Monday, October 22, 2012

Le Mans

Wednesday, 8 June, 2011

Next came another bus ride through the bucolic French countryside, this one about 91 miles from Mont St. Michel to the town of Le Mans.  Fortunately, the ride offered many opportunities to gaze upon charming les vaches Françaises!

I have a thing about cows, which actually started around the time I first visited France some 20 years ago.  France loves its cows, of which there are officially 20 million of 46 different breeds.  The most popular of the milk breeds are the Prim'Holstein, Montéliarde and Norman. The Charolais, Limousine and the charmingly-named Blonde d'Aquitaine breeds are bred for meat production.

France loves its cows so much that some beef breeders even share their wine with them. Personally, I think the American-based jazz band New Hot 5 best knows how to treat les vaches Françaises:

But enough about cows.

When people think of Le Mans at all they are likely to reference the 24 hour Le Mans Grand Prix d'Endurance, the oldest sports car endurance race in the world. But that's not what drew our group of medievaphiles to this charming town. Bordering the county of Anjou in the south and the Duchy of Normandy in the north, Le Mans as the principal city of Maine was the epi-center for 11th century battles between the Counts of Anjou and Dukes of Normandy. We were here to visit what remains of archaeological witnesses to Plantagenet history: Cité Plantagenê or Vieux Mans, a picturesque 15th century quarter of cobble streets and timbered houses.  

Chroniclers tell us that Eleanor's husband Henry loved Le Mans with all his heart. His parents married here (although that didn't turn out so well), and Henry and his brothers were baptized at the cathedral. Legend has it that Henry set Le Mans afire rather than allow it to fall into the hands of his rebelling son Richard and the French king Philippe Auguste. I have to admit that this emotionally-tinged historical explanation amused me, since the reality was that towns were regularly set ablaze rather than allowing to fall into the hands of enemies. Still, contemporary chroniclers claim that Henry was so embittered about losing his beloved city that he raged against God and denied the Almighty his soul. After Henry's flight from the city he fell ill and died, leaving the crown to Richard Couer de Lion. (No word on who got Henry's soul).

Our bus circled the perimeter of the Vieux Mans several times looking for parking, which gave us a great opportunity to view the amazing old Roman walls
. Le Mans lays claim to some of the best-preserved Roman Empire fortifications in the world. Eleanor and Henry would have been familiar with these walls, though not the more modern buildings built right into them! 

Built in 280 CE, the walls served defensive functions for the city. They extend 1300 yards along the Sarthe riverbank and include twelve towers, a gate and three posterns.  The walls are engineering marvels, constructed without solid foundations but with bases whose stability is assured as partially buried sub-structures 16 feet below the surface.  

Source: John Phillips

Le Mans has also preserved its Roman baths and much of the Roman city plan in the city center. I found the geometric patterns of the walls to be mesmerizing. Le Mans was called Vindunum in ancient times, and has in more recent centuries been known as the 'red city' because of the color of the bricks, stones and pink mortar of the Roman walls.

We finally arrived near Place et Escalier du Jet d'Eau in Place des Jacobins. The limestone staircase and fountain date to 1853 and frame an amazing view of Cathédrale St-Julien du Mans.

A church has stood on this spot as far back as the fifth century, but the cathedral we will visit today dates to the 11th century. 

The Romanesque nave and Gothic chancel reflect the different periods of its construction from 11th through the 15th centuries. But it all started in the 4th century when a Roman nobleman and consecrated bishop named Julien arrived to preach the Gospel at Le Mans. According to legend, water gushed forth during a drought when a praying Julien thrust his staff into the ground. The amazed citizenry embraced him and his faith (and no doubt his dousing skills). In gratitude, a newly-converted principal citizen of Le Mans donated part of his palace to serve as the first cathedral, dedicated to the Virgin and St Peter.  That Carolingian church was completely rebuilt in the 9th century, and again between 1060 and 1120.  In 1134, a year after Henry's birth and baptism, a major fire destroyed much of the town as well as the wooden-roofed nave, transept, and south tower of the cathedral. Reconstruction occurred slowly, and one might imagine building monies were curtailed due to Geoffrey's wars with Normandy and the Empress Maude's struggles to secure a crown in England.

Despite son Henry's gaze being held by a crown glistening across the Narrow Sea in England, he nonetheless kept this beloved city of Le Mans in his peripheral vision. Henry was a generous patron of the cathedral, especially following his father's burial there in 1151. The rebuilding he helped to finance included reinforced walls and the addition of these amazing flying buttresses:

These flying buttresses of the ambulatory are in a bifurcating or inverted Y-shape, and were poetically described in a guide book as forming a "spectacular bridge where the science of balance and light become entwined." They gave me an impression of anchoring the building to the ground, as if it would lift in flight without them.

The restored cathedral was consecrated in 1158. Little besides the exterior and the interior aisles remains of the cathedral in which Henry was baptized, and it has had subsequent additions. No doubt Eleanor visited here with him on her many travels throughout the region prior to their separation.

