Taking our car over the Seine on the little free ferry at Quillebeuf has a leisurely charm. Now we know that beneath us could be the treasure of Kings the time is spent planning ludicrous underwater treasure hunts. We would not be the first.
The treasure was hidden on a ship once called the Télémaque but curiously renamed the Quintanadoine in 1789. It was wrecked on 3 January 1790.
Revolution in the air
Just 6 months before, the workers of Paris had stormed the Bastille and across France peasants were rising up against their aristocratic masters. On 26 August 1789 in Paris a National Assembly of the people had published ‘the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen’ in defiance of the old regime that starved the poor to pay for their petty foibles. On 6 October 1789 the King, once all powerful now increasingly a bewildered encumbrance, was moved with his family from Versailles to Paris under the ‘protection’” of the National Guards. The future for the nobility of France was looking very, very bad.
The nobility had little to fight back with so were leaving France from every port with everything they could carry. The church was also under threat and working hard to protect it’s assets.
France’s new government was doing all it could to stop vast wealth leaving the country. The nobility and church did their best to sneak out as much as possible. Which brings us to a quay in Rouen on a murky night in December 1789.
Suspicious change of name
A renovated old brig, the Quintanadoine, is being loaded with timber and oil, bound for Brest. Even in the gloomy half-light the new crew, local men, recognise her as the Télémaque, launched just down the river in 1772 at Val-de-la-Haye. Why change the name? Quintanadoine is the name of an old Rouen shipping family, a cover of respectability? Every sailor knows it is bad luck to change the name of a ship.
On Christmas eve, 1789, Captain Jacques-Adrien Quemin receives approval for his journey from the Registry of Admiralty in Rouen. He wastes no time and quickly sets sail in thick fog up the Seine. The ship will pass close to the rich Abbeys of Boscherville and Jumièges.
The Quintanadoine does not reach Quillebeuf, just over 50 nautical miles up river, until 2 January. Ships halt at Quillebeuf where the tide is strong, before heading up the estuary and out to sea.
Captain Quemin has her tied up securely with thick hawsers, ropes, 100m from shore.
Terrible tidal bore
Later that evening a tidal bore, an unusual phenomenon in this part of the river, hit Quintanadoine. Her hawsers broke with a loud crack and as the ship lurched Captain Quemin called his crew to take small boats out to secure the brig. The Quintanadoine rocked hard starboard losing half of her cargo. Timber and oil barrels float dangerously around her.
The sailors can see Quintanadoine is already beyond their help and watch horrified as, wedged into a sandbar, she is pulled further under the water. By the early hours of 3 January 1790 she has gone. Fortunately the crew are all safe.
Normally the Captain would report this loss to the Admiralty at Rouen. He set out from Quillebeuf and on his return claimed to have done so on 6 January. Which would be a surprise to the Roeun Registry of the Admiralty, whose careful archives have no mention of the wreck of the Quintanadoine, or the Télémaque as locals insisted on calling her.
It was not long before 300 navies were bought in from Cherbourg to work on re-floating the Télémaque. The concern is not for the cargo of ‘wood and oil’ but to clear an obstruction to navigation on this busy river. They toil in the swirling river for three months but every attempt to raise the Télémaque is thwarted and their equipment washed down river.
The wooden bones of the Télémaque could be seen for many years at low tides in the summer months by Quillebeuf. How the rumours started we do not know.
The treasure hunters
Perhaps strangers in the town asked too many questions about the wreck. Perhaps a shattered Quemin, soothing his sorrows in Calvados said a word too much. Soon the rumours started and they have persisted until the present day.
Whispers said that the Télémaque was hiding under her cargo treasures of the Abbeys Jumièges and Saint-Martin-de-Boscherville along with the fortunes of entitled aristocrats and even king Louise XVI, who planned to escape to America. Now these baubles, worth millions, sat deep in the sticky mud of the Seine.
Rumours of the treasure were fuelled in 1816 when King Louis XVIII was apparently behind an attempt to raise the Télémaque using a barge from Cherbourg. It was unsuccessful.
To everyone’s frustration Captain Quemin, who lives in Val-de-la-Haye until the great age of 82, took his secrets to the grave.
Raising the Télémaque, almost
In 1834 private companies from Holland, England and France vied for the rights to raise the Télémaque. License is given by the Navy to M. Magny who can keep four fifths of any treasure found. The last fifth will go, in a France that has moved on quickly from revolution, to disabled royalty.
During the summer of 1838 M. Magny has a huge structure built around the Télémaque and shipbuilders chains dug underneath her. Using the power of the rising tide they hope to float the remains and drag them over to Quillebeuf. They have underestimated the weight of the wreck, now full of silt from many tides. The massive chains break.
