Long long ago, when Normandy was known as Neustria, three fairies built a high wooden castle. They were daughters of a great magician lord. Or so the legend says.
The fairies chose a place in the wild flat lands to the west, near where sea and river form a natural harbour. Although it was a low place, from the great castle a vast territory was revealed. No enemy could surprise them and none could take the great castle of Pirou, set so securely within a moat dug from the marsh.
Until one day a new enemy arrived.
A seige is set
Strange ships had been seen for some days sailing along the coast. The broad sands of the west kept them away, until they came to Pirou.
Those that could left their homes for safety behind the castle walls, bringing weapons, food and drink. Up in the castle towers, lookouts breathing salt air watched the fleet approach in horror. It anchored so close they could hear voices carried on the wind. Sunlight glinted on angry metal. They knew this was an invasion.
At the castle of Pirou they destroyed the wooden bridge across the moat and closed their mighty doors, and waited.
The Vikings head straight for the castle and set siege. All night inside the fortress shadows flickered as the attackers kept fires alight and sung terrible songs in their murderous language.
During the day the Vikings shouted threats and polished their weapons while roasting stolen cattle. A group started to bind logs to form a bridge.
Bring the Grimoire
Within the castle of Pirou they made plans. The attackers did not hear, or did not understand as a cry went up ‘bring the Grimoire!’
Vikings on watch often saw indistinct figures skulking behind the castle walls. Dark eyes could sometimes be seen peering at them across the moat. Comfortable, well fed, in no rush, the Vikings waited.
After many days and nights they noticed something odd. No smoke rose from within the castle walls and not a sound could be heard. A call went out to quiet the camp and they listened. To nothing.
Suspicious of a trap they waited a day then as the silence continued, dressed for battle. First two men swam quietly across the moat. The doors were forced open. No-one could be seen. The rough bridge was hauled up and sent crashing across the gloomy moat.
The mystery of the Pirou geese
Ready for battle the Viking soldiers ran in with a roar, but the castle of Pirou was deserted. Just one person could be found, a desiccated old man almost invisible under crumpled grey rags, in a shadowy corner. They dragged him to their leader. The story he told has gone down in Normandy history.
Years before the fairies and their magician father had left a magical book, a Grimoire, in the castle. While the siege took hold a wise elder looked closely through the spells and there, in amongst the charms and instructions for amulets, was a solution to their problem.
That evening as the salt marshes glowed gold and red with the sinking sun, the imprisoned population of Pirou gathered in the heart of their wooden castle. Quietly they repeated an ancient chant and one by one flew in the shape of wild geese over the castle walls and deep into the marsh.
The listening Vikings laughed but quickly stopped, remembering the geese they had indeed seen the evening before, perched along the battlements calling loudly before flying away. Full of roast beef and pillaged cider the Vikings had not bothered with them.
Furious, they burned the castle down.
The first return
Months later the birds returned. Circling high they saw the remains of their castle and not a single Viking invader. Landing, they looked for the Grimoire, to read the spell backwards and return to human form. It was of course destroyed.
The geese stayed for a few weeks. They made nests, nurtured their young, and then when their young were ready, they flew away again.
The next year they returned to search the ruins again. They did this every year passing down the story of the lost Grimoire and the richness of their human life.
A new castle
One year they returned to find a castle. The Vikings, realising it was the perfect place to view land and sea, had built it of stone. Excited the geese hunted for their Grimoire, not entirely sure any more what it looked like, but confident they would know it when the saw it. When they did not find the Grimoire they made nests, nurtured their young and stayed a while, strolling around the castle grounds as if they still owned it, which they think they do.
And that is the legend of the castle of Pirou.
Proud of the legend, in the 14th century Robert de Pirou added the neck of a goose as a crest to adorn the helmet on his coat of arms.
The story does not end there, ‘Le grand dictionnaire historique, ou Le mélange curieux de l’histoire sacrée et profane’ Tome 8 (page 376) published in 1759 told the story and included an update.
In the 18th century the geese are still returning every 1 March to search for their Grimoire. They stay and lay their eggs in 18 or 20 nests, made ready for them with fresh hay. While they are in the castle these wild birds become tame and will take bread or oats offered by hand. Then in May, when their young are strong enough to fly, they steal away. Until the next year.
By the time William Branch Johnson wrote about the legend in 1893 it had acquired a few embellishments. Now the geese are fortune tellers; the number of geese arriving foretells the success of the coming seasons. Pregnant women are told if the ganders drop feathers in the courtyard they are having a boy, if the geese, a girl. Poignantly, if a member of the Pirou Lord’s family is about to join the church, a goose of the same sex will stand away from the others in a lonely porch.
Over the years more of the marshland is cultivated and fewer geese arrive. After some restoration and a redesign in the 18th century the castle fell out of favour. The in the early 1960’s Father Marcel Lelégard visited with a youth group for a camping trip in the grounds. He was distressed to see how the once proud castle was now a ruin, likely to disappear into its own moat if no-one came to its aid. Fortunately for the castle Father Marcel did just that, and if you visit you can discover all about his excellent restoration of this Normandy treasure.
There is a small final note about the Pirou geese. In 1975 there was an attempt to bring them back to the castle and the remaining marsh pools of Pirou; the Zwin ornithological reserve donated fifteen greylag geese to release in the castle moat. Unfortunately most were caught by poachers. Once it became clear what was happening the remaining birds were quickly captured and taken back to Zwin. The experiment has not been repeated.
For visitor details, visit the Chateau website.