The Chateau de Bazoches and its hero on the hill

Chateau de Bazoches

Chateau de Bazoches

Before leaving Bazoches I visit the chateau overlooking the farm, thinking that this will be a cultural visit seeing fine old furniture and armoury, little knowing it will be rather different. In fact I am to make the acquaintance of another inspirational historical character, and see again how some lives are led to the absolute full. A life lesson for me.

The chateau visit is in itself marvellous. It is a hot, sunny day and as I am visiting out of season there is only another couple touring it at the same time. The exterior is buttery yellow, clean and well-kept. Inside, the chateau is full of sunlight, the rooms are bright, and it is just the right size to be interesting and not overwhelming.

Window and light

This is not a dark visit, of gunrooms and dungeons, it is all beauty and charm.   It is resplendent with beautiful works of art, paintings, Aubusson tapestries and exquisite furniture pieces.


Soon though, the visit becomes dominated by the discovery of the family’s extraordinary ancestor, le Maréchal Vauban, whose body you will recall is entombed in the little village church below, but whose heart, on the orders of Napoleon, was taken away a hundred years after his death and buried in full honour in an elaborate tomb in Les Invalides in Paris.

Maréchal Vauban, or Marshal Vauban, was born Sebastien de Pretre in 1633 to a family of ‘petite noblesse’, and had a college education before joining the Prince of Condé’s army at seventeen.   In the years that followed he so distinguished himself in warfare and with his displays of courage that he quickly won the respect and admiration of his seniors.   When he later joined King Louis XIV’s army he caught the king’s eye when he stunningly captured Lille in nine days.

But it is not for his courage in combat that I became interested in his life, though he was brave, wounded several times, and employed formidable military strategy.   I became fascinated by this man’s mind.

Vauban became France’s, some say Europe’s, foremost military engineer and a talented architect, designing an unbelievable number of citadels and fortresses around France with completely original designs. His fortress ‘star’ design was copied for centuries until modern weaponry made it obsolete.   He is credited with designing and overseeing the building of 300 fortified towns and other constructions all around the country, some renowned for their beauty as well as their practicality. His citadels and fortresses can be seen on the coasts at Brest, Dunkirk, Toulon, Saint-Malo, La Rochelle, and Lille to name just some.   All over France one can see his heritage, I imagine often without realising how much came from the mind and drawing board of just one man.

The sites of Vauban's works

The sites of Vauban’s works

Vauban completely rethought both defensive and attacking strategy which Louis XIV, the Sun King, adopted and some sources credit him with having invented the fixed bayonet rifle and a new type of canon.   Vauban also drew up plans for towns with unique draught board designs, looking very much like modern town planning of today.

For all of these reasons Vauban became a valued royal favourite and he bought the chateau in 1675 with a grant given to him from the King after he had taken the town of Maastricht in just thirteen days.   He adapted the castle as a workplace, building a large gallery for all his design work, and reducing the size of the chapel so that carriages and horsemen could be ready to dash his messages around France.

Vauban was extremely busy with this military and construction work, his sedan carriage even had a desk fixed within it so that not a moment of work time was lost whenever he travelled, which he did extensively.   It is estimated that Vauban must have covered around 180,000 kilometres in his lifetime, which is an amazing feat for its time.

But this is not all.   This man read widely and wrote books and treatises on a wide range of subjects, almost anything and everything. He wrote works on military matters and strategy; others on financial, economic and political issues; and yet others on anything he took an interest in, calling these his ‘pastimes’, including his ideas on agriculture, coinage, and the sciences. Vauban was also a philosopher and wrote about the immortality of the soul.   His books are housed in the library of the chateau which has 8,000 ancient books in its collection, yes 8,000, many of them very old, precious and irreplaceable, such as one printed before 1500 and so called an ‘incunabulum’.

Book 2

Book collection

What a pleasure it was to walk through the rooms of the chateau where just SOME of the books are on display. To peep also into the little, pentagonal study he had made with its views over his lawns one way and the Burgundy hills the other, and imagine him writing there, maybe with a fire burning in the grate.

Vauban's study

Vauban’s study

And still that is not all. Vauban became deeply concerned about the conditions of ordinary French people as he travelled widely around the country. The heart entombed in Paris is a big, compassionate heart.   Vauban wrote theses criticising public living conditions, also bravely writing about the need to change attitudes towards the Huguenots who had been persecuted and expelled from the country. Looking at his portrait as an older man I feel I can see kindness in his eyes.   It is a benign face.

The elderly Vauban

The elderly Vauban

Vauban’s humanitarian views were nearly his undoing. In his last years he wrote a famous treatise called ‘The Royal Tithe’ which argued that the tax system should be completely changed, all the numerous taxes paid by the people rescinded and just one tax levied which would be collected according to one’s means.   This was revolutionary stuff, the work was seized by The Privy Council and there was a political uproar with Vauban falling into disgrace with some of the upper classes. The chateau’s guide tells me that he never, however, lost the esteem and affection of the King. Two months after writing this progressive, egalitarian document Vauban, aged 74 and already ailing, died. I wonder if he waited until his final days before he dared to incur the Sun King’s wrath with such a radical thesis.

I am deeply impressed with a life lived so well, with so much energy. One of my Journey quests is to learn how one can live one’s life fully as one ages, and Vauban is an inspiring example of a person who did just that.   It is breath taking to try to imagine what Vauban’s days were like so dynamic does he seem.   Intellectually gifted, he applied his scientific and mathematical skills not only to his architecture but also to his analytically and logically argued writings about society.   His personal values also make an impression on me.   He was courageous and benevolent, yet it is recorded that he was a modest man.   And a small confession – am I the only one who finds Vauban extraordinarily dishy on the statues of him as a young man?   Maybe I fell under his charms.


The younger Vauban

Vauban’s descendants still live in the chateau, descended from his daughter Charlotte. They must be proud indeed of their noble forebear.

As I leave the chateau I see Bazoches below and on a distant hill before me the tiny hamlet and church spire of Saint-Aubin-des-Chaumes, the first stop for age-old pilgrims setting off from Vézelay, and there far away on my right, high on its mount, I take my last look at the beacon of Vézelay itself.

Bazoches and St Aubin

Later, whilst I picnic by a lake, my thoughts full of this man’s vitality and life-force, I see my first and much, much longed-for kingfisher. This is a delightful gift that I take as a good omen for my Journey onward in every sense.

One Response to “The Chateau de Bazoches and its hero on the hill”
  1. Deborah Powell says:

    Migrant Kingfisher: Really enjoying your blog. I think you definitely have a book in the making here. D.P Geneva

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