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The ghastly end of the cruellest corsair, in Barfleur – guest blogger!

Match! Beautiful Barfleur in the Manche, Normandy

After last week’s post we’ve had lots of people ask about the corsair Gilles le Marchant, Sieur de Raffoville and godson of gentle Gilles de Gouberville.  Did we know more about him and what was his bloody end?  Well yes we so know a bit, our guest blogger knows quite a lot more.

The man

Gilles le Marchant Sieur de Raffoville was 16th century nobility, with lands in the Cotentin just a few miles south east of Cherbourg.  He was also a corsair – a sailor of fortune who skilfully plundered foreign ships and shores.  The French Navy was happy to look the other way, as long as he kept away from French vessels and shared his loot with the government.

Our anti-hero de Raffoville was a fascinating bandit who committed atrocious crimes and was as feared by his neighbours as by the crews of the ships he chased.  This wild buccaneer despised the lowborn, who had less value in his eyes than the beasts, and he snapped his fingers at king and law.

It is said de Raffoville had lost all scruples in the course of his life as a pirate, was inured to fighting, held his own life as cheap as that of the next man, lived rather as the chief of a band of robbers than as a gentleman in his manor and was always at sea or on the road.  He seems to have entered his house only to deposit his booty.  Then one day he went too far.

Our guest blogger Elizabeth Fedden author of ‘Manor life in old France’ published in 1933, will tell the tale.

Gilles probably looked a bit like this 16th century French gentleman. We don’t know for sure because he didn’t hang about to have his portrait painted.

The story of the end of the terrible corsair, de Raffoville.

This account is based on the lettre de grâce (pardon) issued by King Charles IX to one Guillaume Dienys, a peasant of Sainte-Pierre-Église, for his attack on the Seigneur de Raffoville, in which is set forth at length the whole shocking circumstances that led up to de Raffoville’s death.

The story that is unfolded in that lettre de grâce is not a pleasant one.

Bad, bad behaviour

In August, 1561, Gilles Le Marchant, Sieur de Raffoville, with several accomplices, among them two priests, attacked a peasant, Guillaume Dienys, and his brother Joehan, and maltreated them severely.  The peasants complained to Lieutenant Bastard at Valognes, who asked them to furnish witnesses to the outrage. But de Raffoville inspired such fear in his neighbourhood, that no one would bear witness against him for fear of reprisals.

Sometime later de Raffoville, incensed that such canaille should dare to ask for justice, and determined on revenge pretended to wish to make up the quarrel between the two peasants and the priests and asked the Dienys brothers to meet him in a house at Saint-Pierre- Église.

They came in good faith, whereupon they were seized and de Raffoville took away the papers made out against him and left the brothers bleeding from many wounds.

Disgruntled 16th century French peasant. Could be from Normandy, check out that cheese.

That is just not on

Again they protested to Lieutenant Bastard at Valognes, bringing with them a few brave witnesses.  The lieutenant, on the evidence, adjudged damages to the peasants to be paid in food and livestock by de Raffoville.  In default of payment, they could seize the cattle and sell it for themselves; which, considering the character of the gentleman with whom they had to deal seems like asking them to put their heads into the lion’s mouth.

Some days later, as Guillaume Dienys was walking along a road leading two of the beasts that he had taken in default of payment, when he met de Raffoville mounted, in coat of mail, armed with arquebuse and pistol.  The peasant was seized and thrown to the ground, his cows taken, and he was then tied up and carried to the manor where he was kept for a week, before he succeeded in escaping by a ‘secret’ door.

(Miss this bit if you are squeamish)

His brother was less fortunate. He had taken some animals, according to the judgement, belonging to one of the priests. The day before the market at Quettehou, he led them into the village and gave them into the hands of the sergeant to keep until the morrow when he should sell them at auction.  That night de Raffoville arrived with an armed band, broke open the stable, took the animals, shot a number of people, seized the unfortunate Jean, cut off his nose and ears and put out his eyes, then tied him to the tail of his horse and marched him two miles to his manor where he burned him alive in his oven.

However accustomed to violence the people were, this outrage caused some commotion.

