One day I visited Cadillac Chateau, and was torn backwards in time to witness the life of the poor women who lived in a Dukes castle. I found more stories than one. Choose yours…
The Ducal Chateau
Jean-Louis Nogaret de La Vallette (1554-1642), the first Duke of Éperon was a successful military man, and a priviledged friend of King Henri III. He gained much prestige and wealth. He was made Duke and Peer of France, a Colonel General of the Infantry, and Governor of several provinces.
Henri III was assassinated in 1589, and Henri IV of Navarre ascended the crown. The Duke found it difficult to accept this King, but he honoured his duties. The King, in turn, despised the Duke, and did what he could to remove him from court. He encouraged the Duke to commission the construction of Cadillac Chateau between 1599 and 1610, in a style that was worthy of his rank, yet far from Paris, in the southwest of France. The Chateau was beautifully decorated with tapestries that noted the historic moments of King Henri III’s reign. It also accommodated the visits of the King and Queen, with their own appartments.
But his career came to a digraceful end under the reign of the following young King Louis XIII, when he struck a Cardinal in public. He gave up his posts, and exiled himself to Loches. After his death, his son Bernard inherited Cadillac Chateau, and the Duchy. It then passed to distant, indirect relatives, before being abandoned to plunder in the French Revolution (1789 to 1798).
“…the monument is truly magnificent. It has 60 bedchambers, arranged in very regal fashion. There are 20 fireplaces, embellished with various marbles and each decorate the bedchambers…The walls are covered in gold and silk tapestries which are worth more than their weight in gold…” (an English visitor)
The Chateau Prison
Before 1790, under the ‘Ancien Regime’ (monarchal rule), there was no prison system. Criminals recieved punishment by means of hanging, corporal pain, forced labour or ostracism. In the 18th century , the wave of enlightenment in France and Great Britain brought about new perspectives on human nature, and liberties. It was thought that restriction of movement through imprisonment would be sufficient retribution for crime.
However the new penal systems of the Republican government were no less harsh than the former. They installed work camps in town centres throughout France. The State asked citizens to be ‘useful’ to France, and have virtuous values. If judged criminal, they were condemned to terms of forced labour in these correctional institutes.
Cadillac Chateau was purchased by the State, in 1818, and quickly transformed to a ‘Maison Centrale de Force et Correction’, for women.
” Such is the life of these poor women who live under the golden ceilings of the noblewomen of Cadillac.
(E. Guillon, Les châteaux historique de la Gironde, 1867)
The women detained for a term in this correctional institute were those who had, in the main, committed crimes of abortion, infanticide, and theft. They were to be constantly reminded of their crime, and the depth of depravity to which they had fallen. Work must be their only distraction, and prayer, their salvation. They suffered from the cold, malnutrition, poor sanitation, long working hours and depression. In 1864 the number of women who committed suicide was thirty four.
Daily life in Cadillac prison
At 5am they were awakened by a bell ring, expected to dress quickly, without an opportunity to wash, tidy their bed and belongings, then file in sequence, according to their convict number, to the Chapel for prayer at 5.30am. From there to the workshop to sew, by hand or machine, embroider, twine wool, starch, knit and tint leather for hatting. At 9am came an hour and a half period to eat, and a walk in file around the courtyard, for the required turns. Only a doctor could permit a women to miss this exercise. They returned to the workshop until their second meal of the day at 3pm, followed by another walk. Work continued until 8pm. Throughout the day silence was mandatory. Sometimes a nun or priest might read, or chant Cantiques to the workers. Bedtime came at 9pm when the women slept in unlocked dormitories, watched over by a nun who slept behind a curtained cubicle. Their clothes were changed, and laundered each Saturday, their bedlinen monthly.
Rehabilitation of a detainee
Angélique Jordain, detainee number 5573, was sentenced to a term in the ‘prison’. She was profoundly affected by her crime and conviction, and considered committing suicide by throwing herself down a well. Then one day, a priest arrived wearing a white robe, and her life was transformed.
” Father Lateste, in a white robe, one beautiful day. A simple white robe. And here we live now in a Chateau! We are enclosed, and even in these walls, we are free. Free with a liberty we have never known.” (Paul Claudel)
In September of 1864, Father Marie-Jean-Joseph-Lataste, was sent to the Cadillac prison to preach the Word of God to the detainees. He went reluctantly with preconcieved judgements. He was embarrassed by these thoughts on meeting the inmates, and he came to call them “his sisters, after all”. He became very concerned with their life after prison, and during prayer one day he had an idea to create a new religious congregation for women leaving prison. He went on to found the House of Bethany.
Angélique became the first convicted women to convert to the religious life. On Christmas day 1868, he gave Angélique her nuns habit, and her name,’ Little Sister Noel’.
The woman convicted to Cadillac prison after Angélique, number 5574, was deported to French Guyane, as was the adopted practise at that time.
Deportation and relegation
That crime was contagious, and convicted women carried the virus was the fear. The answer was to protect French citizens by sending convicts far away from France. This policy was introduced in 1852 by Napoleon III.
On her arrival at the prison, a convicted woman would be shown to a freed male convict, and asked if she would choose to marry him, and be deported to French Guyane, not to return. As the alternative was to remain in prison for a long term, many women chose to marry. A quick marriage took place just outside the prison, the couple were given a token gift of a model clay house, and it was hoped that their re-education, through work, would be beneficial to them. But due to tropical disease in Guyane, the mortality rate proved too high. Convicts were sent to New Caledonia instead, it being considered a cleaner place. This practise continued until 1907, in Cadillac, and until 1953 in some cases, across France.
As more women went to New Caledonia than stayed, the number of convicts to imprison diminished, so in 1890 Cadillac prison closed, but only briefly, as it reopened a year later as a Maison d’education surveillée.
Remand house for delinquent girls
At the end of the 19th century, the state became concerned about the problems of child sufferance, lack of education, and delinquency, which needed to be addressed. Cadillac Chateau was again used, to house and educate delinquent girls aged nine to fifteen years. These times proved to be darker than at any other, for the girls were generally mistreated. Lock and key became the norm. The famous ‘chicken cages’ were installed, and girls were locked in their cages at night.
In 1928, following a riot from the girls, a fire destroyed part of the building. This provided an opportunity to modernise the centre. Eventually, after fifty years of detaining girls, the remand house closed in 1952.
” She looked at us with a bland expression, as an abused animal.”
Cadillac Chateau is now a Monument Nationaux, refurbished, with its original tapestries hanging in darkened rooms, and is open to the public. Father Lateste was canonised in 2012.
The town of Cadillac, to this day, has an Institute for people with mental illness, who are free to come and go, and dangerous individuals or criminals, confined. A wall guards the Institutions graveyard, and is affectionately called ‘ Le Cimetiére Fous’ ( cemetery for the mad). Recently it was protected by the town inhabitants against construction plans. To build on top of the graves was seen as consecration, regardless of who lay there.
References from storyboard exposition in Cadillac Chateau, and I have included some old photographs and drawing.
Bethany House Ministries website.
Généalogie de Jean Hervé Fauvre website.