On Friday, the weather in Cherbourg was quite pleasant and I decided to make my annual visit to the Château des Ravalet in Tourlaville to see the daffodils in bloom. In previous years I arrived too late only to find a handful of yellow patches around the garden. This year, I converged upon the park with profound wonderment. Under a mostly sunny sky, the daffodils were in full bloom across the vast 42-acre garden. The château itself is currently undergoing a full restoration and seeing the façade and southern towers already completed delighted me to no end.
The château was built between 1562 and 1575 in the Renaissance style using blue schist. The original medieval manor belonged to French king François I who sold the property to Jean II of Ravalet, Lord of Tourlaville. After extensive additions the new Renaissance château was offered to his nephew Jean III and his wife Madeleine de Hennot as a wedding gift. Their two children, Marguerite and Julien were said to have engaged in a scandalous, incestuous relationship. I’ve often heard their names in connection to the château but I have never fully understood the entire history until now.
From a very young age, Marguerite and Julien were very close to one another. In a family of eleven brothers and sisters, their platonic friendship became something more as they grew older. In 1600, their parents decided to separate them by sending thirteen year old Julien to le collège de Coutances. He returned to his family home three years later. As for Marguerite, she was married off at age fourteen to Jean Lefebvre de Haupitois who was older by fifteen years! Their marriage was not a happy one and Marguerite left her husband to return to live with her parents. Upon her arrival, she was reunited with her brother Julien. As the story goes, Marguerite then became pregnant and fled to Falaise. Julien soon joined her and together they slipped away to Paris.
On 8 September 1603, at the request of Jean Lefebvre, the two lovers were arrested and tried for adultery and incest (charges they denied) and sentenced to decapitation. Despite a plea for mercy from their father, they were executed on the morning of 2 December 1603 at Place de Grève in Paris soon after Marguerite had given birth. According to the Journal du règne de Henry IV, Roi de France et de Navarre by French author Pierre de l'Estoile, « If the woman had not been married, the king would have gladly shown mercy, but since she was married he could not. »
Their bodies were buried in the church of Saint-Jean-en-Grève which was demolished between 1797 and 1800. Their epitapth read, « Ci gisent le frère et la sœur. Passant ne t'informe pas de la cause de leur mort, mais passe et prie Dieu pour leur âmes » (Here lie the brother and the sister. Passing does not inform you of the cause of their death, but move forward and pray to God for their souls).
In 1653, after serious financial problems arose with the Ravalet family, the château and its property were sold to Charles de Franquetot. He commissioned the following painting entitled Marguerite et les amours, attributed to painter Pierre Mignard. The cupid with the bloody wings represents the forbidden love between Marguerite and her brother. The other cupids have their eyes covered while their bows and arrows lay askew across the ground. The text to the left of Marguerite reads : « un me sufit » (One is enough for me). Adding to the château’s bloody misfortune and historic past, it was Charles de Franquetot who managed to improve the interior of the home before being murdered by his valet. The château changed hands many times until 1777 when it was taken into possession by Hervé Tocqueville Clérel, the father of famous writer, Alexis de Tocqueville. H.T. Clérel’s grandson René de Tocqueville became the new owner in the 1870s. He renovated the building, created a grotto, and decorated the Renaissance gardens with two ponds and many exotic plants as well as a greenhouse built between 1872 and 1875. The château and park, acquired by the city of Cherbourg, became a public garden in 1935.
The château was used as a hospital during World War I and was listed in the Inventory of Historical Monuments in 1930. It was occupied by the German army during World War II and by American troops during the Liberation. In 1996, the château, park and greenhouse were all classified as Historic Monuments.