THE FORGOTTEN CHATEAU
For over fifty years, the once magnificent Château de Mursay had lain empty and neglected, gradually falling into a state of ruin with walls beginning to crumble and covered with invasive creeper. In 1952 the Château had been officially listed as a place of historical importance but despite this, without the owner's consent, nothing could be done to prevent further deterioration.
For many years Virginie Marchal, together with a group of dedicated citizens from the nearby towns of Niort and Echiré in western France, had worked tirelessly to find a way to preserve what remained of the Château.
In April 1999 Virginie became President of "l'Association pour la Sauvegarde du Château de Mursay" whose purpose was to pressure the State and other regional offices into giving financial assistance to purchase the Château, together with its adjoining Farm, so that repair work could be carried out and to ensure their future well-being.
Meeting with Virginie gave me an insight into her passionate feelings on the subject and her determination to save what remained of the ancient monument. I learned that centuries earlier the Château had been the home of Théodore Agrippa d'Aubigné (1552 - 1630) the great Huguenot soldier and poet. Some years later his granddaughter, Françoise d'Aubigné, who was destined to become the wife of King Louis XIV of France, had spent part of her childhood there.
Agrippa d'Aubigné, close friend and General of King Henry IV, is also famous for his literary works, perhaps the best known being L'Histoire Universelle and Les Tragiques. It was largely due to pressure from Agrippa that the King gave freedom of belief to the Huguenots by granting them religious and civil liberties in 1598 (Edict of Nantes). It was following the abdication of the King that Agrippa wrote L'Histoire Universelle, devoted to the French reform party, which brought him exile and forced him to seek refuge in Geneva.
Françoise d'Aubigné (1635 - 1719), who later became Marquise de Maintenon (also known as "Madame de Maintenon"), was born in the prison of Niort in November 1635. Her mother had decided to remain with her husband Constant who possessed neither his father's talents or his virtues and who was in custody for debt. Although baptised a Roman catholic, the child was later entrusted to the care of her aunt Villette, Agrippa's favourite daughter, and received a Calvinist upbringing at the Château de Mursay until the age of seven.
At a very young age Françoise married Paul Scarron, a famous witty and comic writer, much older than herself, at whose house the literary society of the day gathered. As hostess of the Scarron salon, she made influential friends and it was after the death of her husband that Françoise began an an incredible rise to power and later became mistress to King Louis XIV.
Through the King's generosity, she was able to purchase the Château de Maintenon in December 1674 and, following the death of the Queen in the winter of 1685 - 1686, 'Madame de Maintenon' was privately married to the King. Although Françoise did not have the smallest part in the revocation, it is ironic that the granddaughter of the Calvinist writer should marry Louis XIV who revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685 which denied all rights to Protestants and resulted in persecution and emigration.
During 2002, the efforts of Virginie Marchal and her supporters were rewarded and they were able to celebrate the 450th anniversary of the birth of Agrippa when, following protracted negotiations, the owner of the historic site agreed to sell. The town of Niort aquired the ruins of the Château for the sum of 12,000 Euros and the Commune of Echiré became owners of the farm having paid 56,602 Euros. At last, the place once so dear to Agrippa d'Aubigné and to Françoise would be saved from further detioration.
Making the aquisitions possible was thanks to the Préfet, Jacques Laisné. Having been informed of the dossier by the Association for the Protection of Château de Mursay and other interested parties, the State representative for the Deux-Sèvres département arranged an on-site meeting with the Regional Authority for Cultural Affairs (Direction Régionale des Affaires Culturelles) in order to prepare a report to establish the future of the classified historical monument.
The State agreed to assist financially and from that moment the owner had the choice between financing part of the work required to save what remained of the Château, to hand over the ruins to the State for l'euro symbolique or to sell. The third option was chosen.
Virginie Marchal explained that from then the first task was to strengthen and consolidate the structure to prevent further deterioration and this work has progressed well. At present, there is no intention of completely rebuilding and restoring the Château to its original state but simply to transform the monument and its surroundings "en jardins de ruines" something, which Virginie says - 'the English do so well'!
Although future plans for both Château and the Farm have still to be finalised, there is no lack of enthusiastic suggestions. Virginie and the Association, together with the Commune d'Echiré and its Mayor, Thierry Devautour, are full of ideas. Discussions have taken place concerning the possibility of creating a footpath along the River Sèvre-Niortaise to link the 'Donjon de Niort' to the nearby Château du Coudray-Salbart and then leading on to Mursay.
Ideas for the Farm include converting it into a museum based on the lives of Agrippa and Françoise, a gîte rural, the creation of a cultural centre and 'house for writers'; or perhaps all three. It is fortunate that a commission exists at Echiré for the developement and further exploitation of regional heritage which is working with consultants who have been responsible for the successful completion of other major projects in the département.
Virginie Marchal has no doubt that whatever is decided upon, an interesting and important part of French history will now be preserved for the enjoyment of future generations
Article: Copyright Rodney Martel 2005
Photographs: Copyright and by courtesey of André Rousseau
Footnote: Freelance Writer Rodney Martel and his wife Mieke have lived in France for the past fifteen years and are now returning to live in the UK for family reasons. Their 'Lovely Character Restored Farmhouse', situated close to Parthenay and Bressuire in the Deux-Sèvres is currently for sale. Anyone interested can find details in the PFS property section.