The History of Courceriers


Despite the proverb which says that happy countries don't have a history, even the most insignificant corner of the world has its own. Of course, the whole story is not written down and recorded in archives and libraries, but whether we like it or not everywhere on the planet has its place in the history of the world, in its geological formation and its population, first by animals, then by humans.

Courceriers belongs to that part of ancient Gaul which was inhabited in pre-Gallic times by cave-men, vestiges of whom can be found in the Grottes de Saulges and especially in the caves at Rei, St Georges sur Erve and Vimarcé.

In addition to the cave-men and more contemporary in appearance, there were nomadic tribes living by hunting and also plundering vagabonds in the vast forest that covered Maine, of which the forests of Sillé, Pail, Perseigne and Bellême, Multhonne and Monaie, Ecouves and La Ferté are but tiny remnants.

Those times have their own history, which is lost in the mists of the centuries that preceded our era and that brings us to the conquest of Gaul by the Romans. One thing that is certain is that Caesar did not enter the region and conquer it without encountering fierce resistance, which forced him to organize military defences in several places and at Courceriers in particular - and that leads me to divide my little work into six periods.

1. Roman Courceriers.
2. Mérovingien Courceriers.
3. Carolingian Courceriers of Feudalism until the 100 Years War .
4. Capétien Courceriers from the 100 Years War to the Religious Wars.
5. Renaissance Courceriers to the present day.
6. Present day Courceriers (as at 1967).

This is, of course, only a brief summary to the extent of my knowledge and research, but it is a pleasure to write because local history has always been my hobby and it is a pleasure to share it with those who are interested.

1. Roman Courceriers

How did Caesar accomplish the conquest of Maine? His military chronicles, written in a form of Latin that even third year classical students find difficult to translate, don’t even mention it.

The fact remains that once the conquest was achieved he organized the running of the civil, political, economic and military administrations in the same way as in other conquered countries.

Principal cities became the capitals of the different jurisdictions and these cities were connected to each other by more or less important tracks. Maps of the time show the routes and direction of a good many of these tracks, several of which were paved with cobblestones and some are still used today, turned into roads or footpaths (often acting as borders to our communes).

Jublains, because of its geographical position, was chosen as the capital for the region of Diablaintes and Roman remains abound in the surrounding area. Other towns were, in no particular order, Sainte Suzanne, Le Rubricaire, Crun and Courtalieru in the South and West, Mayenne to the North, le Montaigu and Courceriers to the East.

In the Easterly direction the road runs from Jublains to Chartres. Leaving Jublains the road continues through the bois de Tay, Hambers, Bais and St. Martin de Trans to Voisins as well as to Trans. It serves as a northern border to St Thomas called the Chemin de Vaux de Crou, becoming the road to St Mars from Croix Lambert at the exit from the village, and continues its course towards Chartres through St Georges le Gautier, Fresnay and Nogent le Rotrou.

This road was built by the Roman army, probably at the beginning of the occupation, primarily as a military main artery.

Its layout conforms 100% to Caesar’s military tactics. To avoid ambushes from the subjugated tribes, eager for "resistance" or "revenge" and "liberation of the territory", the occupying troops had to "hold the ridges". Lookouts on both sides guaranteed against surprises and gave an immediate advantage in any potential battle.

But to enable troops to move quickly and to the extent necessary, it was not enough just to hold the ridges to ensure proper defence. It was also necessary to secure the route by setting up look-out posts where scouts could sound the alarm and stopping points where troops on the move could be safe. Courceriers is one such strategic point along route to Chartres.

Two kilometres to the south the ridges of the Orthe hills marked the end of the forest of Sillé where Caesar kept control through a brutal military presence. In the southern part, it was necessary to prevent attacks by the people of Le Mans where the Vaudelle river, which was only two meters wide, had no natural defences. That's when the Romans decided to fortify the valley in both directions.

