When only the very rich could afford to build in stone, and most houses were made mainly of wood, Mortagne-au-Perche enjoyed its heyday. At night its medieval taverns were packed with carpenters quenching their thirst, many after returning from long trips on dusty roads to ply their trade throughout the length and breadth of the ancient county of Perche and Maine.
It was also the land of the fighting man; symbolised by Perche’s aggressive Coat-of-arms: a shield with three parallel arrows pointing upwards, emblazoned in vivid red. Mortagne became the armoury for the Normans, especially for the short arrow fired by a crossbow. Many of the knights in the service of Duke William equipped themselves at Mortagne, in particular with a Percheron horse, huge and powerful, capable of supporting a man wearing full armour and carrying a broadsword, a combined weight in excess of half a ton. These magnificent grey or black steeds are fêted each September at Mortagne, with a parade of Percheron horses in such numbers that they give the visitor an idea of what it must have been like to stand in the Saxon front line at the Battle of Hastings back in 1066.
Although Mortagne-au-Perche is now a quiet market town, evidence of its past grandeur abounds. The narrow, winding streets are bordered by timbered houses, interspersed with splendid hôtels, grand mansions for the nobility, rather than places where anyone with the necessary means could stay. See, in particular, the Maison des Comtes de Perche, dating from the 17th century, which traces the history of the rulers of Mortagne and contains many examples of fine furniture, books and objets d’art; and the lovely garden of what is now l’Hôtel de Ville, Mortagne’s town hall.
Only one section of the original fortifications has survived: the Porte Saint-Denis, first erected in the 12th century but still undergoing renovation and repair in the 16th. The upper floors of this fortified gateway contain the museum to the Percheron horse. Look out also for the display of fine medallions by Jules Chaplain, who won a prize for the design in gold of the 20 franc piece.
Saint-André’s Crypt, under the law courts, has classic gothic columns dating back to the 13th century. Nearby is an exquisite cloister, known as Le Cloître de I’Hôpital, the former convalescent home for war wounded that began life as a convent. Its occupants were the Clarisses, nuns inspired by the teachings of Saint Francis d’Assisi, known also as the Order of the Poor Ladies, as no-one with personal wealth could enter. The convent was particularly popular with the widows of knights killed in the crusades …as a means of avoiding responsibility for their husbands’ debts.
The Church of Notre-Dame, built between 1494 and 1535 in a striking, if perhaps excessively flamboyant, gothic style, paid tribute to the finery of the Renaissance without quite emulating it. Inside are some particularly beautiful boiseries, ornate and intricately carved wood panelling, dating from the 17th century.
A stained-glass window by Barillet commemorates the departure in 1662 for French Canada of Pierre Bouchet, born at Mortagne. An extraordinary number of Québecois can trace their ancestry to the town, probably because just when the construction of wooden houses began to decline in France, the demand peaked across the Atlantic and the impoverished carpenters sailed en masse to the New World.
After the French Revolution, another son of Mortagne, Joseph-Geneviève, Comte de Puisaye, persuaded the British government to finance a scheme that would settle a number of exiled French royalist officers on land in Canada. In 1795 Puisaye had commanded two ill-fated expeditions against revolutionary France, landing his own personal troops at Quiberon. Each time his little invasion ended in fiasco and ignominious retreat, an episode used in one of the Horatio Hornblower stories of derring-do adapted for television. Alas, Puisaye never settled down in Quebec and, refused entry to France, eventually returned to the Hammersmith district of London to write his memoirs.
The men of Mortagne took with them a delicacy that proved popular in Canada: the boudin or blood sausage, close in taste and texture to the British black pudding. Thanks to Mortagne’s Boudin Noir, each March the town hosts an international fair for sausage makers, now in its 45th year. You can taste and buy the boudin in Mortagne’s weekly market, held on Saturday mornings.
Sheltered by undulating hills and the forest of the Perche and the Trappe, Mortagne lies at the heart of one of France’s best agricultural regions. Its produce includes apples, pears, mushrooms, milk, and cheese, especially Camembert, Calvados and Poiré de Domfront. The poiré is a sparkling apéritif, similar in taste to cider, pale yellow in appearance. Those who drink several glasses under the severe misapprehension that it is non-alcoholic, are said the following morning to have an uncanny resemblance to the colour of the bottle.
Hotel de Ville
Rue de l'Abreuvoir
© OT Mortagne-au-Perche