Forget the famous Le Mans 24-hour annual car race. Le Mans is above all a medieval Plantagenet City with one of the most extensive preserved old quarters in France. In the Middle Ages Le Mans was hugely important, and vital in the never-ending battles between the French and the English over who ruled France.
And happily, the old medieval town with its twisting cobbled streets, magnificent cathedral, half-timbered and stone houses and little alleyways is intact while some of the longest Roman walls encircle parts of the heart of Le Mans.
We stayed in the centre of the medieval city in a charming bed and breakfast (details below). We could walk out to the cathedral, right next door, and wander around the little streets. And at night, we came back to watch the light show that flickers over the doors of the great building.
Le Mans Plantagenet City Tour
There are two options to see the city.
The guided tour (see below for details) takes you around the major buildings, into the tourist office en route (very useful with good brochures and maps), down to the Roman wall opposite the Sarthe river and back up through the old streets…to the cathedral.
Or pick up the excellent map (in French and English) at the tourist office and strike out on your own. The map gives you two itineraries. One takes you round the outskirts of the old city, taking in the formidable Roman walls that protected the city down by the river then up past houses and gardens. The second, more comprehensive one takes you through the middle of the city.
The energetic might be tempted to take in the whole lot; if you plan that set aside a whole day, or two half days with a good lunch in between!
Wander through the Past
We wandered through, enchanted by the the squares and small city gardens, the intricate half-timbered houses with their upper rooms overhanging the street, prestigious Renaissance stone buildings in the major thoroughfares and alleys that were once full of brothels, .
Le Mans’ old city is mainly pedestrianised. In the past, splashing fountains provided the only water for most of the inhabitants; handcarts rumbled through the narrow streets; the rich rode by on horseback and tradesmen shouted to get the attention of passers-by. In the morning shopkeepers pulled down their wooden shutters; in the evening, they slammed them shut again. And always there was the sound of voices, the click-clack of wooden heels and the rumble of horse-drawn carriages on the hard cobblestones. It must have been astonishingly noisy.
Look carefully if you walk down rue Saint Pavin de la Cité with its overhanging house. In the window of number two a teddy bear looks down at you. In 1926 the photographer Robert Doisneau took an image of a small boy with his teddy bear standing in front of the house. Successive owners keep the tradition alive and the teddy bear (or his descendants) continues to live here.
The Start of the Great Plantagenet Empire
In 1129 Geffroi, the powerful count of Maine and Anjou, married Matilda in the Saint-Julien Cathedral which was under construction. The timing was touch and go. The nave of the great Romanesque building was only finished in the year of the great marriage.
The cobbled streets surrounding the cathedral and stretching down to the river were full; the whole population turned out to see this momentous occasion. And they continued to party for another 3 weeks.
A Dynastic Marriage
Matilda was the daughter of Henri I of England, granddaughter of William the Conqueror and so heiress to the kingdom of England. And if that wasn’t enough power, Matilda was also the widow of Henry V, Emperor of the Germanic Holy Roman Empire.
The marriage was intended to produce a lasting peace between England, Normandy (an English possession since William the Conqueror) and Anjou. It turned out to be the usual pious hope.
It was the first of the dynastic marriages that set up the great Plantagenet Empire. At its height in the mid 12th century the empire stretched from the border of England and Scotland in the north down to Spain in the south. In the east the Plantagenet Empire bordered Flanders, Champagne, Burgundy, Savoy and the region around Toulouse.
Le Mans the Capital of the Empire
Geoffrey made Le Mans his capital. The people revered their powerful lord, affectionately giving him the nickname of Plantagenet. It was a corruption of the word plant à genêt or broom whose yellow blossoms Geoffrey wore in his hat when he returned from hunting in the nearby forests.
Le Mans remained at the heart of the Plantagenet Empire, made wealthy and beautiful by the ambitious monarchs who extended the city and built magnificent new palaces, churches and hospitals. The great families who surrounded the rulers in turn built their own substantial houses and mansions.
Here’s more on different French architectural styles.
For sheer magnificence (and the beginning of the Plantagenet story), begin, as we did, at the Saint-Julien cathedral. It’s one of the largest cathedrals in France, standing on a hilltop above the river.
