Chateau de Meauce

Cedric and his wife Severine Mignon bought the totally rundown castle in 2016. They are proud of the fact that they managed to bring back to life a doomed medieval monument.

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@Castles_and_palaces had a chance to talk to Cedric Mignon, the owner of Chateau de Meauce located in the very heart of France, in Bourgogne-Franche-Comté's department of Nievre. Cedric and his wife Severine bought the totally rundown castle in 2016 and the restoration is almost completed now. The building demanded a lot of attention, it had no floors and windows, certain parts of the original tiled roof caved in and the wooden beams had to be replaced.

Severine and Cedric Mignon
Originally from Paris, the family of five (Cedric and Severine have three daughters) moved to Burgundy when they bought the castle and started the restoration works. They intended to move into the castle by Christmas but unfortunately the COVID pandemic affected their plans.

FIVE YEARS TO FIND THE RIGHT CASTLE

Castles and Palaces (CnP): Cedric, could you please introduce your family!
Cedric Mignon (CM): We are a French family, a couple and three children, we have decided to leave Paris to settle in Burgundy, to be closer to the chateau and oversee the restoration. Severine Huet de Froberville, my wife and myself Cédric Mignon, have 3 daughters. We all invested our hearts and souls into this. And we are very passionate about this adventure that has become a family project.

CnP: You bought the castle in 2016. A year passed and you got 2 prestigious awards – one from the Vieilles Maisons Françaises and the other one from La Demeure Historique. How did you manage to achieve it?
CM: The castle of Meauce was well known to these organizations (they take care of the national heritage in France). Many articles were written about this castle which was long abandoned. The patrimony associations became involved long before we bought it in order to try to save it though in vain. When we acquired it in 2016, the heritage associations made a pledge to help us and support our efforts starting from the first year of renovation. In France, these associations are important, because beyond the financial aspects which obviously means a lot and is useful for the renovation work, this is mainly a sign of confidence, of encouragement in the adventure that is being launched. It reassured us when we came across the first difficulties and we managed to overcome them with even more confidence.
CnP: Why did you decide to buy this particular castle – it was in such a dire state, wasn't it?
CM: Well, this was a long story. It took us more than 5 years to find the right monument. To be honest, in the beginning we weren't looking for a castle at all, especially not one that would require so much work.

We thought of buying an old fortified farmhouse still surrounded by a moat filled with water and protected by a Monument Historique inscription. It would help us to get certain tax exemptions in regards of the renovation works - we were ready to do a bit of renovation.
The whole complex screamed – you are mad if you are going to embark on this crazy journey!
CM: Within 5 years, we visited more than 25 monuments. I enjoyed all of them but each time there was something my wife Séverine wasn't happy with. Each time, we had to give up and say no. But if you ask me I would tell you that I am totally convinced that I would have been happy in every of the 25 houses which we visited. We started to visit properties more out of pleasure. So, one day I organized a trip to Chateau de Meauce. I was sure that it would absolutely not suit my wife. It was already an advanced ruin, it required too much work and it seemed to me that it was technically impossible to restore the castle. But it looked so magnificent in pictures, so unique, and the nature around it was so preserved that I organized this visit with pleasure, telling myself that we would just have a good time.
CnP: It looks like a typical story when you go to a shop with no intention to buy – just to see how it is going there. And then all of a sudden you return home with bags full of clothes, toys, etc.
CM: Yes! Something like that! Listen, when we arrived there, it was even worse. In reality it was more dilapidated than it was in the pictures. Other buildings adjacent to the castle were also ruined and the whole complex screamed – you are mad if you are going to embark on this crazy journey!

But as soon as we left the beautiful alley of plane trees near the castle, my wife, for the first time - in the last 5 years and 26 visits - told me without hesitation that she liked this castle. I had like two minutes to make my mind. I thought to myself – okay if I say no that will mean that we'll have to make another 26 visits to properties which will bring us nowhere. And I didn't hesitate to say "yes, I like it too" - which was anything but true. You know, I was 46 - it was right about time to embark on this adventure.
CnP: And you don't regret your decision, do you?
CM: It was one of the best decisions we have ever made in our lives. Indeed, Meauce gives us a lot of satisfaction, it is an extremely old castle, life in Meauce goes back to the prehistoric era and the castle still has vestiges of the 12th century. What was even more important for us is that we managed to bring back to life a doomed monument. We can say without exaggeration, without fear of being contradicted - although it may sound immodest - that we saved it. So, our choice was good for the heritage, good for this monument and its history and thus to the history of all those who lived there, built, restored and brought it back to life.


