In 1789 when the Goupil brothers from Tessé-la-Madeleine in the Orne were young men, the French revolution shattered its way across France.
Their village was small, their family modest. Everything important was happening in Paris, so they took themselves off to the city.
Jean and Louis Goupil returned in 1829, very very rich…
How to make a revolutionary fortune? First survive the revolution…
During their time away the brothers lived through remarkable times;
They witnessed the Terror (Sept ’92 to July ’94), when King Louis, priests, bishops, nobles and the more ostentatious bourgeoisie (or the more annoying) lost their heads and their land.
They survived in a country so broke by old debts and new disorder that it could not feed it’s people properly.
Saw the military hero Napoleon take control of this beleaguered nation in year 8 (according to the revolutionary calendar, 1799 by ours).
And sometime during all that witnessed a nationwide land grab as the government started selling of nationalised property once owned by the church and nobility.
The only way to buy newly nationalised land was with Assignats, created in 1789 a sort of bond sold by the government. They provided a quick income for the country (about 2 billion francs worth of land was now available) and a killing for anyone who still had cash. Printed, Assignats were easily forged in France and by the English and in just a few months widely considered unreliable. By 1796 so many had been printed legally and illegally they were worthless and the system cancelled. By this time fortunes had been made and lost in sometimes questionable transactions.
Land up for grabs
It was not just nobility and the church that had money before the revolution; there was a rich middle class who ran farms, factories and made fortunes. But because they were not nobility or part of the church, they had to pay tax. An unfair system and one of the many reasons for the revolution in the first place. When the French government sold off ‘national’ land, many better-off ‘peasants’ bought farms they had managed for distant noble masters, creating a rather pleased new landowning class.
But the Goupil brothers were not from a family with enough money to buy land. They were not known to be soldiers so didn’t earn their fortune in the many wars France was having at the turn of the century. They had no remarkable place in government. The Goupil brothers from Tessé-la-Madeleine have absolutely no place in the history books that can be found, until they turned up again in their home town, two middle aged and very wealthy men in 1829.
The first thing Jean did was build a grand house in the very middle of Tessé-la-Madeleine.
They both bought huge chunks of land around Tessé-la-Madeleine. In 1832 Louis’ included a hill overlooking the neighbouring town of Bagnoles.
From that time Jean and Louis lived the life of the exemplary bourgeoisie Frenchman; bequeathing enough to local organisations and charities to be admired and mostly respected, but generally keeping out of the news.
There is however just one, rather unorthodox event in their lives, on record.
On 21 August 1811 Louis had been granted, by Napoleon himself, the right to marry Jean’s daughter, his own niece. What had he done for his emperor to earn this favour? There is no record. Anne-Marie Catherine was just 23 and Louis 41 when they married in 1813. The couple were soon proud parents to three privileged children; Louis Jean Baptiste André Goupil on 12 July 1815, Anne-Marie-Jeanne Goupil on 26 February 1819 and Jean Goupil on May 21, 1824.
Jean died after many years of enjoying his fortune age 83 in 1847, followed three years later by Louis who was 79. The Gazette Agricole of 1850 gave Louis a respectful obituary (translation):
“Louis M. Goupil, Commander of St. Gregory the Great, has died at the age of 80 years. A model large farm owner and christian, he was a father to his tenant. He paid for the instruction and support of a considerable number priests in the diocese of Sées and supported many schools and charities in the department of the Orne. His is mourned by the county, his family and his tenants.”
Building work commenced on Anne-Marie’s new house in 1855. It stood on Tessé-la-Madeleine territory but overlooking the now fashionable spa at Bagnoles de l’Orne. It would be an appropriately grand home for herself and her family.
A suitable home
The Chateau Tessé-la-Madeleine (locally then called Chateau Goupil) was designed by an architect from Le Mans, M. David, in the new-Renaissance style and completed in 1859. Now owners of the largest home for miles, the Goupil’s importance could not be mistaken. As a charming gesture, the grounds were open to the public.
Here Anne-Marie, her son Louis Jean Baptiste André Goupil and his wife Eugenie (they married in 1842) settled down to the respectable life of an elevated country family. Louis and Eugenie were not blessed with children.
Few remnants of Goupil largess survive but Louis Jean is remembered as a generous benefactor. A notice in Journal de la Gendarmerie of 1885 mentions a perpetual gift of one hundred francs a year for families of policemen killed in service, but for most of his life Louis II lived in polite obscurity.
When Louis died in 1895 his heirs held onto the château for some years until it was sold at auction in 1922.
War and peace, for the château
The new owner Mme. Duval was from Paris and considered an eccentric. She filled the château with mannequins wearing far Eastern masks and costumes, and gave rather good parties. For a while Mme. Duval was known to host a group of Russian nobles fleeing their revolution. Unfortunately she was less interested in restoration and the château began to deteriorate. In 1940 she left never to return, her home requisitioned as a hospital by the enemy.
During the second world war Bagnoles de l’Orne was an administrative centre for the occupying army, a vital part of the supply chain for the 7th army in the north of Normandy. Vast stores of munitions were hidden in the surrounding woods. Tragically in 1944 this made town and forest a target for the liberating army who bombed the area heavily on 21, 22 and 24 June. 33 local people died and many buildings were destroyed.
There are rumours that as the Allies moved south the enemy army in Bagnoles de l’Orne looted the town wildly. The town was liberated by the Americans on the night of August 13 to 14, 1944 without a fight.
Undamaged but un-cared for, the château briefly housed a girl’s school from Argentan. Then for 10 years nothing. Abandoned.
A generous citizen
To the town’s surprise and delight, in 1954 Dr. Peyré a very charming doctor who had made a fortune from clients at the spa, bequeathed 12 million francs to the town of Tessé la Madeleine. The mayor used the money to buy the château and it’s 18 hectares of landscaped parkland, from Mme. Duval’s heirs in 1957.
After eight years of restoration, on 22 May 1966 the château became the town hall. When Tessé la Madeleine and Bagnoles de l’Orne combined in 2000, they continued to use ‘château de la Roche Bagnoles’ as the centre of town administration. The elegant park is still open to the public and home to an arboretum with over 150 varieties of trees.
The mysterious Goupil brothers
How the Goupil family fortune was made has never been discovered. Did they sell much needed country food from the Orne to hungry revolutionaries in Paris at great profit? Perhaps Jean or Louis worked in print and were in early on the Assignats sales… What secret favour would impress an emperor enough to reward two brothers with a fortune?
It is quite possible no-one will ever know.