Couple Inherit Medieval Castle in Family for 1,000 Years—And, Yes, It Even Has a Real Dungeon

Couple Inherit Medieval Castle in Family for 1,000 Years—And, Yes, It Even Has a Real Dungeon
(Courtesy of Chris Brookes Photography); (Inset: Courtesy of JM Ferrer)
Michael Wing
2/11/2024
Updated:
2/12/2024
0:00

There is a very old, elegant, French castle in a small village five hours south of Paris, about half that distance north of Toulouse, where the hosts who live here, whose family has lived here for centuries, welcome guests to be transported into the past.

It’s called the Château de Bonneval, after the family who has called this place home for over a thousand years.

In 1996, a smart young noble couple made the bold move to carry on the family tradition by living in and preserving their inheritance: this medieval castle.

The century-old walls, court, and chambers of the Château de Bonneval today tell a story through time.

Arriving at Coussac-Bonneval by car, on the outskirts of this timeless little French commune, one would be forgiven for missing the rustic repurposed Limousin’s porcelain factory along the main road, whose “white gold” made the region famous in the 19th century.

Porcelain had been the business of the Marquis Hippolyte de Bonneval—it was a business he was so passionate about in the 1830s that he forewent the title of duke to continue it.

Today, Marta de Bonneval, 59, the current Marquise of Château de Bonneval, believes that porcelain was not regarded as a “noble” material by the king at that time. Hippolyte “refused to close his porcelain enterprise despite it being seen as below someone of his rank,” she told The Epoch Times.

“This is why the highest title the family has remained the ‘Marquis,’” she said, adding that it’s “one rank below” duke. “And the family was not invited to live in Paris in the royal court.”

Aerial view of Château de Bonneval in the small village of Coussac-Bonneval, France. (Courtesy of Chris Brookes Photography)
Aerial view of Château de Bonneval in the small village of Coussac-Bonneval, France. (Courtesy of Chris Brookes Photography)
A view of the façade of Château de Bonneval. (Courtesy of Chris Brookes Photography)
A view of the façade of Château de Bonneval. (Courtesy of Chris Brookes Photography)

Hippolyte may not have been a duke, she said, but he was a general who won battles for Napoleon and was his trusted councilor until the end of his reign.

She and her husband, the Marquis Geraud de Bonneval, now 61, have owned, lived in, and managed their incredible castle estate together in Coussac-Bonneval for almost 30 years.

Looking into the past, it’s hard to imagine how it might have appeared when it was first built upon the ruins of an ancient Roman villa around 980 A.D. Oral family tradition tells how it was a fortified wooden fortress in those days.

The Marquis and Marquise of Château de Bonneval (Courtesy of JM Ferrer); (Inset) The Bonneval family crest. (Courtesy of Marta de Bonneval)
The Marquis and Marquise of Château de Bonneval (Courtesy of JM Ferrer); (Inset) The Bonneval family crest. (Courtesy of Marta de Bonneval)
Moving through the village today, glimpses of rotund medieval towers with spikey cone roofs peek up from between gaps in the rows of houses. The castle has become a fixture of the scenery. Much of that medieval look and stone structure was raised in the leadup to the 14th century, by which time it had become “a true medieval fortress,” the Marquise said.

Reminders of its feudal origins are everywhere: The great drawbridge with its arms still hefts massive iron chains. Still standing are the four enormous stone walls that line a stout, square floor plan. Round drum towers overlook each corner. An encircling divot landform indicates the moat, once lined with spikes instead of water, to hold invaders at bay. All the dainty and elegant touches of later centuries would hardly mask these bold features—nor did the owners wish to. Quite the contrary.

And there’s more. Visitors today can enter the castle’s dungeon—a room of peculiar importance in medieval France.

“A common misconception is that this [dungeon] was the chateau’s prison,” the Marquise said. This was not the case, but rather, it “was the chateau’s safe room. The last line of defense and place to hide women and children in case of attacks.”

Details of the Château de Bonneval estate. (Courtesy of Anneli Marinovich)
Details of the Château de Bonneval estate. (Courtesy of Anneli Marinovich)
Views inside the courtyard of the Château de Bonneval (Supplied by Marta de Bonneval)
Views inside the courtyard of the Château de Bonneval (Supplied by Marta de Bonneval)
Moving up through the centuries, the noble lords of Château de Bonneval rose in prestige—with one comment-worthy exception being the dashing Bonneval Pasha in the 18th century—and in tandem, the castle underwent metamorphoses.

It was thanks to Antoine de Bonneval’s acquisition of the surrounding lands in 1470 that the fortress and town were consolidated into one. “It is because of him that, to this day, the town is called Coussac-Bonneval,” Marquise de Bonneval said.

Later came Gabriel de Bonneval when, around 1569, France was being torn apart by religious wars. Reminders of Gabriel’s contributions live on in the King’s Bedroom. Gabriel had fulfilled his duty to then Prince Henri by serving militarily—and on celebrating their victory, the prince who would become king graced this chamber by spending the night.

Visitors often want to see this opulently decorated royal room, named in honor of a king. But for the Bonnevals, there is one bed chamber that is truly the star of the show: owned by that famously flamboyant ancestor—the most notorious Bonneval of all.

Born in 1675, Claude Alexandre de Bonneval would come to be known as the Bonneval “Pasha.”

