A million footsteps have covered those made by Marguerite and Julien de Ravalet, growing up in Le Château des Ravalet long ago, but their scandalous story will never disappear.
Theirs is a true story so shocking it shook 17th century society and stained the name of Ravalet forever. Like many tragedies this one was caused by love. It has been retold and bent a little over time, but the bones of it are absolutely true.
A noble family
Julien and Marguerite de Ravelet were two of Jean de Ravalet, the seigneur de Tourlaville’s eleven children and lived at Le Château des Ravalet. Three years older than Marguerite, Julien made himself his pretty sister’s protector. He taught her to walk, to speak and was her favourite playmate. As they grew their similar good looks and their closeness caused comment, particularly from an uncle, the local abbot.
The family agreed it may be wise to send Julien, then twelve, away to school in Coutances. A little over three years were thought sufficient to break their children’s intense friendship and Julien returned age 16, a young man. The children’s delight at being reunited was touching, However Julien was looking with something more complicated than affection at his little sister, now a beautiful young woman, and she was looking back at him.
Solution to a problem
It was obvious Julien and Marguerite were as close as ever to the discomfort of their family, and increasingly their social circle. Two reputations were distinctly at risk. The proud Ravalet family scoured around for a suitable husband for their daughter and came to an agreement with the very respectable Jean Lefèvre de Haupitois. Lefèvre was a collector of taxes for the King and ambitious; a noble wife would be an asset. We learnt at the chateau he was 25 although other sources say he was as much as thirty two years older than his bride to be.
The family sent Julien away again, this time to Navarre college in Paris to study theology. Apparently he was in Tourlaville to see Marguerite married on 20 March 1600. He then returned to Paris and Marguerite travelled her new husband at his mansion in Valognes.
Misery and marriage
Unsurprisingly it was not a happy marriage. Lefèvre was soon angry with his miserable, childish wife. He was not pleased to see just how much she cheered up when Julien came to stay. After her brother left, Lefèvre started to beat Marguerite.
In the last days of August 1601, age 14 and 8 months, Marguerite gave birth to a premature girl they call Louise, who was baptised on 4 September in the St Malo church in Valognes. The birth did not improve Lefèvre moods and life became very hard for Marguerite. One desperate day, leaving her child Marguerite ran away back home to Tourlaville. Julien happened to be visiting the château at the same time.
For a short while reunited brother and sister were happy and unsuspected by their fond family. But quickly rumours spread through the château. Their intimate jokes, silly games, how they disappeared into quieter corners of the garden for hours, the time they were found keeping warm in the same bed.
Beginning of the end
A letter arrived for signeur de Tourlaville from Lefèvre. In it he accused his wife and her brother of incest and adultery. The château was thrown into pandemonium. Both denied the accusations and in the turmoil, on 2 December 1603, Marguertie fled to Fougères some 120 miles away from their ancestral home. Julien was close behind.
In Fougères they lived quietly and for a few months were happy. Marguerite soon fell pregnant. Towards the end of August they heard her cuckold husband may have discovered their hideaway and have plans to take back is wife. So they set out for Paris, arriving on 7 September and taking separate hotels; Marguerite in the l’Hostellerie Saint-Leu, 111 rue Saint-Denis, Julien an inn on rue Tirechape.
Perhaps their love protected them from a real fear of the future, perhaps their last hours together were hopeful. They could not have guessed the end would come so quickly, but it did. They had been seen.
Accusations of adultery and incest
On 9 September 1603 Lefèvre filed a complaint at the Grand Châtelet. His accusations were so serious Commissioner Cassebras followed them up immediately. The accusations were adultery and incest.
Accompanied by a sergeant and guards, Lefèvre and the Commissioner surprised Marguerite in bed at her hotel, alone. She was arrested. As was Jean at his Inn. Due to their noble rank they were not placed in the dungeons but assigned prison apartments within Grand Châtelet.
The trial started swiftly on 19 September and both deny the charges. Marguerite, clearly pregnant but separated from her husband for many months, was asked who had fathered the child. She blamed an assault by a travelling tailor who attacked her in the woods near Tourleville. The dates did not add up. She said she was in Paris to follow a religious vocations and unaware her brother Julien was also in the city. Her accusers we unconvinced. Julien claimed the charge of incest was the ranting of a jealous abusive husband who had misinterpreted a hug, or two.