A right to use force…

The mother and the brother of the murdered man again addressed themselves at Valognes and a warrant was taken out for the arrest of de Raffoville, who, undaunted, simply entrenched himself in his manor and defied the Lieutenant’s emissaries. The Lieutenant, finally aroused, appealed to the Parliament in Rouen for permission to use arms to enforce the orders.  To this the Duc de Bouillon assented.

A sergeant with a small band presented himself at the gate of de Raffoville’s manor and read the order of arrest in a loud voice.  He was answered by a volley of shot.  The sergeant retired.

Soldiers and general fighting types from 16th century France. The chap on the right has an arquebuse over his shoulder

Lets get ready to rumble!

But on October 24 1563, he returned with the hope of taking de Raffoville by a ruse. He and his men hid, in the night, in a house nearby, and waited for de Raffoville to show himself. At daybreak he came out of the door of the manor and started for a stable, half-roofed with thatch. The sergeant ordered his people to cut off his retreat, but de Raffoville saw them, rushed into the stable and barricaded the door. The sergeant outside read the warrant, to which de Raffoville replied in a fury of oaths.

“Mort Dieu, coward! Rabble! I defy you and the King! I will never give in. To hell with the King and the Law! [then raising his voice he shouted to his servant:] Laurent de Cour, fire the cannon on this mob, shoot them to pieces, set the dogs on them! Go to the parishes and ring the bells to assemble the people.  Call de Fermanville, de Neville and de Corneville! Rally all our friends!”

The servants rushed to obey.  While some went to rally the gentlemen of the country, the rest let fire with all the arms in the manor.  Then followed a hand-to-hand fight; the sergeant and his men against the servants, surging about the stable.

Suddenly it was seen that the thatch had caught fire. Nearly suffocated by the smoke, de Raffoville came out. His surrender was demanded. He asked if there was a gentleman present. The Sieur de Buisson advanced and gave his name. De Raffoville said that he did not know him, and refused to give himself up.  Then suddenly seizing a pitchfork he tried to fight his way through the crowd, but he was overcome and fell, pierced by many wounds.  He was then tied.

16th century French gentlemen.Or as Gilles probably called them; ‘The lads’.

Captured, but unbowed

At that moment the servants with the Sieurs de Fermanville, de Corneville and others arrived. The sergeant and his band met them armed.  They saw de Raffoville a prisoner and followed quietly in the crowd that escorted him to Barflour.

When they arrived at Barfleur, de Raffoville was taken to the inn of Francois Le Blond where he consented to have his wounds dressed. His friends de Fermanville and de Corneville had supper with him. After supper they had some talk, of which a few words were overheard; “Come back at the hour I have told you. Bring your men!”.

After his guests had left, de Raffoville again asked to have his wounds dressed and then went to bed.  The innkeeper stayed with de Raffoville in his room.  The sergeant, Guillaume Dienys and four other men stood guard.

Until the very last moment

At midnight the inn was surrounded, doors and windows were broken in and the attacking party tried to penetrate to the bedchamber where the sergeant and the others held the door.  Meanwhile de Raffoville, hearing the noise, leaped from his bed and seized a sword, but he had reckoned without his wounds.  The bandages were loosened, blood poured from his side and he fell to the floor dead.

Such was the end of the wild corsair Gilles le Marchant Sieur de Raffoville.

Looking out from Barfleur. Lovely isn’t it?

Notes and sources

Our guest blogger Katherine Fedden first published this story in her excellent book ‘Manor life in old France’ published in 1933. Copies are occasionally available online.

Read our post that introduced Gilles le Marchant Sieur de Raffoville – Walking in the footsteps of 16th century century footsteps of Gilles de Gouberville

Gilles le Marchant Sieur de Raffoville’s manor was situated just outside Saint-Pierre- Église.  He had to legitimate sons, one, Michel, known to be just as troublesome but the direct line seems to have been soon lost.  As far as we know there is nothing left of his manor house.  However there is a road ‘Rue de Raffoville’ just were it may have stood.  It leads to another ‘La chassed de Raffoville’, the hunt of de Raffoville, perhaps a small memorial to the end of the wild corsair.

 

 

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