It was the place of worship for the Plantagenet Kings and Queens of France, and particularly for Matilda’s son, Henry II, who married Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152 in Poitiers cathedral. One of the most powerful women in 12th-century Europe, Eleanor was previously married to Louis VII (1137-1152), and ruled over most of south west France.
The site where the cathedral stands goes way back to prehistory. The odd unexpected menhir standing outside the cathedral showing its prehistoric sacred credentials.
The Cathedral’s Mix of Styles
The cathedral is a wonderful, typical mish-mash of styles. The cathedral’s western façade and nave is Romanesque with typical solid round arches. Five centuries of building added the gothic transept and choir with 13 surrounding chapels.
The magnificent stained glass windows run from the 11th century to the 20th. The oldest stained glass window still in a religious building depicts the Ascension. In other panels you can spot the traders who produced the wealth of the region: clothmakers, bakers, wine producers. The great Rose Window was created during the Hundred Years War.
The celestial concert of angels painted on the roof of the Virgin’s chapel play 24 different instruments. It gives you some idea of how colourful cathedrals were and how important it was to get the right artist. This one is attributed to Jean de Bruges who also drew the first sketches for the extraordinary Apocalypse Tapestry in Angers. There’s also a magnificent organ and ornate tombs installed to reflect the importance of the dead figure.
2 Place St Miche
72000 Le Mans
Tel: +33 (0)2 43 28 28 98
Open Winter: Jan 1-Mar 30 & Oct 21-Dec 31: Sun 8am-6pm; Mon 8am-4.30pm; Tues-Fri 8am-5pm; Sat 9am-7.30pm
Summer: Mar31-Oct 19; Sun, Mon & Fri 8am-7pm; Sat 8.30am-7.30pm
The Plantagenet Palace 1126-1240
The old magnificent palace is now incorporated into the current Town Hall. It was built in 1126 around two hubs: the ecclesiastical St Pierre-la-Cour to appeal to God and the secular palace to impress the people. The centrepiece of the all-powerful monarchs and the place where they held court, the once grandiose palace is now incorporated into the current Hôtel de Ville (townhall). Temporary exhibitions are held in the high vaulted old parts.
Along with the cathedral, the palace was at the heart of the Plantagenet major events. In 1133 Matilda gave birth here to Henry, the future king Henry II of England and the first of the Plantagenet English Kings which lasted until the end of Richard III in 1485.
In 1154 with the death of the English king Stephen, Henry became King of England and this part of France became inextricably tied up with the ensuing wars.
Hôtel de Ville
Place Saint Pierre
72000 Le Mans
Tel: +33 (0)2 43 47 47 47
Open Check with the Tourist Office for exhibitions
More Plantagenet Buildings
Le Carré Plantagenet
The Le Musée Jean-Claude-Boulard-Carré Plantagenet will tell you all you need to know of the region from 300,000BC to the Middle Ages. It’s well laid out and easy to follow but unless you are a fan of bronzes, sculptures, flints etc. I would advise concentrating on the last part devoted to the Plantagenets. Above all, make sure you see the chased enamelled funeral plate that hung above Geoffrey’s tomb after his death in 1151.
Le Carré Plantagenet Museum
2 Rue Claude Blondeau
72000 Le Mans49150 Baugé
Tel: +33 (0)2 43 47 38 51
Open Tues-Sun daily 10am-12.30pm & 2pm-6pm
Hôtel-Dieu de Coëffort
Henry II was the King caught up in the brutal killing of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury in 1170. Whether he not he said: “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” is irrelevant. A handful of knights took it as a request and murdered Becket in Canterbury Cathedral.
There is a story that Henry supported the Hotel-Dieu de Coëffort as part of the atonement for the murder of Becket. Originally a hospital for the sick and elderly, it came under Henry’s patronage in 1180. Whatever the truth, the hospital was part of Henry’s Plantagenet Le Mans, though it’s outside the Plantagenet City to the south of the city.
Today it’s a church, with a huge magnificent main space divided into three naves. The treasure that was found (in 1953 during the restoration of the church) is now in the Carré Plantagenet. 30 pieces of silverware including cups, a goblet, ewer and more date from the 14th and 15th century. Remarkably they survived; most early silverware was stolen and melted down to pay for wars or create new works.
