Dukes and Abbeys in the Midi: A Circular Drive around the Centre of France

Driving tours in France often include visits to the country’s periphery, the seacoast, the Alps, the Pyrenees. This long circular drive I did in the summer of 2000, to allow me to dig in to some regional archives for my dissertation about the Lorraine-Guise family, instead took me deep into France’s interior. Aside from exploring territories and residences associated with the Guise, this trip also included stop-offs connected to other dukes like Sully, Aubigny and Joyeuse (and briefly noting castles of ducal families Bellegarde, Polignac and Ventadour), as well as visits to two of the most spectacular abbeys in France, Saint-Benoît and La Chaise-Dieu. It was one of my first super road-trips in Europe, and as before, I’m pleased I still have the old atlas in which I traced the journey.

Being a poor student at the end of a year abroad, I wasn’t entirely sure how I was going to afford renting a car to enable me to get to the various archives in some of the more isolated departments of France, notably the Ardèche and the Gers in the deep southern interior. I have, I must admit, often been fortunate to meet the right people at the right time, and during the previous winter one of my Parisian friends had introduced me to her mother who was passionate about French history, fascinated by the fact that this crazy American was just as obsessed by her country’s history, and happened to have a car which she rarely used. A bit stunned by her generosity, I nevertheless leapt at the chance, and took off early one morning in June. I headed out of the city via the Porte d’Italie—this was indeed once the route to Italy, National road 7, and I wanted to stick to non-motorway driving as much as I could, a much better way to see a country. This road follows the Seine upriver, through the Forest of Fontainebleau and the town of Nemours onto a flat plain known as the Gâtinais. At Montargis, I paused to look at a ruined château that once belonged to Philippe d’Orléans, brother of Louis XIV, though its restoration projects had not yet begun, so there wasn’t much to see. I turned off the main road and headed west, passed through the town of Bellegarde (with a historic château, at different times property of the dukes of Bellegarde and dukes of Antin), and reached the Loire near my first destination: the Abbey of St-Benoît-sur-Loire.

St-Benoît was once one of the richest abbeys in France, and one of the oldest, originally built in the 7th century to house the bones of Saint Benedict (Benoît in French), and rebuilt in the 11th century, famous especially for its distinctive porch. Also known as Fleury, it is monumental in scale, and at its height housed over a hundred monks and a large library. It was one of the great centres of learning of the High Middle Ages, and parent to numerous priories all over western Europe. From the 16th century onwards, the abbey was held, as many were, in commendam, which means in the trust of a great churchman or secular noble who looked after the abbey’s welfare (and enjoyed its significant revenues), but had little to do with its day-to-day running. One of these in the later 17th century was Philippe, Chevalier de Lorraine, one of the subjects of my research. The disinclination towards religion by this Versailles courtier, lover of the King’s brother, was offensive to many, as indeed was the entire commendam system of benefice holding, and was one of the more corrupt practices of the Catholic Church that reformers desired to abolish. At the Revolution, the monks were chased away entirely, its famous library dispersed. It took some time to re-establish a Benedictine community here, but since World War II it has once again become a flourishing abbey.

After lunch I drove just across the river Loire and visited one of France’s finest medieval châteaux: Sully. The current building was constructed mostly in the 14th century, with some modifications in the 17th. The medieval lords of Sully controlled the crossing point of the river and much of this region of the Loire as it transitions from the uplands of central France into the wide Loire valley, the more well-known part of the river, home to Blois, Chambord, Amboise, etc. The original Sully castle passed to the family La Trémoïlle in the 14th century, who rebuilt it in its present form, then sold it in 1602 to Maximilien de Béthune, premier minister of King Henry IV and one of the builders of the modern French state. The barony of Sully was erected into a duchy for him, in 1606, and he set about converting it into a worthy ducal seat, especially after he was pushed out of government by the Regent Maria de Medici after 1611. The château stayed in the family for the next 300 years, until it was sold to the local council in the 1960s.

