The window of our kitchen looks out to the west on the hills that surround Vence. Far off in the distance, high on a slope overlooking the Malvan River, it’s easy to see what remains of le Château de la Reine Jeanne (the Castle of Queen Jeanne) situated alone amongst the brush and trees. It’s also known as the Donjon des Malvans (Dungeon of the Malvans) and le Château des Malvans (the Castle of the Malvans). It’s really not much of a castle, at least today.
One old stone building which was probably comprised of two, maybe three floors, is all that remains. In fact, that may have been all that ever stood there as I don’t see evidence of any other structures around it. The roof is long gone (as is the floor) and the walls are in disrepair.
The castle bears the name of a woman from the 14th century who is associated with many myths, stories and legends throughout this region, most (if not all) of which I suspect are quite far from the truth: Queen Jeanne. One particular legend involves a young suitor, murder and a blooming hawthorn bush. Several years ago I was hiking with the AVF hiking club here in Vence and our path that day took us very close to the castle. A French hiker explained to me the history and told me a little about Queen Jeanne. To be honest, my French wasn’t very good at the time and I didn’t understand all of the details, but I got the gist of the story.
The castle lies very close to the Chapelle St. Raphaël near an old abandoned village known as Malvan situated along the river of the same name. It’s easy to get to from Vence, you can walk all the way there or you can drive and park about 1 kilometer away. It’s a beautiful area and between the Castle and the Chapel you get a nice glimpse back into a period of history in Vence that is now long gone.
[click on any image to enter the gallery – more info after the photo gallery]
About Queen Jeanne
Born in 1326, the fourth child of Charles, Duke of Calabria and Marie de Valois, Jeanne I (also known as Joanna I of Naples) eventually reigned over Naples, Sicily, Jerusalem and other territories. Jeanne was raised by her grandfather, King Robert the Wise and his second wife, Sancia, as both her parents had died by the time she was five years old. She was Queen of Naples and Countess of Provence and Forcalquier from 1343 to 1382, as well as Princess of Achaea from 1373 to 1381. At one time she was considered the most powerful woman in Europe. She held various other titles during her lifetime such as Duchess of Apouille, Princess of Capua and Countess of Nice and Piedmont. She did not speak Latin and this presented somewhat of a problem in that she often had no idea what the various official acts she was signing really said.
She was said to be quite a beautiful woman with a strong will, a great enthusiasm for life and a voracious sexual appetite. She was a strong patron of the poets, writers, artists and scholars of her time.
Her first husband, Andrew, whom she married at the age of 7 (he was 6!) in 1333, was murdered in 1345 and Jeanne was accused of having been involved somehow in his death. Later she sold Avignon to the papacy in exchange for being declared innocent of the assassination. She then married Louis of Taranto in 1347 and following his death in 1362 she was wed to James IV, King of Majorca. She took her final husband, Otto of Brunswick in 1376. She was ultimately imprisoned and assassinated on orders from her cousin, Charles of Durazzo (Charles III of Naples) in 1382.
To read the many legends, fables and stories about Queen Jeanne that exist throughout Provence, one would think that she spent many, many years here. In truth, her actual time in Provence was really quite short, but that hasn’t kept numerous towns and villages from claiming to have welcomed her for one or more visits.
In fact, the only time Jeanne was ever in Provence was when she fled an invasion of Hungarian troops who invaded the Kingdom of Naples in January 1348. She received a warm welcome in Marseille when she arrived in mid-March, before traveling on to Aix-en-Provence and Avignon. Later she traveled to Sanary-sur-Mer and Fort de Brégançon (just outside of Bormes-les-Mimosas) before arriving back in Naples to reclaim her throne in August.
Jeanne gave birth to three children: Charles Martel in 1345, Catherine in 1348 and Françoise in 1350. Unfortunately, she outlived all three of her children.
About the Building
The original building is very old and most likely dates from the 10th century. It was probably part of a small village or hamlet abandoned at the end of the Middle Ages, sometime around the 13th century. The castle was destroyed in 1747 during the retreat of the Imperials. Close by is the Chapelle of Saint-Raphaël and next to it an older chapel which is now in ruins. (There is some confusion about the ruins of this old chapel next to the current chapel. Some people mistakenly refer to it as the Castle of Queen Jeanne. It’s clear to me that it is an old chapel, not the remains of the castle.)