Source: Google Earth
We had some time to ourselves before our official tour started, so Wendy and I walked down Rue du Chateau and Rue Robert Triger (where we passed a Creole spice shop called Ti Case Creole). We stumbled upon an artisan boulanger-pâtisserie at Place St Vincent, a member of the Ronde des Pains network of independent bakeries, where we got fabulous quiche and pastries for lunch. Joined by another tour-mate, Lesley, we ate our lunch in the shade of the cathedral steps while waiting for the official tour to start.

Source: Wikipedia Commons
We passed this massive sandstone rock as we walked up Place Saint-Michel to the entrance of the cathedral. I remember taking note of it because I thought it an interesting juxtaposition of modern sculpture on medieval grounds.  It wasn't until later when reading the guidebook on the bus that we discovered that it is known as Le Menhir and is a standing stone of some 5000-7000 years of age! I don't think any of us realized how significant it was as no one took photos of it. The day's tour guide didn't even mention it.  

The layered red sandstone of the menhir has an intriguing surface, and it looks almost like a modern abstract sculpture of a woman. It's said that the stone represents either fertility or the center of the universe. Le Menhir has stood on this spot for centuries, watching over the spiritual lives of those who pass the cathedral. Legend says that St Julien topped it with a cross, thus preserving the stone from destruction. I like to think that Eleanor poked her finger in the center depression or "navel" of Le Menhir, said to bring good luck. Then again, given how fortune frowned upon her at times, perhaps Eleanor passed by the stone in ignorance just as we did.  

This is the very simple and severe western Romanesque facade of the cathedral, which dates to 1100 and is thus the same facade our Plantagenet historical characters would have looked upon. I liked to imagine Geoffrey and Maude gazing up at this facade on their wedding day. Then again, given her unwillingness to be married to teen-aged Geoffrey, I doubt Maude cared enough to pay notice to the church! Still, when they visited Le Mans, this is the facade that Eleanor and Henry would have seen...complete with ferocious lion guarding the entrance.

<----  Yes, that's a lion. 
Think about it; if you've never actually seen a lion, you might sculpt something like this creature to represent one. Because of the significance of the lions to the Plantagenet family, there are two of these redoubtable creatures on either side of the Romanesque doors on the west facade of St Julien's.

(Some lion-related heraldry trivia:  Henry I knighted Geoffrey, later Count of Anjou, and granted him a badge of gold lions on a blue background. His oldest son with Eleanor, Henry II, adopted two gold lions as part of his standard. Two lions on a red background are part of the arms of Normandy. Eleanor and Henry's second son, Richard Couer de Lion, added a third lion to the arms of England. They're all much more recognizably leonine).

Because of the fires that periodically forced reconstruction, and since cathedral-building techniques and styles evolved over time, St-Julien is a mix of various architectural styles. The nave is pure Roman while the choir is Flamboyant Gothic, much like what we saw at Mont-St-Michel earlier in the day

Expanded by authorization of Philippe Auguste in the 13th century, there are thirteen chapels radiating from the ambulatory.

Source: John Phillips

The chapel below was dedicated to St. Julien as well as to Le Mans bishops St. Laborius (4th century) and St. Aldric (9th century). 

The entire cathedral was once painted, as was the style of the time, but the paintings were stripped in the 19th century. The picture below is of the Lady or Chevet Chapel, which was undergoing repairs so we only had a tantalizing peek. On the ceiling are mid-1300 frescoes portraying 47 musician angels using 24 different instruments, including something called an eschaquier which was a stringed keyboard of which there are no surviving examples. 

Source: Nicole Benkert

The 13th century stained glass is exceptional. The walls in the choir are tinged pink from the celestial glow of the windows!

Source: Nicole Benkert

The two central panels in the window below are from the famous Ascension stained glass window, produced in the late 11th or early 12th century and thus dating to Eleanor's time. This is the oldest stained glass window preserved in a religious building. The Virgin and Apostles are watching Christ ascend into heaven.  Jesus must have risen too quickly to capture because that top panel is missing....

Two more photos of this lovely church by fellow tour-mate and compulsive photographer John Phillips:

As noted above, Eleanor's father-in-law Geoffrey Count of Anjou was buried in St-Julien's. The exact spot has been lost, but this enamel effigy was thought to have been hung on a wall above the tomb. 

Source: Wikipedia Commons

The enamel plaque has been moved to Musée Carré Plantagenêt elsewhere in Le Mans. I was terribly disappointed that we didn't have time to visit it and have included the above stock photo to console myself. The funerary plaque is 25'' × 13'' and made of enamel on gilt copper, a technique known as Limoges enamel, which originated around 1100 near Limoges, France. The enamel has been dated to the time of Geoffrey's death in 1150.  Supposedly a replica will be placed in the cathedral someday, but the original will remain in the local museum.

Exiting the cathedral, we walked around to view the royal entrance porch overlooking Place St-Michel, with a 12th century doorway beneath its portal and a tympanum representing a scene of the Apocalypse.  

Source: John Phillips

From there, we left St-Julien at Place St-Michel and walked down Rue de la Reine Bérengère to view the rest of the area. Cité Plantagenêt contains some 100 half-timbered houses from the 13th to 16th centuries.