Sully

I stayed overnight in Sully-sur-Loire, then spent the next day crossing the wide plain of the Sancerrois on surely one of the straightest roads I have ever been on—probably built by those single-minded Romans who never let a simple hill get in their way.

This road passes through the town of Aubigny-sur-Nère, of interest to lovers of Scottish history and the Auld Alliance, as belonging to a branch of the Stuarts since the early 15th century, and given by Charles II to his French mistress, Louise de Kéroualle, then raised into a duchy for her by Louis XIV, and held by her descendants the Dukes of Richmond until the Revolution. They still use the title Duc d’Aubigny today, but the ‘Château des Stuarts’ belongs to the community and serves as the town hall. It was built in its present form by Robert Stuart d’Aubigny, Marshal of France, in the early 16th century. There’s not a lot to see as a tourist, but there is a small museum dedicated to the history of the Auld Alliance that connected France and Scotland for centuries.

Castle of the Stuarts, Aubigny

In the afternoon, I carried on due south, through the town of Bourges, capital of the province of Berry, and then on to another completely straight road until I joined the Cher river valley and the terrain became more hilly. Driving across some hillside passes and through the deep gorges of the river Sioule, I arrived in the Auvergne, the heart of what’s known as the Midi, and found, quite late, an overnight stay in the town of Riom near Clermont-Ferrand. How I managed finding accommodation on the fly before having the internet on my phone amazes me now, and I sometimes left it until dinnertime to start looking for hotels with signs that read vacancy. Watching the sunset was a real treat as it went down behind the ancient volcanic peaks of the Auvergne—my hotel was quite close to the town of Volvic in fact, and the well-known logo of the mineral water from there displays the iconic peaks.

In the morning I headed east for a short way, before turning south once more, on another very straight road, this time straight through some hills—very determined people were these Roman road builders!—and listening to one of the CDs I had brought along, of Dawn Upshaw singing the ‘Songs of the Auvergne’ by Joseph Canteloube, a set of local folksongs arranged for soprano in the late 1920s. This is lushly orchestrated, evocative music, sung in the local Auvergnat dialect, with fun titles such as ‘La pastrouletta e lou chibalié’ (the shepherdess and the chevalier), ‘Quan z’eyro petitoune’ (when I was small), and ‘Tè, l’co tè’ (go away doggie).

The gorgeous lullaby, ‘Baïlèro’, Dawn Upshaw, Kent Nagano and the Orchestre de l’Opéra de Lyon

The Auvergne has an interesting history derived from its isolation and rugged terrain. It was one of the last strongholds of the Gauls against the Romans, its local tribe the Arverni being led by the famous Vercingetorix, defeating Caesar here in 52 BCE before being crushed a few months later at Alesia. This was later a place of refuge for Huguenots, for the disgraced ‘Reine Margot’, and even the French Vichy government during the Second World War. I enjoyed driving along this fairly isolated road early in the morning, and as the road continued ever southward, I eventually reached a major watershed, and another huge abbey: La Chaise-Dieu.

La Chaise Dieu

The name seems quite appropriate, as ‘the seat of God’, sitting here at the very top of a mountain ridge, with the rugged hills of the Auvergne to the north and Languedoc spreading away to the south, all the way to the sea. The name does not mean that exactly, however, as chaise in this case is a modification of the local Occitan word chasa, or ‘house’. Occitan is the local language of the south of France, its name coined to distinguish the pronunciation of the word for ‘yes’ in the north ‘oui’ from the southern ‘oc’, hence langue d’oc (Languedoc). I heard the language spoken for this first time on this trip as I tuned into one of the local radio stations which broadcast in Occitan.

