Food, Days Out and Travel stories from Brighton, London and the Rest of the World

Sunday

Notes from France - In the Footsteps of Helen Maria Williams

Where I follow in the footsteps of Helen Maria Williams the poet and first female war correspondent who lived at the time of the French Revolution. In Normandy, I discover the chateau that she visited and where she dressed up as Madam Liberty in a celebration to mark the happy reunion of her friends separated by the ancien regime. 

The true story of this French couple that Helen Maria Williams knew reads more like a work of fiction than fact with a cruel father who locks up his son, after his secret marriage to a woman of low birth.

Notes from France - In the Footsteps of Helen Maria Williams, photo by modernbricabrac
Eighteenth century chapel at Chateau de Bosmelet

The Imprisonment of Thomas du Fosse


According to Helen's account, Thomas du Fosse after being tricked by his father was imprisoned without trial when he refused to give up his wife who he'd married without his father's approval. After suffering deprivation for a couple of years he tried to escape and in the process fell from a great height and broke many bones. His captors discovered him lying in the road, re-captured him and took him back to his place of confinement. Finally, he attempted to escape again and fled to England where he was reunited with his wife.

These events took place in France on the eve of the French Revolution and Helen uses this story to illustrate the injustices of the old regime. It's only as a consequence of the French Revolution that Thomas du Fosse obtains his release from the lettre du cachet and with his father now dead he becomes free to take up residence in the chateau he has inherited with his wife and daughter in peace.

Notes from France - In the Footsteps of Helen Maria Williams, photo by modernbricabrac
Chateau de Bosmelet


The tale forms part of Helen's defence of the French Revolution that was under attack from conservative voices in the UK. For Helen it represented the end of a feudal regime that allowed such practices to exist and she passionately wanted to see an end to such injustices.


Both the husband and wife in this story were known to Helen personally after she had become acquainted with Monique who had moved to London and was working as a French Tutor to support herself and her daughter.


The story of Helen's French Tutor and estranged husband must have seemed impossibly romantic to Helen, already a published poet and part of the sentimental movement that focused on deep feeling. Helen chose to share their story in prose rather than poetry and used it in her Letters Written in France to help show how necessary and justified the French Revolution was. It's an account that she tells at some length but following the convention of the time leaves out the names of the real people. Thomas du Fosse is referred to as Mons. du F___ nor is the location of his chateau given.


What Helen did tell us was of the joyful scene that she witnessed in the grounds of their chateau, where she joined in the celebrations that the French Revolution had brought about for Monsieur du Fosse and his family.

We have had a fete at the chateau, on the day of St Augustin (28 August), who is Monsieur du F_____'s patron;......The ceremonies began with a discharge of fusées, after which Mademoseille du F— entered the saloon, where a great crowd were assembled, with a crown of flowers in her hand, and addressed her father. (Letter XXIV)

Finding the Chateau


From reading Helen's Letters Written in France I had a feeling that the chateau would be near Rouen. After some Google searches, I discovered links between the du Fosse family and Chateau de Bosmelet. Using Google translate, I contacted the chateau about my planned visit to Normandy and to my delight we were invited to join a group visiting the chateau on a day we would be in France.


Notes from France - In the Footsteps of Helen Maria Williams, photo by modernbricabrac

Arriving just in time on the appointed day, travelling from Pont L'Eveque, an hour and half away, we parked at the top of a tree-lined avenue to the side of the chateau. In front, we could see an eighteenth-century chapel, an ancient red brick wall, and an Orangerie. A moment later and we were outside the grand eighteenth-century gates of the chateau and greeted by Alain Germain, the new owner of Chateau de Bosmelet and celebrated Theatre Director, Novelist and Visual Artist. Behind him his chateau, built in 1632 was now in view, the main entrance to the front and rear were both wide open and through the open door we could see a magnificent white stag in the hallway.

Notes from France - In the Footsteps of Helen Maria Williams, photo by modernbricabrac


Notes from France - In the Footsteps of Helen Maria Williams, photo by modernbricabrac


Heading first of all into the chapel Alain told us it had been built by the du Fosse family in the eighteenth century and the sixteenth century Orangerie behind us was where Henri IV had once stayed. Inside the chapel we found a display of black and white photos that showed, incredibly, that half of the chateau had been destroyed during WWII. Impossible to tell when looking at the building. 

