Rummaging in Normandy markets we occasionally come across vintage postcards of Domfront showing a rather grisly image; a man dangling from the gallows. Difficult to match – for the artists’ tenuous knowledge of Domfront as much as the dangling man – these postcards often includes an awful warning:
Domfront ville du malheur, arrivé à midi pendu à une heure!
Domfront, city of misfortune, arrive at noon, hanged at one o’clock!
What’s it all about?
Older folk in the Orne still refer to Domfront as the ‘city of misfortune’, a moniker that goes back four hundred years to the wars of religion in the 16th century.
This was yet another time of chaos for Normandy, with Protestant barons raising armies to battle Catholics loyal to the crown. One Norman noble, Gabriel, comte de Montgomery, was particularly hated by the queen for killing her husband King Henry II in a joust. This accidental assassination made Montgomery so unpopular he was forced to live abroad. In England he became a Protestant and on his return to France caused all sorts of mayhem.
The seige of Domfront
Gabriel arrived in Domfront with a few dozen loyal supporters one night in May 1674. They were fleeing a Catholic army of thousands, led by the queen’s Marshall Matignon. The Protestants pillaged the churches for what they could then occupied the castle. Marshal Matignon put the hilltop town under siege.
Over the next few days Marshal Matignon kept Domfront under constant fire and the people of the town suffered terribly alongside their invaders. As buildings burned Domfrontais resentment grew.
Gabriel was entrenched for days (find out more in in our blog post here) before the town was taken by Matignon and his men. Gabriel was arrested and sentenced to death
A few of Gabriel’s loyal supporters evaded capture in the confusion including one Jean Barbotte, miller at the Abbey of Lonlay. Jean hid out in the forêt des Andaines, continuing his war against the Catholics where he could, protected by the silence of the Protestant faithful.
A few months later, on 24 December, Jean Barbotte found himself near the old city. Cheerful sounds and the enticing whiff of roast meats from the Christmas Eve fair were drawing people from miles around. The road into town was packed.
Jean, confident he was much changed for his time in hiding, decided to venture into Domfront for supplies. It was 12 o’clock. He could not know his luck was running out.
Wearing a stolen red cap of the catholic faithful, Jean kept his head down as he walked past Prior Jean Bidault, who was in the city visiting Ledin de la Châlerie, then governor of Domfront. The Prior had good reason not to forget Jean Barbotte.
Jean Bidault’s Abbey at Lonlay had been ransacked, burned and his old monks tortured and killed (‘speared, their beard’s set afire and their teeth snapped’) by comte Gabriel’s men, led by Jean Barbotte!
The Prior, shouting “Mon Dieu! This is the man who burned my Abbey!” and accosted Jean whose attempts to escape were quickly thwarted by a furious crowd. The awful days of the siege and appalling behaviour of the Protestant invaders were scorched into the memories of all Domfrontais, who were now baying for Jean Barbotte’s blood.
And then at 1pm…
Justice was swift. Exposed, Jean could not deny his crimes. The old sentence of death set by Marshall Matignon were again proclaimed and Jean dragged to the gallows. The full Domfront garrison turned out to see him swing and held back the howling crowd. It was 1pm.
Surveying the victorious mob Jean Barbotte uttered the immortal words…
“Domfront, city of misfortune! Arrive at 12 noon, hanged at one o’clock, with no time to dine!”
And then they hung him. It was the best Christmas Eve fair anyone could remember in a long time.
And that is the tale of Domfront, city of misfortune!
Smudging history with a PR campaign
While many Domfrontais were happy to frighten visitors with the grisly rhyme of Jean Barbotte, others were concerned its message was having an adverse effect on their tourist income. A new card was produced with a rather more upbeat message…
But it never really caught on.
This ancient citadel has amazing views over the Orne towards Mont Saint Michel, particularly from the old castle ruins. Don’t miss the unusually shaped Église Saint-Julien in the town centre and leave some time to have a bit of a wander. We strongly suggest you try a glass or two of Poiré Domfront, the local pear cider. Pear cider, perry, was made in Normandy before apple cider. Poiré Domfront is particularly delicious (like very good champagne) and can only be made within a few miles of the town.
Find out more about Gabriel in our post ‘The heroic end of Gabriel, comte de Montgomery, in Domfront’