France – Loches

Never had I seen Loches looking so beautiful. It is always one of the lovely places of France, and one of the most interesting, especially to an Englishman, for was it not the cradle of our Plantagenet Kings?

Its very name suggests a Celtic origin, Loches, or loch, a lake or morass, and beside this swamp a great rocky hillock covered with thick forest. Down by the water a few wattled huts, and, honeycombed in the rock above, chambers, passages, latebrae, such as those described by Caesar as belonging especially to the early Celts of Gaul.

Such was the first Loches, the acropolis of the district, to which, in time of war, the people of the plains could run and find safety. Over this human rabbit warren, the Romans raised the castle which afterwards, under the Dukes of Anjou, became one of the greatest of the royal prisons; while around the castle, and down into the plain, gathered, little by little, the town, much as one sees it to-day.

We put up at a quaint old inn, the Hotel de France, and after dinner went prowling round the streets in our usual manner. Presently, passing beneath the gateway, we reached the Church of Saint-Ours, where, in the dim moonlight, strange unearthly monsters were grinning—two-bodied lions, and’ birds, and long, strange, headless figures. But it was in the sunshine of the morning that we made our way to the castle, and visited the dungeons where Louis XI. and other royal tyrants kept their wretched victims, just as in former times the Romans no doubt used these ancient caverns.

I always make a point of going round the dungeons when I am at Loches; it gives me a feeling of contentment and peace with the world as I find it. The man who took us over on this particular occasion had quite a distinct gift for making one’s blood curdle. There were his stories of Foulques Nerra, or the Black, builder of the great donjon keep. He it was who had his wife, Elizabeth of Iendome, burned to death because she gave him no sons; and then, frightened at what he had done, went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, by way of penance.

And there was his nephew, Foulques le Rechin, who, in order to reign alone, shut up his miser-able brother, Geoffroi le Barbu, in one of the terrible dungeons, where he remained for thirty years. When at last his nephew, on the death of le Rechin, opened the prison doors, the poor Barbu was a gibbering idiot.

But, indeed, such stories as these lie behind every stone of Loches. It is not so many years ago that they used to exhibit to visitors the great wooden cage in which Cardinal La Balue expiated his treason to Louis XI. The Bishop of Ierdun, who was the inventor of the horrible contrivance, suffered a like fate, and the people, who had but little sympathy with either of these worthies, used to sing:

” Monsieur La Balue A perdu la vile, De ses evesches;

Monsieur de Verdun N’en a plus pas un, Tous sont despesches.”

I expect the poor creatures had a happy time, for Olivier le Diable, the King’s barber, had been appointed Governor of the Castle, ” pour les bons, grans, louables, continuels et recommandables services qu’il nous a des longtemps fay aupres de notre personne.”

We were shown the dungeon, to the roof of which it is said La Balue’s cage was slung, though this is probably not true. For three years he remained caged, unable to stand, sit, or lie. Louis XI. used to visit him occasionally, and with his favourite, Olivier, would stand and jeer at the prisoner through a hole in the door. Considered as a State prison of the period, the Castle of Loches was quite a model establishment. Just within the entrance was an even more terrible cage, where Philippe de Comines, the great historian of Louis XI., spent eight months, unable to turn round, but contriving, nevertheless, to write a great deal of the wonderful Memoirs which have rendered him so famous.

We were examining the pathetic writings which the Duke of Milan traced on the walls of his cell during his long imprisonment, when the pretty young wife of the jailer came to tell him that a couple of men had been brought in for thieving.

” Who is it? ” he asked. ” Jean and Henri?

Oh well, take the keys and tell them to go to their cells; I’ll see to them directly,” and, glancing at me with a smile, he added: ” They know the way, the rogues. They are regular clients.”

As the young woman turned, and made her way up into the sunshine, I looked back at the dungeon, and could but contrast the lot of this humble pair of criminals with that of the many noble captives who, in olden days, suffered in the ancient royal Castle of Loches. I have heard people deny that the world has changed for the better during the last few hundred years. They will talk about the good old times, and even regret that they did not live in them. I should like to take such to Loches, and show them these prisons: the Black Hole, where the Comte de Saint-Ialuer, father of Diane de Poitiers, languished, while his daughter was living in luxury and splendour at the Court of Henri II. They should see the Torture Chamber, with its horrible iron bar, the dens and oubliettes, and worst of all, the Forgotten Cells, like that found a few years since, with the skeleton of a man sitting gazing, with empty sockets, toward the iron door which he was never more to see open.

Even if we go to the Chateau Royal, where Agnes Sorel, the beautiful mistress of Charles VII., dwelt, her monument in the little turret will remind us how she died by poison, at the hand of the terrible Dauphin—her only crime that of trying to protect the Bing from his undutiful son. They say her ghost, with that of her royal lover, still paces up and down the terrace on moonlit nights. Yes, I think it would do some people good to go to Loches. And after they had seen it all, and listened to the long story of crime and cruelty which the custodian has to tell, they should sit for a while on the seat beneath the apple tree, which has sprung up in the grim old courtyard, and watch the jailer playing with his baby, while his wife goes to see to the comforts of the new prisoners, who, by the by, sleep in the Torture Chamber!

” And you are not afraid of living over these awful dungeons? ” I asked, as we were coming away. The jailer looked at me, and gave a laugh:

” Not I! ” he said. “II y a longtemps que ces:messieurs la ont casse leur pipe. If they were living now . . . But,” he continued, his face turning grave, ” my wife will never stir out alone at night. She is a Breton; they are all superstitious.”

The young wife had come up as he was speaking, and overheard the last words.

“Well,” said she, with a little shiver, ” it is when I see the crows. We all know what that means. Such souls are not good to meet in the dark! ”

But I shall have made you feel gloomy with my stories. You will not want to visit. Loches, and it is, as I say, the most beautiful place imaginable. There is the great chestnut tree planted by Francis I., and the Oratory of Anne of Brittany, a love token from her husband, Louis XII. And there is the glorious forest with the little circular chapel—La Chartreuse du Liget —built by Henry II. of England for the monks of Saint-Bruno. And above all, there are end-less legends of the ancestors of our Plantagenet Kings.