intoHistory, geschiedenis beleven in authentieke logies
The essential charm of a property resides in its lush environment. And Marais Castle at the extreme west of Burgundy, is so rich in memories, treasures and flavours that it is just the place to chill out and indulge. It was precisely at the edge of the Nivernais (Nevers) and Berry (Bourges), two regions which have many times been the theatre of historical events, that this modest feudal stronghold was built. Although this old estate reflects the uncertain times of the Hundred Years War, the surrounding countryside exudes peace and serenity in one of the most prosperous valleys in France – inspirational, creative and gastronomically-indulgent all rolled into one …
A real old valley castle, surrounded by moats © Château du Marais
The Loire in Nevers © Nevers Tourisme
It was on the banks of the Loire, France’s longest river, that Marais Castle was built (on a site known as “Marisium”). The valley is fertile and productive thanks to the annual deposits of silt due to flooding. Located a few leagues away from Nevers and the confluent with the Allier, it is in a strategic position, particularly for the transportation of goods. Archives mention the existence of a Seigniory in Gimouille from 1335.
Louis de Nevers, Count of Flanders
At this time, the Count of Nevers, first name Louis, was also the Count of Flanders. A province torn between loyalty to the king of France and the wool trade with England, the source of its prosperity. When conflicting territorial claims came to the fore between the two kingdoms at the beginning of the 14th century, the Flemish towns decided to revolt again French aristocracy and turned to the king of England, Edward III, claimant to the French throne. The arrival of the English army in this key province was the first French setback in the Hundred Years War. The count was killed during the battle of Crecy, where so many gallant knights fell.
His son, Louis de Male, reiterated his oath to the French king, provoking the wrath of the English and precipitating the siege of Nevers in the 1350s. Affairs were only taken in hand after the wedding of the Count’s daughter Marguerite de Male to the Duke of Burgundy Philip the Bold, who chased the English troops out of the Nivernais (1369).
Although the conflicts between England and France subsided at the end of the 1360s, the area did not enjoy a period of peace: strong tensions arose in the various ruling factions. The people, exhausted, ransomed and decimated by the Black Death were utterly worn out. Demobilised mercenaries on both sides went on the rampage, in “free companies”, holding the entire region between the Seine and the Loire to ransom.
When the Marais castle was built in the 14th century, there were only loopholes and tiny narrow windows © Château du Marais
This feeling of insecurity probably led to the old Marais keep being rebuilt as a stronghold around 1370. Jehan de Bois Gibault, the domain’s first known lord, became an armed knight around 1400. He would ultimately go on to fight at the battle of Agincourt fifteen years later.
France in 1419, with the territories controlled by the English in red, those by the kingdom of Charles VII in blue and in mauve for the Duchy of Burgundy © Cyberprout
At the beginning of the 15th century, tensions as to who should rule the kingdom reached breaking point between the Duke of Burgundy, John the Fearless and the entourage of king Charles VI, which sought to sideline him from the royal council. A civil war broke out (Armagnacs against Burgundians), following the assassination of Louis of Orleans, the king’s brother. When John the Fearless was himself assassinated in 1419, Philip the Good, the new Duke of Burgundy decided to ally himself with the English. Nevers found itself, through no fault of its own, in the invaders’ camp. Its position was important as Bourges Castle, less than 60 km away, became in 1422 the capital of the kingdom of Charles VII, newly crowned at Rheims. The region, where several fiefdoms were held by mercenaries, suffered greatly through movements of troops. It was only when the Treaty of Arras was signed in 1435 that Burgundy reverted to France, heralding the end of the war. Unfortunately for the people of the Nivernais, the King of France and the Duke of Burgundy maintained a state of fierce rivalry for the following two generations on both sides of the Loire.
Le Tort’s facade at the beginning of the 15th century © Château du Marais
In 1423, it was Jean Le Tort who occupied the Marais Seigniory, having obtained authorisation from his sovereign to build a drawbridge as well as a castle chapel. The Marais castle was guarded by soldiers, given its strategic position.
The Le Tort family were jurists and close to the Duke of Burgundy. One of its members arranged the marriage of Charles the Bold with Marie d’Albret. The Le Tort family remained legal and financial advisers at the court of the Count, who became the Duke of Nevers, until the 17th century.
Earthware plate from Nevers (17th century) © G. Garitan
In 1565, the heiress to the prestigious duchy of Nevers married Louis de Gonzague, the son of the Duke of Mantua in Italy. The new Duke of Nevers was a close friend of the French royal family as he had been educated with them. A military leader and shrewd politician, he also appreciated the arts. Numerous Italian craftsmen subsequently emigrated to the Duchy, including Augustin Conrade, a maker of white earthenware, with two of his nephews. These three ceramists originated the first earthenware pieces in France, inspired by the “majolica” of their country of origin. These ceramics were of such a high quality and so novel that in the following century, the town became the earthenware capital of France. And it was precisely in Marais castle that the Conrade family settled.
The originality of this 16th century high-fired earthenware resides in the fact that these ceramic items are coated with a stanniferous enamel (engobe) which completely masks the earthenware colour. This white base enables the development of coloured paint motifs, vitrified during the firing process. Only six mineral pigments can withstand the high temperatures of the furnace: blue, green, brown, yellow-orange, red and black.
Numerous other events were to leave their mark on life in Marais Castle, which changed hands six times after the Renaissance. For example, the village uprising during the French Revolution and the construction of the “Canal lateral de la Loire” at the beginning of the 19th century, so the castle was encircled by two navigable waterways. A fire destroyed the western part of the castle in 1888. The building, which became a listed historical monument in 1927, was fortunately extensively renovated in 1970.
Owned by Thierry and Bernadette Graillot since 2000, the castle has undergone a recent restoration programme. Today its keep has three spacious and tastefully decorated guest rooms. Here you will sleep as safely as in the Middle Ages, protected by the massive walls of the old tower. Although large windows were knocked through the defensive masonry in the 18th century, the original gun loops have been preserved. It was certainly not as quiet in these rooms when soldiers were engaged in firing culverins (early cannons)…
The “chambre du Roy”, with its gun loop above the bed © Château du Marais
The keep’s staircase © Château du Marais
The two large round towers which face the Loire and dominate the moat are the castle’s oldest. The main building which links them together was built adjoining the curtain wall (rampart) at a later date. Observe the few original tall, narrow windows between the most recent openings. The facade opposite, where the main gate and only entrance to the castle lies, dates back to the beginning of the 15th century. Although the original drawbridge has been replaced by a beam bridge, the vertical openings for the chains which enabled it to be drawn up, are still clearly visible.
Right next to the entrance is the chapel, whose sculptured features are a reminder that there were many talented craftsmen along the Loire at this time. The robust tower jutting out to the right of the building is the keep. As for the elegant hexagonal tower dominating the inner courtyard, this was rebuilt following the 19th century fire and embellished with features from the old castle of Eperon. Outside the walls you can admire an old dovecote, a symbol of the owners’ rank.
Look up as you enter the Marais castle and you will notice the “murder-hole” cut through the main entrance arch. Through this aperture soldiers were able to throw projectiles onto intruders.
Rooms with different tones, emotionally charged © Château du Marais
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