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History of the
Manor of Dur-Écu
< 1066: legend and archeology
The Hague is full of legends, some of which are identically found very far away, as far away as Russia. Certain houses, certain moors or rocks are associated with it. Dur-Écu does not have this honor, but it is true that its name itself comes from a legend, associated with the exploits of William the Conqueror.
There are several versions. Was William fighting against the Bretons (would there be a rivalry between Normans and Bretons? It hardly seems possible!) or did the action take place in Hastings in 1066 during the Norman landing in England?
Still, an enemy threw himself on the duke and aimed his ax at his head. One of William's companions - Richard the Strong, it is said - saved him at the last moment, by interposing his shield - his shield, as it was then called - between the enemy's ax and William's head.
The ax got stuck in the wood of the shield, which did not yield. William was saved ! This shield was then celebrated and the name of Dur-Écu or Fortescu was given to families and strongholds whose vocation was to protect Normandy. La Manche is one of the departments with the most places bearing this name.
However, one should not think that the location of the Dur-Écu manor was only inhabited during the reign of Guillaume. The site has been populated since prehistoric times. 10,000 years ago, a swamp stretched from the hill to the sea, which was further than now. Gradually, this bog got wooded with alder and beech. Later the sea nibbled the coastline and therefore came closer.
It is logical that men settled at the foot of this hill, at a place supplied with water by a stream, the Caudar, and a well. We are on the edge of a road which in prehistoric times must have been the path leading to Cap de la Hague.
It is now believed that the beach of Nacqueville was in the La Tène period (last centuries BC) one of the main ports of trade with England, the corresponding port being Hengistbury Head, in Dorset. In particular, lignite bracelets were imported from England, and shaped on the French side. This region therefore displayed significant economic activity.
Later the prehistoric path became in Gallo-Roman times the main road from present-day Cherbourg to the villages of La Hague. Moreover, digs have shown fragments of Roman tiles. In the Middle Ages, the road became a royal road. At an unknown moment, the need for a strong house to control this road, or defend itself against its users (or even make them pay a toll), gave birth to what was to become Dur Ecu.
Currently we see fields in front of the manor and then the sea, whereas 2000 years ago the land was probably not cleared and the trees went much further. In the 19th century remains of tree trunks got caught in the nets of fishermen, and the legend of the forest of Bannes was born. The sea mark opposite the manor is still called raz de Bannes. Storm after storm, the sea has therefore gained enormously, and it was during one of these nibbles that the remains of prehistoric occupation were discovered.
1200: the origins
The legend mentioned above must have been alive in the Channel, because there were originally 4 places that bore the name of Dur Ecu. The archives attest from 1247 the presence of a Durescu or Durécu family. Feudal society was organized into suzerains and vassals and into fiefs and sub-fiefs. This family held in particular the quarter fief of Durécu in Gatteville (10km east of Cherbourg) which counted among its sub-fiefs the eighth fief of Dur-Ecu in Urville-Hague (now Urville-Nacqueville).
The domain returned to the domain of the king in 1307, under Philippe le Bel, who gave it to a servant of the crown (today we would say high official) against an annuity of 60 ‘livres tournois’, payable on Saint Michel. This guy resold it to an ennobled bourgeois of Carentan, but active in Cherbourg. Since then, the Dur-Ecu de Gatteville and Urville have often changed hands, but have always belonged to families with local ties.
One can easily imagine the lifestyle of the lords of Dur-Ecu by reading the diary of Gilles de Gouberville, which also mentions its owner. Around 1600, the Dur-Ecu in Urville was sold by the Heuzeys to Thomas Lesdos, a prominent family. One of the Lesdos also sold a house in the Hameau de Gruchy in 1689 to Charles and Philippe Millet, father and son, ancestors of Jean François Millet. Did the birthplace of the famous painter therefore have a common owner with the manor of Dur-Ecu?
1600: noble fief or farm?
