What a boon the internet can be – in small doses. And we’ve had only a small dose of it recently. More about that in a later post. I can find out almost anything, without moving from my computer in la France profonde. Sometimes, even the internet doesn’t provide the immediate answer; but persistence pays off. So it was in the case of le château de Saint-Michel-de-Vax.
My series about local châteaux has been on the back burner for a while, mainly because I have written about nearly all those nearby. My appetite was whetted again when our walking group started last week’s walk in the tiny village of Saint-Michel-de-Vax (Tarn), near the border with Tarn-et-Garonne.
A settlement has existed there since the 5th century, when some monks decided to settle in a cave in a place called Batz. They named the village Saint-Michel. I presume the “Vax” is a corruption of Batz.
Like many such villages, Saint-Michel once had a much larger population. From a high point of 411 in 1856, the population had declined to 62 in 2015.
Saint-Michel has its own small château (most of them are really glorified manor houses with a couple of towers attached). Today, the château looks empty, although it’s not ruined. This, of course, got my historical antennae twitching. When was it built? Who lived there? What events took place within and close to its walls?
However, the château didn’t give up its history without a struggle. After a good deal of searching, I found that it was constructed between 1200 and 1250. It’s not clear who actually built it, but during this period the comté of Toulouse, whose counts had been associated with Cathar heresy, finally became the property of the French crown. Presumably, the château and its lands were held as a fiefdom of the crown.
The château was built as a fortress with four towers. This might have been one of a network of fortresses built to subdue the locality in the king’s name after the upheaval of the Albigensian Crusade against Cathar heresy.
The place has obviously undergone considerable modifications since it was first built. Only two towers remain, and the main part of the building looks of Renaissance construction to me. During the Revolution, the towers were remodelled so that they were the same height.
Around that time, the château pops up in history again. In 1751, Jean-Pierre Lacombe-Saint-Michel was born there. He became a general in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic armies, took part in the storming of the Bastille, voted for Louis XVI’s execution and was appointed governor of Barcelona, before ill health drove him back to Saint-Michel-de-Vax, where he died in 1812. During his travels, he sent copious instructions to his intendant, Batti, concerning the management of his domain in Saint-Michel.
In those turbulent times, Lacombe-Saint-Michel managed to keep his head and remained a staunch republican. Interestingly, though, his second wife, Marie Micoud, whom he married in 1793, had tried to save the king from the guillotine and was even imprisoned for it. His royalist brother, Jean-Marie, was sentenced to death and his family held him indirectly responsible for it.
His direct descendant, Claude Simon, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1985. Lacombe-Saint-Michel appears as a character in Simon’s novel, Les Géorgiques.
Here’s a rather poignant coda to Lacombe-Saint-Michel’s story, which I found only by chance. His first wife was a Dutch Protestant, Marianne Hasselaër. He was inconsolable when she died at 33 in 1790. Her tomb sits in woodland in a valley not far from the château, covered with a tombstone erected by her husband. One day I’ll try to find it.
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