And finally, we were sensitive to its environment, the landscape of this Val d'Allier, the natural site of the Bec d'Allier with its thousands of migratory or resident birds. The natural setting of Meauce is as important to us as the castle itself. It is a whole thing and we defend the integrity of the architecture and the landscape. It is one of our struggles now.

GALLO-ROMAN HERITAGE AND VIRGIN NATURE

CnP: You mentioned that the area where the castle is located goes back to the prehistoric times and the chateau still bears traces of the early medieval period. Could you share a bit of history with me, some facts from the castle's past.
CM: The site of Meauce is very old, as evidenced by the 3 Gallo-Roman villas discovered in the 19th century and especially by the 34 prehistoric dwellings discovered in 2017 at the bottom of the castle. Before the Christian era, social life was already highly developed around the small rocky spur and pagans loved this rock very much. The first bishops of Nevers took possession of the site in the 6th century, built one of the first churches and a keep facing the rocky spur to stop the pagan rituals. Some 300 years later when France was completely Christian, the bishop of Nevers ceded Meauce to his cousin, the lord of Rochefort, whose family lived in the keep.
CnP: I've read that the castle is linked to the French King Louis IX.
CM: Indirectly yes - in mid-13th century, Hugues de Meauce made a triumphant come back from the 7th crusade at the side of King Louis IX the Saint. During this seventh crusade, according to a legend, he was taken prisoner along with the French king. His eyes would have been gouged out by the Saracens who were afraid to find him on the battlefield as his strength was so well known. Once ransom was paid the men were allowed to leave and the king gave Hugues de Meauce one of his young cousins Isabeau de Sully and enough money to rebuild the damaged castle.
It was one of the best decisions we have ever made in our lives!
CM: In the 14th century the lords of Meauce had the right of wrecks - they could recover all the cargoes of boats that run aground on the sands bordering their lands. The river Allier is a wild river, still today. In the medieval times, with a shallow bottom and quicksand, it was not easy to navigate. Accidents were frequent. Furthermore, the lords of Meauce did their best to sink as many boats as they possible could by putting many stakes in the bottom of Allier. This practice and the right of passage for boats and pilgrims brought a lot of money.
CnP: They acted like robbers or pirates!
CM: This is correct but this was the reality back then. The last descendant of the Meauce family got married to the nephew of the future Pope Innocent VI. They laid their hands on a big, numerous male children would later be appointed bishops and cardinals throughout Europe. During the Hundred Years' War the castle of Meauce made its choice and paid for it - it was taken by the mercenaries of the King of France

CnP: And this was the beginning of the end, right?
CM: More or less - at the end of the war the family was impoverished, the medieval castle was ruined, besides it was no longer a great defense against firearms. The castle's long agony started in the 16th century. Then Charles VIII took away the right of wreck from the Lords of Meauce. It was a punishment for their bad temper. And nature intervened too - the riverbed shifted. It no longer passed at the bottom of the castle, the moat became dry and the right of way could no longer be taken.
CnP: A true story of the rise and fall. I checked some 2016 pictures of the castle, they show that the original roofing was missing and windows were broken. What was the most challenging thing to do during the restoration works?
CM: In 2016, when we bought the castle, it was described as a ruin. Half of the rooms had no floor; the other half had no roof and everywhere the framework was about to collapse. No one lived in the castle since the second half of the 19th century.

The most difficult thing was to coordinate all the restoration professions in order to treat each facade entirely with the walls, floor, framework and roofing to optimize the biggest cost of this restoration: the rental of the scaffolding. So, they had to work simultaneously.

CHATEAU DE MEAUCE'S TREASURES

CnP: How did the state help you?
CM: The state has helped us a lot. Before we became owners, we received a letter in which the authorities informed us of their interest in restoring the castle. They wanted us to meet the 3-year deadline. We were told the state was ready to pay for 50% of the expenses if we stick to their budget. They delivered on their promise.