A far too cute video of children speaking in Occitan
An older man telling a story in Auvergnat Occitan

The Abbey of La Chaise-Dieu was, like St-Benoît, a Benedictine monastery, founded in the 11th century as part of the Cluniac movement to reform the medieval church. The monumental buildings were constructed in the 14th century by Clement VI, one of the Avignon popes, who had been a monk here and who suitable buildings for his tomb. Inside is a well-preserved example of a ‘danse-macabre’ from the 15th century, painted to keep plague away from the faithful. Also put into commende in the 16th century, the abbots of La Chaise-Dieu were always very high profile courtiers, cardinals and minsters, including both Richelieu and Mazarin, and much later the Cardinal de Rohan who was exiled here after the Affair of the Diamond Necklace which embarrassed Queen Marie-Antoinette in 1785. It was also held for a time by another of my Lorraine princes, Anne-Marie, one of the many sons of the Comte d’Armagnac, a favourite of Louis XIV who was pushing for this son (known as the ‘Abbé d’Armagnac’) to become a cardinal—but he died before this could be accomplished. The monks were driven out here too during the French Revolution, and did not return until towards the end of the 20th century. Meanwhile, a famous music festival has been held here each summer since the 1960s.

From this mountaintop experience, I drove down into a province known before the Revolution as the Velay, like Auvergne also named for its ancient Gaulish inhabitants, the Vellavi. I arrived mid-morning at its capital, Le Puy-en-Velay, after passing by the château of the dukes of Polignac—at which I did not stop, and have been meaning to return ever since. The Polignacs were one of the most ancient and most prominent noble house in this part of France, though they did not manage to scale the heights and acquire a dukedom until the very final hours of the Ancien Régime, mostly through the intense friendship of the first duchess with Marie-Antoinette (as portrayed vivaciously by Rose Byrne in the 2006 Sophia Coppola film). The castle, still owned by the family, is today mostly a ruin, but incredibly dramatic as I drove past, dominating the landscape atop a rocky outcropping, in fact the plug of an ancient volcano. This area is home to hundreds of these plugs (the remains of volcanic cores that have worn away) known locally as puys, or little mountains (similar to puig in Catalan or poggio in Italian), and the town of Le Puy (also known for its lentils) gets its distinctive look from them—it looks almost otherworldy, with castles and churches perched atop these pointy peaks.

Le Puy

It is hard to believe that the river valley meandering nearby is once again the Loire, so very far from what we normally think of as the Loire Valley—the river in fact originates deep in the mountains of the south, one province over from here, formerly known as the Vivarais, now the department of the Ardèche.

The Vivarais was ultimately my destination for this trip. It was never really a fully fledged province of France, but a sub-province of Languedoc, though, being so far from the provincial capital, Toulouse, and separated by some pretty rugged terrain, it enjoyed quite a bit of autonomy. It had originally been the territory governed by the Bishop of Viviers, which gave it its name, and retained its own local governing body, known as the estates, up to the Revolution. The estates included representatives of the towns, the local clergy, and of course the local nobility, and it was these nobles that fascinated me, as they had a system of rotating membership drawn from the barons of the Vivarais. Twelve of these barons took turns in rotation acting as hosts for the annual meeting in their château, a position of honour and an expression of their local authority. In the later 17th century, the Lorraine-Guise family held three of these rotating baronies. As my research was developing, I thought it pretty extraordinary that such a small region so far from either the court at Versailles or the normal Guise power bases in Champagne or Normandy could draw their attention, so I came here to poke around in the archives, held in the town of Privas, the capital of the Department of Ardèche, as the Vivarais was renamed during the Revolution for the river that drains most of the area, flowing down from the rocky hills known as the Cévennes through narrow gorges into the Rhône River and from there down to the Mediterranean.

the Vivarais is the area within the circle just to the right of the orange

As I drove across these ridges into the Ardèche I could immediately sense I was in a different ecosystem—a lot more pine trees, much less undergrowth, a brighter, more yellow light, and certainly a different smell. I return to the south of France most every year now, and always immediately know I have arrived from this smell: a mix of pine, lavender and the sea. As the afternoon progressed, I drove down along a road high above the deep Ardèche river valley and passed by the castle of Montlaur, one of the places I was here to study, as it was one of the baronies owned by the Guise. The 12th-century castle, already a ruin by the 18th century, is still inspiring, perched on top of a ridge dominating its surroundings.