The Dur-Ecu in Urville, since its origins as a sub-fief, seems to have rarely been the place of residence of the owners. It had been farmed (the name of Pierre Damourette was cited as a farmer in 1708) for a long time. At some unknown time, the "useful domain", i.e. the practical ownership of the land and buildings, got separated from the "noble fief" - a title of this minor nobility to which many wealthy people aspired. You bought a noble fief (without needing the corresponding land) because it was one of the prerequisites to be ennobled., … until you or your grand-children sold it a few years later. This happened several times at the manor of Dur-Ecu. A consequence of the absenteeism of the owners was a fairly constant poor maintenance of the buildings, which must have been the cause of the collapse at some unknown time of the keep, the main tower.
The English navy attempted a first landing on the beach of Urville at the time of François 1er, who later came to inspect the coast. Our correspondent not being in office on this date, we unfortunately do not know what impact this landing may have had on Dur-Ecu. What is certain, however, is that the British Admiralty has kept good records...
1758: the English land !
Faithful to its policy of balance of power on the European continent, England wanted to oblige the King of France to maintain armies on its Atlantic facade (and therefore to be less threatening towards our eastern neighbors).
For this, the English regularly landed on the coasts of the Atlantic or the Channel, took a short tour with their troops and left when French reinforcements arrived.
In order to also create a certain animation, the French in turn carried out landings in Ireland, Wales or on the south coast of England.
For their D Day of 1758, the Royal Navy (with a future king on board) chose Urville as their beachhead, perhaps because of the precedent under François 1er. It was the Dur-Écu dovecote that served as a landmark for the approach maneuvers and the manor was one of the first places occupied by the English. From there, the enemy troops moved on Cherbourg, then pushed south. They dropped on the coast French colonists uprooted from what is now New-Brunswick, in Canada. This temporary occupation was at the origin of the decision to create an artificial harbor in Cherbourg, in order to maintain a war fleet there.
1773: the current owners move in
It was indeed on the eve of the revolution that the Le Moigne family, whose descendants are still the current owners, bought the manor. It was a family of farmers who had been living in La Hague for a century and who moved from Omonville la Rogue to Dur-Écu after carrying out major repairs. Obviously they were not interested in obtaining the noble fief, which would have been a very bad investment 16 years before the revolution!
To continue to enhance the agricultural estate, Jean-Louis Le Moigne built in 1808 the 3 water mills on the Caudar (the stream that crosses Dur-Ecu and flows into the sea), and, probably at the same time, a mill wind on the hill.
The name of the Le Moigne family is probably the origin of the name of the "Issue aux moignes" given to the path that leads to the sea between Dur-Ecu and Urville-Nacqueville. In the 19th century, at a time when (relatively) large landholdings and the quality of mayor often went hand in hand, several Le Moignes became mayors of Urville. At the end of the 19th century, Dur-Ecu was rented out, the Bienvenu family exploiting it until the Second World War.
At the start of the war, Dur-Écu was occupied by the Germans, who then left for more… comfortable premises.
La Hague as a whole was a strategic area, accessible only by special permits, in particular because the Germans had installed their differentversions of the radar on the cape. On the other hand, the occupation troops were not necessarily German and we know in particular the presence of the 795ᵉ Georgian battalion.
The entire coast was bombed by the allies in preparation for the landing of June 6, 1944.
Gréville, Urville and Nacqueville were bombed in 3 stages, because an important German listening and transmissions unit was located there on 3 sites, the forts of Gréville and Nacqueville as well as in a field above Dur-Ecu.
On May 30, the center of Gréville was bombed and destroyed.
On June 1, 1944 the 346 squadron of the Royal Air Force carried out a first bombing of Urville but being careful not to destroy the village. No wonder, because this squadron is the former French Guyenne unit moved from North Africa to England and for which this was the first mission. It was at this point that Dur-Écu was hit, and its listening center “La Ferme d’Urville” out of service.
On June 3, two squadrons – Australians this time – bombed everything with very significant human and material damage, but this time the Fort de Nacqueville was destroyed.
The RAF was thus able to claim that the most important listening center in Normandy had been destroyed… 3 days before D-Day!
Marie-Hélène René-Bazin, a descendant of the Le Moignes, took over the farm directly, helped by her son Jean. Their first objective was to restore the manor.
The manor you can see today is therefore the result of the efforts of 3 generations of the same family, assisted by passionate and talented craftsmen.
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