Notre-Dame de Coëffort
Eglise Sainte-Jeanne d’Arc
Place George Washington
72000 Le Mans
Tel: +33 (0)2 43 84 69 55
Open Services and Guided Tours
Notre-Dame du Pré Church
On the site where Saint Julien was buried, the original 5th-century church was rebuilt in the time of the first Plantagenets by the Benedictines. It’s well worth a visit for its wonderful small crypt.
Notre-Dame du Pré
Place du Pré
72000 Le Mans
Tel: +33 (0)2 43 28 52 69
Open Tues-Fri 10am-noon & 3pm-5pm; Sat 09.30am-noon; Sun Services
Notre-Dame de la Couture Church
Part of the original Saint-Pierre de la Couture Abbey, the 12th-century church was built at the same time as the cathedrals of Le Mans and Angers. Again, it’s the crypt which is the great attraction where each capital was differently carved. Germain Pilon produced three sculptures in 1570. In the 19th century, Le Mans became known for its ‘archaeological’ stained glass, made as medieval glassmakers had done.
Saint-Pierre de la Couture
72000 Le Mans
Tel: +33 (0)2 43 85 21 92
Open Mon-Sat 9am-7.30pm; Sun 9am-5pm
Go out of Le Mans for a Plantagenet Burial Place
Abbaye Royale de L’Épau
The Cistercian Abbey stands outside the main city. It’s a peaceful place built by Berengaria, widow of King Richard the Lionheart. The last Plantagenet queen to live in France, she died in 1230 and is buried here. Her impressive tomb, displayed rather clinically on a raised podium, resides over the former abbey church. Today the huge space is used for exhibitions.
This remarkably well preserved old abbey is a lovely place to visit. You can see the cloister, writing room, chapter house, dormitory, abbot’s apartments and more, then stroll through the park and gardens with their apple trees, beehives and prairies of wild flowers.
Abbaye Royale de L’Épau
Route de Changé
72530 Yvré l’Evêque
Tel: +33 (0)2 43 84 22 29
Open May to Oct daily 9am-noon & 2pm-6pm
Nov, Dec, Mar, Apr Wed to Sun 11am-6pm
Admission Adult €5.50; child 10-17 years €3; family (2 adults + 2 children) €13
How to get there By tram: Line 2 direction Espal-Arche de la Nature (13 min from the train station). Get off at Gué Bernisson
By bus: Line 6 direction direction Saint Martin. Get off at Gué Bernisson
Where We Stayed
We stayed in the excellent Maison Saint-Pierre on our 2-night visit. A pretty garden is the first thing you see, perfect for sunny days. The old medieval house was once the house or a canon so it’s right next to the cathedral and as central as you could want to be.
On the edge of the Plantagenet city, our bedroom (one of three) looked out over the rooves down to the river where there’s a good large, and free, car park. The room was spacious with old furniture and a large bathroom completed the picture.
Breakfast was downstairs in the large kitchen/dining room when you get the chance to talk to the owner, Mme Chantal Le Priol, and get more information about Le Mans. You can drive up to the house to leave your bags, but you can’t park there so leave it down by the river in the free car park.
28 rue des Chanoines
Tel: +33 (0)2 43 87 25 39
No website so book through the tourist office
Bed and breakfast for 2 inc breakfast €90
There are cheaper options in Le Mans. Check out the budget hotels chains in France.
General Guide to Le Mans – hotels, restaurants, markets and more attractions.
More Information on Le Mans and Surroundings
Le Mans Tourist Office
La Maison du Pilier-Rouge (The Red Pillar House)
41-43 Grande Rue
72039 Le Mans
Tel: +33 (0)2 43 47 40 30
Open Mon to Sat 10am-6pm
Book a guided tour in English: Jun to Aug Wednesday. 3pm. Full price €6
Also Check Out
More to see in the area
We also explored the Loir (without an ‘e’) Valley. It was delightful, unexpected, and full of treasures. Its fortunes were intricately tied up with the Hundred Years War and the Plantagenets.
Try these attractions:
Tour the Secret Loir Valley
Visit the Château du Lude and its fabulous gardens
Glorious Medieval Baugé with its château and apothecary
Step into the world of the privately and family owned Château de Bazouges
Declaration: I was travelling in the area as a guest of the Le Mans Tourist Office which sponsored the accommodation.