Medieval town of Sainte-Suzanne in the Mayenne
The wonderful little town of Sainte-Suzanne was brought to our attention over a year ago by some French guests who came across it whilst staying at our bed & breakfast – we were ashamed to confess that we had never heard of it, despite the fact it is only about 50km from us in the Mayenne (adjoining department in the Pays de la Loire).
It has taken us another year to actually visit it, which we did in mid-October – and now we wish we had done so earlier. This fortified “cité médiévale” in the region known as “les Coëvrons” really is deserving of that old cliché “hidden treasure”. Sainte Suzanne is wonderfully picturesque without being twee, well cared for, characterful and perched atop a rocky promontory dominating the valley of the river Erve, 250 feet below.
Slideshow of Visit to Sainte Suzanne
History of Sainte-Suzanne
It is not difficult to see why this spot was chosen to build a major fortress, as its position gives it both natural defences and wide views over the surrounding countryside. Accordingly, the town of Sainte Suzanne has a rich military history.
The castle keep (donjon) was built in the 11th century and Sainte Suzanne boasts it was the only town that successfully resisted an attack by William the Conqueror, who laid siege to it from 1083 to 1087. During the prolonged siege, William built a huge military camp on the outskirts of the town, possibly taking advantage of an earlier Gallo-Roman earthworks; a reconstruction is on view in the town museum and the amazingly well-preserved remains can be seen at the site known as Camp de Beugy, 800m north of the town on the road to Assé-le-Bérenger. It is also known as the “Camp des Anglais” - King William and his army were regarded by this time as English, not Norman.
The town of Sainte-Suzanne remained impervious to attackers for another three centuries, until during the 100 Years War the castle fell into English hands for 14 years before being re-taken by the French Lord of Bueil. From the 17th century onwards the town’s prosperity grew and in the eighteenth century it became an administrative centre for the region. The city underwent another economic surge thanks to numerous paper, flour, wool and tanning mills powered by the river Erve and by the mid-19th century it had over 1 800 inhabitants; it returned to a primarily agricultural economy in the 20th century.
An audio-guide of Sainte Suzanne can be hired from the museum inside the château – the cost is a very reasonable 2€ per headset.
The castle ramparts and 11th century keep are open to the public free of charge; entry to the logis (residence of the early 17th century) is 4€ for adults. We found it very interesting, with some super models, religious artefacts, “son et lumière” and interactive displays in both French and English, themed on the history and development of the Mayenne. Opening hours:
- October to end of April : 09h30 to 12h30 and 13h30 to 17h30 daily except Monday
- May to September : 09h00 to 18h00 daily
Inside the town itself you can get a town map from the Tourist Office. Oddly, the Tourist office does not rent out the audio-guide. Opening hours:
- October to Easter Mon – Sat 14h00 to 17h30
- Easter to September Mon – Sat 9h00 to 12h30 and 14h00 to 18h00, Sunday 14h00 to 18h00
- Public Holidays 10h00 to 12h30 and 14h00 to 18h00
Tel. : 02.43.01.43.60
Museum of the Auditoire
This was closed at the time of our visit in mid-October. Opening hours:
- April, May June and September: Saturday and Sunday 14h00 to 18h00
- July and August : daily 14h00 to 18h00
Other Sights near Sainte-Suzanne
There are signposted walks and cycle routes to explore the valleys round about the town. The walk up to the Tertre Ganne takes you to a superb vantage point on the hill opposite the town, and a great place for a picnic.
There are also guided walks, including one that sounds interesting – it explores the various watermills along the Erve. Starts at the museum in the town at 2.45pm each Sunday from March to November. We took a walk along part of the river unguided.
The “Camp des Anglais” is is 1 km away on the road to Assé le Béranger and is the site where William the Conqueror constructed a fortress during the siege of Sainte-Suzanne. Also marked as “Camp de Beugy”, the earthworks and defensive ditches are well preserved, and you can explore them on foot.
The “Dolmen des Erves” is 3 km away on the same road to Assé le Béranger. This is the earliest proof of people living in this region and dates to 4500 BC.
“La Ferte-Clairbois” near Sainte-Suzanne is a reconstruction of a wooden medieval fort with towers, keep, drawbridge, and so on; Sundays from Easter to October it stages a storming of the “castle”, jousting and sword fighting. A “medieval banquet” can be taken by reservation in a nearby auberge (ask at the Tourist Office in Sainte Suzanne).
How to get there, where to stay near Sainte-Suzanne
Sainte-Suzanne is 55km (c. 50 minutes) away from our B&B on the Normandy-Pays de Loire border, driving via Sillé-le-Guillaume.