One day in 1980 a girl called Michèle on a Normandy school bus heard that a tumble-down château and its farm were for sale. Michèle was horrified. She lived there.
Michèle Lefol’s family are not grand. They don’t descend from the château’s fine family. Her grandparents took on the farm before WW2. A farm has always been part of the château buildings.
The first castle was built here by Raoul Boudet, a knight who proved his worth alongside William Duke of Normandy in 1066, in England. The old donjon tower is part of his original fortified home as are some of the walls of the farm buildings that surround the courtyard.
Brave and loyal knights
Raoul Boudet II fought in the First Crusade and died during the capture of Jerusalem in 1092. The Boudet’s stood alongside the great and good of France for centuries, always returning to Crosville.
There were a few years during the Hundred Years War when they couldn’t go home. Jean Boudet II fought for the King of France while all around him in Cotentin supported the English King’s quest for the French throne. Jean had his property confiscated. But the family got it back when with a peace treaty in 1365. It was Jean’s son who added the name de Crosville.
Life for a medieval lord was never easy but the Crosville’s were survivors. During the Wars of Religion when Normandy was fraught with battles, the Lords of Crosville were Huguenots. While an uneasy peace was agreed under Catholic rule in 1563, Crosville was imprisoned, but not for long. The family were soon back battling, marrying heiresses and managing their land with pride.
True grandeur arrived with Gilles de Crosville who served King Henri IV. He rose to commander of the nobility of Cotentin during the Seige of Amiens in 1597 and was richly rewarded. He used his money to embellish his château. From this time the porte cochère, double entrance archways in our postcard, and high pointed tower next to them have survived.
During the 17th century Jean VI de Crosville distinguished himself in the Franco Spanish war and celebrated with a new château at Crosville, in the distinctly grand Louis XIII style we see today. Immense rooms, tall windows and a ceremonial hall with scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, proclaimed the owners affluence and sophistication.
Remarkably, with a little restoration in the 19th century and some not so long ago, many of these paintings can still be seen today. All the more remarkable because the last owner to live in the château was Jean Baptiste de Crosville, who died childless on 1 February 1742.
For the next two hundred years Jean’s decedents, with bigger, warmer castles to live in, entrusted Château de Crosville and its land to farmers. Snug in their modest lodgings, the farmers viewed the old château it with a practical Norman eye. The great hall soon become a granary and straw filled ancient bedchambers.
M. and Mme Lefol arrived as tenants in 1932. Proud, busy parents of 10 children they managed Crosville’s 105 hectares for their distant Lord and kept chickens in the château ’s lower rooms. The landlord ensured the roof was maintained but kept his distance.
The second world war shattered Normandy. The detested German army occupied Manche and took whatever it wanted. At Château de Crosville they do not hesitate to rip out granite slabs from the staircase to build a launch ramp for a V1 rocket.
During liberation the villages around the Château were decimated as liberators fought to cut off German forces on the Cherbourg peninsular. Just two miles away Saint-Sauveur-Le-Vicomte on the Douve river was the focus of bitter fighting. By the time it was liberated on 16 June, half of the village was in ruins.
The next generation
Emilie Lefoy took the farm over from his parents in 1965, with his wife Paulette. They knew the distant lord was losing interest in Crosville. As broken tiles let Manche rain into the old building requests for repairs were ignored. Emilie did what he could but every winter more of the old buildings becomes unusable.
Fit for a princess
A little girl with a happy imagination didn’t see the château’s faults. Michèle the farmer’s daughter who, as soon as she could take her first faltering steps up the wide broken staircase, played joyfully in its vast rooms.
Michèle saw the golden curls painted onto strong beams, not holes in the roof. She made up stories for the strange paintings that decorated its walls and doors. Here, as rooms emptied and filled across the farming year, she played at being a princess not just a farmer’s daughter, a princess with in her own personal château.
Unloved from afar
Their distant landlord did not share her romantic feelings. By 1980, Marquis de La Chappelle from Cher had exhausted his loyalty to the worthy Crosville’s of the past, and perhaps his bank account. For his own reasons he put the château of his ancestors up for sale, as Michèle discovered that terrible day on her way back from school.
Michèle has always been happy to show rare tourists her beautiful castle, take them up the rickety donjon to admire wide views across the marsh. Now she has a battle on her hands as visitors with dreams of their own Normandy château traipsed through the old archway.
She made sure the buckets placed under holes in the roof were always filled to the brim and brave buyers confronted with considerably more water splashed across the rooms than nature supplied.
Of course she tells her parents they must buy the château and the dairy farm that sustains them. At first it seems impossible. After five years the passionate child is a young woman of 19 and somehow she has convinced them. In 1980 they purchase château de Crossville with a 20 year mortgage for about the same price as an executive home in south east England.
Michèle can finally make her dream come true. She had to act fast or the château will be a ruin.
Fortunately, as her parents already knew, Michèle is a very determined lady. While restoring what they could, it was clear more funding than any bank would lend them was needed. So she set about using her passion to impress funders. It worked. By 1986 grants start to arrive from the State and the Department of the Manche. The chateau would be saved.
Michèle’s efforts did not go unnoticed. The restoration received numerous heritage prizes including first prize from the l’association Vieilles Maisons Françaises. On 6 December 2000, Le château de Crosville-sur-Douve was classified as ‘monument historique’. This official recognition unlocked more funding and the sensitive restoration continues.
The château today
A tall shuttered room. Tiny particles of golden dust, meandering like sleepy angels through slices of sunlight. Now the once unwanted rooms wait. For the next party, the next wedding, the next soon to be besotted visitor. The future is looking good for the old château.
Visit the chateau website to find out more.