On one hand, they undertook the damming of the valley of the Vaudelle between the present-day farms at le Perron and la Mériazière. The dam, which still exists and which is crossed by the current road, flooded the valley from le Perron all the way to la Touche and the lake thus created formed an aquatic defence two kilometres long and 200 meters wide on average.

Of course, it was necessary for the military to occupy this defensive point and it was certainly the origin of the first Courceriers, under the command and responsibility of Caesar himself, as the name is suggestive of "Curia Coesaris", "Curie de Caesar”, "Under the charge of and laid out under Caesar’s personal supervision."

What was the importance of this strategic point to the Roman troops at the time? What did it’s garrison consist of? Were the soldiers living in tents or in a fort? Caesar was there during his lifetime - a personal villa? So many questions and no answers. What is certain is that during the four centuries of Roman occupation Courceriers remained a strategic military post which the garrison fortified on all sides. In addition to the aforementioned lake which defended the south, several other dams blocked the eastern valley : the lane to Roisneau crosses over one at its origin and another still exists in the pastures at Roisneau close to the farm of La Barre (note the connection between the French for “dam” and the name of "la Barre"). Finally, in the east, there was the coppice called le Traquenard (trap or snare) whose name evokes a place of defence, response and crushing defeat.

This is also the period the small bridge with three arches that spans the Vaudelle at Perron was built, immediately after the outflow from the lake and still known to the local people as the "Roman Bridge”.

So, from everywhere, South, East and West, Courceriers was fortified and defended. From the military road passing less than 1,000 metres to the north, troops could reach it to rest or stay. Nearby was Montméard (towards Courcité), another Roman military site but probably more peaceful, since it was there that we find, at Mont Mars, the Temple of Mars, the god of war. The chapel that is built there in its memory is the Christianised version.

Four centuries were spent under the Roman occupation of Caesar and his successors, with both the advantages and disadvantages of the occupation, Roman civilization being adopted (or suffered) by the indigenous people of the time, with economic organization comparable to that which we instilled in our former colonies.

And then came the time when political and military circumstances led the Romans to leave Gaul to return to Italy, as we returned to France, leaving our Colonies "for better or for worse."

2. Merovingian Period (From the departure of the Romans to Charlemagne)

After the Roman occupation, which lasted about four centuries, we come to the period known as "The Decline" which was approximately the same duration.

Similar to decolonized peoples in the 20th century, the Gauls, happy to be no longer subjected to the occupation of the Romans, took pleasure in destroying whatever reminded them of their civilization. The monuments were not maintained and fell into ruin. Others were demolished for cheap raw materials, even de-paving the roads to avoid opening quarries.

The authority of the Roman prefects was replaced by that of the heads of tribes that had reformed and which were often at war. The Warlords, leaders of these semi-independent tribes, exercised a virtually absolute authority over their territories, of which they said they were masters, but the struggles they were engaged in with each other forced them to maintain or build smaller versions of the military fortifications left by the Romans.

What the fate of Courceriers was during those four centuries, history does not record and this "period of the decline" lasted until the advent of Charlemagne, who restored the unity of France by forming a hierarchical Feudalism which gave each Lord local power and a national responsibility for which the control of the upper echelon went all the way to the King himself.

3. Feudal Courceriers (From Charlemagne to the end of the 100 Years War)

With Charlemagne, France was divided into Dukedoms, Marquisats, Earldoms and Baronies, as it is today into departments, districts, cantons and communes.

The Barony of Courceriers, which corresponds to the present-day parish territory consisted of the valley of the Vaudelle, 7 km long and with an average width of 2 km. The southern boundary follows the watershed between the Vaudelle and Orthe rivers.

The Baron of Courceriers came from Mayenne but his jurisdiction extended over Bais, Champgenéteux and Couptrain.

The Lordship had high, medium and low justice, in other words, the Lord could judge in what are nowadays the Court of Assizes, the High Court and the Lower Court.

