In the west of Brittany, when the mysterious glow of a burning torch seemed to dance on the moor at night, it was said that it was the phantom of the Ligueur, the brigand La Fontenelle who, during the Wars of Religion, ravaged the land, indiscriminately massacring thousands of innocents and leaving intolerable misery in his wake. In some parishes wasted by him, where the population had numbered a thousand adults, he reduced it to a dozen.
For almost the last forty years of the 16th century, France was embroiled in a series of bloody wars of religion that pitted the Roman Catholic majority against their Protestant neighbours. The eight wars witnessed many ebbs and flows as religious freedoms were granted and then crushed while powerful families vied for dominance. Sadly, this time was marked by the most brutal atrocities; slaughter was almost commonplace. The spate of killings now known as the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572 saw the murder of key Protestant leaders and a five-day killing spree that left 4,000 dead and claimed an additional 10,000 victims by that autumn alone. Although some estimate the death toll that summer was three times as high.
Even by the standards of the time, which tolerated the killing of resistant civilians, the level of barbarity shown was extreme, especially considering this was not an official war. The forces of the king and those organised under the banner of the Catholic League were but two of many protagonists; a great deal of slaughter was wrought by civilian mobs, sometimes organized into local religious associations whose activities were directed by local notables such as militia leaders or magistrates.
It is worth noting that of the almost sixty massacres recorded between 1559 and 1571 in Jean Crespin’s History of the Martyrs (1619) none occurred in Brittany where Protestants were a tiny minority and its Catholic governor, the Duke of Etampes, pursued a policy of moderation that generally prevented outbreaks of sectarian violence.
Across France, many people, peasants and nobles alike, took advantage of the breakdown in law and order to settle old scores or to simply rob and kill with impunity. The people took it upon themselves to reinstate burning at the stake; a punishment no longer applied by the state. The practice of disfiguring the bodies of the dead seems to have been quite widespread. In Orange, in 1562, women’s bodies were exposed naked “with ox horns, stones or wooden stakes inserted into the unmentionable places of their bodies.” The corpses were further dehumanized by being covered in filth and excrement and dragged through the streets like animals to press home that these heretics were separate from Divine creation. Acts of depravity such as tearing out the eyes or cutting off the nose and lips were justified as merciful acts designed to prepare the victims for the torments of Hell.
In 1584, after a few years of uneasy truce, the Protestant leader Henri of Navarre became heir to the French throne. To oppose his candidature, many Catholic nobles, with the full support of the Church, formed a group known as the Catholic League who immediately pressed King Henri III into refuting the political status of Protestants and giving them an ultimatum of six months to choose between abjuration or exile.
While large numbers of Protestants did leave France, many stayed; taking comfort from the fact that Henri of Navarre remained in control of the southern provinces. The Catholic League’s dissatisfaction with Henri III’s failure to drive the Protestants out of France saw them push for his deposition; a state of affairs that saw the Catholic King Henri III align himself with his Protestant cousin, Henri of Navarre, against the League at the end of 1588. The situation swiftly spiralled into war with the League gaining support from Spain and the Royalists backing from England.
The assassination of the leader of the League on 23 December 1588 saw the northern provinces held by them rise up against Henri III who was, in turn, assassinated on 1 August 1589. Thus, Henri of Navarre became King Henri IV but his power did not extend into the north and east of the country; the king therefore had to conquer his new kingdom.
Meanwhile, the Duke of Mercoeur, whom Henry III, his brother-in-law, had made governor of Brittany in 1582, was manoeuvring to carve out an independent domain in this staunchly Catholic province that had only been annexed by the French crown less than fifty years earlier. Appointing himself leader of the Catholic League of Brittany, he invoked the hereditary rights of his wife, the Duchess of Penthièvre, a descendant of the dukes of Brittany and heiress of the Blois claim to the duchy. Establishing a government at Nantes, he allied himself with the king of Spain, who sent thousands of troops to his aid. However, the city of Rennes, home to the Parliament of Brittany, remained loyal to the crown and a new governor, the Prince of Dombes, was appointed by the king.
The bloody year marked by the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre also saw the birth of Guy Éder de la Haye de Beaumanoir, Baron de La Fontenelle; a name forever tainted with the blood of innocents and synonymous with slaughter. Born into a noble Breton family near Saint-Nicolas du Pelem in 1572, he spent his childhood at the family estate outside the nearby town of Quintin. As the second son, he might have been expected to pursue a career in the Church or military and, in 1587, he was sent to study in Paris but within two years he sold his books in order to purchase a dagger and sword. However, his intention to join the Catholic forces of the Duke of Mayenne in Orleans was thwarted when he was robbed en route and this humiliation seems to have spurred his return home to Brittany.
