This is a postcard of the Manoir des Picarts de Radeval, also known locally as Le Grande Maison and in most history books as Manoir de Radeval. Radeval is just a mile north of Les Andleys in the Eure, but to match it we had to go to Hampshire in England. All because a 19th century English lord wanted to build himself an ancient castle.
But first, the very successful Picarts of Radeval and their fine house.
The Picarts of Radeval
Le Grande Maison was built for Jehan de Picart in the 16th century and famous for its splendid gothic styling. A pamphlet ‘Mélanges’ by the History society of Normandy in 1927 revealed more about this long forgotten family than any other publication we have found. It states;
“Without going into too much detail about the numerous Picart families of Etelan and Radeval, it is worth recalling in a few pages…”
We are cutting those pages a little but link is below for those with a love of detail.
The story of the Great House begins with Andelys born Guillaume Picart. Guillaume combined military brilliance and a sharp understanding of business with the delicacy of the diplomat, gaining for himself the favour of tricky Louis XI (nicknamed ‘spider’ or ‘The cunning’) and a vast fortune. As Counsellor and chamberlain to the king he was exchequer of France in 1466, 1469 and 1474. We don’t know how well he managed the country’s finances but Guillaume was able to acquire the seigneureies, feudal lorships of estates around Andelys; Etelan, Bourg-Archard, Morville, Le Mesnil, reaching up to and including Radeval. Guillaume died Lord of Estelan and a very rich man in 1484.
Brave, brilliant and very very rich
Son Louis inherited and is probably the Lord of Radeval recorded as figuring ‘brilliantly’ at ‘Le pas des armes de Sandricourt’ of 1493. The famous tournament brought together the knights of France with over 4,000 people taking part from 16 to 20 September 1493. Displays of knightly combat included jousts with lances and swordfights on horseback and on foot.
When Louis died in 1497 the father of daughters, the title passed on to his brother Jehan.
Jehan took very well to his inheritance. A respected knight and business man, he became an adviser to King Francis I, who has the rather less troublesome nickname ‘le Grande nez’. During his career Jehan was in charge of the king’s household, became bailiff and captain of Gisors and secured for his family the Vicomte de Falaise.
He also built himself a house at Radeval.
Le Grande Maison
Known locally as Le Grande Maison, Jehan’s house was the height of gothic renaissance fashion, deeply embellished with stone carving. A fine oriel window hints at the unknown Grandeur within. The window would become known as the King’s Oriel, as it lit the room where the King Antoine of Navarre would die from his wounds in 1562 after the siege of Rouen.
Over the next hundred years the family held onto Le Grande Maison. Unfortunately Louise de Radeval, mother of the successful if extravagant Francois de Bassompierre, was forced to sell it to support her profligate son. First sold was the title Lord of Radeval in 1619, then in 1621 the land was sold to the La Vache du Saussay.
A du Saussay descendent sold it all in 1770 to the widow Marie-Jeanne de Cuisy. But not for long. It was either sold or seized by the Fermier Général Marc-Hubert Colin de Saint-Marc. Fermier Général, or Farmer General was the title given to those who ‘farmed’ taxes on behalf of the king, an unpopular system that bought in considerable profits for the ‘farmers’.
Sold for parts
The house’s history goes quiet for many years, with records simply stating that it suffered in the revolution of 1789. By 1820 it was an unfashionable white elephant and sold to ‘vendeurs des monuments en detail’. They took it down and priced each fancy piece; the oriel window, finely carved finials and crockets, cusps and spandrels and sold it in to an English Lord who wanted to build a historic house, in Hampshire.
Many ancient abbey’s and chateaux suffered during the revolution and ended up unwanted (or un-affordable) remnants of a sovereign past. Their remains were of huge interest to the English, who cheerfully bought up entire elegant rooms and copious architectural treasures.
The archivist-historian Francis Palgrave wrote:
‘It is the English alone who labour to preserve the memory of the structures of Normandy, which are doomed to destruction by the disgraceful sloth and ignorance of the French.’
‘Whilst the owners of these noble structures are dull to their beauties and incapable of appreciating their value, we have made them English property’.
Fury, and the lost of heritage
The buyer for the deconstructed Grande Maison was Charles Stuart, 1st baron Stuart de Rothesay. He added it to a collection that included a few choices pieces from the Normandy abbey at Jumièges and a nice stained glass window from St Vigor church in Rouen.
Francis Palgrave was wrong in his proclamation; the French were beginning to mind about losing their heritage very much indeed.
The sales to Lord Charles caused outrage across Normandy. By the time Radeval’s ancient stones were sailing in a dozen boats down the Seine and across the channel in 1824, the archaeologist Arcisse de Caumont had founded the ‘Societe des Antiquaires de Normandie’. The Societe became hugely influential, recording and being instrumental in saving many fine buildings across Normandy.
But it was too late for the Grande Maison, destined to become an integral part of Lord Charles’ plans for a faux historic family pile.