Notes from France - In the Footsteps of Helen Maria Williams, photo by modernbricabrac
WWII destruction of Chateau de Bosmelet


WWII and the V1 missiles


The chateau had been taken over by the Germans during the occupation and 2000 workers from France, Holland and Belgium under a Compulsory Labour Service, built what would become an important launching pad for the V1 missiles that the Germans intended to use to bomb London. Within a radius of 12 km around Bosmelet, there were a total 6 launch sites. Discovered by Colonel Hollard, who had disguised himself as a worker. Hollard drew up plans and identified, from the axes of the launching ramps, that London was the likely target for the Germans. The Germans soon afterwards discovered what he had done and arrested, tortured and imprisoned Hollard in a concentration camp. The British and American air forces had the information they needed and bombed the missile production centre and the launch sites before their plans could been implemented. In February 1944, Bosmelet was bombed 28 times; more than 200 bombs were dropped, two of which landed on the chateau. The park suffered serious damage but the attack was a success, and the Bosmelet ramp never sent its missiles.

Notes from France - In the Footsteps of Helen Maria Williams, photo by modernbricabrac
Bomb shelter at Chateau de Bosmelet

The Tour begins


On the roof of the chateau in the very centre, I noticed a bell and Alain explained that this would have been used to raise an alarm if under attack or fire. On either side of us was a long lawned avenue flanked by tall lime trees, and another identical avenue could be seen planted to the rear of the property, forming the longest avenue of its kind.

Notes from France - In the Footsteps of Helen Maria Williams, photo by modernbricabrac
Chateau de Bosmelet

The French group had now arrived for their tour and we all headed into the chateau together. Inside Alain had displayed with Theatrical flair souvenirs from his life in Performing Arts in Paris. Oohs and aahs accompanied his anecdotes from an appreciative audience, and although we had very little idea what was going on we were still delighted to look around with the group.

Notes from France - In the Footsteps of Helen Maria Williams, photo by modernbricabrac


Upstairs we found the remains of two eighteenth-century beds, covered in fabric with dainty flower designs, you could still see how lovely they would have been.

Notes from France - In the Footsteps of Helen Maria Williams, photo by modernbricabrac
Eighteenth century bed frame

Outside we walked across to the walled garden, which in spring had come alive with blossom from a number of magnolia trees. One, in particular, looked notably aged but there was no sign of how old it was. Against the back wall a statue now missing its head still cradled what looked like a sheaf of wheat.

Notes from France - In the Footsteps of Helen Maria Williams, photo by modernbricabrac
The walled garden at Chateau de Bosmelet

Our tour was coming to an end but before leaving we passed two holiday homes that are available to stay in and a bomb shelter beside a great big tree that had a brilliant tree-face on its trunk. The chestnut tree was over 500 hundred years old and dated back to the time of the construction of the Orangerie in 1580.

Notes from France - In the Footsteps of Helen Maria Williams, photo by modernbricabrac
500 year old chestnut tree at Chateau de Bosmelet

Perhaps this tree witnessed the celebrations that Helen has recorded for posterity. After the fete, Helen finished her description of the du Fosse family fete by taking us inside:

When the cotillon was finished, some beautitul fire-works were played off, and we then went to supper, "Vous etes bien placé, Mons." (You are well placed, Monsieur) said Madame du F— to a young Frenchman, who was seated between my sister and me at table. "Madame," answered he, in a style truly French, "me voila heureux pour la premiere fois, a vingi trois ans." (I am happy for the first time, at the age of 20)

After supper we returned to the saloon, where the gentlemen danced with the peasant girls, and the ladies with the peasants. A more joyous scene, or a set of happier countenances my eyes never beheld. When I recollected the former situation of my friends, the spectacle before me seemed an enchanting vision: I could not forbear, the whole evening, comparing the past with the present, and, while I meant to be exceedingly merry, I felt that tears, which would not be suppressed, were gushing from my eyes; but they were tears of luxury. (Letter XXIV)

Notes from France - In the Footsteps of Helen Maria Williams, photo by modernbricabrac


With huge thanks to Alain Germain for allowing us to see around his wonderful chateau. We paid the group price 10 Euros per person.

Notes from France - In the Footsteps of Helen Maria Williams, photo by modernbricabrac
Gites at Chateau de Bosmelet, Normandy

To stay at the Gites or contact Alain for a visit to the chateau click on the link Chateau de Bosmelet

Happy travels

Sarah xx

photo 
Sarah Agnew
Blogger, Modern Bric a Brac
    

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1 comment

  1. Loved reading this,sounds wonderful,looks beautiful. Want to visit!

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