Last Updated on 20th March 2023 by Sophie Nadeau
It would seem that you’re never far from a Château when driving through France… Fairytale like castles dot the French countryside and are abundant; where lush vineyards, rolling hills, and windswept coastline are commonplace. Le Chateau du Tilleul is set in the very midst of a leafy green forest, not far from the sea.
Late last summer, we were driving down narrow French lanes, looking for a place to stay. We’d taken a spontaneous road trip to the North of France from Paris.
And, of course, part of the fun in trips such as this is finding hidden gems set deep into the countryside. It was getting dark and the shadows were growing longer.
Just when we were thinking of turning around, the shadows parted and a blur of architecture spend past on the right-hand side of the road. We quickly pulled the car over and went over for a closer look. It turns out you stumble on these kinds of secret treasures when you’re least expecting it…
Remnants of the past are never far away when it comes to ancient buildings such as this, legends are abundant. I’ve put together a short history of the Chateau du Tilleul with snippets of what I could find; whisperings of local legends and the like. Who knew that a quick roadside stop would reveal such a rich tapestry of history?
Chateau du Tilleul (Château de Fréfossé)
The Château may only be 1.5km away from Étretat but the tranquil atmosphere and leafy green canopy of the overhead trees make it seem a world away from the wide open beaches and touristic cliffs just a short walk away. After all, the castle sits in its own woodland space of 50 hectares.
Located on the fringes of the quaint village of Tilleul, not far from the much more famous chalky cliffs of Etretat, a castle has stood in the area since at least medieval times. The original Château was thought to have been built as early as the 14th century by Galehaut de Saâne.
The Current Château
The current Château du Tilleul was constructed at some point between 1730 and 1750. At the time, it was two stories high. Over the ages, the castle has been bestowed two names. The first ‘Château du Tilleul’ was given to the castle due to its close proximity to the nearby village of Tilleul.
The second name, ‘Château de Fréfossé’ was given to it following the end of the hundred year war. Lord Fréfossé was a former resident and gave his name to the castle (remember him as he’s important to a famous legend pertaining to the castle).
During the next few decades, the castle passed through various families and generations. During the French Revolution, the castle was occupied by revolutionaries and the Chateau du Tilleul damaged. In 1860, during reparation works, another story was added to the building by Félix Ezéchiel Vallois.
As you can see from the photo below, other major alterations took place in 1860. The spiked turrets were removed and further decorative balconies added to the central part of the house. I love the architecture of the ‘new‘ build, but the old style was perhaps even more impressive. No?
From 1938, the Château was used as a French military hospital during the Second World War. That was until the region was taken over and occupied by German forces.
During the Nazi occupation of France, the château was used as German army barracks. From 1940 onwards, the castle was used to house the German troops until it was liberated by Allied troops in September 1944.
Nearby town of Tilleul
Just 600 people live in the nearby village of Tilleul. It’s thought that the town of Tilleul (in English ‘Tilleul’ is translated as ‘lime tree’) and its surrounds have been inhabited since the Neolithic Age. The town lies not far from the Château, on the road between Le Havre and Étretat.
The Legend of Baron Frefosse, former resident of Château de Frefosse and the 3 Demoiselles
Local legends are never far away in rural France and this castle is no exception. The tale is tragic, and the Baron is question evil. The story goes a little like this: there were three fair maidens who lived in Étretat with their father, a wealthy merchant.
Eleanor, Jacinta, and Catherinette were beautiful and each betrothed to a soldier who was away fighting. The three ‘demoiselles’ were well liked by all and known for their grace. Fréfossé was a Baron who lived at the nearby Château du Tilleul.
He was a selfish, evil Lord who liked the look of the girls and invited them to visit him at his castle. Wary, and quite rightly so, the girls refused and the Lord was furious. He set about plotting his revenge while the three demoiselles decided they must go into hiding.
Their only refuge from their hideout were moonlit walks along the clifftops of Étretat. However, when the Baron discovered that the girls would take such walks, he decided that he would corner them during one such stroll. At sunset, he hid out in a cave, waiting for them to arrive.
As soon as the girls approached, he leaped out, shouting obscenities and threatening the girls. The Demoiselles fled, finding refuge in a nearby cave. As soon as the danger had passed and they could no longer hear the Baron, the girls started searching for the narrow opening through which they had come.
However, it soon became apparent that a rock fall (these are incredibly common due to the chalky nature of the stone forming the cliffs) had blocked their exit. No one knew where the girls were and the opening which had apparently saved them ended up entombing them instead.
It wasn’t until a couple of days later that a woman collecting shells along the beach discovered the girls. The bodies were found but their father and fiancés were left (understandably) heartbroken.
The Baron returned Chateau du Tilleul and its said that the ghosts of the girls followed him, haunting him until his last days. He was never allowed to forget, nor move on from his wicked act.
Château du Tilleul Today
Today, you can see the Cove of the Demoiselles at the top of the Étretat cliffs. It’s located up some steep stairs at the top of the Falaise d’Aval Cliff.
The area was famously painted by Monet, among other iconic impressionist painters. It’s said that on a cold, misty night the ghosts of the three unfortunate women can be seen around the cove.
Unfortunately, the castle has been in private hands since 1998 and can no longer be visited as it is closed to the public. In 2009, a nearby building accompanying the castle completely burned down in a fire.
Nevertheless, The rich history of Chateau du Tilleul and its beautiful façade can still be seen from the roadside, a reminder that the pages of history are just waiting to be turned in many locations across France…
Sophie Nadeau loves dogs, books, travel, pizza, and history. A fan of all things France related, she runs solosophie.com when she’s not chasing after the next sunset shot or consuming something sweet. She currently splits her time between Paris and London. Subscribe to Sophie’s YouTube Channel.
Tuesday 30th of July 2019
I stayed at this chateau about 1981 for a week, as part of a school French trip with Mr. Tompkins (our music teacher) from Derby, England. At that time, our visit was run by the Guardian Overseas Exchange. Boys took the 2nd floor, and the girls had the 3rd floor.
One of our lads bought an excessive amount of firecrackers during a day trip, which of course he had to test them out in the grounds in front of the chateau, rather like a 4th of July party scene! Luckily, no one twigged who did it... (Bill)!
The host at the chateau was a young Marie-Christine, who turned heads a fair bit.
Thanks, Sophie, for showing the old photograph, with the roof spires. We had no knowledge of these from our stay at the chateau, and it was a surprise to see. I remember each floor had a huge long corridor, from one end to the other; and our rooms had extra ordinarily high ceilings, compared to our own homes.
The bowed windows formed an open function room on the ground floor, where we had a disco, and the staff office was in the same area above. That must have been on the 2nd floor, because the boys were forbidden to access the 3rd floor.
Tuesday 13th of November 2018
Thanks, Sophie. A really interesting article.