24 July 2016

The Tudors' Road to Bosworth Part 4: Henry Tudor at Forteresse de Largoët, Brittany


In this series I followed Jasper Tudor and his young nephew Henry’s escape from Tenby in Wales and their arrival in Brittany. The Tudors enjoyed relative freedom together in Vannes as guests of Duke Francis of Brittany, then at the Château de Suscinio. Then Duke Francis decided to reduce the risk of their abduction to England by moving them to different locations inland.

Young Henry Tudor found himself deep in the forest at the remote Forteresse de Largoët, outside of the Breton town of Elven. In the safe custody of the twenty-seven year old Marshall of Brittany, Jean IV, Lord of Rieux and Rochefort, Henry was able to continue his education. The isolation meant he would have had few visitors and it seems he was prevented from communicating with his mother in England or with his uncle, Jasper Tudor.

There are, however, intriguing details uncovered at the National Library of Wales which indicate Henry Tudor may have enjoyed more freedom at this time than is generally thought. The papers claim that, ‘by a Breton lady’, Henry Tudor fathered a son, Roland Velville, whom he knighted after coming to the throne. Sir Roland is recorded as being Henry’s ‘companion’ and a champion jouster. (After Henry’s death he became Constable of Beaumaris Castle, and is buried in the Church of St Mary's and St Nicholas, adjacent to Beaumaris Castle. In an elegy by the sixteenth century Welsh poet Daffyd Alaw, Sir Roland Velville is described as 'A man of kingly line and of earl's blood'.)

The poorly signposted Forteresse de Largoët was a little difficult to find up an unlikely looking track leading deep into the woodlands outside Elven. There was an admission charge at the small gatehouse, and I was given a useful leaflet in English which confirmed that: ‘On the second floor of the Dungeon Tower and to the left is found a small vaulted room where the Count of Richemont was imprisoned for 18 months (1474-1475).

The 'Dungeon' Tower
I was impressed by the scale of the building, which sits in a wooded valley by a small lake. It was built unusually high, at fifty-seven meters, to provide a view out to the Gulf of Morbihan. The tower originally had a moat crossed by a raising drawbridge on a pier and still has a spiral stone staircase with 177 steps to the top. There are deep cracks in the crumbling walls and notices warning of falling masonry and that visitors climb the stairs at their own risk and will ‘arrive at numerous gaping openings which makes this a dangerous venture.’

Entering the tower through a dark corridor, the open interior reveals there were once at least seven floors. This space was once used as a kitchen and leads to the main stairway and a guardroom. I regretted not bringing a torch, as the high stairway is lit only by the small window openings. Interestingly, the lower level is octagonal, with the second hexagonal and the rest square. Worryingly, the leaflet notes that ‘This imposing ruin has defied the centuries, in spite of an absence of relieving arches above the large windows. This is what produced the large crevices.’

Cautiously feeling my way up the staircase I had a real awareness that I was now most certainly walking in the footsteps of the young Henry Tudor, who would also have steadied himself by placing his hand against the cold stone walls, nearly five and a half centuries before. 

Further evidence that this tower was not really a ‘dungeon’ is suggested by the fact that the second floor was once used by Lady Françoise Raguenel of Malestroit, who married Marshall Jean IV in 1463. The third floor was used by the Marshall and the fourth by their young daughter, also named Françoise. The Marshall’s brother François occupied the fifth floor of the tower, which also had a chapel, so a picture emerges not of a prison but of a series of rooms decorated and furnished to provide some comfort to the occupants.



The guide states that Henry Tudor was held in a small vaulted room on the second floor, to the left of the apartments of Lady Françoise. After some exploration I found the room, which must be rarely visited as it was full of cobwebs. My own observation is the room seemed too small and cramped to have been a residence, and I wondered if in fact Henry lived higher up at the top of the tower as suggested in other accounts.

All the same, there is a chance the Marshall might have taken his responsibility for Henry so seriously that he did keep him in a room small enough to be described as a ‘prison cell.’ I would like to imagine instead that, as at Suscinio, Henry, now turning eighteen, would have been able to hunt in the forest and fish in the well-stocked lake – and meet and fall in love with the mysterious ‘Breton Lady.’


Henry would no doubt have missed the company and advice of his uncle, Jasper Tudor, who had been taken to a far grander place, the Château de Josselin, home of the de Rohan family and the next destination on my search for evidence of the Tudors in exile.  
  
Tony Riches

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