La Fontenelle now placed himself in the service of the Duke of Mercoeur and gradually gathered around him a troop of men that would eventually grow to some 400 riders and sometimes as many as 2,000 men-at-arms: “a collection of adventurers, men of sackcloth and rope, from all countries and ready for any task, on the sole condition of sharing the plunder.” Joséphine Baudry in La Fontenelle, the League and Brigandage in Lower Brittany (1920) talks of “bands of men marching without discipline, under the orders of their captains who waged war on their own account. These independent leaders rallied to their party headquarters only in important circumstances, when it was necessary to besiege a town or obtain a position, with a view to advantageous expedition, prohibited on their own initiative.”
In 1590, he sacked the castle of Kersaliou in Pommerit-Jaudy, which he made his headquarters and from where he launched several raids across the northern diocese of Tréguier. His subsequent capture of the castle of Pludual helped consolidate his northern powerbase and marked the beginning of his reign of terror. A contemporary account noted that his troop: “exercised all the cruelties that rope, iron and fire were able to administer to them to ransom the peasant labourers and innocent merchants of the country, and after having miserably tormented and embarrassed them in order to extort their money; looted, burned their houses and any furniture that they could not take away. Finally, he took the cattle, even the pigs and not content with so many outrages, raped women and girls, regardless of age.”
Emboldened, La Fontenelle began raiding settlements further south, sacking the League-held town of Châteauneuf-du-Faou. The deputies of the town declared that “he had plundered, ravaged and killed our people with great violence, with many other insolent cruelties committed by him and his men, which our greatest enemies would not have wanted to commit.” Hearing that the townsfolk were going to file complaints against him at the Assembly of States of the League in Vannes, La Fontenelle stormed into the meeting of Deputies on 20 March 1592, threatening to cut the throats of any who might dare speak against him.
Mercoeur had him arrested but quickly released him on condition that he would bring his men to help relieve the League stronghold of Craon, besieged by the Prince of Dombes. Mercoeur with La Fontenelle and their Spanish allies successfully lifted the siege, the besiegers were routed and, unable to hire any cart animals, were forced to abandon their supplies, ammunition and artillery. However, it was after this event that many in the French camp started to worry that the Spaniards were behaving like conquerors, refusing to recognize any authority other than their own king.
Later that year, under the command of Mercoeur, La Fontenelle participated in the sacking of the north coast city of Tréguier and the capture of the powerful castle of Coatfrec in Ploubezre but his efforts to take the town of Guingamp were repulsed. His lair at Coatfrec was itself successfully besieged by the king’s forces during the following spring. Having surrendered the castle, La Fontenelle’s life was spared on condition that he accepted banishment from Brittany; terms he accepted but had no intention of honouring.
Instead, in May 1593, he relocated 50km south to the town of Carhaix and established his new garrison in the Church of Saint-Trémeur whose high tower provided him with a commanding observatory. Although it cannot be seen from Carhaix, La Fontenelle now fixed his gaze upon Granec castle, one of the newest and richest in Brittany, just 13km to the west. The castle was owned by a prominent supporter of the League and La Fontenelle knew that he was not strong enough to take it by force and so he adopted a subterfuge; he had some of his men pretend to be reinforcements sent from the governor of Morlaix to aid in the castle’s defence. The ruse worked; the drawbridge was opened and the castle gained without a shot being fired in early July.
In support of their deposed lord, the peasants of the surrounding parishes took advantage of La Fontenelle’s absence raiding Morlaix and laid siege to the castle. However, a little before dawn on the eighth day, La Fontenelle and about sixty riders descended upon the poorly constructed and guarded entrenchments; a massacre ensued, Canon Jean Moreau in his Memoirs of the Wars of the League in Brittany (1836) tells that he “made a carnage of seven to eight hundred and more, not ceasing to pursue them and killing for more than an hour.” Not content with such butchery, La Fontenelle determined to insult the dead by denying them the grace of a Christian burial.
According to Moreau: “The cruelty of this barbarian was so great that he did not allow the relatives of the slain to come and collect their bodies and recognize their dead. He had them guarded at night to prevent anyone from performing the last rites so that they remained corrupt on the face of the earth. One day, walking in the castle’s corridors, the visiting lord of Pratmaria asked La Fontenelle: How can you stand the stench of those rotten corpses? He replied that the smell of dead enemies was so sweet! It was a great pity to see these poor people thus massacred, who rotted and were eaten by dogs and wolves because if any relatives came at night to take away the body of a loved one, they were themselves killed on the spot.”