As I mentioned above, not a lot is left of the castle. It stands alone on the hill among the trees, brush and flowers. Technically, all four walls are still intact, but large portions are missing from each of them. In many ways it is somewhat of a stretch to call it a “castle,” at least by the standards most of us use when thinking of castles. It’s very small and its simple rectangular shape does not give one the impression that it was ever very elegant or luxurious.
Other Castles Attached to Queen Jeanne
This is not the only ruined castle in the southwest of France that bears the name of Queen Jeanne. You will find several others throughout the area, including one in Ventabren, near Éguilles just west of Aix-en Provence. This castle was mostly dismantled during the French Revolution before being restored in the 1980s. Many of the original stones were used to build houses in the village, something that was very common at the time.
Another castle can be found in the village of Guillaumes at the north end of the Daluis Gorges in the Var Valley north and west of Vence. Originally constructed in the 13th century and later fortified by the famous military engineer Vauban, it was partially destroyed in 1760 following the Treaty of Turin.
A third castle is located near Digne les Bains about 150kms northwest of Nice. There may be more scattered throughout the area, but these three seem to be the most well known. Whether Queen Jeanne actually spent any time at any of these various castles is still a matter of speculation.
[click on any image to enter the gallery – more info after the photo gallery]
Legend says that Queen Jean stayed here in this small castle near Vence sometime around 1350. On Christmas Eve she awaited the arrival of one of her pages, a certain Aubépin (which translates to “hawthorn”) with whom she was having a secret romantic relationship. When he arrived he was stabbed to death by another jealous courtier, right in front of the Queen. She returned to Naples shortly thereafter.
When she once again visited the castle several years later (it had been abandoned and deserted since the tragedy) she discovered a hawthorn bush growing in the exact location where Aubépin had died. At the stroke of midnight the bush blossomed with a thousand red flowers. It is said that ever since that day a hawthorn bush flowers in the ruins of the castle on Christmas Eve.
In fact, it is highly unlikely that Queen Jeanne ever stayed at this castle, let alone returned to it years later to find the blooming hawthorn bush. Still, it’s an enduring legend that has been told over and over again throughout this region.
One More Legend
Not far from Vence is the wonderful village of Coaraze, one of the official “Most Beautiful Villages of France.” A few kilometers from the village lie the ruins of another castle high on the Col Saint-Roch in the now deserted village of Rocca Sparvièra. It is said that Queen Jeanne was staying in this castle one Christmas (notice how both these legends take place on Christmas?) and decided to attend mass in Coaraze.
As she traveled along a small path through the pine trees she was struck with a premonition, hearing the words, “The queen, coming home from the mass, will find the table set.” Obsessed with this prophecy and confused as to what it could mean she left the mass early and hurried back to the castle in Rocca Sparvièra. Tired, cold and hungry she ate a meal that had been cooked especially for her. Little did she know that while she was gone her enemies had seized her children, killed them, roasted them and prepared a special dish for the Queen using the flesh of her offspring.
When she learned that she had just eaten her very own children she fled the castle, mad with grief and rage, placing a curse on Rocca Sparvièra: “Bloody rock, a day will come when on your summits, neither rooster nor hen will crow any more, only hawks and other wild birds!” In the coming years Rocca Sparvièra slowly languished and faded away until an earthquake in the 19th century completely destroyed it and it was finally abandoned once and for all. Many of the locals continue to believe that the curse of Queen Jeanne was responsible for the demise of the village.
A crazy, morbid legend to be sure. The truth is that there is no evidence that Queen Jeanne ever came to Coaraze or Rocca Sparvièra and though she did outlive all three of her children, they did not die in Provence.
You have several options for visiting the castle remains. If you’d like to go on foot you can start anywhere in Vence and head west on Avenue Rhin et Danube (M2210A). The entire walk is about 8kms round trip. You can find detailed instructions in our article on La Chapelle Saint-Raphaël.
If you’d prefer to drive for most of the way you can drive west on Avenue Rhin et Danube (M2210A) until you come to Chemin des Colles. You will have to park your car and walk the last 1km or so. You can find detailed driving instructions on the link above.
Once you reach La Chapelle Saint-Raphaël you will be able to see the castle in the distance. You’ll need to continue on the main trail a short distance and you will find a much smaller trail leading to the left. It can be hard to spot so keep an eye out for it. This short trail will lead you directly to the castle. Take care because the last portion of the trail can be a bit tricky.