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Domfront, Lower Normandy, France

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Domfront Tower

The town of Domfront, also known as Domfront-en-Poiraie1, has a fascinating place in the history of both France and Britain. It is found 85 kilometres south of Caen and 250 kilometres west of Paris2.

Located in an area of Lower Normandy surrounded by unspoilt rolling countryside of hills, rivers and lakes, Domfront is surrounded by delightful towns and villages. The town itself rises out of the landscape, and is reminiscent of a landlocked St Michael's Mount. As you approach Domfront its most noticeable features are the castle and the Church of Saint Julien. Built on the hill, the old town was huddled around the church and is adjacent to the castle. The old town was originally surrounded by the town walls, most of which can still be traced today.


Domfront was the main market town in the area, the Place de la Roire was the market between 1154 and 1485. As the town developed on the southern slopes and flatter land to eastern sides of the town, much of the character of the old town has been preserved.

Today the town's most prominent feature is the castle, originally built to provide a base for the lord appointed to defend the town and the ancient border between Maine and the Duchy of Normandy. Although the castle is now an impressive ruin, once the keep was over 25 meters high and enclosed by strong walls with defensive towers. Within the walls were stables, kitchens, gardens and orchards.

The outer ward was the larger, enclosed area that contained the town of Domfront. Livestock such as pigs and chickens were kept by the townsfolk within the outer ward to supply the kitchens. There was also a banqueting hall and a chapel within the castle for the lord's personal use.

The Early History

The first castle on the site was built in approximately 1010, but there is no trace of the original as it was built of wood and the later building work all-but removed all evidence. There is no proof, but it is interesting to speculate; could this wooden castle have been an inspiration for the prefabricated wooden motte and bailey castles transported to England by William of Normandy during the 1066 invasion of England?

Building the current castle started around 1049 by Guillaume II Talvas, lord of Bellême and completed in 1100 by Henry Beauclerc, the first lord of Domfront, Maine and the Duchy of Normandy.

The Norman Castle

The remains of Domfront Castle today

Some of the most notable Lords of Domfront are listed below. As can be seen, many of these particular lords had strong connections with the history of Britain.

In the late 1050s Guillaume II Talvas de Bellême was besieged in Domfront Castle by William of Normandy, also known as William the Bastard, who was at the time the Duke of Normandy. He later became King William the Conqueror. William had four sons, Robert Cuthose (1051-1134), Richard (c1056-75), William Rufus (c1056-1100) and Henry (1068-1135). The castle was besieged from 1048 to 1052; Guillaume II Talvas lost the castle and died shortly after.

In 1092, Robert de Bellême, 3rd Earl of Shrewsbury, was recorded as the custodian of the castle. After William the Conqueror's death he supported Robert Cuthose' unsuccessful rebellion to become King of England instead of William Rufus. In 1092 Robert de Bellême was replaced as lord of Domfront by the fourth son of William the Conqueror, Henry Beauclerc. On the death of his brother William Rufus, Henry became King Henry I of England. After deposing and imprisoning his oldest brother Robert, Henry became Duke of Normandy in 1106 as well as Duke of Aquitaine and Gascony, Lord of Cyprus, Count of Poitiers, Anjou, Maine and Nantes, and Overlord of Britain. Henry died on 1 December, 1135, in Saint-Denis-le-Ferment, Higher Normandy, France.

Other notable royal visitors include King Henry II of England (born 1133, reigned 1154-89), his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204) and their sons, the young Richard the Lionheart (born 1157, reigned 1189-99) and John (born 1166, reigned 1199-1216). In fact Eleanor of Aquitaine's sixth child, Eleanor, Queen of Castile (1162-1214) was born in Domfront. In 1169, it was at the castle that Henry II3 chose to meet envoys of Pope Adrian IV in an attempt to reconcile with Thomas Becket, former Archbishop of Canterbury. This reconciliation, like Thomas Becket, would prove short-lived as Becket was murdered the following year. The last recorded ownership by an English king was in 1204, when records show that Domfront was a personal possession of King John4. John lost most of England's French possessions, including Domfront, which became the possession of the French crown.

The French Castle

In 1259, Louis IX of France gave Domfront to his cousin Amicie de Courtenay and his nephew Robert II, Count of Artois (1250-1302), as a dowry on their marriage. Robert II's eldest son Philip predeceased him. After his death, Robert II's grandson Robert III inherited Domfront but used forged documents in an attempt to claim other land that had been inherited by his aunt, which led to Domfront being confiscated by the crown in 1331.

At this time, all lands were the governed by the king. The most efficient way for him to rule was to divide the country into administrative areas and appoint a trusted prince, count or duke to rule them. These appointees had the power to raise armies to enable them to enforce the king's laws, collect taxes and keep the local population in order, ruling the area in the king's name, and taking a portion of the revenue as his reward for this service. In times of war, the king could call upon these armies to protect the kingdom.

During 1342 Philip VI of France appointed Domfront and surrounding country to Charles II, the Count of Alençon and Perche. Born in 1297, he held the titles 1325-46. He also inherited the titles Count of Chartre and Joigny (1335-36) following the death of his wife Jeanne, Countess of Joigny, who had inherited them from her father and uncle.

During the Hundred Years War (1337-1457) in 1356, 800 men commanded by English mercenary knight Sir Robert Knolles and loyal to Charles II, also called Charles the Bad and King of Navarre, took Domfront and held it until 1366. Knolles then rendezvoused with Henry of Grosmont, 1st Duke of Lancaster, who had been given the task of ravaging Normandy to divide the forces of John II of France. This diversionary action allowed King Edward III's son Edward the Black Prince to advance to Poitiers with little opposition, where he won the Battle of Poitiers and captured King John II. During the Normandy and Poitiers campaigns Charles II and his forces successfully attacked Paris.