With his troop now counting almost a thousand men, La Fontenelle strengthened Granec’s defences with bigger embankments of compacted earth, rocks and tree trunks. From this lair, he devastated large swathes of western Brittany. Any pretence of a religious mission was now gone; he had become Ar Bleiz, the wolf, renowned and feared across the land for his cunning and cruelty.
Having taken the castle at Corlay at the end of 1593, the towns of Chateaulin, Landerneau, Le Faou, Locronan, Morlaix, Quintin and the outskirts of Quimper all felt the rage of his raids; even the Abbey of Langonnet was plundered. Tired of his excesses, the Duke of Mercoeur captured and destroyed Granec castle in 1594 but La Fontenelle simply shifted his base of operations permanently to Corlay and it was here, in June of that year, that he was injured when part of the first floor collapsed; he broke a leg and retained a pronounced limp for the rest of his life. In early 1595, Corlay was besieged by the king’s forces, La Fontenelle had hoped to hold out until the arrival of a Spanish relief force but he capitulated after a month and was able to make his way 40km south to Priziac where he promptly plundered two of the neighbourhood’s castles.
In his quest for a stronger base, La Fontenelle set his sights on Île Tristan, a small island located under 500m off the west coast port of Douarnenez which is only accessible at low-tide. He attacked on 15 May 1595 and captured the island’s governor as well as a number of wealthy merchants that he subsequently released against high ransoms. After having sacked and looted Douarnenez, he made those inhabitants, still living, demolish the houses of the town to use the stone to fortify the island and its garrison of over 700 men.
Exasperated by the ravages of La Fontenelle, the people of the neighbouring parishes appealed to the local lord for aid and he duly gathered together a force of almost 2,000 men, mostly farmhands and labourers with no military experience. Sadly, the result was predictable; La Fontenelle, accompanied by 400 horsemen, immediately rode out to confront this peasant army, killing approximately 1,500 of them and capturing the Count of Granec, who he released against a considerable ransom.
La Fontenelle now turned his attentions to the prosperous south coast town of Penmarc’h. This was then a thriving place, described as “the richest borough of Brittany,” able to muster 2,500 arquebusiers and one that was proactive in preparing to face La Fontenelle’s designs. The townsfolk had prepared two defensive bastions; one in the church of Tréoultré, the other in a building in Kerity, both surrounded with entrenchments and palisades. In a gesture of incredible naivety, the town allowed La Fontenelle to enter under a flag of friendship. Having made careful note of the town’s inner defences, he returned and swiftly sacked the city, massacring more than 3,000 inhabitants, although one contemporary put the figure closer to 5,000. All accounts agree that the most vicious slaughter took place inside the church.
The then governor of Brest noted that, having seized Penmarc’h: “La Fontenelle had dishonoured all the women and girls, from the age of seventeen, whom he had killed, in torment. Also, more than 5,000 peasants and that he had set fire to more than 2,000 houses, looted and carried away all the furniture, of whatever kind.” To carry away this immense booty, La Fontenelle seized the boats moored in the harbour; some 300 vessels of all sizes were loaded with the town’s wealth and transported around the coast to Île Tristan. The best of these vessels subsequently constituted his maritime force and allowed him to scourge the sea as effectively as he did the land.
In September 1595, the inhabitants of Pont-Croix, an important regional centre, learned that La Fontenelle had cast his designs upon them. With no town walls to defend, the people decided to fortify the strongest building in the town, the church, to which most retreated. Unfortunately, their makeshift barricades and trenches were swiftly overcome by the brigands who turned their full attention to the church which eventually fell to them a few hours later. The people who had taken refuge inside the church did not have enough ammunition to keep so many attackers at bay and so, under the leadership of a Captain Villerouault, withdrew into the tower.
Seeing wave after wave of his attacks repulsed, La Fontenelle decided to burn out the defenders but neither fire nor smoke softened their resolve. Finally, he swore a solemn oath that their lives would be spared if they would but quit the tower and abandon the town’s spoils, collected there, to his men. The defenders accepted his terms but as the last regained the floor of the church, La Fontenelle immediately ordered that they “should be hanged instantly but before executing the command he wanted his cruel infidelity to be accompanied by an act without comparison, more villainous and reproachful than the preceding ones. That is he made his soldiers violate publicly and in in the middle of the street, in front of Villerouault her husband, the Lady of Kerbullic.”
It is said that some 3,000 people were killed in the town and its surrounding fields that afternoon but the atrocities committed by La Fontenelle after the massacre of Pont-Croix almost defy description. Canon Moreau noted: “This infamous violence in the person of a bridesmaid thus perpetrated, the husband was hanged and a few others. The rest of those who fell into his hands were either killed or taken prisoner to Île Tristan where their condition was much worse than if they had been killed like the others. Some died miserably in foul dungeons and latrines, and after an infinite number of tortures that were done to them each day, sometimes making them sit on a bare tripod which burned them to the bones, sometimes, in the heart of winter and in the greatest cold, putting them naked inside pipes full of frozen water.
And those who had some means of paying the ransom he demanded, yet being outside, could hardly live for the great torments they had endured. Very few escaped from it that they did not die in prison if they remained there three or four days, for they were so pressed in numbers that they could not stir and had nothing else to do but rest on their excrement, where they very often soaked to the knees, and had no other burial after death than the belly of the fish; for as soon as they were dead, their fellow prisoners were ordered to throw them into the sea, if better not to let the bodies rot among them.”
Sometime in 1595, La Fontenelle called upon the Lord of Mézarnou at his castle in Plounéventer and it is said that this visit ended rather unconventionally with the abduction of his ten year old step-daughter, a very wealthy heiress named Marie Le Chevoir de Coadezlan.
In October 1595, La Fontenelle made plans to take the south coast city of Quimper but was captured by the king’s forces. Thinking the absence of their talismanic leader might weaken the resolve of his men, the king’s forces besieged Île Tristan but faced with determined resistance, the siege was abandoned after only six weeks. Released for ransom at the end of April 1596, La Fontenelle returned to his island fortress, married his captive heiress upon her eleventh birthday and resumed his plundering activities.
On 16 May, the day of the May Fair, the festivities in the north coast town of Lannion were shattered by the appearance of La Fontenelle and seventy armed riders who “caused great damage and ruined so much of the town.” This once fine city was sacked four times during the Wars of Religion: in 1590 by the Duke of Mercoeur, by La Fontenelle in 1593 and 1596, finally in 1598 by the king’s troops.
It seems that the brigand’s desire for blood and plunder was matched only by his ambition, for in 1597, he attempted to take the port of Brest with seven warships and tried to capture Quimper twice; his second assault, a land and amphibious operation, might even have succeeded had his men kept their nerve. By the time that the blood had dried on his sacking of the town of Ploumilliau at the end of October 1597, the broader political situation had changed markedly in Brittany.
Following the recapture of Amiens from Spanish forces at the end of September 1597, King Henri IV, now a confirmed Roman Catholic, turned to the situation in Brittany and led his army against Mercoeur in early 1598. With Spanish support effectively ended, Mercoeur made his submission before the king on 20 March 1598, the last leader of the League to do so. With peace assured, the king triumphantly entered Nantes where, on 30 April 1598, he promulgated the Edict of Nantes, guaranteeing Protestants limited civil tolerance of worship.
One of the clauses of the Edict ordered “that the memory of everything which has occurred between one side and the other shall remain extinguished and suppressed as though they had never happened.” For La Fontenelle, the peace concluded between Mercoeur and the king could not have been more generous; he and his men were absolved of their crimes, his debts were cancelled and he received a cash reward in recognition of his service as well as the post of Governor of Île Tristan. However, the fort on the island was dismantled by order of the king in 1599 and La Fontenelle returned to the family estates near Quintin with his child bride.
His quiet life as a country squire was interrupted by accusations of having participated in the Duke of Biron’s intrigue with the Spanish and of having conspired to sell Île Tristan to them. Captured on Île Bréhat, he was imprisoned in Paris but subsequently pardoned by King Henri IV. No sooner was the ink dry on his release papers than the family of Villerouault filed a complaint for the murders in Pont-Croix. The Parliament of Paris was persuaded to look again at his dealings with the Spanish but short of convincing evidence, invoked his former crimes.
He was re-arrested on 10 September, beside the abduction of Marie Le Chevoir, he was charged with ordering the public rape of Villerouault’s wife, in the presence of her husband and the latter’s subsequent hanging before the eyes of his wife. Evidence was also heard that he had caused two prisoners to die; one being starved to death and the other being force-fed, just to test which would be the first to die. He was convicted of the crime of lèse-majesté and “for conspiracies, betrayals and enterprises against the King, his State and the public good”.
On 27 September 1602, after having been applied to the torture of the preliminary question, to have any accomplices denounced prior to execution, La Fontenelle was broken upon the wheel in the Place de Grève in Paris, where he is reported to have languished for about ninety minutes. The executioner then cut off his head which was brought back to Brittany and exhibited on the Porte Toussaint in Rennes until it was stolen by unknown friends on 8 November. His foul memory, fuelled by his horrific exploits, would long survive in the popular imagination and legends of Brittany.