Next the services of an English engineer, Mr Taylor are called in. He builds an arch over the wreck, aiming to pull her up on more chains. The arch takes three weeks to build but is destroyed by the Seine in three days.
For three years M. Magny and his team, backed by 65,000f of investment, raises little more than a few beams and no treasure. By the winter of 1841 lives have been lost and all investment is spent.
The tricksy Mr Taylor
In 1842 the engineer published a booklet outlining his attempts to raise the brig. He describes the wreck as hiding 30 million to 80 million francs of jewellery and precious metals with ‘silver bullion enclosed in iron and ringed’. Mr Taylor alleges that Captain Quemin was promised an additional £500 above his salary if the convoy arrived safely. He was told to avoid customs at all costs… An old monk from Fécamp reportedly told a lady that silver from the Abbeys of Jumièges and Saint-Georges was on board….
But can Mr Taylor’s account be trusted? He fails to name any witnesses and in December 1842 disappeared leaving debts of 28,000 francs. His thirty five workers have not been paid for two months. His investors are said to have lost 500,000 francs.
The treasure is becoming a joke in France. Taylor’s pamphlet outlining the history of the Télémaque and his attempts to recover the treasure is rewritten as a farce and performed by a theatre troop in Le Havre to wild applause.
So for the next half a century wreck lurks unmolested in the swirling Seine. Rotting quietly, a dangerous nuisance to shipping, it’s possible contents debated with awe or sarcasm from Quillebeuf to Paris.
The treasure hunters return
There is a blip of interest in 1902 when the Minister of Marine grants civil engineer M. Bouaud a license to rescue the remains of the Télémaque but his plans come to nothing.
Then in 1927 M. Henri-Robert Vallée, a mining director, wants to employ divers to explore along the Seine river bed at Quillebeuf and maps how strong currents would have moved the treasure. However French administration gets the better of him and the dive is abandoned.
Buckles and crucifixes
New methods of engineering give confidence to the treasure hunters and on 11 May 1938 there is a formal a call for speculators to excavate the wreck. Treasure in excess of 300,000 francs will be divided 20% to 80% in favour of the government. André Crestois, Parisian entrepreneur wins and employs engineer Theodore Laffite. Work begins in February 1939. It takes six months to locate the wreckage, identified by logs and oil barrels still within it’s hull. But s it really the Télémaque? Other wrecks are known along this stretch of river.
Divers are sent down. The soon bring to the surface more than has been found in over 100 years; bronze chandeliers, locks, a bell, clockwork table legs, many show buckles, crucifixes, a gold chain like those used by bishops to wear crosses. Experts argue about the age of each item, some look more recent than 1790.
Early in September some coin rolls are discovered. Excitement is muted as war is declared on 3 September. Knowing they have limited time, M.Crestois pushes for more dives and for part of the wreck to be pulled up, although the bad weather of winter has started. Nothing more is found. When just months later the Germans sweep into France all excavations are halted.
As Normandy heals after the war Theodore Laffite thinks back to the wreck in the Seine and applies to undertake further exploration. His efforts are rewarded by an agreement made on 31 March 1952 granting him 90% of the spoils, with 10% for the government. If the treasure exceeds 15 billion the percentages will be reversed. Unfortunately Laffite fails to find the financial backing he needs and the wreck lays undisturbed.
In 1984, retired Dutch naval officer Willem Verloop becomes obsessed with the old wreck. He has obtained some ancient unpublished documents that suggest the brig went down with 2.5 million Luis. His research suggests the wreck is not submerged but buried under 10 meters of new land left by the silt of the moving Seine. By his estimations Télémaque lies beneath the Quillebeuf football field. The mayor of Quillebeuf does not discourage Willem, but points out any treasure would belong to the state, the Abbeys or descendants of the owners if they can be identified. Willem returned to Holland unimpressed.
No-one knows for sure if the real wreck of the Télémaque was raised in 1938 or if she is still under the Seine or a football field. Some say the Quillbois had a reputation for wrecking and emptying a boat in a night and there are rumours that the older families in Quillebeuf have silverware emblazoned with the royal crest. Something about this legend refuses to pass completely into myth. Is the treasure of the Télémaque still out there?
And this is what we ponder as we take the ferry across the Seine, at Quillebeuf.
- Link to news story with a photo of buckles and other object found in what may have been the wreck.
- More info (French) here.
- See a model of the Télémaque, along with other shipshape votive offerings for sailor safety in L’église Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Port at Quillebeuf-sur-Seine.
- A little film in French about the wreck.