All feudal castles were the headquarters of a civil and military administration, in which were assembled anything found at a town hall - the tax man, the police, the court and the prison.

It was also, and above all, a military post with a significant fortified garrison, responsible for maintaining public order, stopping invasions and, if necessary, providing a contingent to the royal army.

The castle was a refuge for the population in case of danger from invaders and this led to establishing fortifications and building cellars for storing reserve supplies of food.

The feudal castle of Courceriers was never intended to compete with those of Carcassonne, Fougères, Mayenne or Lassay, in the way that a barracks for a company of mobile guards does not try to compete with the barracks of a regiment.

The entire feudal castle did not exceed an enclosed area of three or four hectares. Surrounded by the artificial lakes of Roman origin in the South and West and by the snares of le Traquenard to the East, its entrance was to the North via the lane and the current courtyard of Roisneau. The barrier formed by the water was reinforced from the beginning of feudalism by fortifications whose foundations were in the water. The high walls of about ten meters were fortified with watchtowers and defences that still exist. The original road no longer exists, its route being at the bottom of the lake. Access to farms and villages on the right bank of the river was via the lane which leaves from the "Vieille Planché" (Road to Bas Aunay) and went to la Monnerie, la Chevallerie and Beauvais. For the left bank, they used the lane to the castle as far as Roisneau and beyond through le Pré Barbin and la Mériazière.

The Keep of the castle occupied the central ground and included two towers: one, the round tower where the prison was, the other, the square tower divided into several floors of defence.

The family accommodation of the Lord was a home which today constitutes the outbuildings and which seems to have extended to the south up close to the ramparts.

The dictionary of the abbot Angot gives a chronological list of the Lords of Courceriers but it does not mention military life on a daily basis, except for a few episodes referring to the Hundred Years War, during which the castle was largely destroyed.

According to Le Corvaisier, Ambroise de Loré and married to the daughter of the Lord of Courceriers, living at the castle in 1417 he prepared an ambush to surprise an English captain named William de Bours and “having responsibility by the way” killed some of his soldiers and took others prisoner.

More likely, is the storming of Courceriers one evening in the week before Ascension in 1423 by George Rigmayden who was called Captain of Mayenne although that town didn’t fall to the power of the English until two years later.

Guillaume de la Chapelle, a French defector, was ordered to leave the following day to join the Count of Arundel near Alençon.

Remains of weapons and even a cannonball were unearthed in the site of the castle and have been preserved.

Ruined by the Hundred Years War after being taken by Georges Rigmayden of the English army, there remained of the feudal castle only the ramparts, sections of walls, the outbuildings and the Lord’s house, but especially the two towers of the Keep. The rest of the castle and fortress with the Keep itself, courtyard, ancient stone walls, ditches and dividing walls is said to have been demolished in 1451 by the English, old enemies of the kingdom of France. They preserved a huge piece of the fortification wall fifteen meters high and originally pierced with narrow windows, in which there is now a wide breach or archway 10 meters high.

In 1575, the castle having been destroyed, there was still mention of the ancient walls and castle courtyard, the aforesaid partly fallen walls, the trenches and ditches around them, a hummock adjacent to the old castle, the old trench between the two which was rounded and very beautiful and, finally, the great stately mansion (which became the current storeroom?) and the chapel of "Monsieur de St Jean".

This chapel of St Jean was originally half as big again than it is today and that was normal, because it was intended to replace the parish church when the population took refuge in the feudal castle during an invasion, for shelter and to support the defenders fighting the siege.

When a fire destroyed it in about 1880, it was rebuilt half as long, either for economy or as it was sufficient for the needs of the family and the devotees of St John.

The lake which is in the enclosed area of the castle is fed by the stream of Courceriers, 2080 meters long and a tributary of the Vaudelle. It could have served as a line of defence immediately at the foot of the keep, but mostly as a reserve of essential water especially in the event of fire.

