In 1073 William de Braose joined the Conqueror in a campaign to subdue Maine, which had rebelled against its Norman masters. Maine's principal city, Le Mans had taken the bold step of declaring itself a commune. The Duke of Anjou claimed lordship over Maine, which was acknowledged by King William who nevertheless wanted to impose his son Robert as its ruler.
Briouze Castle held a strategic position on the Norman borders with Maine, Brittany and the lands of Anjou. It was the second line of defence after the powerfully fortified castle of Domfront. The status of the de Braose family at this time can be measured by the importance of Domfront. William the Conqueror gained it from Geoffrey Martel, Duke of Anjou in 1055 and Domfront's fortifications were strengthened by successive dukes and kings. It was defended and attacked by the most powerful men of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. This in turn gave Briouze a major role in Normandy's defences.
English wealth was flowing back to Normandy and William de Braose was quick to enrich his church at Briouze. He first offered the church and its endowments to the nearby Abbey of Lonlay which, to his dismay, abandoned Briouze soon afterwards. The Abbot refused to accept the conditions of the grant and Lonlay lost a valuable benefactor.
William then gave the church to his mother, Gunnor, who presumably relinquished it when she became a nun at the Abbaye aux Dames in Caen. Secular canons were invited to form a college, as at Saint Nicholas Church in Bramber, but by 1080 a scandal had come to light. The canons were found to be leading wicked lives and William ejected them.
Soon the monk Goscelm from the Benedictine Abbey of Saint Florent in Saumur, Anjou had begun building a new stone church at Briouze. His great toil won the appreciation of William de Braose, who had been disappointed by earlier failures. He had probably visited the Abbey of Saint Florent and admired it during the Conqueror's campaign in Maine.
On Friday, January 31, 1080 the King confirmed William de Braose's grant of the church of Briouze to Saint Florent. It was to become a priory financed with gifts from the de Braose lands in Normandy and the Rape of Bramber. (3.1) Unlike the Abbot of Lonlay, the Abbot of Saint Florent agreed to William de Braose's condition that should the new priory prosper, it would one day become an abbey. (Sadly, it never did.)
By 1080 Lonlay Abbey realised that it had rejected the gifts of a very wealthy man. Abbot Hugh of Lonlay took a case to William the Conqueror's court at Caen, claiming that William de Braose had broken his solemn promise to make the gift of his lands to Lonlay. The Abbot failed to impress the King and lost the case, but the grievance was not forgotten. (3.2)
In 1093 Abbot Ranulf of Lonlay revived the case and took it to Robert Duke of Normandy, the Conqueror's son, hoping perhaps that William de Braose was not in his favour. The Duke was holding an important Council at Bonneville. William de Braose and the monks of Saint Florent put their case and gave evidence to show the dishonesty and greed of the claims made by Lonlay. Abbot Ranulf and his monks made a hasty retreat, disappearing without informing the Duke. This infuriated Robert. He demanded that Lonlay make compensation to Saint Florent for its wasted time at Court defending a false claim.(3.3)
Shortly afterwards William de Braose's priory church at Briouze was dedicated to the fourth century martyrs, Saints Gervais and Protais. On Sunday, December 11, 1093 a dedication ceremony was attended by Serlo, Bishop of Sées, and other clergy, barons and witnesses. It was a dramatic scene.
The Bishop was just about to celebrate Mass at the altar when William de Braose forced his unwilling son Philip to confirm the grants to Saint Florent in the sight of all present. We don't know the reason for Philip's reluctance. William de Braose was assisted by his nephew, William de Crenella. They took a dagger from a monk named Armellus and placed it on the altar. While the family gifts to Saint Florent were recited at William de Braose's command, all three placed their hands on the dagger to confirm their solemn oath.(3.4)
This is the view from the Town Hall gardens at Briouze: a traditional apple press and the 19th century parish church. The church stands on the site of William de Braose's castle keep and the town centre, including the war memorial, covers the castle bailey. The local history society, Les Amis du Houlme, has organised "de Braose tours" in England and Wales since 1999.
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This is the altar of the little chapel of Saint Gervais in Briouze. The chancel and apse are all that remains of the priory church. In 1866-7 the nave, tower and transepts were demolished. The chapel is now listed as a beautiful example of 11th century Norman architecture. The priory buildings housed monks from Saint Florent until the French Revolution and were finally destroyed by bombing in 1945.
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Lonlay Abbey was founded by William de Belleme in the early 11th century. Its Benedictine monks were supported by other wealthy benefactors until, reduced to only three, they finally left Lonlay during the French Revolution.The abbey church was damaged during bombing in 1944 but many early architectural features can still be seen after substantial restoration as a national monument.
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