Updated: Aug 18, 2022
Domfront is a quaint town in Southern Normandy with an impressive ruined fortress and an important history. This Summer marked the 20th edition of the 'Medievales de Domfront', which is a festival celebrating the medieval heritage of the town. Showcasing activities such as jousting, musical parades, banquets and archery amongst others, the festival is a real immersion into the Middle Ages. Visitors from near and far gather to marvel at the shows and engage in the festivities that the local council and over one hundred volunteers host in the town every two years. The volunteers do an outstanding job with the effort they put into their costumes, their performances and their hospitality. The festival is rather special because it takes place at the ruins of the medieval castle and the old town with its splendid medieval features - the festival really brings Domfront’s past alive. Sean was able to visit the festival this year and will bring you along with him in an upcoming video where a firework display incorporating an acrobatic performance on horseback took center stage on the landmark first night of festivities, so stay tuned for that one. As this quiet market town springs into life, we will look at the history of this special little town which played a vital role during the One Hundred Years War. So in today’s blog, let’s look at why Domfront's Chateau was so important in the Middle-Ages.
To understand the history of the Castle, we need to go back to the town’s inception. During the times of Antiquity, the area around what is known today as Domfront was occupied by celtic peoples who favored the land for its agricultural potential, although the town wasn't to be founded yet. During the Roman occupation of Gaulle, the Romans built a road traversing the area and a settlement sprung up sometime during this period, due its strategic position thanks to the high land of the ridge overlooking the surrounding countryside offering a strategic advantage. The geography is largely why the town rose to prominence. During the 6th Century, the monk Saint Font evangelized the land, from whom Domfront gets its name (Dom from the Latin ‘Deo Optimo Maximo’ given as a religious title given to benedictan monks and trappists).
After a few centuries, the Castle of Domfront was built in 1010 by Guillaume (William) the 1st of Bellême and was originally built from wood. At the time the area was known as Ducal Normandy, meaning that the Lord of Belleme answered to the orders of the Duke of Normandy. The exact chain of events isn’t clear but there was an uprising around 1027, which Robert the 1st of Normandy quelled by a war of attrition, trapping the Lord of Bellême inside his castle, who was eventually subdued. The unrest wouldn’t end there, however. In 1047, a coalition of barons revolted, including the son of the Lord of Bellême, Guillaume de Talvas. Later that year there was the famous Battle of Val-es-Dunes, the Duke of Normandy who at this point in time was William the Conqueror united forces with the King of France Henry the 1st, and defeated the rebellious lords and barons of Normandy. During the war, Domfront was seized by the neighboring county of Maine also allied with the King of France. In 1051 William the Conqueror besieged the castle that was occupied by Geoffrey Martel of Anjou. The city eventually fell and Geoffrey Martel retreated back to the County of Anjou and Maine to the South.
After the Norman conquest of England in 1066, there was a new generation of rulers, in 1092 the people of Domfront revolted against Robert the 2nd of Bellême, 3rd Earl of Shrewsbury pledging their allegiance to the third son of William the Conqueror, Henry Beauclerc, who would become the Duke of Normandy in 1106 and the King of England in 1100. Elanor of Aquitaine who was the Queen of France and married to the King of England Henry the 2nd actually gave birth in Domfront to a daughter in 1161, the child was named after her mother. 1169 marked the year that Henry the 2nd of England received the papal legates in Domfront to reconcile him with Thomas Becket, who would later become Saint Thomas of Canterbury, following Thomas Becket’s conflict with Henry over the rights and the privileges of the Church. The next year Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was assassinated in his Cathedral in Canterbury by knights that shared close ties with the king. The year 1204 marked the end of Anglo-Norman reign over the town, as King John Lackland, son of Henry and Elanor, lost the Duchy of Normandy and most of the other French lands to King Philip the 2nd of France.
In 1259, King Louis the 4th of France gave Domfront to Robert the 2nd, Count of Artois, as dowry for his wife. After the death of Robert in 1302, his grandson Robert the third of Artois was given the Norman property and appanages that had been confiscated in compensation for not getting Artois, which is situated in modern-day Belgium. The Hundred Years’ War broke out in 1337 and would go on until 1453, as France and England engaged in a series of armed conflicts about the succession of the French throne. Philip the 6th’s reign was plagued by crisis and turmoil and ceded Domfront to the Count of Alençon in 1342, a title which was held by Guillaume de Talvas. In 1367, after being in possession of the king of Navarre Charles the 2nd, who allied with England, Domfront was reunited with Alençon as it was before during the Bellême lordship. This reunion would last a little over sixty years before being retaken by the English in 1418 by the Duke of Clarence also known as Thomas of Lancaster, who would later be killed in battle with the Scots and the French. The French recaptured the Castle briefly in 1430 but would have to wait until 1450 to recapture Domfront permanently. The Hundred Years’ war finished with a French victory and the English Crown losing all of its continental possessions apart from Calais, which it would later lose.
In 1574, Domfront was the place of refuge for the Count of Montgomery Gabriel de Lorges. The count was captain of the Scots Guard of King Henry the 2nd of France, who mortally wounded the king in a jousting accident and subsequently fled and converted to Protestantism, a religion the Scots Guard sought to suppress. He went on to lead the Huguenots, a movement of Calvinist or reformist protestants who were persecuted by the Catholic French king. The French Wars of Religion that broke out in 1562 and lasted until 1598, claimed the lives of somewhere between two to four million due to violence, famine, or disease caused directly by the war. Most of the remaining Protestants fled to the Colonies of the New World. However, the Count of Montgomery wouldn’t have the chance as he was captured in Domfront and taken to Paris where he would be beheaded on the orders of the widowed queen. Domfront had gained the nickname ‘City of misfortune’ as it was said that you arrived at midday and were hanged by one o’clock and had no time to have diner, which was a moniker at the time of The French Wars of Religion from the tale of Jean Barbotte, one of Gabriel de Lorges’ supporters. Jean hid out in the nearby forest after the siege, and time had passed. He was enticed into the city by the Christmas Eve fair as he needed supplies. Arriving at midday, he was spotted by Prior Jean Bidault of the Lonlay Abbaye, that Jean Barbotte had previously burned down, killing all the priests. He was instantly captured and was hanged at one o’clock.
In 1608, under the order of Maximilian of Béthune, Duke of Sully, a counselor to King Henry and also a protestant, ordered the destruction of Domfront Castle. The castle has been protected as a historical monument by the French Ministry of Culture since 1875 and today the ruins lie as a reminder of the town’s history. The ruins of the castle include the ramparts, casements, dungeons, towers, and chapels. The ruins are located in a public park and visitors are allowed to explore them free of charge.