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Olhain castle (northern France)

With a robust polygonal design, Olhain castle is located in the village of Fresnicourt-le-Dolmen (about 25 km from Arras), in the Pas-de-Calais department.

It is the best preserved medieval castle in northern France and represents one of the most beautiful jewels of the region’s historical heritage.

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Click on the pictures to enlarge them.

This imposing castle was built in the hollow of a small valley, in the middle of a natural pond in which the river ‘Lawe’ flows into.

It is believed that the knight Simon d’Olhain built it first from 1179, probably a simple wooden keep. His son, Hugues, built the primitive castle when he returned from a crusade in 1202. The construction of the castle recommenced in 1239, when his son Jean d’Olhain added a castral chapel. This chapel was probably built in the courtyard of the castle but did not leave any trace as the castle was destroyed and burnt to a large extent during the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453). It is only in the XIX century that a chapel in the castle was mentioned, which was preserved in the south-east tower. In 1280, Jean’s son, Jean II d’Olhain, founded in Verdrel a chapel dedicated to Saint Eloi. Finally, the lineage of the Olhain lords ended with Robert’s son, Jacques d’Olhain, since the only heiress of the property, Marie d’Olhain, married Jean de Nielles.

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Jean de Nielles undertook the reconstruction of the castle from 1407. He also played an important role for the Duke of Burgundy, Jean Sans Peur. He started by advising him before becoming in-charge of the management of the Duke’s finances. He also became the Second President of the Accounts Chamber of Lille, the Duke’s Chamberlain and the governor of Arras in 1407. On 20th June 1407, Jean Sans Peur gave him oak trees from his wood in Wault, near Houdain, which allowed him to start the castle fortification. Jean de Nielles died a bit before 1423. He was inhumated in the church of Fresnicourt-le-Dolmen. His tombstone is located in the inner courtyard of the castle.

The castle was then entrusted to his first daughter, Marie de Nielles, who married Baudouin de Lannoy, a knight of the Golden Fleece and governor of Lille. He is said to have constructed the big towers or at least to have finished their construction. Marie de Nielles died in 1433 without descendence. Then the castle’s inheritance passed on to her sister Alix de Nielles, who for her second wedding, had married Jean de Berghes, leader of the King’s Hunting and knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece (the most prestigious distinction of Burgundy). When Alix de Nielles passed away, the castle’s inheritance passed on to her son, Jean de Berghes. This is how the Olhain property passed to the Berghes family till 1900.

From 1521 to 1529, the Spanish Emperor Charles Quint, a staunch Catholic, confiscated the castle. As Phillippe de Berghes, the then owner of the castle, and his family belonged to the French side and were Protestants; they could not reside in the castle. Only after their conversion to Catholicism, they got their property back but preferred to live somewhere else.

Around 1634, under French king Louis XIII and Richelieu started the Thirty Years’ War against Spain and the Emperor of Germany. In 1641, the governor of Arras seized the castle with about sixty riflemen from the Champagne Regiment and massacred all the Spanish soldiers who were there. In 1654, the Spanish troops recaptured the castle and blew up the two towers that were located in the fourth side of the castle enclosure. They have never been rebuilt.

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Around 1700, Louise de Berghes married the Count “d’Artagnan”, governor of Arras (cousin of the famous King’s Musketeer). He is said to be buried in the middle of the castle’s inner courtyard. In 1710, the castle was once again besieged, and occupied by the Dutch at the time of Béthune’s capture. Ruined and burnt, the castle was restored from 1830 to 1843 and became the second home of the de Berghes family. In 1870, the last lord, Pierre Marie de Berghes, a 20-year-old Squadron Leader was killed during a cavalry charge. Since then, the castle was abandoned.

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The castle was sold by auction in Paris. On 26 May 1900, it was bought by Mr Dartois. The land was to be sold with the castle, which was regarded as a ‘burden’. Mr Dartois entrusted the property to his nephew, Mr Jules Dutoit.

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The Olhain castle was occupied by troops from the beginning of the First World War. For 4 years, troops and horses from the French, English and Canadian armies successively occupied the castle, as well as the outbuildings, farming buildings and neighbouring meadows. Numerous marks in the right and left wings of the castle testify these successive occupations. Multiple inscriptions from the soldiers are still visible in the attics of the right wing while the first floor of the left wing is riddled with bullet holes.

One of the observation posts.

At the end of the war, Jules Dutoit resumed the restoration work he had started. He started by doing up all the roofs, which had been left in a very poor condition. He also cultivated the lands and improved, little by little, the left wing where he resided with his family. In 1930, he built a house incorporated to the body of the farmyard, where the owners of the castle have been living since then.

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Till 2004, it was Jules Dutoit’s son, Mr. Paul Dutoit, who was in charge of the castle’s maintenance and restoration work. During the Occupation, he started by draining the pond in order to repair all the immersed walls and continued to maintain the castle with great care. Today, it is his descendants who take care of the castle with the same passion.

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Olhain castle’s drawbridge.

The castle, entirely made of sandstone, comprises two parts that are clearly separated: a farmyard, with its oval shape, and the castle itself. The castle was added to the Historical Monuments’ inventory in 1989. It has been opened to the public since 1954 for seven months a year :

– From April 1st to June 30th, and from September 1st to October 31st : on Sundays and public holidays from 3.00 pm to 6.30 pm.

– From July 1st to August 31st : on Saturdays and Sundays from 3.00 pm to 6.30 pm.

The entrance door for the courtyard.

The courtyard.

  • The visitors will be able to walk along the water-filled moats, and to visit the farmyard and the castle : inner courtyard, chapel, vaulted caves, keep (101 steps) with its rooms at different floors, its attics and the observation post. There is a small fee for the visit: (4 € for the adults) and free for the accompanied children (till 12 years old). This amount is entirely meant for the castle’s maintenance. An average visit would take about 1.15 hour. It is not guided. A leaflet is distributed at the entrance to help the visitors. For buses/adult groups and schools, the castle is open the whole year after making an appointment. Ph : +33 (0)1.39.18.33.14 or +33 (0)3.21.27.94.76.

For more information, you can visit the official website : http://www.chateau-olhain.com/

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