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Castles and Chateaux of Old Navarre and the Basque Provinces
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LESCAR, THE SEPULCHRE OF THE BÉARNAIS
THE antique city of Beneharnum is lost in modern Lescar, though, indeed, Lescar is far from modern, for it is unprogressive with regard to many of those up-to-date innovations which city dwellers think necessary to their existence. Lescar was the religious capital of Béarn, and its bishops were, by inheritance, presidents of the Parliament and Seigneurs of their diocesan city.
Lescar is by turns gay and sad; it is gay enough on a Sunday or a fête day, and sad and diffident at all other times, save what animation may be found in its market-place. Architecture rises to no great height here, and, beyond the picturesque riot of moss-grown rooftops and tottering walls, there is not much that is really remarkable of either Gothic or Renaissance days. The ancient cathedral, with a weird triangular façade, belongs to no school, not even a local one, and is unspeakably ugly as a whole, though here and there are gems of architectural decoration which give it a certain fantastic distinction.
Lescar is but a league distant from Pau, but not many of those who winter in that delightful city ever come here. "The Normans razed it in 856, when it was rebuilt on the side of a hill in the midst of a wood." This was the old chronicler's description, and it holds good today. Usually travellers find the big cities like Pau or Tarbes so irresistible that they have no eye for the charm of the small town. The country-side they like, and the cities, and yet the dull, little, sleepy old-world towns whose names are never mentioned in the newspapers, and often nowhere but on the road maps of the automobilist, are possessed of many pleasing attributes for which one may look in vain in more populous places. Lescar has some of these, one of them being its Hôtel Uglas.
Lescar is a good brisk hour and a half's stroll from Pau, the classic constitutional recommended by the doctors to the semi-invalids who are so frequently met with at Pau, and is a humble, dull bourgade even to-day, sleepy, rustic, and unprogressive, and accordingly a delightful contrast to its ostentatious neighbour. Poor Lescar, its fall has been profound since the days when it was the Beneharnum of the Romans. Its bishopric has been shredded into nonentity, and its ancient cathedral disfigured by interpolated banalities until one can hardly realize to-day that it was once a metropolitan church.
St. Denis, as the old cathedral of Lescar is named, was once the royal burial-place of Béarn, as was its namesake just outside of Paris the sepulchre of the kings of France. Here the Béarnais royalties who were kings and queens of Navarre came to their last long slumbers. Side by side lie the Centulles and the D'Albrets.
The cathedral sits upon a terrace formed of the ancient ramparts of the old city, and right here is the chief attraction and charm of Lascarris, "la ville morte." Lascarris, as it was known before it became simply Lescar, was built up anew after the primitive city had been destroyed by the Saracens in 841.
This rampart terrace has one great architectural monument, formerly a part of the ancient fortress, a simple, severe tower in outline, but of most complicated construction, built up of bands of brick and stone in a regular building-block fashion, a caprice of some local builder. Through this tower one gains access to the cathedral, which shows plainly how the affairs of church and state, and war and peace, were closely bound together in times past. This little brick and stone tower is the only remaining fragment of the fourteenth-century fortress-château known as the Fort de l'Esquirette.
Within the cathedral were formerly buried Jeanne d'Albret, Catherine de Navarre, Marguerite de Valois, and other Béarnais sovereigns, but no monuments to be seen there to-day antedate the seventeenth century, those of the Béarnais royalties having been destroyed either by the Calvinists or later revolutionists. Catherine of Béarn was buried here in the cathedral of Lescar in spite of her wish that she should be entombed at Pamplona beside the kings of Navarre.
The ceremony of the funeral of Marguerite de Navarre is described in detail in a document preserved in the Bibliothèque Nationale at Paris. It recounts that among those present were the kings of Navarre and France, the Duchesse d'Estonteville, the Duc de Montpensier, M. le Prince, the Duc de Nevers, the Duc d'Aumale, the Duc d'Étampes, the Marquis du Mayne, M. de Rohan and the Duc de Vendomois, with the Vicomte de Lavedan as the master of ceremony. As is still the custom in many places in the Pyrenees, there was a great feasting on the day of the interment, the chief mourners eating apart from the rest.
