I first visited Brancion several years ago on a Pilgrimage through Burgundy. This ancient medieval village, tucked away on a hilltop above the valley of the river Grosne immediately captured my imagination. You enter by way of a covered stone gateway (the clatter of hooves on the cobblestones is still almost audible). To your right, and elevated above the village, stands the ruins of the 12th century keep with its later 14th century additions still more or less intact.
The views from its walls are spectacular and offer a clear view of the surrounding countryside – no enemy was going to sneak up on the lords of Brancion. But who were these lords who built this place? That’s what interested me. It turns out that quite a bit is known about them considering they were (to paraphrase the boast of the great Lord of Coucy*) neither kings, nor princes nor dukes: they were simply The Lords of Brancion, and, like the Lords of Coucy, owed allegiance to no one. They were also notorious for their bad behavior (the usual murder, rape, pillaging charges) and for their interminable squabbles with the nearby Abbey of Cluny where, somewhat surprisingly, many of their sons ended up – while the others presumably carried on pillaging. The Abbot of Cluny of course held the trump card and if things got too out of hand, excommunication could always be threatened and various penances imposed.
For my hero’s father, I chose the most infamous of these de Brancion lords, Bernard II (c. 1096-1150) nicknamed “le Gros” (a word that today means “the Fat” but in the Middle Ages might also mean “the Great”, though more in the sense of being the big Kahuna than implying any moral superiority – which in Bernard’s case it certainly did not). Bernard seems to have died in The Holy Land and so it is fair to assume that he was either on crusade or making a penitential pilgrimage – his grandfather, Bernard I (also called “le Gros”) died on such a penitential pilgrimage when returning from Rome around 1030. We also know that Bernard II’s oldest son was named Josserand and that he had other sons who were monks at Cluny. History does not tell us what happened to this Josserand (this will be revealed in the novel!) but we do know he too had sons, and that his great grandson, also named Josserand, died fighting alongside King Louis IX of France (Saint Louis) at the battle of Mansorah in Egypt in 1249. The expense of this expedition seems to have caused the downfall of the de Brancion family and by the 14th century their lands had passed into the hands of the powerful Dukes of Burgundy.
The tomb of this last great Lord of Brancion, Josserand III, still lies in the family church of Saint Peters in Brancion – a wonderful 12th century treasure containing a collection of faded but still visible murals, one of which depicts a family funeral. This particular mural though probably dating from a slightly later period than the novel is nevertheless fascinating in its details.
Most unusually the funeral depicted is that of a woman (perhaps a nun, though not necessarily). She would certainly have been a woman of consequence, like Lord Bernard’s wife, Ermengilda, the daughter of the Duke of Lorraine and sister of Thierry Count of Flanders to whom I have alluded several times on this Blog. I am therefore tempted to lay claim to this mural for my story especially since among the mourners is a bearded redhead – could it be Rohan?
Several scenes in the novel are set in Brancion, and so revisiting the castle, church and village was like coming home. If you are ever in this part of the world, Brancion is well worth a small side tour. M. and Mme Murad whose family helped restore the castle before it became a national heritage site, own a delightful little restaurant at the foot of the castle, and are happy to share the history of the place with visitors – they named their oldest son Josserand though I hope they won’t be too upset that I have turned his namesake, the original Josserand, into quite a villain!
Leaving Brancion through the ancient medieval gate and descending into the valley below is like leaving another world. How would it have felt to a sixteen-year-old boy mounted on his fine new horse and setting out on the adventure of a lifetime accompanied only by his childhood friend and servant, Godric the Saxon? Surely he would have been giddy with excitement and anticipation – an impossible dream about to come true – but also might he not have felt some trepidation? It was a journey of some 430 odd miles across unknown countries on horseback (remember Rohan had been no further north than Vezelay about 140 miles away, but still in Burgundy, and that journey had been challenging enough). We’ve already talked a bit about travel in the 12th century, and there will be plenty of if it in the book, but for now, as I step into my nice comfortable car and turn on the air conditioning and the SatMap programmed for Dijon, Troyes, Reims and Ghent, it’s worth a moment of reflection – and gratitude for modern technology!