In a busy writing month I have at last found time to get out and make a visit to the Abbaye de Boquen in Cotes d'Armor. This Cistercian foundation was built in 1137, five years after the Abbaye du Relec in Finistère, both daughter-houses of the monastery at Bégard. They have evolved rather differently, however, despite many basic similarities. Boquen went through the same phases of early development and commendatory rule (from the 1490s to the Revolution) before dissolution in 1790. But it is in the 20th century that its unique fate emerged.
After lying in ruins for many years, the site was bought in 1934 by Alexis Presse, former abbot of the abbey of Tamié (and a most remarakble man), with the help of members of his family. He performed the immense task of restoring the ancient building and creating a community dedicated to the purer original principles of the Order. He also celebrated mass in Breton as well as Latin. This enjoyed considerable success until it was time for Dom Alexis to hand over the reins. He chose badly, as Bernard Besret, taking charge at the age of 29, soon determined to broaden the brief of the abbey to invite in all kinds of religious influences, to the chagrin of traditionalists and eventually the Catholic powers that be who removed him from office.
Today the site is run by the ecumenical Communauté du Chemin neuf. The majority of the abbey structures are off limit to casual visitors, being reserved for the community and guests at their events. An old mill houses a permanent exhibition about the history of the abbey and from there a sylvan track leads on round through the trees to approach the west face of church itself directly. Inside the simplicity of the original is maintained, particularly evident in the transept. Before the high altar is the tombstone which is said to mark the grave of Gilles de Bretagne, brother of Duke François I, who was murdered in 1450 at the nearby Chateau de Hunaudaye after political intrigues with the English.
The large cloister area is bounded by heavily restored buildings housing the modern community, with the two remaining sections of covered passage glassed in. Only the fragmentary remains of the chapter house with its evocative carvings give any sense of the distant past in this strangely uninspiring contemporary manifestation of an ancient site of worship. A cavernous chapel of Saint Bruno can also be seen.The rather remote setting on the edge of the forest of Boquen, with streams around the abbey walls, is a more potent reminder of original Cistercian ideals. The Abbaye du Relec, by contrast, has preserved less and offers much more to those in search of spiritual atmosphere, where a real sense of the labour of the monks and their partnership with nature is still in evidence.
The unusual Chateau de Hac dates mainly from the mid 15th century, when it was created primarily as a 'pleasure palace' for the Hingant family, in choice hunting territory, probably on the site of an earlier lodge. Use of the local limestone contrasts with more common granite defensive strongholds and lends a refined elegance to the façade. Little was known of this family beforehand, and the building was also designed to show off the fruits of their remarkable rise to power and prominence, thanks to a lucrative marriage by Jean Hingant with Guyonne de Bintin. This brought him into the sphere of mighty Breton noble houses like the Montauban and Coëtquen families. (The latter, by the way, have interesting connections with the legendary figure of Lancelot.)
But this 'Seigneur de Hac' was a tricky customer, involved in many a court case and all kinds of unsavoury behaviour like seizing rights from a senile old man and other crooked deals. He needed to keep a careful eye on security of his person and one striking piece of furniture in the chateau shows this preoccupation. An ancient oak cupboard inscribed with PAX and a cross was designed as a depository for weapons when guests entered the house. This practice also re-enforced the sense of his own importance that the stylish façade of the chateau conveyed immediately to any visitors.
Undoubted abilities as a wheeler-dealer, and perhaps the very fact that he was not himself of the highest lineage, brought him into ducal spheres after staunch military service. Jean V chose to appoint this comparative outsider as chamberlain in 1438. He eventually fell from favour for his part in the affair of Gilles de Bretagne. This prince of Brittany was brother to duke François I, but eventually taken into custody after constant and blatant intrigues with the English. He was smothered when in captivity at the chateau of La Hardouinaye, whilst under the overall care of Jean Hingant. Royal agents arrived at the Chateau de Hac in 1450 to arrest its master, but Hingant was already on the run with his son, Eustache and many dramatic brushes with the law were to follow in the next few years. He died some time between 1459 and 1465.
The chateau visit (guided only) gives a good idea of social and economic niceties of the period, with contrasting use of rooms on different levels for the general public or wealthy and important connections and a large private apartment complete with side chapel. As well as the usual grand fireplaces, there are some interesting features, including stolen stained glass windows with a good story and a beautiful old corner cupboard which totally conceals the entrance to a modern lift. But the emphasis on the very well-presented tour is on the contemporary context of the chateau and the rise and fall of the Hingant family. Small gardens laid out on a parterre formula are a pretty addition, in the absence of a park.
The area around the villages of Le Quiou and Tréfumel where the chateau is situated was once at the bottom of a sea linking what
would be the Channel and the Atlantic in the Miocene period about 15 million
years ago. This separated the ‘Ile d’Armorique’ (later western Brittany) from the eastern
part and later mainland France. These warm,
shallow (40m at most) waters harboured
all kinds of marine creatures – sting-rays, the huge megalodon, a prehistoric
shark, and snub-nosed seacows – and created an accumulation of shell sand,
called le falun. This sedimentary layer has yielded a myriad of fossils, and in the
modern era the more solid masses of falun were quarried and the light,
malleable limestone called pierre de jauge used in local
architecture for ornamentation. It is easy to spot in the villages of the area, and remains of lime working can still be seen in Le Quiou.
The Maison Nature des Faluns in Tréfumel is well worth a visit, and there are extensive remains of a Roman villa near the Green Way in Le Quiou, with open access.
Writer living in Finistere, French citizen, blogging about Breton history and landscape. Published work includes many books and articles on Brittany's complex past, real and legendary, walking guides and fiction. Also creative texts for exhibitions on those themes. Latest book: Wayfaring in Brittany, about paths into the past. Talks and courses about Breton history. See my website wendymewes.com