An ambitious man
Lord Charles had bought back family land, sold by his father (the younger, poorer son of a Lord), along the coast from Bournemouth. Charles was an extremely successful politician. The Duke of Wellington valued his advice and he was the British ambassador to Russia, the Netherlands and twice ambassador to France. He also had the good fortune, or sense, to marry fabulously wealthy Lady Elizabeth Margaret, daughter of the 3rd Earl of Hardwicke.
Lord Charles waited some years before beginning to build. He shared initial plans for a fairly modest building with his wife, who gave her approval. Lady Elizabeth was then called away to care for her ailing father and not expected to return for some time.
By the time she returned, the sturdy beginnings of an altogether Grander house met her. Lady Elizabeth was apparently horrified and insisted Charles curb his ambitions a little. Looking at the house it is hard to work out where.
A gothic dream
Charles employed William Donthorne as his architect together the created a romantic gothic folly of a house from salvaged medieval pieces and their imaginations. The entire façade of le Grande Maison takes the central position.
The Maison’s oriel window hangs stately above the entrance. Inside, carved oak panels commissioned for the Abbaye de Jumièges in 1501 and depicting the life of Christ lined the great hall. The ancient stained glass Jesse window illustrating Christ’s family tree, from St Vigor in Rouen, shone coloured light across them.
Happily Lady Elizabeth is reported to have come to love Highcliffe Castle and relished designing and growing the gardens.
The gates of paradise
Highcliffe Castle is an attractive if rather odd castle. Architectural historian John Harris described it as ‘an unsatisfactory composition, as if Lord Stuart de Rothesay himself had taken a hand in the design, as I suspect he did.’
However during the gothic revival years of the 19th century it was mostly regarded a success. In 1876 the English writer Augustus Hare wrote ‘I have left Highcliffe, and the gates of Paradise seem closed’.
The tumultuous life of Highcliffe
Childless, the de Rothesay’s left their castle to a distant cousin, Edward Stuart Wortley, who struggled to maintain it. Most of the land was sold and the house let. Illustrious tenants included Harry Gordon Selfridge and his family. Harry installed new bathrooms, central heating and a state of the art kitchen. During WW1 Harry’s wife Rosalie opened up the grounds for the tented ‘Mrs Gordon Selfridge Convalescent Camp for American Soldiers’.
Shortly after WW2 Edward’s daughter and her husband Lord Abingdon decided to sell. Christie’s the London auctioneers were called in to manage a sale of the contents, held over three days in 1949. The catalogue records 804 lots including paintings by Reynolds, Raphael and Holbein. The Abbaye de Jumièges carved panels were purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and are still on display in their Cloisters building.
Lady Abingdon said that year to the journalist Tahu Hole ‘Someday the Castle will make a beautiful and interesting ruin’. She was right, but rather sooner than she thought.
Sold in 1950, Highcliffe became a convalescent home for children then a home for the Claretian Missionary Order. The Order ripped the staircase out of the great hall and used it to get down the cliffs to the beach. When the Claretian’s left the castle buyers hoped to develop it but were hampered by the restrictive grade I listed status.
Slow return to life
Two fires and casual vandalism wore the castle down until it was bought, a roofless ruin, in 1977 by the local council. Little was left of the interior. Wrought iron floor plates from the library’s gallery had found their way to the beach to be used barbecue grills. Decorative stonework was chipped off or simply shattered by the fire.
Not all the removals were by vandals. After one of the fires a stained glass restorer Dennis King, on his own initiative, meticulously took down the Jesse window, catalogued, cleaned and restored it. He then stored the glass safely in the hope that once day the castle would be ready to take it back.
Of course renovating a castle was not in the council’s budget. Eventually a Heritage Lottery Fund grant was awarded and the castle has slowly come back to life.
The renovation has been carried out with great sympathy. Skilled crafts people have recut lost stonework, a roof has been added and walls strengthened, but there is also respect for the tumultuous life of the castle. Brickwork has been left un-plastered, burn marks can still be seen. The Jesse window was reinstated in 1999. For the first time since it was built, Highcliffe Castle isn’t trying to be something it is not.
We played a game of ‘spot the bits of old Normandy manor/abbey’ and think we may have worked out a number of sections from Jumièges as well as Le Grande Maison.
The castle gardens are always open and there is a carpark close by, with steps down to the sea. Opening times for the castle and rather good tea rooms are on the Highcliffe website. Highliffe is very welcoming, we had a very interesting chat with Brenda Marvin, a castle volunteer who helped make our visit most enjoyable.
Our match in Normandy? We can find no trace of Le Grande Maison in Radeval. Not an outline of the foundations, a road name or even just a few stones. Gone.
Highcliffe Castle website; lots of useful info but there is so much more history to be discovered when you visit.
Panels from the abbey now in the Met Cloisters building in New York
A stonemason recalls working on the restoration of Highcliffe Castle
‘Moving Rooms’ by John Harris. A fascinating book about the history of architectural salvage.
‘Mélanges’ by the History Society of Normandy, 1927.