CnP: Have you found anything interesting during restoration works?
CM: We had many surprises, the so-called little treasures of Meauce. A Roman dolium (an earthenware vase), for example, still stands on the 12th century floor as it stood back then. This huge pot is 1 meter in diameter and is 80 cm deep. It was used in the Gallo-Roman times to store grain. In the medieval times it was used for laundry purposes. Ours also has an outlet to remove water. It was also used as a wash-house.
It is believed that Hugh Capet (the Kings of the Francs and the founder of the House of Capet) was born here.
CM: We also found a frieze showing the marriages of the ladies of Meauce which took place between 1349 and 1582. A frieze is still present under 4 coats of plaster with the coats of arms of the families united by these weddings. It sheds light on the life in Chateau de Meauce at the time. This frieze is a major discovery which is very rare and is subject to very strong state protection. For us it is a great joy but it also makes restoration costlier than it was initially planned. But the history of the families who lived here is important, it is written on the walls of the castle and we will take care of it.
CM: On the facade we have found numerous openings blocked over time, observation posts, hidden loopholes. We have also discovered three sculpted heads, probably dating back to the 7th century - prior to the construction of the castle. These three heads, with slanting eyes, one of which is helmeted, represent the three ages of life and look in three different directions. They were probably fixed on the first keep and were used by the first bishops of Nevers to get rid of the pagan rituals on the rock. In more or less modern times these heads were supposed to scare the evil away from the castle.

And we have found some broken pots and kitchen utensils from the 13th and 14th centuries. We also found Louis XII silver coins and a signed mortar from the city of Autun dating back to the 3rd century.
CnP: I bet there are a lot of secret passages in the castle.
CM: We have found clogged and filled doors. They are superb and were very nice discoveries but also very big problems in our relations with the authorities. We decided to restore the castle to the condition it was in the 18th century. It means that anything that is discovered, but was not visible in the 18th century, should not become visible. Fortunately, after negotiations we were able to make many exciting discoveries visible.

CnP: When I looked at the castle I noticed that the tower looks like a key structure radiating the wings to the sides which form a circle. Is the tower the oldest part of the castle?
CM: The old towers from the 12th and 13th century have disappeared. The ones we see date from the 15th century and are younger than the wings of the castle. The tiled wing is from the 13th century while the one whose roof is covered with slate dates back to the 14th century
CnP: You don't live in the castle, do you?
CM: No, we don't. We planned to move in this (2020) Christmas. Because of the COVID pandemic it has been postponed till March next year. We now live in the building next to the castle, the house is 75 square meters and it is very comfortable. We agreed with the authorities that when we move into the castle we'll have a residential area for ourselves with all the modern comfort. It was a condition under which we started the reconstruction works. You know we've recently become partners with a horticulture school and two design schools to jointly organize and design the future gardens at Chateau de Meauce, too.
CnP: What's your favorite part of the castle?
CM: Actually, three of them – firstly, it is of course the south wing! Why? Simply because it has a lot of sunlight and offers a splendid view of the Allier river and the surroundings. Secondly, it is the inner courtyard, because it is very mystical and it sort of directs your gaze into the skies, and finally it is the hall of justice, because it preserves many authentic medieval elements.

CnP: Do you remember your first night in the castle?
CM: The first night was quiet, too quiet when we were so excited and nervous. We were excited by the adventure and anxious – is our crazy bet going to be successful? The first few nights were stressful; the site was too dangerous and our companions had no idea how to safely move around. We often thought in the beginning that we would be left alone with a pile of stones.
CnP: And that's when you stumbled on your local ghosts?
CM: Oh no! Even ghosts have left poor dilapidated Chateau de Meauce!

CnP: But what about legends? There should definitely be legends about this old castle!
CM: I'll tell you one of them. The mother of Hugh Capet (he was the Kings of the Francs and the founder of the House of Capet), Hedwige of Saxony, gave birth on the way to her husband Hugh the Great. She was returning from her father's house in Saxony. It was necessary to cross the Loire and it was better if she crossed it before the Bec d'Allier where the Loire and the Allier meet. So, Meauce was the last crossing before the Loire, and according to the legend, after the great rains of the autumn of 940, the crossing was impossible. Therefore, Hedwige of Saxony, who was very tired of her long journey is said to have given birth to the first Capetian king here – at Chateau de Meauce!

