat­ing

‘In 1592, there was yet another siege–also re­pulsed–the last to threaten Las­say

the present lay­out of the build­ing. Then, when the Hun­dred Years’ War re­vived dur­ing the early 15th cen­tury, Las­say ac­quired strate­gic im­por­tance in a fron­tier land fought over by the French and English.

On Oc­to­ber 22, 1417, Alençon, the city near­est to Las­say, sur­ren­dered to Henry V and, a week later, the English cap­tured Verneuil fur­ther east. Al­though badly dam­aged by a siege, the château held out, but, in 1422, af­ter the Earl of Sal­is­bury had beaten off a French counter-of­fen­sive, the Dauphin or­dered its de­mo­li­tion: the owner had gone over to the English and the Dauphin­ists did not want a strong­hold of such vi­tal strate­gic im­por­tance at the junc­ture of Nor­mandy, Mayenne and the Ile de France in hos­tile hands.

In 1457, Je­han II, comte de Vendôme, re­ceived royal per­mis­sion to re­for­tify the site as a base to de­fend Mayenne should the English restart the Hun­dred Years’ War. He cre­ated the present cas­tle (Fig 2), its plan— with eight tow­ers—pre­sum­ably in­her­ited from the ru­ins of its pre­de­ces­sor. The new build­ing must have been rapidly com­pleted be­cause the whole is re­mark­ably con­sis­tent in de­tail. Con­structed from fer­rug­i­nous granite that changes colour un­der the sun or in the rain, it was given mas­sive tow­ers, with pep­per-pot roofs and fight­ing gal­leries (Fig 6), cur­tain walls, a draw­bridge, a postern and a moat.

The prin­ci­pal do­mes­tic apart­ments were prob­a­bly grouped in the gate­house (Fig 3), al­though each tower also pos­sesses large rooms (Fig 4) com­fort­ably ap­pointed with large fire­places. It is a touch­ing re­minder of such do­mes­tic use that the win­dow em­bra­sure in one tower bears the in­scrip­tion: ‘Tues­day the XXIII day of Jan­uary in the year 1470 there was born JE­HAN VEILLON son of his fa­ther.’ A holly tree of ex­cep­tional scale and an­tiq­uity has grown up within the pro­tec­tion of the walls (Fig 1).

Re­put­edly, the cas­tle was all paid for by Je­han’s wife, Catherine de Thouars, widow of the mon­strous Gilles de Rais (the orig­i­nal Blue­beard), who had been hanged and burned in 1440 for mass child mur­der, witch­craft, necro­mancy and sum­mon­ing demons.

The present outer for­ti­fi­ca­tion around the gate, termed a bar­bican, with its can­non loops, was prob­a­bly added in the 1480s dur­ing the wars with Brittany.

Dur­ing France’s ap­pallingly blood­thirsty Wars of Re­li­gion, Las­say was coveted by Catholics and Protes­tants alike. In 1569, when held for the Huguenots by a gar­ri­son of 50 men and full of Huguenot ladies who had taken refuge, it was be­sieged by the Catholic Gov­er­nor of Alençon with more than 1,000 troops. Af­ter he had brought up can­non and smashed a mas­sive breech in the walls (whose traces can still be seen), un­nerved by the screams of the ter­ri­fied ladies, the Huguenot com­man­der sur­ren­dered on terms that in­cluded a ran­som from ev­ery­body of sub­stance in­side. They were very lucky not to have been put to the sword.

Las­say stayed in the French Crown’s pos­ses­sion de­spite a sur­prise at­tack by the fa­nat­i­cal Catholic League in 1589. When the royal gov­er­nor, Louis Hu­rault, seigneur de Vil­leluisant, was hear­ing Mass, a band of armed Lea­guers from the nearby château of Bois Thibault stormed in, a cer­tain Je­han d’an­thenaise giv­ing Hu­rault a mor­tal wound as he knelt in prayer. How­ever, the at­tempt failed, Las­say’s gar­ri­son (59 pike­men, 30 mounted mus­ke­teers and 20 mus­ke­teers on foot) be­ing quickly re­in­forced by a fur­ther 100 troops, who beat off two de­ter­mined sieges.

At the end of the year, Henri IV vis­ited the cas­tle, re­duc­ing the gar­ri­son to 10 men. In 1592, there was yet another siege, also re­pulsed—the last to threaten Las­say.

The château’s days as a key mil­i­tary strong­hold were over. From 1606 un­til 1636, it be­longed to Char­lotte du Til­let, one of Queen Marie de Medici’s ladies-in-wait­ing, then, in 1639, af­ter a long law­suit, to a Gas­con noble­man, Isaac de Madail­lan, who was cre­ated mar­quis de Las­say. Isaac’s son Louis made it more hab­it­able, in­sert­ing win­dows in the tow­ers and build­ing a new, lux­u­ri­ous wing north of the bar­bican.

The vig­or­ous love life of Louis’s son, Ar­mand de Madail­lan, who fea­tures in Saint-si­mon’s di­aries, was so no­to­ri­ous that he earned the nick­name of ‘the Grand Siè­cle’s Don Juan’. He met his match in his sec­ond wife: the beau­ti­ful, wildly high­spir­ited Mar­i­anne Pa­jot, who, al­though only an apothe­cary’s daugh­ter, had been briefly be­trothed to the duc de Lorraine—their wed­ding night in 1676 was said to have lasted for three days. In old age, Ar­mand set up a print­ing press at Las­say, so that he could print his mem­oirs.

Their son, Léon de Madail­lan, be­came the de­voted lover of the duchesse de Bour­bon, Louis XIV’S nat­u­ral daugh­ter by Mme de Mon­tes­pan. In or­der to be near where she lived in Paris at the Palais de Bour­bon, now the Na­tional Assem­bly, he built the Hô­tel de Las­say next door, which later be­came the res­i­dence of the Pres­i­dent of the Assem­bly.

In 1750, Las­say was in­her­ited by Léon’s nephew, Louis-léon-félic­ité de Bran­cas, duc de Lauraguais, a dis­tin­guished bib­lio­phile and sa­vant who wrote plays, was on

her­itage), de­cided not only to live there (Fig 7), but to make the château play a re­ally sub­stan­tial role in the re­gion’s cul­tural life.

They have suc­ceeded be­yond their ex­pec­ta­tions. It is now used reg­u­larly for con­certs and pageants, there are guided tours and an As­so­ci­a­tion des Amis de Las­say was founded in 2014. As a re­sult, con­sid­er­able funds have be­come avail­able in re­cent years, in­clud­ing a grant from the French Her­itage So­ci­ety (its largest for 2014), which made pos­si­ble the restora­tion of the Tour Lavoisier’s roof by spe­cial­ist crafts­men (Fig 5). Work con­tin­ues on the never-end­ing task of restor­ing and main­tain­ing the rest of the fab­ric.

Visit http://chateaude­las­ for fur­ther in­for­ma­tion

Fig 1 be­low: The in­te­rior of the cas­tle with its an­cient holly tree. Fig 2 right: The cas­tle stands on a rock, above a wide pool, at one end of the vil­lage

Fig 6 be­low: The fight­ing gal­leries that crown the tow­ers of the cas­tle are mag­nif­i­cently pre­served. The openings in the floor al­lowed de­fend­ers to com­mand the foot of the tower. Fig 7 right: A view of the kitchen in the vaulted base­ment of one of the tow­ers

Fig 5: The gar­goyles from the re­cently re­stored roof

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