If our postcard match doesn’t look exactly right, it’s because just a few steps to our left and we would have been in Sarthe, part of Pays de la Loire. Lovely but NOT Normandy! The church is in Normandy, thank you very much.
To find the Sarthe/Orne border when you next visit Saint-Ceneri-le-Gérei, stand about halfway across the little stone bridge that stretches across the Sarthe river, with your back to the church. Somewhere along the top of the ledge is a large metal screw. This marks the Normandy border.
Look over the ledge and you may spot an army shell left in the wall by American soldiers who kindly fixed the bridge while chasing the enemy south. More of that later.
Since our first post about the little Saint Ceneri chapel and it’s many legends, we have come across some more. All are very impressive for such a small, if perfectly formed, village.
Legend with a sting in the tale
Long long ago (well these are legends) back in the misty days at the end of the ninth century, King Odo died and Charles the Simple, son of Louis the Stammerer and cousin of Charles the Fat, was crowned King of Western Francia. It was 898. Establishing power in those far off times was always a bloody business. Sure enough a group of Normans from the North took a fancy to a Benedictine Abbey on a nice bit of Charles’ land, a high up place overlooking the Sarthe river and down into Western Francia. Saint-Ceneri.
A small garrison of soldiers was known to defend the Abbey. Just a few and not enough to worry Normans who were still Vikings under the skin.
The Normans attacked enthusiastically, forcing Charles’ solders into the Abbey buildings. They slammed the door but their attackers spoke loudly of fires and lobbed rocks through the windows. Inside the soldiers prayed, and unusually, their prayers were answered.
Bring me my Normandy attack bees!
Out from their home within the Abbey walls flew a huge number of very angry honey bees. They swooped down on the Norman invaders, covering each man with a suit of sharp attacking bees. The Normans were in agony and terrified. Bees were in their eyes, ears, hair and getting under their clothing.
In desperation a solder leaped into the river below, hoping to drown his assassins. Others followed, some jumping most falling, all to their deaths on the rocks below.
The surviving bees, now calm, buzzed quietly back into their Abbey wall hive and they have protected the lovely village of Saint-Ceneri-le-Gérei ever since. We aren’t quite sure where the bees went when the Abbey was burned down in 903 by some grudge holding Normans. They didn’t go far, as they were back in the new church by the time it was completed in 1125.
This is the church we admire today. A blue plaque can be seen by a hole in an exterior wall, entrance to a still working hive. The plaque states the ‘bees continue to protect the church’. Vigorously apparently…
During the middle ages, on the anniversary of Saint Ceneri’s death, two Knights came to the church to pay their respects. With little thought to propriety they bent down to tie their horses to the church door. The bees were not impressed. Quickly exiting their hive, in attack formation (we like to think), the bees swarmed around the Knights and bit through the horses reigns. Panicked, the horses rushed over the cliff and into the Sarthe far below. Somehow both horses and Knights survived.
From Saint Ceneri to Saint Ceneri-le-Gérei
Saint Ceneri earned its full name from the family of Guillaume Giroie, who was granted a castle here in 1040. Apart from a few years when the pesky Montgomery-Belleme’s took over, the Giroie (or Gérei) family reigned here for 250 years. Long enough for the village to become known as Saint-Ceneri-le-Gérei.
The Montgomery-Belleme’s eventually gave up and it was the English who finally wrestled the castle from the Lords of Giroie in September 1417. After many tussles back and forth, the castle was finally destroyed by the English in 1434. A bit of castle wall is all that survives, decorated with a stone carved with historic dates.
Memories in smoke
By the nineteenth century life in the little village was calm, the only invaders intrepid tourists and artists, attracted by the picturesque houses and charming views.
Etchings and paintings of Saint-Ceneri-le-Gérei can be found across France but in the village a rather more unusual memorial can be seen. Upstairs in l’Auberge des Sœurs Moisy is a room inhabited by many silhouette heads, portraits of visiting artists made with candle smoke against the white walls. The room is not always open as these unique images are very delicate.
By August 1944 the German army has overrun the village and is making plans to slow down the Allied armies, who are expected any day. On 6 August explosive charges are placed all around the bridge. On 7 August one of the brighter soldiers realises the bridge is the only escape route south over the Sarthe river for miles. The charges are removed.
By 10 August columns of enemy tanks and foot soldiers surge across the bridge to escape the advancing Allies. Panicked, a tank destroys part of the bridge but it is still passable.
During the night two columns of German tanks meet high up in the middle of the village, one heading for Saint-Pierre-des-Nids, the other away… the resulting chaos is remembered by locals for some years.
On 12 August the American army arrive and Saint-Ceneri-le-Gérei’s liberation is assured.
An unusual gift
A group of American soldiers stay to mend the damaged bridge, it takes them a week and they leave an odd gift. Lean over the mill side and you will see, set into the outside wall, an army shell poking out. A very small memorial to those brave liberators.
The bridge used to have a wooden handrail, but for safety reasons it was replaced by the local highways agency in 1953 by a strong, unsightly metal balustrade. The local people were horrified and formed an Association, the ‘Friends of Saint Ceneri’. This remarkable group raised money to have the eyesore covered and in 1957 the sturdy stone wall we see today was added.
Read all about the historic chapel of Saint Ceneri in our post – ‘The many legends of Saint-Ceneri-le-Gérei’
Visit the artist’s smokey portraits – l’Auberge des Sœurs Moisy opening hours
Of course the village was put forward for ‘Favourite French village’. Take a tour with the organisers’ film, here: