A surprising detour
For centuries, France had a king and thousands of titled aristocrats – that’s not surprising news. What might be surprising, though, is how often the vestiges of that old royal system still pop up in travels around the country today.
That struck me particularly last summer as I drove north from Brive-la-Gaillarde when I saw a sign pointing off to Arnac-Pompadour and “l’haras national de France”. I love horses, so I knew what the word meant – a haras is a stud farm. But really, a national stud farm? Where else but in France would you find such an unusual institution?
That got the best of my curiosity, so I took a serendipitous detour from my intended destination and headed up the road to Arnac-Pompadour – and I’m absolutely glad I did! The story behind “l’haras national” turns out to be tied to some of the most well-known characters in the history of French kings, and the town itself makes a perfect day trip for anyone interested in fine chateaux, fine horses, and historical intrigues. (And, as I learned later, this is only one of 20 such places spread around France – including one near Aurillac in the Auvergne!)
A history of powerful families
I’m always interested to find places far from Paris that nevertheless were once centers of great power and influence. That’s certainly the story of Arnac-Pompadour. Gui “the Black “of Latours , one of the earliest Viscounts in the Limousin region, built a fortress here in 1026 because he was constantly at war with his neighbor, the Viscount of Segur. Just over 150 years later (in 1182), England’s Richard the Lionheart* attacked here (before he became King) as part of his campaign against the supporters of France’s King Phillip II.
*I know – King Richard I was in most ways more French than English; he lived in Aquitaine most of his life and probably spoke French most of the time…but he did hold the English crown!
In the 14th century, a local family calling themselves “Hélie de Pompadour” rose to power in this corner of France, and they made the most of their opportunity. They are the ones who started building the core of the great castle at the edge of Arnac-Pompadour, and they held on to see their status elevated first to Viscount, then to Marquis. When the Wars of Religion swept across France in the 16th century, the Hélie added the massive walled defenses you can still see here today.
But the historical interest in Arnac-Pompadour – and the story behind the National Stud Farm – really began to accelerate in the 18th century, when the Hélie family finally died out. The Prince of Conti and a local Viscount got into a prolonged legal dispute over who should get control of the estate, until King Louis XV stepped in in 1745 with a solution of his own: he gave the castle and its dependencies to his mistress and made her the new “Marquise de Pompadour.”
Madame de Pompadour
Her real name was Jeanne Antoinette Poisson. Legend says that she had been trying to get an introduction to the King for a while when, in 1744, she followed the royal hunting party into the forest and drove her pink carriage directly across his path (she was dressed in blue), then came back in a blue carriage (and a pink dress) to cross in front of him again. It apparently worked; although Louis XV already had a mistress, when she died later that year he invited Jeanne Antoinette to Versailles… and the rest, as they so often say, is history.
Once the formalities were out of the way – she moved into an apartment near the King’s and formally separated from her husband – Louis XV granted her the title of Marquise de Pompadour. She exercised an enormous amount of influence in the French court – controlling the King’s calendar, nominating or validating candidates for high offices, offering her opinions on matters both foreign and domestic. And even though her sexual relationship with the King apparently ended in 1750 (she had a long history of health problems), she remained his close friend and counsellor until she died in 1764 at the age of 42.
It’s hard now to appreciate exactly how powerful Madame de Pompadour was in this period of French history. In addition to her role as a kind of “Chief of Staff” or “Prime Minster” to Louis XV, she is remembered as a great patron of the arts in France. She got family members appointed to head the ministry responsible for policy and the government’s budget for art and architecture; she personally got involved in launching the great porcelain factory at Sevres; she retained artisans, painters, jewelers, and sculptors; she knew many of the greatest figures of the Enlightenment through her involvement in the salons of Paris.
Voltaire eulogized her! She had a haircut named for her! She had a gemstone style – the “Marquise cut” – named for her! She’s been a character in dozens of movies, operas, and books. So the little town in southwest France from which her Marquise status was derived must have benefited greatly from her position at court, right?
Actually, not so much. It seems likely that Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, the Marquise of Pompadour, never actually visited her namesake town. In fact, she sold off her holdings in Arnac to a banker in 1760 to raise money for a place of her own near Versailles. The banker re-sold everything to a Duke, who bartered it back to King Louis XVI! This time, though, the King took a greater interest in the domain, and elevated a large privately-owned stud farm for horses in the area to the level of “haras national”.