Legend has it that in case of siege, tunnels allowed the besieged to receive reinforcements or escape to la Rossignolière to the North, or le Châtelier in the South.

This legend is as imaginary as those of oubliettes (dungeons with a trapdoor in the ceiling as the only means of exit) that one wants to conjour up wherever there was a castle, and nowhere has any evidence of such tunnels been discovered in the short distance between Courceriers and la Rossignolière or le Châtelier.

What is true is that these two places were secondary military posts, such as strongholds or observation posts around the fortress (la Rossignolière bordering the Roman road and le Châtelier near the hill crests of Orthe).

On this note ends the period that ruined feudal Courceriers under the English occupation, during the Hundred Years War, after taking it in 1423.

4. Capétien Courceriers (From the 100 Years War to the Wars of Religion)

After the destruction of the feudal castle in 1423, in the absence of a Ministry of Reconstruction and compensation for war damages, the lords of Courceriers settled for restoring the rampart walls and the family home. We said earlier that in 1551, 130 years after the destructive English siege, every structure in the fortified military enclosure was demolished and levelled, with the exception of the round tower and the square tower, the only vestiges of the Keep which still exist.

A century and a half passed, influenced by the artistic period of the Renaissance.

It was then that Monsieur François du Plessis Chatillon, married in 1570 to Nicole du Raynier, began the building of a new château in the neo-Greek style.

The main building incorporated openings of closely fitting quarried granite blocks, terminated at the roof with double bay dormers and low triangular pediments.

The stone was hauled to the village, to the chevet (choir aisle) of the present church and to the chancel. This is the reason why in 1872, during the construction of the church, they had to clear the floor of the arena and construct three crypts to support the chancel and vestry.

François du Plessis Chatillon benefitted little from his new castle since he died of apoplexy in Courceriers on June 30, 1605

Other works related to the demilitarisation of Courceriers are neither dated nor reported in the documents that I have read. As a shot in the dark, I attribute them to the same François du Plessis Chatillon, eager to combine business with pleasure. I want to particularly mention:

• The draining of the lakes and partially marshy meadows which from then on belonged to the farms of le Portail, le Moulin, la Mériazière and Roisneau.

• The construction of a lane along the foot of the ramparts on the bed of the ancient lake and which accesses the road to Sillé via gaps made in the dam to drain the lake.

• The construction of a mill beside the lane, in front of the castle at the foot of the ramparts, either to replace the mill at Foulage or to duplicate it.

• The planting all along the lane of beech trees, which the very old remember and of which there remain only a few rare descendents.

• Finally, the development of amenity paths, in the East through the Traquenard and to the West, along the lake and its extension.

It is at this time also that it is necessary to position the Wars of Religion with the destruction and depredation that accompany all civil wars.

The Church of St Thomas and the château of Courceriers, whose Lords carried the title of the founders of the church, were not exempt from these depredations. There was, however, no spectacular destruction and when peace returned, in the reign of Henri IV, it was up to individuals to lick their (more or less serious) wounds.

The restorations of the church (it should be said in passing) were the opportunity to build two chapels opening four meters wide on to the nave through arches and joining the nave via two sloping passages, all for the requirement for enlargement.

5. Courceriers from the Renaissance to the present day

François de Plessis Chatillon, who had built the first neo-Greek château in 1590 and who died in 1605 had a son and heir, René. He was titled Baron de Courceriers and married Renée de Poisieux on July 25th 1590. He died in May 1629, without children. The Lordship then passed to Guillaume du Bois, son of Nicole du Plessie Chatillon, married on 11th May 1621, and heiress to François, his brother.

It was Guillaume du Bois who built, circa 1650, the second château next to the first one, imitating its neo-Greek style but more elaborate in design and fashion. The two homes were joined by a small tower topped with a Louis XIII steeple. The Construction was entirely of granite, including the chimney lintels, sculptured pediments and indoor and outdoor stairways.

