St. Saturnin - A royal village in the deep heart of France
Today we are in the little village of St. Saturnin. It’s not always easy for a modern imagination to take in a place like this. St. Saturnin is technically in the “urban area” just 10 miles south of Clermont-Ferrand, but it feels much more isolated. We're in the Park of the Volcanoes in the wildest region of France, and this is a village with a population that never rose above 1,500. You have to put your imagination into overdrive to picture the spectacle that must have played out in these winding narrow streets when this little town played host to some of the kingdom’s most famous (and notorious) figures.
How did they get here? Since at least the 900s A.D., a noble family named La Tour had been gathering territory and influence in this part of the “deep heart of France.” They excelled in at least two areas: going to war in the service of the French king, and marrying very well. The first skill brought them land and prestige: Baron Bertrand I went off on the First Crusade to Jerusalem, and when Baron Bertrand II came back to the Auvergne from the Third Crusade in Jerusalem in 1192 A.D., King Philippe II rewarded his loyalty by making him a knight of the kingdom with the right to put the fleur de lys on his coat of arms.
The fine art of marrying well
The second skill – marrying into some of the most powerful families in France – added to the La Tour family’s influence and led them at least indirectly to St. Saturnin. They apparently began to feel a little too isolated in their little home base in the mountains at La Tour; despite being on friendly terms with the French royal family, they felt the need to be closer to the centers of power. Around 1280, they packed up and moved their family court to St. Saturnin and started building the great chateau that stands in the center of town today.
Their biggest “score” in marrying well came on May 2, 1518, when Madeleine de la Tour d’Auvergne married Laurent II of the powerful Italian de Médicis family. They only had one child – but she was Catherine de Médicis, one of the most notorious women in all of French history. Wife of King Henri II, Catherine was the queen of France from 1547 to 1559, then effectively in charge of everything as regent from 1560 to 1563. She was the mother of three future French kings – Francois II, Charles IX, and Henri III – and two queens: Queen Elizabeth of Spain and the infamous Marguerite de Valois – “Queen Margot”.
Catherine and her children were at the boiling center of France’s Wars of Religion between the country’s Catholic and Protestant citizens, and it’s often difficult to sort out which side they were on at any given moment. Although she publicly expressed a desire for peace and reconciliation between the two groups, her historical reputation was stained by rumors that she was behind the horrific Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacres which racked the country in 1572, leaving thousands of Protestants dead.
The royals come to St. Saturnin
And although she had been raised among the de Médicis in Florence, Catherine inherited the La Tour family’s holdings and the great castle in St. Saturnin. We know she spent time here with her whole court, including her son (the future King Charles IX), in 1566. When she died, she passed all of it on to Queen Margot, who came and stayed here for a while when she was exiled from Paris in the wake of the Wars of Religion. (Margot later moved on to a long exile in the little town of Usson, officially one of France’s “most beautiful villages” not far from here; as part of her own “rehabilitation”, she deeded the La Tour family’s possessions over to King Louis XIII and he used them to settle some of his considerable personal debts.)
St. Saturnin today
So when you come to St. Saturnin now, it’s sometimes hard to imagine all the royal pomp and circumstance of the Queens of France passing through these little passageways and narrow cobblestone streets. You can still sit in the garden behind the town’s main church and look out across the valley of the Veyre River and feel how wild and isolated it must have felt to be here in the 14th and 15th centuries. And you can see constant reminders of the village’s powerful medieval past:
- The church of Notre Dame at St. Saturnin, built in the late 1100s (a hundred years before the La Tours arrived!) is considered the smallest of the “5 major Romanesque churches” in the Auvergne. (Brioude has the largest; the others are in Clermont-Ferrand, Issoire, Orcival, and St. Nectaire.) It’s also considered to be the most “sober” of the bunch, and It’s smaller because it does not have all the radiating chapels behind the altar that characterize the other churches. Still, Notre Dame de St. Saturnin is beautiful in the way that most Romanesque churches are beautiful, in the utter simplicity of its architecture, the soaring arches, and the intensely-colored stained glass. Among the several painted wooden statues around the walls, look especially for the one dedicated to Saint Verney, the patron saint of winemakers.
- Just behind the church is an even older building – the Chapel of La Madeleine (Mary Magdalene). It’s the oldest thing in St. Saturnin, built sometime before 1100. Four hundred years later, during the Hundred Years’ War with England, it was integrated into the town’s defensive system, built into the village walls and mounted with a dungeon-like tower on one end. It’s a hall for rotating exhibitions today.
- There’s a fine Renaissance fountain in the courtyard outside the chateau. Built around 1500 to celebrate a marriage in the La Tour family, it’s interesting to see how it has been “enhanced” over the centuries by what amounts to noble graffiti – when the De Broglie family took over as Barons in this region in the 1600s they added their own coat of arms, and someone has carved the letter “M” into the stone.
The castle of the barons
Finally, there’s the La Tour family chateau, an imposing presence in the center of St. Saturnin. It was a military building in its earliest phases, with towers, crenelated ramparts, and a moat. According to locals, though, the castle was radically transformed at the height of the La Tour family’s influence in the 15th century, when the Baron of La Tour was also formally the Count of Auvergne, the Grand Chamberlain of King Louis XI, and linked in marriage to the powerful Bourbon family up north.
From its glory days as the home of barons and counts, the chateau passed through a long period when it was used as a chocolate factory, an orphanage, and a convalescent hospital. The Sisters of St. Vincent de Paul took it over in 1850 and occupied it until 1970, when its current renovation began.
These days, two hotel rooms and “3 charming suites” are available for rent from mid-March to mid-November, and you can rent some of the same space occupied by Catherine de Médicis and Queen Margot for your own weddings, receptions, and gala events.
St. Saturnin could certainly be classified among “the most beautiful villages of France” – it meets all the official criteria for historical monuments, and in fact it was on the Association’s official list for a while, although its name no longer appears on their site. It’s clearly worth a visit, though, while you’re traveling in the deep heart of France. And if you go, take a few quiet minutes in the villages central square and try to imagine the long procession of the royal court winding through these streets (which even the Tourist Board describes as “torturous”).
Have you found other villages in France with this much royal history? Are there others you’d recommend for a vacation visit? Please tell us about them in the comments section below, and please do take a moment to click on one of the buttons to share this article with someone else on your preferred social-media platform(s).