Charles de Sainte-Marthe wrote the funeral eulogy, in Latin and French, and Ronsard, the prince of poets, wrote an ode entitled "Hymne Triomphale." Three nieces of Jane Seymour, wife of Henry VIII of England, composed four distiques, in Latin, Greek, Italian, and French, entitled "Tombeau de Marguerite de Valois, Reine de Navarre." Valentine d'Arsinois gave publicity to this work in the following words: "Musarum decima, et charitum quarta, inclyta regum et soror et conjux Margaris illa jacet."
This in French has been phrased thus:
"Soeur et femme de roys, la reine
Marguerite Des Muses la dixième et leur plus cher souci
Et la quatrième Charité
La reine du savoir gît soue ce marbre-ci."
Throughout the valley of the Gave d'Ossau, and from Lescar all the way to Lourdes on the Gave de Pau, the chief background peak in plain view is always the Pic du Midi d'Ossau. This the peasant of the neighbourhood knows by no other name than "la montagne." "What mountain?" you ask, but his reply is simply "Je ne sais pas — la montagne." It should not be confounded with the Pic du Midi de Bigorre.
Between Pau and Lescar, lying just northward of the Gave, is the last vestige of an incipient desert region called to-day La Lande de Pont-Long. It now blossoms with more or less of the profusion which one identifies with a land of roses, but was formerly only a pasture ground for the herders of the Val d'Ossau, who, by a certain venturesome spirit, crossed the Gave de Pau at some period well anterior to the foundation of the city of Pau and thus established certain rights. It was these sheep and cattle raisers who ceded the site of the new city of Pau to the Vicomtes de Béarn.
Henri II de Navarre, grandfather of Henri IV, would have fenced off these Ossalois, but every time he made a tentative effort to build a wall around them they rose up in their might and tore it down again. In vain the Béarnais of the valley tried to preempt the rights of the montagnards, and willingly or not they perforce were obliged to have them for neighbours. This gave saying to the local diction "En despicit deus de Pau, lou Pounloung ser sera d'Aussau."
Intrigue, feudal warfare and oppression could do nothing towards recovering this pre-empted land, and only a process of law, as late as 1837, finally adjudicated the matter, when the Ossalois were bound by judgment to give certain reciprocal rights in their high valleys to any of the lowland population who wanted to pasture their flocks in the mountains for a change of diet. It is a patent fact that the sheep of all the Midi of France thrive best in the lowlands in winter and in the mountains in summer. It is so in the Pyrenees and it is so in the Basses-Alpes, which in summer furnish pasturage for the sheep of the Crau and the Camargue, even though they have to march three hundred or more kilometres to arrive at it.
Closely allied with Lescar is the ancient capital of Béarn, Morlaas. After the destruction of Lescar by the Normans Morlaas became the residence of the Vicomtes de Béarn. Its history is as ancient and almost as important as that of its neighbour. The Romans here had a mint and stamped money out of the copper they took from the neighbouring hills. The Visigoths, the Franks, the Ducs de Gascogne and the Vicomtes de Béarn all held sway here for a time, and the last built a pretentious sort of an establishment, the first which the town had had which could be dignified with the name of a palace. This palace was called La Fourquie and has since given its name to a hill outside the proper limits of the present town, still known as Vieille Fourquie.
Morlaas is a mere nonentity to-day, though it was the capital of Béarn from the time of the destruction of Lescar by the Saracens until the thirteenth century, when the vicomtes removed the seat of the government to Pau.
The town is practically one long, straight grand rue, with only short tributary arteries running in and from the sides. The Église Sainte Foy at Morlaas is a real antiquity, and was founded by Centulle, the fourth vicomte, in 1089.
There are still vestiges of the ancient ramparts of the city to be seen, and the great market held every fifteen days, on the Place de la Fourquie, is famous throughout Béarn. Altogether Morlaas should not be omitted from any neighbouring itinerary, and the local colour to be found on a market day at Morlaas' snug little Hôtel des Voyageurs will be a marvel to those who know only the life of the cities. Morlaas is one of the good things one occasionally stumbles upon off the beaten track; and it is not far off either; just a dozen kilometres or so northwest of Pau. Morlaas' importance of old is further enhanced when one learns that the measure of Morlaas was the basis for the measure used in the wine trade of all Gascony, and the same is true of the livre morlan, and the sou morlan, which were the monetary units of Gascony and a part of Languedoc.