Sometime between 20 and 25 September Marguerite gave birth to a son who we think was swiftly removed from her care.
The evidence builds
The supposed rapist tailor was interrogated and proved he could not have been in the forest during the time Marguerite suggested as he was then working some distance from Tourlaville. His alibi is solid, and accepted. More witnesses come forward to confirm Lefèvre’s accusations.
Julien and Marguerite argued to have their case put before the Parlement de Paris. Between 24 and 27 November every part of their lives is picked apart in full public view. But the evidence of letters and overheard conversations was overwhelming and on 1 December they were sentenced to death.
A distraught father and a king
Distraught, their father gains admittance to the Louvre and begged Henri IV to forgive his children. All powerful, Henry is sympathetic but cannot save them. Marguerite was married, her crime of adultery and her pregnancy go against them both. Henri was quoted by contemporary writer Pierre de L’Estoile as saying ‘if the woman would not have been married I would have gladly given her pardon, but as she is, I could not’. Their actions went against their King and their God.
Henri did make one small concession. After the execution their father, noble Jean de Ravelet signeur de Tourlaville, will be given the butchered bodies of his children. They will not be exhibited at the Montfaucon gallows as was customary.
The end of a love story
On Tuesday 2 December 1603 Julien and Marguerite were taken into the chapel of the Conciergerie to hear the verdict. At first they protest one last time their innocence but it is hopeless. Crushed, they confess and are forgiven.
Marguerite, just 17 years old, made one last attempt to save her beloved brother, risking her own torture. She shouted that she alone was guilty, claiming to have bewitched her brother. Her claims were ignored as the executioner bound their hands.
The doomed couple were taken through Paris in an open wagon to Place de Grève. The winter streets were crowded but quiet as people turned to stare. Women openly wept for the tragic brother and sister. Curiously, there had been growing public support in Paris for the lovers and calls for them to be spared the axe. They were young, beautiful and flawed, a story Paris understood.
Pray to God for their souls
Marguerite was the first to be led to the place of execution. Kneeling, blindfolded, refusing to have her hair cut, her final words were ‘in manus tuas, Domine’ in your hands Lord. The blade fell. Julien, just 21, is executed moments later. Their love story is over.
The signeur of Tourlaville buried his children’s remains in the cemetery of Saint-Jean-en-Grève in Paris. Their tombstone epitaph roughly translated declared ‘Here lie a brother and sister. The cause of their death is passed. Pray to God for their souls’…
A different sort of guilt
The family never recovered from their heartbreak and their shame. Over the next few years Jean de Ravelet and his brother the Abbot gave away their fortunes in many endowments to local churches for the benefit of the poor. In 1625 Jean de Ravelet spent a huge sum building a Benedictine convent at 17 rue Fourdrey in Cherbourg. The following year, a plague that struck the city reached some sisters. Fearful, the nuns were persuaded to settle temporarily and then permanently in Valognes.
By 1653 when Jean de Ravalet died and left the chateau to a nephew there was no money left. The chateau was sold to Charles Franquetot, a man remembered mostly for being murdered by his valet in front of a fireplace one chilly night in March 1661.
Other owners came and went. During the French Revolution the château’s archives and documents linked to the cursed lovers were burnt. Between 1872 and 1885 René Clérel de Tocqueville, lord mayor of the town, renovated the old building and was responsible for landscaping the grounds. He had the grotto waterfall created, planted exotic trees and built the famous huge greenhouse, all which can be seen today. René was forced to sell in 1906.
29th century Le Château des Ravalet
At the beginning of the First World War Le Château des Ravalet was used as a hospital, the first patients arriving in November 1914, but it was found to be inconvenient and closed in March 1915. From 1917 to the end of the war it was used as a safe haven for allied soldiers to enjoy their few weeks of leave away from the front.
Cherbourg city took on ownership of the château in 1935. It was occupied by the German army during World War II and US troops in the Liberation.
The château and 14 hectares of grounds were classified as a historical monument in 1996. The grounds are open to the public, the beautifully distressed château is open for special events and heritage days. Not to be missed.