Herisson, a small town of character
Herisson means hedgehog, but don’t look for any spiky animal story…
It’s the name of a picturesque medieval village whose exceptional archaeological and historical heritage earned it to be ranked among the Petites Cités de Caractère.
Its foundation goes back to 475AD, a troubled period that marked the fall of the Roman Empire.
Barbarian hordes, among which the Visigoths, swept over France.
By then, the Romans had occupied our country for more than 4 centuries and blended with the local Gallic populations; they had organized the country and built fortified cities.
The Gallo-Roman fortress of Cordes stood on a rocky outcrop, some 1.5km northwest of the modern-day village of Herisson.
It enjoyed a strategic situation, high above the confluence of the rivers Aumance (then called Oeil) and Louise and at the meeting point of 3 important Gallic territories.
Long before the fortress, their druids used the promontory for their sacred rituals.
The inhabitants of Cordes fled to escape the Visigoths and took refuge on a hill nestled in the heart of a meander of the river Aumance.
There they built a new fortified village, Erictio – the fortress erected above the ford, a name that evolved into Herisson.
Some villagers returned to Cordes once the danger over and rebuilt the fortress that became known as Châteloy (Castellum Oculi – Castle overlooking the Oeil).
Chateau de Herisson, castle of the Dukes of Bourbon
Erictio, the fortress that overlooks the river, perched high on the hillside: this is exactly where the medieval town of Herisson is!
Ancient legends even say that the inhabitants deflected the river to strengthen the fortress’ natural defenses.
What we know though is that the city developed at the foot of the first castle the Dukes of Bourbon built in the 10th century to monitor the border of their duchy of Bourbonnais with the Duchy of Aquitaine.
They rebuilt their fortress two centuries later and made Herisson one of the 17 castellanies of Bourbonnais, then their ducal castle.
As you can imagine the strategic position of Herisson fueled the interest of the English, lords of Aquitaine after the marriage of Eleanor with Henry II.
In the 14th century, Duke Louis II of Bourbon therefore enlarged and fortified his castle and village with a thick and high rampart flanked by 22 towers, curtain walls and an imposing keep.
However, the 17th century was a turning point for the old fortress.
Louis II of Bourbon-Condé (a cousin of King Louis XIV) opposed the decisions of Cardinal Mazarin who attended the regent Anne of Austria; he took the head of the civil war known as Fronde to depose Mazarin.
But Louis XIV, who was then 14 years old, regrouped troops with the help of Mazarin and defeated his cousin in 1651.
In retaliation Mazarin had the castle of Herisson dismantled and sold it to stone merchants who transformed it into stone quarry.
Most of the village and surrounding medieval houses were therefore built with stones from the castle of the Dukes of Bourbon!
The collapse of the keep in 1899 led to the closure of the stone quarry.
Amazingly this event had positive repercussions; although left abandoned for 61 years, the site was preserved from further degradation!
The renaissance of Herisson
In 1966 the association Les Amis du Vieux Herisson was founded to restore the castle, which was classified historical building in 1968.
The imposing ruins of the castle of the Dukes of Bourbon today rise majestically above the fortified village and the Aumance. They include the dungeon, vestiges of towers, a small section of the rampart and architectural features of the seigniorial dwelling.
A model of the original building, displayed in the hall of the Town Hall, gives a measure of the once impressive fortress.
As you stroll along the medieval narrow streets, you discover a wealth of 15th, 16th and 17th centuries dwelling, all built with the castle’s stones!
Six main reasons to visit Herisson
1- Porte de Gateuil and Porte de l’Enfer (Porte de Varenne) are two fortified gates (out of 3) that are still standing.
The imposing Porte de Gateuil was originally known as Porte du Pont or Porte de Gatoeil, as it commanded the bridge and the road to the town of Soulongis.
The Porte de Varenne, on the northern side of the rampart commanded the road to Châteloy.
It is more commonly known as Hell’s Gate because of a statue of the Virgin placed under the vault to protect the city from demons and the evil eye.
2- The Eglise Saint-Sauveur is in the heart of the village and is a classified Historical Monument.
The bell tower is the only remaining vestige of the 12th century church which was mostly remodeled in the 17th century.
3- The Eglise Saint-Pierre in Châteloy was consecrated in 1170.
It was the parish church of Herisson from the 13th century until 1725 when the first Eglise Notre-Dame was built.
Saint-Pierre church of Châteloy is renowned for its 12th century carved capitals and the murals of its apse; it is now part of the Route of the painted churches of Bourbonnais.
Classified as a Historical Monument, it also serves as venue for the summer concerts organized by the association Festival de Musique en Bourbonnais.
4- The Gothic Flamboyant Saint-Etienne Chapel was built in 1548.
It is also known as Chapelle de la mi-voie (mid-way chapel) as processions stopped there on their way from Herisson to Châteloy, before the construction of the Eglise Notre-Dame.
This chapel is one of the few 16th century religious buildings still standing in Bourbonnais.
5- The neo-Gothic Eglise Notre-Dame was built in the 1850s.
Located near the castle, it boasts a stunning shoe-horse staircase, as well as a wealth of religious furniture and stained glass windows created in 1996.
6- Finally but not the least, the Musée du Terroir Hérissonnais will take you to the discovery of the archaeological artifacts uncovered in the old fortress of Cordes-Châteloy.
It also relates the village and castle’s history, the daily life of its inhabitants through the centuries, a journey in the past of Herisson…
Department of Allier – Auvergne region
Coordinates: lat 46.509127 – Long 2.711865