According to our guide, if a building has many timber slats and/or a façade containing molded or carved work, it belonged to an aristocrat or person of means.

Source: John Phillips

Source: John Phillips

La Maison des Deux-Amis is a house was built by Jean Bernay, a wealthy merchant of the 15th century. 

Source: Nicole Benkert
The carving at right that sits between the joined double facade led people to assume that the building was a medieval duplex shared by two friends, hence its name.

Sharon Kay Penman commented that people often forget or don't know how very colorful the Middle Ages were, and we enjoying imagining the bright colors on the houses in the Cité Plantagenêt.  Work continues in the area to restore original medieval colors to the buildings.

Above is Square Dubois, and the Rue de Pilar Rouge, named for the large house on the corner.  This square sits above a massive tunnel carved in the 1870s in order to connect Le Mans with main roads, open up development to the west and north of town, and grant easier access to the city centre.  We drove through the beautifully decorated tunnel on Rue Wilbur Wright several times trying to get our bearings when we came into Le Mans, not aware that all this was directly above us!

Seven remaining houses in La Cité Plantagenêt have pillars known as ‘corniers’.  They functioned as shop signs and landmarks so one could find one’s way in the absence of street numbering.  

Source: John Phillips
This is the cornier at the best known of those houses, Maison du Pilier Rouge.  The large stones in front of it and other houses are meant to stop vehicles from scraping the medieval buildings. The pillars themselves would also have provided alcoves for pedestrians, who would have dodged behind them of harm's way of the horses, carriages, and wagons traversing the streets. 

 Another building with intact crozier:

Our last moments in Le Mans were spent gazing upon the outside of what was once the Palais de Comtes du Maine, now part of the city hall and thus not available for public visiting.  

Source: John Phillips

Our attention was called to the walls and the arched Romanesque windows, the only identifiable architectural remains of the Plantagenet palace where both Geoffrey Count of Anjou and his son Henry I were born, and where the wife of Richard I, Berengaria of Navarre, lived in her widowhood.

Much of the facade was reworked in the late 1700s, then again in the period between the two world wars. Sharon noted that in Henry's day there were two royal residence in Le Mans, an ancient castle near St-Julien's and the palace here at Place St-Piere. It was at this latter site that Eleanor and Henry would have stayed when visiting Le Mans.

We had a very little time to spend in Le Mans and our visit simply could not do the town's history justice. In addition to missing out on seeing Geoffrey's enamel, we had to skip a visit to another significant Plantagenet-related site, L’abbaye de la Piété Dieu de l’Épau on the eastern side of town.  Épau was founded as a Cistercian abbey in 1230 by Berengaria of Navarre, who died that same year.  She had been devoted during her long widowhood to charitable acts and is still revered as The Lady of Le Mans. The abbey she founded flourished for a century but burned to the ground in 1365, and the site of her actual burial was lost to history. Although rebuilt, Épau was dissolved during La Révolution, passed into private ownership, and was requisitioned by the Germans during their occupation during WWII. No longer a functioning religious site, the abbey is a tourist site and open for visits. Restorative work began there in the 1950s and uncovered remains thought to be those of Berengaria in 1960. The skull showed signs of post-mortem injury and traces of metal, suggesting the forcible removal of a crown in a probable act of some past vandalism. The remains are universally accepted today as those of Berengaria and were reunited with and preserved beneath her restored recumbent stone gisant in the abbey chapter house. This stone effigy had been removed at some point by the early 19th century, relocated and preserved at Cathédrale St-Julien du Mans.

Source: Wikipedia Commons

In her book Queens in Stone and Silver, art historian Kathleen Nolan suggests that the book Berengaria holds in this funeral sculpture " some way references that of her mother-in-law, who treated her very badly after the death of Richard I."  While it is true that Eleanor did not intervene in Berengaria's protracted battle for her dower rights and lands, I'm not sure what coded message Berengaria could be sending with such imagery! It was not unusual for gisants to include figures holding closed books in repose (as we'll discuss later, Eleanor's actively-reading gisant was quite unusual), but the almost mirror-image of the figure on Berengaria's book is indeed curious. If only stone could talk....

I have to admit that my reminiscences of Le Mans are tinged with regret for lost opportunities to more thoroughly explore the Vieux Mans, poke the belly button of Le Menhir, visit the museums and L’abbaye de l’Épau, and even to view the son et lumière free laser light show called La Nuit des Chimères. Given the wasted time that occurred later this evening, we could have well afforded to spend more time in this lovely town. Ah, regrets....

Some beautiful photos of Épau can be found at this LINK, and you can take a virtual tour of Le Mans at this blog LINK.

Next: Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud.


  1. Very very interesting ! Thank you for sharing this ! :)

    1. Thank you for reading! Le Mans is a great town and I look forward to visiting again someday.


Please let me know what you think! As Eleanor once wrote: "So that this day may be firm and persevere unchanging in perpetuity, we have commended it to writing. Your comments thereof are welcome and may be affixed forthwith."