Bertran de Born

20 August 2018

Bertran de Born – Viscount of Hautefort, warmonger and troubadour – was certainly an interesting character. Immortalised in Dante’s Inferno, this was a man who had no problem combining beautiful love poetry with fighting. The latter involved warring with both the English and French monarchy and with his younger brother, Constantine. But more of that later.

Bertran de Born was born in 1140. He was the eldest son of the Lord of Hautefort (also Bertran de Born). Now, Hautefort is located pretty much at the border between the Perigord (or the Dordogne as it is better known to the British) and the Limousin. An area which, at the time, was a longstanding battleground of the English and the French. Back in Bertran’s day his family home, Château de Hautefort, was a medieval fortress. It was a building that he would come to fight both the English and his brother Constantine for.

While the Hundred Years’ War didn’t get started during Bertran’s lifetime, battles between the French and English were already commonplace. Bertran found himself embroiled in many conflicts. The political landscape was certainly a tricky one with allegiances regularly swinging back and forth.

Bertran de Born and Richard the Lionheart

Things were to get even trickier when Bertran’s father died. Feudal custom at the time meant that the title of Lord of Hautefort did not pass solely to Bertran. His younger brothers, Constantine and Itier had equal claim to the title.

Now, Richard the Lionheart (son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine) originally favoured Constantine. With Richard’s involvement, Bertran was expelled from the family home. However, all was not lost and Bertran de Born eventually won over Richard (probably by persuading Henry II of his right to sole ownership). He was back in favour and back at the helm of Château de Hautefort.

Bertran continued with his political machinations and assisted Richard in his uprising against his father. He also went on to accompany Richard on a crusade. It was these acts that ‘earned’ him a place in Dante’s Inferno. He is portrayed as a purveyor of discord and placed in hell where he carries his severed head.

The poetry of Bertran de Born

Betran de Born must have witnessed some horrific sights in battle and when he returned to France much of the poetry that he wrote was incredibly militaristic. The following extract from one of his poems highlights this;

for no man is held to be worthy

until he has taken and given many blows.

Maces and swords, colourful helms,

shields riven and cast aside:

these shall we see at the start of the battle,

and also many vassals struck down,

the horses of the dead and wounded running wild.

And when he enters the combat,

let every man of good lineage

think of nothing but splitting heads and hacking arms;

for it is better to die than to live in defeat.

Today, there is some conjecture as to which pieces of poetry can be attributed to Bertran de Born but at least one of his melodies survives and over 40 of his poems. He is certainly recognised as one of the finest troubadour poets.

Bertran de Born

Troubadours pic: Pinterest

Bertran eventually went off to become a monk. He is believed to have died around 1215.

Château de Hautefort

Today, Bertran de Born’s former home is a listed, historical monument (and one of the most prestigious châteaux in the Dordogne). However, it isn’t a building which he would readily recognise.

In 1630, under plans drawn up by the architect Nicolas Rambourg, work began on an imposing new residence. It took 40 years before the new building was finally completed. Fast forward over 200 years to the 1850s and the Count of Choulot (a landscape architect) made far-reaching changes to the gardens. Under his guidance topiary, landscaping and geometric planting took place. The gardens are now listed as one of the Notable Gardens of France, so they are up there with the best of the best!

Bertran de Born

Château de Hautefort gardens. Pic: Pinterest

After falling into a state of disrepair, Baron and Baroness de Bastard began extensive renovations to the main building in the 1920s. After 4 decades of work (and not long after the works had been completed) a fire ravaged pretty much everything. However, the Baroness was no quitter (her husband had passed away by this time) and she set about the whole task again.

Bertran de Born

A staircase at Château de Hautefort. Pic: Pinterest

In addition to the beautiful gardens, the château is certainly worth a visit. The Baroness employed master craftsmen to reproduce ornate staircases and chimneys. (Apparently, the two chimney pieces alone took 10,000 hours to carve from local walnut.) There is also an impressive range of 17th century paintings and tapestries on display. It is probably one of the most popular chateaux in the Dordogne (and there is plenty of competition!).

Visit Château de Hautefort during the summer months and you can enjoy a theatrical tour. Perhaps the beauty of it all could stir you to write a verse or two of poetry. You’d certainly be following in some notable footsteps.

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