Visiting the chateau
This rich history – and the institutions it created – make a visit to Arnac-Pompadour a great day trip when you’re traveling in the Corrèze region. Driving through the little town itself (population around 1,200 people), you get the impression that it is prosperous and energetic. That was especially true the morning I arrived on my serendipitous detour because there was a large brocante (flea market) sale set up just outside the walls of the great castle on the edge of town.
The castle itself is an imposing hulk of a building, started in the 14th century but greatly added to and amended over the intervening centuries. The south wing of the building is the only remnant of that original 14th-century structure that survived the French Revolution, but the massive defensive walls and the 16th-century stables remain, too.
There’s a self-guided tour inside the castle walls. Although only a few rooms – a dining room, a bedroom, a couple of salons – are open to the public, they give you a real sense of how important this castle was in its glory years. But, as is fitting given the chateau’s later vocation, almost everything here is about the horses. Many of the rooms are given over to private offices for the administration of the stud farm, and the public rooms are filled with interesting works of art depicting horses – horses at rest, horses in full gallop, abstract visions of horses.
The grounds carry on with the theme – flowerbeds are planted in the shape of horseshoes, and the 16th-century stables building is filled with interesting exhibits on the care and feeding of these great animals. And as you make the tour around the outer walls, you begin to see the larger operation of the haras – the parade grounds and the beautiful race course just across the street from the castle.
The stud farm at Arnac-Pompadour
So what exactly is a “national stud farm”? There are 20 of these sites spread around France, all administered by the Haras Nationaux, a board responsible for regulating the breeding and development of horses and donkeys. I’ll let the words of their mission statement speak for themselves:
Each national stud farm is a place of proximity, often with a high historical value. They are the vessels for a history of 3 centuries of service to the horse in French society. Today they are the places that combine the synergies of the Institut Français du Cheval et de l’Equitation, the horse-breeding community, and the partners of the network. Anchored in the heart of territories that are often rural, they offer to the public the opportunity to discover and to mix with the world of the horse through cultural visits, events, and sporting tests.
To put it more directly, this group maintains a massive database “for all the members of the horse family present on French soil”. They register newborn foals and provide birth certificates, maintain genealogical records, and help with the process of “matchmaking” for owners seeking to breed horses. During the life of the horse, they regulate the process of importing an animal into France or exporting it to another country; they can offer quarantine services when a horse falls ill; and when an old horse finally expires, the Haras Nationaux are there to help with the disposal process.
They also have an educational mission, offering courses in horse husbandry, saddle-making and horse-shoeing, and everything you might need to know about riding. At this site in Arnac-Pompadour, there’s also a fine hippodrome (racing facility), added to the property in 1837; almost every year since then, locals have organized a regular program of “tests” on its flat track, its obstacle course, one of its 3 hurdling courses, one of 2 steeplechase tracks, or one of 3 cross-country courses.
For me, though, the best part of my visit was a pleasant couple of hours in the bright sun at the parade ground across the street. The Royal Cavalry of Oman happened to be in town, showing a group of their finest Anglo-Arabian horses. (Arnac-Pompadour is the leading developer of this particular breed.)
I love these animals – their speed, the power evident in their muscles under their coats shining in the sun – and these were are beautiful as any I’ve ever seen. Their handlers directed them around the ring, but these horses had an elegance, a regal bearing that made clear the pride they took themselves in being on display here.
So my unplanned visit turned into a day-long appreciation of Arnac-Pompadour – and one I heartily recommend to anyone traveling in this corner of France. It’s a reasonable drive (less than an hour) from Sarlat-le-Caneda and Brive-la-Gaillard, only an hour-and-a-half from Limoges. You’ll be rewarded with views of a magnificent chateau, stories of its long history and its links to the crown of France, and (if you’re lucky) one of the many possible displays of some of the most beautiful animals on earth!
Have you been to Arnac-Pompadour -- or one of the other 20 members of the "National Stud Farm" network in France? What did you think? Can you imagine an institution like this in another country? Please share your experience in the comments section below -- and while you're here, please take a second to click on the button for your preferred social-media platform and share this post with someone else who loves horses, history, or traveling in France!