Montlaur

The Montlaur family controlled this valley for centuries, before they died out and passed their extensive properties to the princes of Harcourt, a branch of the Guise family. This road also passes by the equally impressive ruins of the château de Ventadour, though the main castle (with the same name) of this ducal family is further away in the Limousin. I arrived late in the day in Privas, set myself up in a hotel—thank goodness my French was getting pretty good by this point, since English was not a working language in these parts—and got ready for a week in the archives. The town is small and built on many levels which allows for lots of picturesque vistas, restaurants on terraces, and small squares with fountains. The town also has loads of shops selling the local specialty, crème de marrons, made from chestnuts. I highly recommend it. Yum.

With Privas as a base, I took several short (and one very long) driving trips in the afternoons or long evenings (one of the pleasures of travelling in mid-June) after working in the mornings in the archives. One day I drove to the nearby town of Aubenas, a bit larger than Privas, and dominated by a large castle in the centre of town, which also passed from the Montlaur family to the Harcourts. It too originated in the 11th or 12th century, but was mostly built in the 14th century—unlike the others, it is not a ruin, and you can still see how it has been modified in multiple styles over the centuries, from the medieval round towers, to a Burgundian style coloured tile roof from the Renaissance, to neo-Classical elements added later in the doorframes and windows. Today it is the town hall of Aubenas and houses a collection of portraits, including some of my Harcourt princes and princesses.

Aubenas

From here I took a tiny road that followed the Ardèche river, on which was set the castle of the Vogüé family, down in the valley rather than perched up on a hill. This family of local nobles originally held none of the baronies of the Vivarais, but by the end of the 18th century, through inheritance or purchase, they acquired four of them, and probably were on the road to becoming a ducal family themselves when the Revolution broke out. They remain in existence and are still a presence in the region, and open their château to tourism.

Vogüé on the Ardèche

I then completed that day’s drive by doing a circle, along small roads, taking in the small town of St-Remèze—another of the rotating baronies held by the Harcourts—then down into the gorges of the Ardèche, today an extremely popular holiday destination for adventurous boaters, mostly Dutch.

gorges of the Ardèche

Another day, I decided I wanted to see the other half of the Montlaur inheritance which lay across the Rhône, in the former province of the Dauphiné. This was a long drive, crossing the huge, broad, very blue-green-grey river at Tournon, then cross-country to the tiny village of Maubec, high up on a plateau above the river Bourbre which flows northwest towards Lyon. This plateau is called the ‘Terres Froides’ and it does seem it would be pretty chilly and quite arid. It’s primarily cattle country, and the dairy and wheat products produced here made the marquisate of Maubec a good acquisition for the Harcourts (in contrast to the dry and rocky unproductive lands back across the Rhône). The remains of the château of Maubec were hard to find, and I had to walk through a playground and people’s yards, dogs barking, just to find barely a wall standing.

Maubec

It was starting to get late, so I hopped back into the car and down into the valley floor where I got on the motorway and headed south. It was a Sunday evening, and the gate was up as I drove in, so I assumed that maybe you don’t pay tolls on Sundays. I drove for hours and hours, deep into the night, till I left the motorway at Valence only to discover from the attendant in the toll booth that it was my fault (naturally) that the other end of the motorway hadn’t had a barrier from which to take a ticket. How to explain this in broken French to a man at about midnight?  I had to pay a huge sum, a ‘full fare’ since I couldn’t prove where I had entered the motorway. Sheesh.

