Nuit au Château
Château de la Chapoulie
Château de la Chapoulie started life around 700 years old, give or take 50 years, as a strategic medieval fort built (or at least partly funded) by the English when they controlled this part of France. Situated in the commune of Peyrignac in the eastern Dordogne, and allegedly built on the site of a Roman settlement dating back to 60 BC, it originally comprised just two 'Siamese' towers, with battlements or crenellations around the tops of the towers, a moat and a drawbridge, and is a remarkable example of defensive architecture.
It's not clear when it was built, but this part of France became part of England when a local lass from Limoges, Eleanor of Aquitaine, became Queen of England in 1154 and one of the most remarkable women in medieval history.
There is also evidence that the mother of the last French Pope, Pope Clement VI (1342-1352), Guillemette de Tinière de Montroux, Dame de la Chapoulie, was born here around 1270 and was an early member of the Vicomte de Turenne dynasty, whose territory straddled the current departments of Corrèze, Lot and the eastern edges of the Périgord. It appears the strategically important site of la Chapoulie lay on the Vicomte's north-west frontier. This feudal 'state within a state' enjoyed complete autonomy through the Middle Ages until 1738.
In truth, short of finding a working Dr Who TARDIS or HG Wells’ Time Machine, it's not possible to conclusively establish when the original fort was built, but around 1270-1300 seems a reasonable date, as pre-1225 the fortified towers would have been constructed with flat walls, and not the inherently much stronger circular design of la Chapoulie. A build date after 1315 would be unlikely, as there would have been insufficient money or labour that resulted from the Great Famine of 1315–1317, the effects of which continued into the mid-1320s. Even then, there was little respite before the Black Death (1347–1351) swept through Europe.
Together, these events reduced the population of France by perhaps half or more. It was a truly catastrophic period, leaving a population frightened, physically weak and divided. Hitting them up for more taxes or conscripting them into building castles would have been unimaginable.
What is certain is that there is a huge amount of folklore about the château, including the existence of perhaps as many as three subterranean escape tunnels (most unlikely, as there is a substantial aquifer just a few meters under the towers that provides a year-round secure water supply, so escapees would have drowned…). There are also stories of hidden gold under the main tower, but, sadly, no evidence of this was found.
The original fort saw action during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France, which started in 1337 and finished in 1453. However, in reality, the ‘War’ was more a series of armed conflicts separated by long periods of relative peace, induced by plagues, famine, or when the money ran out (which was often).
Allegedly, the fort changed hands between French and English occupation seven times during the War, but it appears this was actually not so simple. As noted above, the fort of la Chapoulie was nominally on the north-west frontier of the Turenne, within a larger region of France that was then ruled by a disparate collection of feudal Viscounts who had a habit of swapping sides and religion, depending on who married who or who was paying the most. Loyalty wasn’t a big thing in those days.
Given the strategic location of the la Chapoulie fort was right on the territorial junction of three competing Viscounts, it’s unsurprising there remain plenty of scars on the towers that illustrate the scale and ferocity of the violence of the time. Even after the French had finally driven the English out of France in 1453, this part of France experienced a deep crisis that took the region into a period of serious economic decline.
Fast forward another century and more violence erupted around the French Wars of Religion, a prolonged period of war and popular unrest between Catholics and Huguenots (Protestants) between 1562 and 1598 when three million people died. Again, la Chapoulie was right on the front line of Protestant territory and became a hotbed of fighting and disorder, often requiring its use as a refuge whenever marauding Catholic troops came looking for Protestant heads.
The Catholics eventually prevailed and around 1610 the fort was demilitarized, with the castellations, drawbridge and moat removed and living accommodation created. But it wasn’t until 1738 that the fort of la Chapoulie on the edge of the fully autonomous ‘state within a state’ of Turenne was finally assimilated into France, the last region in France to have done so. Fairly recently then….
At last, after hundreds of years of war, pillaging, pestilence and disease, this brought stability and business confidence, and just 24 years later, in 1762, the former fort saw a huge investment in buildings and land improvement. Substantial additions were made to the property, with the addition of the east and west wings, which together with workers' accommodation, a piggery, dairy, workshops and stables, formed a courtyard. In addition, a large chai was added to make and store wine made from local grapes, which led to it becoming the centre of wine production for the surrounding area, with some 325ha of vines, enough for over one-and-a-half million bottles a year.
The château survived the French Revolutions of 1789, 1830 and 1848, but in 1868 the vine disease phylloxera destroyed 90% of the vines. Although there was some recovery, increasing competition from Bordeaux châteaux plantings on flatter land that was more suited to mechanisation meant commercial wine production around Peyrignac declined after the Great War and had ceased altogether by 1980.
It was fully renovated in 2014 and is now a private home.
Site updated: 22 August 2022