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The torment of Baron Frefosse of Étretat – a Normandy legend

As well as a stiff breeze, the strongest sense of déjà vu will hit any fan of the Impressionists lucky enough to walk along Étretat’s grassy cliff tops.

Supermatch! and what a view!
Supermatch! and what a view!

Claude Monet’s paintings and drawings of the three natural arches Porte d’Aval, Porte d’Amont (Maupassant’s ‘elephant’s trunk’) and La Manneporte have been reproduced and loved across the world.

It is impossible to add anything to describe the beautiful views that have been explored so perfectly by the master Monet.

But these spectacular cliffs share a dark and mysterious past that is now hidden behind the soft brush strokes and delicate colours of ‘Cliff of d`Aval, Sunset’ and ‘Morning at Etretat’.

Steps up la Chambre des Demoiselles
Steps up la Chambre des Demoiselles

Aval by moonlight

Take a (careful!) cliff top stroll on a moonlit night and marvel as the sweeping chalk cliffs fall into a rushing sea.  Hear the waves crash on the shore, the pull of pebbles and the quiet of the swell.  In the semi darkness our view becomes a little bleak, a little lonely.

A gust of salty air or a sigh?  Look around and see in a crevasse three white shapes, standing perfectly still and lit by the pale moon.  They raise their arms in the air, a gesture of entreaty, for sanctuary or supplication.  Their long hair is loose and caught by the wind it twists across their narrow shoulders.  They sob and tears stream down their faces.

Clouds hide the moon and the girls fade and disappear into the mist. You have met Les Demoiselles!  And very unsettling it is too.

Steps up la Chambre des Demoiselles
Steps up la Chambre des Demoiselles

The brutal Baron

Spare a thought for the tormented Baron Frefosse, a brutal and selfish aristocrat who once desired the gorgeous and chaste Eleanor, Jacinta and Catherinette but because of his arrogance and sense of entitlement became haunted by them every single day and every night of his life.

He died a shadow of a man.  It happened like this….

Eleanor, Jacinta and Catherinette were the daughters of Mr Jolivet, an Etretat merchant.  They were known for their kindness and grace.  Each daughter was betrothed to a handsome soldier; all three young men were away at war.

Baron Frefosse noticed the three girls and their unusual beauty.  Filled with wickedness he demanded they come to his châteaux.

Knowing well the dangers involved, Eleanor, Jacinta and Catherinette quite sensibly rebuffed his arrogant and obviously immoral entreaties.  He was furious, obsessed and vicious.  The girls went into hiding, only emerging at night to walk in silence along the cliff tops.

La Manneporte, Etretat
La Manneporte, Etretat

Innocence betrayed

One terrible night, the Baron and his faithful servant heard a rumour about the moonlit walks.  They hid in a darkened cliff top hollow, leaping out with threats and shouts as the girls appeared.

Eleanor, Jacinta and Catherinette ran, falling and tumbling.  Fortunately they came to a tiny opening in the cliff.  Terrified they squeezed into a silent cave.  The sound of their breathing and pounding hearts was muffled by its thick walls.  They stood completely still.

Then close by the Baron! They leaned back against the damp chalk, away from the strip of moonlight piercing the narrow opening as he stomped about shouting for them.  Then a rumble and darkness.

Down by the beach, Etretat
Down by the beach, Etretat

A chalky tomb

After some considerable time the girls began to feel around the cave for the opening.  To their horror they realised a rock fall had closed the narrow opening; they were trapped.

It was three long days later that an old lady looking for shells on Etretat beach felt the strongest desire to look up at the towering cliffs.  As she did she saw three shimmering angels take the souls of the beautiful daughters up into the heavens.

Their bodies were recovered although their father and the soldier fiancés never did.

Etretat beach evening
Etretat beach evening – the cave is at the top of these cliffs, to the left of the arch.

The torment of Baron Frefosse

And the Baron?  Silent, vengeful and ever present, the ghosts of his innocent victims never let him forget.  They haunted the shattered shaking Baron until his very last breath, and quite possibly for a little longer.

You can visit La Chambre des Demoiselles (the house of maidens) by walking up 180 steep steps set into the Falaise d’Aval cliff, then across a very narrow very small bridge.

The views really are outstanding.

Best sea view in Normandy? Click to see the big picture
Best sea view in Normandy? Click to see the big picture

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