Meanwhile the Count of Alençon continued to rule Domfront when it was held by the French. Charles II was succeeded by Charles III, Count of Alençon (1337-75), but he resigned the dukedom in 1361 in favour of a high position in the church and was succeeded by Peter II of Alençon (1340-1404). Under Peter II of Alençon in 1367, the towns of Domfront and Alençon were reunited in the same fief5 or dukedom.

During 1417-18 the castle was besieged by the English. Commanded by Thomas of Lancaster, 1st Duke of Clarence, it fell on 10 July, 1418. In 1430 the French raided Domfront, but were ultimately driven off. Domfront was finally taken by the French on 2 August, 1450; the penultimate part of France outside the Pale of Calais held by the English, it fell only 15 days before Cherbourg.

The Castle's Decline

By 1608, due to the advances of cannon, the castle was regarded as obsolete, especially as it had last been modified by King Henry I of England in the 12th Century. Maximilien de Béthune, Duc de Sully ordered its demolition by what is called slighting. This is the practice of destroying a castle's fortifications, often carried out during periods of war if the victor felt unable to keep possession of the captured castle to prevent its use by another potential enemy. It is still today an impressive monument and one of the best examples of a slighted castle in Europe.

There is an unusual feature in the castle that survived, an early example of a passage within the curtain wall with defensive arrow loops. This provided exceptional protection for the archers and men at arms; if the enemy gained entry to the courtyard, they would come under fire from both the keep and inside the castle walls.

An Unusual British Connection: Claude Du Vall

Claude Du Vall, also called Claude Duval, was born in Domfront in 1643. By birth a French nobleman turned highwayman, he famously took only a part of his victims' valuables. Well known for his graceful manner and his skill playing the flageolet, a woodwind instrument, he is also remembered as the subject of a painting by William Powell Frith. His luck abandoned him and his last engagement was on 21 January, 1670, at Tyburn Gallows, London. His last resting place is St Paul's, Covent Garden.

Domfront Today

A selection of pictures of Domfront today

The Château of Domfront is a prominent feature of the town and includes the impressive ruins of the keep, and the curtain walls. Many sections of the original town walls that originally surrounded the old town, and some of the defensive towers, are still standing. This enables the visitor to trace the circuit of the original defensive walls and ramparts. As several towers of the circuit wall are still in good condition, it enables visitors to get a feel of the old town defences6.

An unexpected extra is the original mediæval town's well-preserved street system, with buildings from all eras. Although cars can drive through the town, the narrow streets and the one-way system make it very suitable for pedestrians. Before the Second World War the town square was dominated by mediæval houses. Sadly these were lost to bombardment by US forces when on the line of advance the US Ninth Army's 30th Infantry Division. However, so many historic buildings remain that the visitor today will hardly notice their loss.

As the town is perched on the top of the highest point in the area, the views from the town walls over the surrounding countryside are exceptional. Additionally, the buildings in the old town provide plenty of interest for the photographer. In short, when visiting take your camera and binoculars (if you have them) and enjoy the excellent scenery.

There is a very helpful tourist office situated at the château entrance, and car parking can be found nearby. The access to the castle is easy and the site is surrounded by a well-kept park with wheelchair and pushchair-accessible lawns and very nice gardens. A public toilet can be found near the custodian's lodge.

Church Saint-Julien, Domfront

This church is adjacent to the castle. Church Saint-Julien was built in the 1920s out of concrete to save building costs; the choice of concrete may have made it easier to build in the confined space.

Church Notre-Dame-sur-l'Eau, Domfront-en-Poiraie: 'A Short Walk by Car'

Church Notre-Dame-sur-l'Eau, Domfront-enePoiraie, meaning 'the Church of Notre-Dame on the water', was given its name because of its proximity to the river Varenne. It is part of the Domfront commune on the banks of the river Varenne, built at the base on the western side of the castle rock. Work on constructing the church started around 1020, with the building predominantly 11th/12th Century.

One of the most notable visitors to the church was Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket, called the blissful martir by Chaucer, who presided over a Christmas service for the nobility. The congregation included King Henry II, his Queen and assembled nobles of his court. The church was damaged during the Hundred Years' War and other religious wars. The church also sustained further damage during the French Revolution, when it was used as a warehouse by the revolutionary government. Many years ago part of the church had to be been demolished to widen the road.

It is technically within walking distance, but as there is an exceptionally steep hill it is strongly recommended you go by car. The walk down is easy but there is not much in the way of footpaths. The walk up is tough as the hill would make a fine ski slope! Despite this, it is still well worth a visit.

Other Historical Sites of Interest Close to Domfront

For visitors staying in the area, other nearby monuments include:

  • The Manor of La Bérardière Saint-Bômer-les-Forges (6.4km)
    A fine stone manor house with many fine architectural features from the reigns of Louis XIII, XV and XVI.

  • Lonlay Abbey or Lonlay-l'Abbaye (7.1km)
    The Abbey has fine Norman Romanesque sculpture dating from around 1090.

  • Jublains Roman Town (39km)
    A well preserved Roman town with a fort temple and an excellent museum.

  • Lassay les château (23.9km)
    An excellent castle and historic town with a fascinating past.

1Domfront-en-Poiraie is a new commune created on 1 January, 2016, by merger of the former communes of Domfront, La Haute-Chapelle and Rouellé.2At map reference 48°31'10"N 0°45'23"W.3The first Norman king able to speak fluent English.4Also known as John Lackland.5An area of land under the control of an appointed feudal lord.6Despite the rough handling in 1608 when barrels of gunpowder were placed in the keep and it was blown up. Maximilien de Béthune, duc de Sully, is not the only one to play a part in demolishing the castle; some minor damage was done by US artillery and army bombers in the Second World War.

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