CnP: What a story! The cradle of the Capet dynasty! I think you should attach a plague to the wall to commemorate this and inform your visitors! As far as I understand the reconstruction is still ongoing. But when you are done, will it be possible to stay in the castle to spend a night there and experience the atmosphere first hand?
CM: We will be looking for people who would like to manage a restaurant, or accommodations at the Chateau after the works are finished. We hope it will be possible to spend a night here. And for the first few years, we will be happy to welcome all those who would like to spend a few nights here to share their feelings. Looking forward to seeing you there!
Lords of Meauce had the right of wrecks - they could recover all the cargoes of boats that run aground on the sands bordering their lands.
CnP: Thanks for the invitation! I've talked to several castle owners and they say their castles are a magnet for tourists which is great for local economic revival. Locals grow food and sell it to the castle which in its turn use this fresh and local produce to cook food at their restaurants. This approach gives a kiss of life to depressive rural communities.
CM: This is true and very important. The soil here is fantastic and the region has been known for its Charolais breed, which is one of the oldest French breeds of taurine beef cattle. We have real Charolais who are bred on the grounds of the castle and we aim to promote this breed and the excellent flavor of the meat.

We believe that we can help to develop a different kind of tourism - the tourism that would respect the nature and the authentic heritage around the Allier. We would like to help three or four people to become sustainable tourism entrepreneurs to accompany families discovering the wild river. Learning to discover the treasures and riches of this river, learning to live a few days away from the modern world in a tent, canoeing along the river, discover rare birds and plants that are extinct elsewhere! This is not yet a beaten tourist path!

CnP: This would be great ! Speaking about today - is it possible to have a tour around the castle?
CM: Yes, the castle is open from 1 April to 30 October, but you need to book your trip on Patricia.net. Each year we receive 6,000 visitors. They mainly come during a few major events like medieval festivals, nature festival, Common Crane festival, Heritage Days, etc. But we also host shows, we had a concert Heads and Hearts in the Stars, various conferences. And as I said people book their trips to see the castle with a guide.

CnP: Who is your typical visitor?
CM: The visitors are mostly people who live nearby, less than 100km away, a lot of heritage enthusiasts, often owners of authentic houses. But we also have people from far away, like patrons of the castle who sometimes come from abroad to check on the progress and see how their donation is being used. Some 1,000 people have made donations over the last 4 years, including 200 individuals from abroad.
CnP: For many people buying a ruined castle and restoring it looks very appealing. But there's something idealistic about it. In reality it may not be as romantic as you have imagined – what would you tell those who are dreaming about buying a castle for themselves?
CM: It is not romantic and you should not get carried away by the views around you, the history or the slow countryside life. On the contrary, it is essential to have the rhythm and therefore to set goals to achieve. Don't be worried if they are not reached and redefine them with the appropriate means. Never let go of anything!
CM: The other piece of advice is not to put too much time into renovating by yourself. It is often more useful to manage, fundraise and negotiate with companies rather than to physically take a hammer in your hand. Finally, it is important not to put all your financial reserves into the acquisition. It is essential to have as many means for the acquisition as for the renovation process. You will always be short of money because of budget overruns. Your expenses will be higher than planned – just get ready for this!

CnP: Would you do it again?
CM: Personally, I would not do it again. I don't think we would have the strength to relive everything we have experienced. The positive things have always been greater than the stress and the risk taken. But we were lucky, I don't know if we could be as lucky. I don't think that in hindsight I would take the risk, because now I know what we missed out on! But we are proud and happy to have done it. It has brought us a lot and for the rest of our lives it will be there. And it's not over yet!
CnP: What's your favorite castle in France or Europe? Apart from Chateau de Meauce?
CM: If we no longer had Meauce we would have restored the castle of Pisy which we have enjoyed for so long and which is a treasure for us.


You know there's something I'd like to say - we receive many volunteers, about a hundred each year and for us it is very important. We share our moments of success and moments of troubles to help the young people in their future projects. We believe that we must contribute to making heritage restoration jobs more popular and accessible. This is the way to go!
We very much hope that you loved the story told by Cedric Mignon, the owner of Chateau de Meauce!

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Pictures credits: Chateau de Meauce

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