Le Prieure Des Dames de Sainte Marie is probably one of the oldest properties in the Dordogne. Set in the heart of Fontaines, a small village in the northwest of the Perigord Vert, known for gastronomic truffles and duck, only 3 kms from the Charente border in the commune of Champagne et Fontaines. Even the name is beautiful. Surrounded by fields of wheat, maize and sunflowers, an abundance of wild life, including wild boar, deer, hares, barn owls etc. the whole area is idyllic.
Le Prieure was constructed in 1130 as the first church in the area, still visible and undisturbed in one of the “caves” below the present-day house; the church and monastery, later becoming a convent. A new church and monastery were established in13th.C. Le Prieure became home to 180, self-sustainable nuns, farming the land, baking their own bread in the bread-oven and working the iron-forge ~ both still visible in the old outhouses.
A fire in 1630 destroyed the roof of the last room at the west end of the house, which was rebuilt by ship’s carpenters who searched for work at the end of the Napoleonic war, knowing they would either receive wages or at least food and shelter from the nuns and
the church. In addition to a new roof, they extended the formerly rectangular building, adding a kitchen and balcony, either side of the stone spiral staircase leading to the first floor and “cave”. The balcony is 13 meters long where the Nun’s would repeat prayers on their rosary beads, meditating while they walked its length.
Fontaines was a significant location for Pilgrims journeying to St Iago de Compostela, and is on the route of Richard the Lion Heart of the Crusades. There are stories about a Nun being stoned by a mob, who rampaged through the village during the French Revolution. Injured but conscious, she was dragged to the adjoining field and burnt alive at the stake! There are many fables connected to Le Prieure ~ nearly a thousand years old and with secret passages between the church and monastery it has witnessed so much. Little wonder, then, that the house may cast a spell on you.
After the new church was built, the caves beneath the house became a huge wine cave with oak barrels lining its walls; a wine and apple press are still in place.
The Prieure remained in the ownership of the church until 1904, when it was sold to a local family of farmers. In the heart of the Vichy, German occupied during the Second World War, and with a strong French Resistance network, the house has many a tale to tell. President Charles de Galles, spent his summers at the manoir in the village making strong friendships with the locals, and later, as an adult and the French President, his ministers rewarded those who led the Resistance against the Nazis, giving the monastery to the local baker for his efforts to defeat the enemy.
The current owner bought the Prieure in 2007 and begun renovations in 2013,discovering many original architectural features hidden for centuries under layers of
plasterwork and wattle and daub ceilings. Unfortunately, we have yet to find any gold or jewels.
Le Prieure des Dames has had a full, empathetic makeover. Turning it from an old rambling property with 23 buckets catching water from a very leaky roof, a toilet which discharged straight to the old vegetable plot at the back of the house, no bathroom and huge families of mice! , saving it just in time to turn it once again into one of the most prestigious properties for miles. Hopefully this wonderful old building now has the opportunity to begin another 1000 years of history.