There have been a lot of changes for this old building and something quite spectacular is now missing…
There have probably been dwellings on this piece of land by the Orne river since dwellings took over from caves and nice hollow trees. We do know a ‘Manor Talbotière’ stood here and was given by John Couvrechef as a dowry for his daughter in 1487. Guillemette was marrying Philip Nollent and they would have a son, Gerard. Gerard inherited this land and a lot more besides.
Gerard was an educated, flamboyant man. We know this because when he decided to rebuild the manor at the end of the 15th or beginning of the 16th century, he did so in some style.
Gerard and Marguerite Nollent lived during the ‘French Renaissance’, a time of cultural and artistic richness. The freshly named ‘Manoir de Nollent’ would reflect their excellent taste, and wealth.
The architects are thought to be Blaise Le Pestre or his son Abel. The Le Pestres enjoyed a fine reputation and are credited with many beautiful Caen buildings including the L’ hôtel d’Escoville and L’ hôtel de Mondrainville.
Romance of the Renaissance
What Le Pestre built for Gerard and Marguerite was not a fort, but a romance. A mini palace where Mme. and M. Nollent could entertain their friends in the privacy of a modern house surrounded by a warrior’s walls.
Which is all very misleading. Yes the four walls surrounding the manor were crenellated with defensive towers at each corner, and the entrance secured by a drawbridge, but it was all purely for effect. The curtain walls would not withstand a serious onslaught and the manor’s ornate windows were embellished rather than protected by fashionable Florentine grills.
A notable feature of the exterior walls was their decoration. The thirty seven different bas (low) relief medallions depicting people’s faces were scattered across the front wall and towers.
Fourteen enriched the crenellations that topped the wall along the main road, eight around the top of the east tower with fifteen dotted around the west tower by the main entrance. The west tower also had one large window with grill, and next to it the carved arms of the Nollent family. The stone frame is still visible.
Who the men and women on the medallions are is open to speculation. Some suggest the Manoir is guarded by kings and queens. Others say poets and ancient philosophers. Just what the two men kissing the lady are philosophising about can only be guessed at. An inscription states or hopes that ‘pudicitia vincit amorem’ ‘modesty wins over love’.
Stone soldiers in defence of a sham castle
The medallions must have been the height of glamour in the 16th century but they are not the most remarkable addition to this folly.
On a ledge at the top of the main tower were two larger than life stone statues, and this is how the manor earned it’s name ‘Manoir des Gens d’Armes’ ‘manor of the armed people’.
Both soldiers peer aggressively over the battlements. One is pulling on a bow and arrow, the other wields a crossbow. These figures must have looked surprisingly life-like to unknowing visitors. At least from a distance.
Where are the stone soldiers?
Centuries have passed and there have been many changes at the Manoir des gens d’Armes in Caen.
A note in a 19th century book on French architecture mentions the statues have become a target for passing small boys and are now in some disrepair.
Two of the medallions appear on an old postcard for the Musée de Sculpture Comparée in Paris, now the Musée national des Monuments. A Caen heritage site with broken links has more thumbnail pictures of impressions made from the medallions.
It is no surprise that over time only the main wall and two of the towers have survived. Remaining embellishments are few and most of the crenellations have been smoothed out along the top of the wall and towers.
We thought perhaps simply time had stripped the walls of the medallions, hidden the stone statues and removed the crenellations. WW2 could well take some of the responsibility. We were wrong.
It was something of a shock to then find a postcard from the 1960’s that revealed crenellations, medallions on the main tower – not as many as are show in earlier etchings – and at least one stone soldier statue! Surely if the decorations had survived over 500 years they survived the last 50?
What happened! Where are they?
We have dropped a note to the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Caen and will let you know if they can help answer this mystery.
In recent years Caen council owned the Manoir des gens d’Armes, the towers and walls, and used them to house the Regional Centre of Culture and Ethnological Technique (CRECET). Recently it was all sold and is now the proud home of a young couple who have worked hard to make it habitable. When they first took the buildings on they contained nether bathroom or kitchen. The new owners are of course constricted by countless regulations, as you would expect for a historical monument registered in 1862. ‘It is a lifetime project’ they happily say.
Anyone can walk by the Manoir des gens d’Armes on Rue Basse in Caen to admire this glorious folly. It has been open to visitors during the annual heritage opening days (September) and hopefully will be again in the future.
We hear from M. Pascal Leroux, Conservation Attaché at the Musée de Normandie:
“The medallions and statues of the Manor of Arms were dismantled during a campaign to restore the building in the 1980s. Their dismantling was carried out because of their poor state of conservation, severely degraded by pollution. First stored by the services of the DRAC in the church of Saint-Etienne le Vieux, we decided to group these sculptures with the entire lapidary collection that we run Montalivet course in Caen. For the public, this warehouse is open only exceptionally during certain Heritage Days or during an occasional visit requested by the Tourist Office.”
Thank you M. Pascal Leroux!