Follow the Route of Richard the Lionheart in France for a trip back in time and a lesson in history. The trail takes you through Haute-Vienne and Corrèze (Limousin) to the edge of Dordogne. It covers almost 200km and includes 23 sites open to the public. Including possibly the only bowels in the world which are a tourist attraction…
Richard the Lionheart
Richard the Lionheart was a great warrior King, a great hero and a great symbol of western brutality and expansionism. But he was first and foremost a great Francophile. In his ten-year reign, Richard 1 only spent a little over six months in England. A child of Aquitaine, French was his first language. He rarely spoke anything else.
Richard Plantagenet was born in Oxfordshire in 1157. At the age of twelve he pledged homage to the King of France. At fourteen he was made Duke of Aquitaine in the church of St Hillaire in Poitiers. There was also a ceremony in Limoges. In 1189, on the death of Henry 11, he was crowned king of England in Westminster Abbey. His statue still stands in the Houses of Parliament. He married Beregaria of Navarre but had no children. Known as “the only English queen never to set foot in the country”, she is buried at L’Epau Abbey, Le Mans. But he is most remembered for being “The Absent King”.
Though famous for fighting the French and undertaking crusades, surprisingly, Richard the Lionheart’s death had nothing to do with religion, revenge or politics. And everything to do with money.
Richard the Lionheart’s last resting place
Although there is some doubt whether it took place in Chalus or Montbrun, while ploughing a field in Limousin, a peasant unearthed a hoard of treasure consisting of statues and gold. The feudal lord immediately laid claim to it and, hearing of the windfall, so did the King. When the lord refused to hand over the treasure Richard laid siege to his castle in Chalus.
On March 26th, 1199, while circling the keep and taunting its occupants, the king was struck in the shoulder by a longbowman’s bolt or arrow. Pierre Basile is thought to be the archer. He is reputed to have defended himself with a frying pan. Refusing treatment, the King died of gangrene eleven days later, aged forty-two. He was buried at his father’s feet as he had requested, at the Abbey of Fontevraud in the Loire Valley. His heart ended up in Rouen Cathedral.
For some reason, his bowels were left in the Romanesque church at Chalus and are perhaps the only bowels in the world which have become a tourist attraction.
“Chalus guards her Duke’s entrails. His body Fontevraud in marble enshrines. The Normans boast the King’s unconquered heart. Three countries thus share the glorious ashes of the King too great too rest in one alone.” Goes the saying.
Richard the Lionheart route through France
You can’t see the bowels, but you can visit the castle at Chalus-Chabrol. It forms the end point and main highlight of the Limousin department’s “Richard the Lionheart Route”. The official way-marked trail around the countryside just outside of Limoges.
The route takes in the fortresses and scenery where Richard battled to protect his mother’s homeland of Aquitaine. The trail starts just over the border of the Haute-Vienne at the castle of Rochebrune. It was named after the sacred Druidic stone nearby and was the residence of the princes of the Chabanais. One of them, Jourdain V, crusaded with Richard.
Eleanor of Aquitaine
The Counts of Poitiers ruled the Duchy of Aquitaine which at the time included the Limousin region of south-west central France. When the male line died out in 1137, Eleanor was left as sole heir. Her first husband, Louis, heir to the French throne, repudiated her. She then married the future English king Henry II whose authoritarian ways did not go down too well. So, by the time their son Richard inherited the Duchy in 1169, he was not a great favourite with the regional overlords. They were glad to see the back of him when he took upon himself to defend the faith and try and take back Jerusalem.
Castles and beautiful villages
In his absence they fortified their castles against his return. The route takes in all the major fortifications on the south-west border of the viscounty of Limoges. It starts on the D7 at Arnac-Pompadour. The original fort was burnt down by Richard. The castle as it stands today was a present from Louis XV to his mistress. She never bothered to stay there. It is now a famous stud farm and has a racecourse nearby.
Segur-Le-Chateau, a village of medieval timbered houses on the banks of the river Auvezere, is the next stop and is officially one of the prettiest villages in France. It’s joined in the beauty charts in the area by Curemonte, Collonges-la-Rouge with its red sandstone houses and Treignac, a walled town sheltered by the chateau of Comborn overlooking the river Vezere to the north of the mountains of Monedieres.
Further along the D18 is Coussac-Bonneval whose owner Count Guillame brought back two lions for the Bishop of Limoges from the crusades. In the eighteenth century the marquis began breeding Limousin’s now famous beef stock. Saint Yrieix La Perche is also on the Route to Santiago de Compostela.
Jumilhac le Grand
Travelling through cherry-filled fields, you come to the turreted Jumilhac Le Grand which is actually just over the border in the Dordogne. Richard coveted this fortress where coins had been minted since the Merovingian dynasty. A fortified church was added to Le Chalard monastery to repel Richard. It contains the cemetery of forty medieval monks in sculptured stone. Nexon, on the D11, is now another stud farm. The once powerful Lastours family originally bred horses for the royal family and brought back Arabic horses from the Crusades. The castle has an extensive park landscaped “a l’anglaise”. The Jumilhac family (who owned it in the 16th century) regained the castle in 1929 and they have been restoring it sympathetically ever since.
Chateaux and chestnut forests
Chalus-Maulmont, built by Geraud de Maulmont on the banks of the Tardoire, is more imposing. At the time it represented state-of-the-art impregnability with its square keep shouldered by two round towers. Rising from its moat the 12th century Montbrun chateau was built by Aymeric Brun on his return from the Crusades to replace the ancient Carolingian motte and bailey still visible in the park.
The routes wends its way through the heart of the chestnut forests of the Feuillardiers Natural Regional Park in the western Limousin. While there, don’t miss the picturesque fortified manor of Brie, built in 1484. The interior has some fine Louis XV furniture and a granite spiral stairway.
Pass through Les Salles Lavauguyon, famous for its healing springs. It hasn’t really got any Richard the Lionheart connections unlike the last castle on the route. Rochechouart, built on a Gallo-Roman military and religious site, was the home of one of the few of Richard’s allies in this tense region.
The Richard the Lionheart Route
Follow the signs of Richard Coeur de Lion and travel to the heart of Limousin. Discover the typically French rural region which led English travel writer, Arthur Young to write in 1787 “I prefer Limousin more than other province in France … the beauty of Limousin does not depend on any one particular aspect but the combination of many. Hills, forests, hedgerows, rivers, lakes, scattered farms form a thousand delicious landscapes which beautify the countryside.”
Find out more about the route of Richard the Lionheart here: www.routerichardcoeurdelion.com
By Kevin Pilley, a freelance writer for numerous publications including The Telegraph, USA Today, Irish Times and many, many more.