There is something missing from our postcard match today. On the left a chapel built in 1500 used to stand. It wasn’t lost by fire, storms or earthquake but because of the vandal of Courboyer…
A new manor for a new world
By the end of the 100 Years War in 1449 the nobility and their fortified homes in the Perche region were mostly destroyed. As the land and its people recovered from a century of battles, a new nobility emerged. They built homes at the heart of large farms, fortified just enough to defend them from jealous neighbours but no longer needing battlements and moats to repel armies.
Near Nocé in the Orne the new Lords of Courboyer were among the first of this Renaissance to build and proclaim their wealth, with a tall manor overlooking l’Erre river. Recent dating of great beams supporting the manor’s roof revealed they were local trees felled during the winter of 1495-96.
Around the manor was everything needed to keep a community; cider press, ovens and along the river a mill. The local people would be expected to use them, and of course pay for the privilege.
A lord needs a chapel
To complete the estate the owner Jehan de Courboyer had a chapel built, it was dedicated on 3 November 1500. He spared little expense. Below a bell tower with two arches, a carved door within a curved arch led to an interior lit by stained glass windows. The walls were decorated frescoes and murals of the Last Judgment, Saint Hubert and Saint Christopher carrying the child Jesus on his shoulders.
Manoir de Courboyer stayed with Jehan’s descendants, sometimes ignored, other times restored, until it was seized as national property during the French revolution. Unusually the property was restored to the family. But in 1878 the Romanes de Beaune, heirs of the family, sold the Manoir de Courboyer.
History in danger
By 1907 the chapel was in poor condition. A report by M. de Cènival to the Orne Historical and Archeological Society stated:
“The chapel, which dates from 1500, already very sad during our last visit, has suffered further degradation. The crevices of the walls have widened, the mullions of the windows missing in part. Inside, it is even more sad, the fresco paintings have almost disappeared. A primitive floor splits the chapel half way up; at the top, hay; below, animals. Poor chapel, may you one day, like the old church of Saint-Hilaire, have the chance of meeting an intelligent friend who returns you to your original destination!”
In an attempt to preserve the manor and chapel they were included in the ‘supplémentaire des monuments historiques’ by ministerial decree on November 9, 1926.
Trouble in troubled times
By the end of the second world war, as Normandy struggled to recover from years of occupation and two vast armies battling through its villages and towns, many people and communes did not have the luxury to care about history.
Across the region thousands of historic buildings had been lost and more were in danger. During this time of great upheaval some, of a more practical than romantic mind, may have taken this as an opportunity to ignore a few old laws.
A practical man
The owner of Manoir de Courboyer and its little chapel was at this time Marcel Virlouvet, recorded variously as a sheep farmer, a pig farmer and horse dealer. Sometime around 1947 he needed to repair a path and build a fold for his sheep. Looking at the dilapidated old chapel he didn’t see half a millennium of history but some handy building materials.
It did not take long to destroy 500 years of history, time and the weather had got the job started. His sheep secure, M. Virlouvet probably didn’t give the chapel another thought.
Unluckily for M. Virlouvet, shortly afterwards a group archaeologists turned up keen to admire this ‘jewel of architecture’. They were horrified, and we know because they made a very formal complaint and M. Virlouvet was dragged into court. A press report from 1947 stated:
A vandal knocks down a chapel of the fifteen century, decorated with priceless frescoes, to replenish and build niches for rabbits…. The manor Courboyer almost fell under the demolisher’s pick. It was barely saved. Alas, its admirable chapel succumbed. This destruction and its author, the owner, were brought before the Mortagne au Perche Correctional Court because [they are listed buildings]. M. Vilouvet stated that he needed the stones…
The Mortagne Correctional Court will render its judgment on December 15, 1947. The Fine Arts claim a million damages and the Orne Historical Society is asking for the reconstruction of the chapel. At a cost of thirty million, this appears practically impossible.
The newspapers enthusiastically reported the court’s judgement:
The cattle merchant pays 500,000 francs for demolishing one historic chapel
Virlouvet […] who had had a 15th century chapel demolished in his domain of Courboyer, appeared yesterday before the court of Mortagne. The horse dealer was sentenced to 50,000 francs fine and 500,000 francs [equivalent to over £1m today] in damages.
The chapel was not rebuilt.
Manoir de Courboyer today
The Manoir de Courboyer has been listed as a Historic Monument since 1981 and since 2000 is headquarters of Le parc naturel régional du Perche.
Visitors are welcome (small fee) to walk around the grounds and inside the manor. Both are used to host exhibitions of art and about the environment. There is lots more about Manoir de Courboyer’s history not touched on here.
The manor is reached via a short walk from the car park down a hill and inside there are lots of steps. The grounds include a heritage vegetable garden, pond, also a nice café, a shop full of wonderful local produce, a gallery and events are held in the grounds. More info here.
Bulletin of the Historical and Archeological Society of the Orne 1907.