The next day I had another argument in bad French with the woman (who I remember wore a white vest, what you might call a ‘wife-beater’) at the hotel in Privas. She had promised I could pay with a credit card when I checked in, but then said I couldn’t when I tried to leave. Her answer to my pleas was simply to do the French shrug, lower lip extended, and walk away. I was so angry, and now seriously short of cash (for complicated reasons I won’t bore you with, I had no bank account in France, and cash machines back then wouldn’t let you use a foreign bank card). It was very hot. Before I left the Vivarais, I wanted to stop and see two more of the rotating baronies: firstly, the absolutely cute village of Largentière, which was the barony held by the bishop of Viviers himself, built on several layers, and with tiny alleyways—much of the village centre is inaccessible except on foot, which made it quite pleasant. The second, further along the road, was Joyeuse. This was the seat of an ancient regional noble house with that same name, who rose swiftly to the very heights of the aristocracy in the late 16th century, as favourites of King Henry III, and were created dukes, in 1581. Their success was brief, however, and only lasted a generation—the lands passed to Henriette-Catherine de Joyeuse who married the Duke of Guise. Her daughter, Marie, was the last of the family, and though I do not think she ever came this far south, she certainly was interested in the town. Although the château is nothing to write home about (odd and blocky), the new church she had built in 1675 is quite lovely. Together, château and church dominate the high part of the town, which, like so many towns across the south of France is built on a hilltop. Marie de Guise’s investment in a new church partly helped me see why her family was so interested in this region—for a long time it had been a haven, due to its rugged isolation, for Huguenots, and Marie was certainly keen to perform her family’s main role in the history of France in stamping out heresy.

Joyeuse castle and ramparts
the ‘new’ (in 1675) church of Joyeuse

That afternoon I set out for a long and a bit arduous cross-country drive, up a long windy river valley deep into the Cévennes, into the next province over from the Vivarais, the Gévaudan, and found a place to stay overnight in its chief town, Mende. Mende was historically the seat of another powerful local bishop, so prevalent across southern France in the absence of a strong monarchical government. That evening I witnessed the oddity of a parade featuring an ‘American style’ marching band, and decided to sample the cuisine I had heard about from French foodies: gésiers, or gizzards. Sliced very thin and served on a salad, my tongue said very nice, but my stomach almost immediately rejected it. This is unheard of for me; I generally like everything. But the meal came back up almost as soon as I returned to my hotel room—from the balcony of which I could still watch the marching band. My lasting memory of Mende is thus, unfortunately, a little weird.

a salad with gesiers and pears

The next morning I continued westward, following the River Lot for a stretch, then crossing over a causse, a high arid plateau, to come to Rodez, the capital of the region that used to be called the Rouergue. Like the Vivarais, this province also had twelve baronies that together administered the region. One of these baronies was Panat, and I headed there for a lunch date on a sunny terrace in an ancient house just below the château (in which the count still lives). It was great to see people socially again, after so many days on the road solo—this was the summer home of an eminent professor of history, Orest Ranum, and his amazing wife, Pat. He had written about 17th-century France for many decades while at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, but it was actually she I wanted to talk more with, since she had done extensive research on the Guise family, as a musicologist specialising on Marc-Antoine Charpentier, the composer who worked for many years for Marie de Guise. I had sent them some of my writing in advance, and was thrilled then immediately dispirited when Orest praised my work as exceptional, then predicted I would struggle to land an academic job since I had chosen such an unfashionable topic as the French nobility. Pffft!

Panat, in the Rouergue

The afternoon was golden, and I drove south and west, past Albi and into the broad central plain of western Languedoc. I remember it was vividly blanketed in yellow—sunflowers. I drove around the perimeter of Toulouse and stayed overnight in an unmemorable roadside hotel (often on this, and subsequent, trips, I stayed in one of those wonderful French hotels, like Formule Un, that cost almost nothing, and deliver almost nothing in terms of comfort, but are always reliable and clean).