(Left) Claude Alexandre de Bonneval, who was also named the Bonneval Pasha (Courtesy of Marta de Bonneval); Views of the King's Bedroom interior (Right: Courtesy of Aude Lucas Fine Art Wedding Photography/ Inset: Courtesy of Daria Lorman Photography).
(Left) Claude Alexandre de Bonneval, who was also named the Bonneval Pasha (Courtesy of Marta de Bonneval); Views of the King's Bedroom interior (Right: Courtesy of Aude Lucas Fine Art Wedding Photography/ Inset: Courtesy of Daria Lorman Photography).

“He was first an officer in the Royal Guard of Louis XIV, the Sun King, but had a fall out with the King and left to Austria,” the Marquise said, speaking of “perhaps the most famous ancestor we have.”

“He was a soldier, a lover, and a world traveler,” she said, adding that he mixed with the likes of Casanova, Montesquieu, and Voltaire.

A clear pattern emerged when Pasha ruffled the feathers of another major ruler. While serving as a major-general for the Habsburg Emperor, he ended up fleeing to the Ottoman Empire to escape death.

“In the end, in the eyes of France and its allies [Pasha] became a renegade,” the Marquise said.

But his adventurism didn’t end there. Once in Istanbul, he converted to Islam and helped modernize their army, even creating their first military school. “He ended up being awarded the military title of ‘Three Tailed Pasha,’ the highest military title in the Ottoman empire,” the Marquise said.

A portrait of Pasha romantically donning a turban and ceremonial dagger hangs in his bedroom in the chateau today.

Retracing their family’s history was made possible by the chateau’s extensive archives of some 30,000 family documents. The couple, both born in Brazil where they married, felt obliged to take over and preserve their family’s estate in France in 1996. It was their duty, they felt, to preserve it for future generations.

The Château de Bonneval archives contain some 30,000 documents. (Courtesy of Aude Lucas Fine Art Wedding Photography)
The Château de Bonneval archives contain some 30,000 documents. (Courtesy of Aude Lucas Fine Art Wedding Photography)
(Left) The gallery, enclosed by stained glass inside the walls of Château de Bonneval; (Right) The Chapel features wooden angels sculpted by Bouchardon. (Courtesy of Aude Lucas Fine Art Wedding Photography)
(Left) The gallery, enclosed by stained glass inside the walls of Château de Bonneval; (Right) The Chapel features wooden angels sculpted by Bouchardon. (Courtesy of Aude Lucas Fine Art Wedding Photography)
Mostly French heirlooms and a few Brazilian ones line the halls where stained-glass windows enclose what once was the inner ring road in the chateau. This 18th-century revamp shut out the elements as part of a total modernization undertaking.

Tapestries hang all along the hallways, depicting medieval scenes and displaying noble family crests. Suits of armor stand guard. Palace elegance is on display in the interior galleries, with walls beset by pilasters, mirrors, and gold-lined trim, the ceiling decked with tondo baroque frescoes.

The one pair of artworks the Marquise is most proud of stand in the family’s chapel: two angels of wood, nearly 7 feet tall, on either side of the altar. “They were made by Bouchardon,” she said, speaking of the French sculptor known for his works in Versailles. “Having some of his pieces in our chapel is something we consider a great privilege.”

The Bonnevals are eager to point to the “three great periods” of the chateau’s evolution, leading to its current appearance—so remarkable and unique.

The Grand Salon, designed and decorated by Hippolyte de Bonneval (Courtesy of Anneli Marinovich); (Inset) The chateau dining room. (Courtesy of Aude Lucas Fine Art Wedding Photography)
The Grand Salon, designed and decorated by Hippolyte de Bonneval (Courtesy of Anneli Marinovich); (Inset) The chateau dining room. (Courtesy of Aude Lucas Fine Art Wedding Photography)
Views of a Renaissance courtyard. (Supplied by Marta de Bonneval)
Views of a Renaissance courtyard. (Supplied by Marta de Bonneval)
Firstly, as mentioned, it served as a medieval fortress leading into the 14th century.
Secondly, it became “a place of art and luxury in the 16th century, inspired by the Italian Renaissance,” the Marquise said.

This aspect is most prominent in the interior court lined with its pastiche of various column styles, adding a distinguishing flare.

Without a doubt, this court is the chateau’s most interesting architectural element, the Marquise said. It is rare indeed for a medieval castle to house a Renaissance courtyard.

Third and lastly, it became a stately home with luminous spaces and more attention to comfort. A large-scale modernization in the 18th century saw French doors and 18 shuttered windows break asunder the once impermeable west wall.

The darkness of the feudal fortification gave way to a new era, infusing the chateau with air and light.

Château de Bonneval. (Courtesy of Anneli Marinovich)
Château de Bonneval. (Courtesy of Anneli Marinovich)

Electricity, modern plumbing, and heating were installed in the 1920s, fully bringing the castle up to code.

“Today, when walking around the castle one can see the different periods that the chateau lived through,” the Marquise said. “Each generation has added or changed the interior layout to suit the needs of the time.”

For the Bonnevals, to preserve the chateau in the 21st century was the goal. They have apparently succeeded.

The couple have carved out the 13-foot-thick walls to install the latest in modern amenities, she said, adding that every measure was taken to preserve the traditional look. “Finally, we have been adding modern kitchen appliances and internet inside the chateau.”

And the community have become dear guests of and grown with the Bonnevals. They host fairytale weddings, art shows, and festivals. While living here, the couple also give tours.

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