Other buildings were constructed and various improvements carried out at the same time notably the farm at le Portail, where the house has all granite pediments.

It is there, 500 meters from the château, that the entrance to the courtyard is. A villa served as the portal. Built in large carefully matched cut stones, embellished with two broad vaulted pediments and a modillon cornice, it bears the date 1667. Another date can be found on the chimney of the farmhouse in the figures of Guillaume de Bois et de Nicole du Plessis - 1666.

The Portal is covered and includes a floor which served as a dovecote. The vaulted coverings were built around the walls to a form cellar for the farm. Originally, the lane to the castle which passed under this portal extended in a straight line to the West as far as the road to Bas Aunay and, still in a straight line, via la Rabine as far as the road to Izé where it meets the Chappelle des Rues.

The lane has become the road to St Thomas and St Germain. In selling it into the public domain, the owner kept the beeches for personal gain. The road no longer passes under the portal but goes round it and makes a right angle to access the village more directly.

The completion of Courceriers château coincided with the "great century of Louis XIV" (the death of Louis XIII being in 1643 and the last works being dated 1667). It is not reported whether the Lords of Courceriers went to live at the Court in Paris or Versailles.

• André du Bois married in 1663, died in 1706.
• Claude du Bois married in 1712, died in 1723.
• André du Bois, known as Marquis de Courceriers, married in 1751, died in 1795, without any children.

And it is not apparent that the revolutionary and terrorist period was the cause of the extinction of the family. Nor is it reported that this period brought scenes of depredation to the château.

The rich inheritance of André du Bois went to very distant cousins. The nation confiscated a portion, probably le Plessis, le Bois Régnier, Deurian, le Châtelier and la Barre, which had depended on it.

After successive sales Courceriers became the property of the Violas family.

Meanwhile, decorations were carried out within the château. In the absence of paintings and tapestries, wooden panels covered the interior walls of the latest construction. Timber also covered the granite steps of the large staircase that led to the lake. Tastes are divided on the appropriateness of this last work, but supporters of visible granite are the great majority.

6. The Death of Courceriers Château

After the death of Mr. René Violas in 1959, his children lived in Paris and the château was not able to be divided up like farms can be. Because of its size and its outbuildings, it could have been easily become a holiday camp, an old people's home, an agricultural technical school, or even a CEG. But it is always difficult to dispose of an antique family inheritance.

On the other hand, to keep it, it was necessary to agree to pay the taxes and maintenance, keep it furnished and pay security guards to live there.

To avoid all these expenses, the owners heirs resolved to retain only the restored gatehouse and to raze the château. The demolition took place in March 1961. The materials were sold off cheaply and the rest was pushed into the lake with a bulldozer. Only the small tower with the Louis XIII pinnacle remains, which linked the two separate neo-Greek homes but was a discrete building.

The people of St Thomas deplored the demise of the château of which they were proud and it appears that the owners, who had the absolute right to order the demolition, would not make such a decision today.

As if to forget the grounds of “Courceriers deprived of its château” it has become the setting of a well-known fête which takes place every year on the second Sunday of July.

This unique setting, the technical organisation of the fair itself, the reputation it has acquired, the crowds which it attracts and the success which it achieves could be cause for envy at one small town having so much.

In summary, there remains of Courceriers :

1. From Roman times : artificial dams, built to make lakes in the South, the West, and perhaps even in the East. Other raised grounds to make bases for defensive purposes.

2. From the feudal era : the ramparts with defensive towers. The house in ruins and the ruins of the keep (tour round and square tower).

3. From the XVII and XVIII century château : the little tower with the Louis XIII pinnacle, “le Portail” and the farm to which it gave its name.

The whole thing remains very worthy of a detailed and thorough visit.

Ch. L. Bosse
Curé de St Thomas

"This work is adapted from the historical and geographical lexicon of Mayenne by Abbot Angot of St Thomas, 1st February 1967."

This is not a literal translation from the original “old” French