In the morning I headed due west to my next destination, Auch, the capital of the Department of Gers which includes the ancient County of Armagnac, and whose archives I next wanted to peer into. Armagnac is more than just the name of a local brandy, it is also the name of a dynasty that dominated politics in the southwestern corner of France—Gascony—for much of the middle ages. They gave their name to one of the factions that tore the Kingdom apart in the early decades of the 15th century (and they often allied with the English king against the French king to do so); but by the end of the century, it was they, not the French monarchy that disappeared from the corridors of power, and their lands were redistributed to more loyal French nobles. My interest in the region comes in two centuries later, when the title Count of Armagnac was conferred upon the Count of Harcourt (one of my Lorraine-Guise princes), but all the standard sources indicated that it was merely an honorific title, not having much if anything to do with the old Gascon county itself. So I spent a morning in the archives in Auch—such a different experience to the very modern regional archives I had worked in in Paris, Rouen or the previous week in Privas: these were located in the back room of an old church, and the two ancient curators seemed extremely surprised to see anyone at all, much less an American phd student. Instead of insisting I wear white cotton gloves, they brought tea and even a piece of cake to the desk where I was working. I didn’t find much in the archives here, except that southern French hospitality was very different to what I had experienced in the north, but I did find clear evidence that the Count of Harcourt had very real rights and revenues from his new southern county.

Feeling pleased, I splurged for a nice lunch on a terrace in the centre of town. Gascony is known for its culinary richness, and Auch in particular is known as a real centre of gastronomy. I don’t recall precisely what I ate that day, but all these years later, I can still recall the absolute lusciousness of the rabbit dish. I have been a convert to southern cooking ever since. I got back in the car and headed north through Armagnac country, stopping briefly in the town of Condom, which, not only being a funny name for English-speakers, was also the site of a bishopric held by one of my Lorraine princes (every stop has a purpose). Condom was the site of one of those ancient fortified abbeys repeatedly attacked and pillaged by Vikings and Saracens in the 9th and 10th centuries. In the 14th century the abbot was raised to the status of a bishop by one of the Avignon popes and it remained a powerful Catholic presence in a region often dominated by Huguenots, but it disappeared as a separate diocese during the Revolution.

Condom

Continuing north, I passed Agen and Bergerac where I crossed the Dordogne and stopped for my last overnight stay in Périgueux, the capital of the province of Périgord, part of Aquitaine. Driving through this territory, the margins between the coastal plain to the west and the more hilly Massif Central of the Midi to the east you note the presence of numerous castles, logically, since this borderland was fought over for so long between the kings of England and France in the Hundred Years War. This route was also one of the key pilgrimage pathways from northwest Europe towards Santiago in Spain. The next day I continued up this route across the Limousin (and its capital Limoges), then joined the motorway for my final long trek back up to Paris. In a subsequent driving tour I explored more of Aquitaine and the west of France—the subject of a future blog post—but my time for this trip was up. My last stop was a lunch break in Orléans, where I re-crossed the Loire. I went into the centre of town and had a look at the cathedral which dominates one end of its central broad avenue, named for Jeanne d’Arc, whose heroics at the siege of Orléans in April 1429, helped to turn the tide of the Hundred Years War in France’s favour, a fact the tourist stands, t-shirts and snack shops never let you forget.

Jeanne d’Arc at the siege of Orleans, by Lenepveu (1880s)

The final stretch was over the very flat and wheat-filled plain north of Orléans known as the Beauce. The modern N 20 highway follows the path of the ancient route to Paris, that passes between the narrow gap—well-fortified—at Montlhéry, and eventually back up to the Porte d’Orléans, one of the major gateways into the city.

La Chaise Dieu

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, my own, or other open source sites)

Published by Jonathan Spangler

I am a historian of monarchy and the high aristocracy of Europe. I focus primarily as an academic on the early modern period and France, but my interests range from early medieval Ireland to 20th-century Russia. I teach history at Manchester Metropolitan University in Manchester, England, and the senior editor of The Court Historian, the journal of the Society for Court Studies. I am also a musician and an avid traveler. I love heraldry and genealogy! My ancestors came from Germany to the American colonies in the 18th century and I am a proud Virginian.

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