Belgium is roughly split in two parts. In the Northern part, the most important historical attractions are the Old Towns of Bruges, Antwerp, Gent and many other Flemish towns. In the French-speaking South, the highlights are nature and castles. Today I would like to present you one of them – Château de Modave.
On the edge of the Ardennes Mountains, which add so much charm to the Southern part of Belgium, in the province of Liege lies a hidden gem. Its splendid French chateau-like facade hides a long history and is connected to a very interesting person.
Château with a character
We came here on a lovely sunny spring day. A pictoresque long lane with trees planted on both sides welcomed us. At the end of it was a stone gate with an old clock on top. When we passed it, the chateau de Modave welcomed us.
The building looks like an archetype of a French chateau. Nearly symetric, huge windows bringing light into the interiors welcomed us. The garden blossomed, a splendid fountain refreshing the air with cold water added to the charm.
We have seen many castles, palaces and chateaux. Most of them are splendid, but after some time blend into an amalgamate and we are unable to distinguish whether this ballroom or salon belonged to palace A or palace B.
With Chateau de Modave its different. It has its own unique personality and you feel it the moment you enter the first hall and look at the ceiling. I had such an experience when I first visited the estate in 2007 and now Gosia, who was here for the first time, had it too. Come and see for yourself whether Modave will leave such an impression on you as well.
How it all started
The first fortress was built here by the Lords de Modave in the 13th century. Located on a high rock above the small Hoyot River it was placed on a strategic spot defening the small Episcopal Princedom of Liege. Luckily for the Princedom and for the castle, it was not often frequented by invaders.
Three centuries later (precisely in 1642) the by-then-obsolete Medieval Modave castle is sold to John of Marchin, a man of petty gentry who acquired some wealth and wanted more prestige. He does not live there long and passes it to his son, John-Gaspard-Ferdinand, Count of Marchin. John-Gaspard-Ferdinand is going to be the main character of this story.
John-Gaspard-Ferdinand, Count of Marchin
Marchin was a great military commander. Born in the nearby town of Huy, his military career started already at the age of 13. His origins were of rather lower gentry and he came from a tiny state of Liege, but his career and fame brought him honours of the greatest European monarchs of his time.
During the Thirty Years War, he served in the French army (Liege was a neutral state). The number of cities, castles and fortresses he captured is impressive. Marshin served under the famous Prince Conde, which marked his whole career. His career during the war brought him up to the rank of lieutenant general.
In 1646, close to the end of the war, he was sent from Germany to Barcelona, where he became the commander of the French Catalan army fighting againt the Spanish. Marshin became the French Viceroy in Catalonia, which was the highest rank in his career. From there it started to tumble.
In 1650, Prince Conde, his superior and mentor lost the favour of the French king Louis XIV and was imprisoned. Marchin, as his close ally, was arrested soon after and was sent to the Perpignan fortress. He tried to escape but during the attempt to flee he fell and broke his leg. He was obviously returned to his prison cell. Bad luck.
Marchin serves others
13 months later, Prince Conde was freed and so was Marchin. Seemed like all would go back to normal. Well – it didn’t.
In 1650 Prince Conde supported the famous Fronde movement and rebelled against King Louis XIV. Marchin joined him of course, fighting against the French monarch.
When the Fronde movement started to weaken, Marchin sailed to Spain where he was graciously recieved by the Spanish king. King Philip IV knew about his military skills and awarded him the rank of captain general. Marshin, who from now on served the Spanish, moved to the Spanish Netherlands (todays Belgium) where he met Prince Conde in Namur again. The Prince asked him to invade the state of Liege, but Marchin refused to attack his homeland. This lead to a huge quarrel between them. Thankfully they found a way to cooperate further, but their friendship never returned to the previous cordial levels.
At that point Marshin was already a European military celebrity. The English king Charles II Stuart, who was in refuge in Bruges at that time (due to the English home war), met with Marshin and awarded him the Order of the Garter. Marshin was also appointed commander of land and naval forces under the dukes of York and Gloucester. The Holy German Emperor Leopold I of Habsburg conferred him the title of Count of the Holy Roman Empire. He was a subject of the Holy Roman Empire after all 🙂
While he was in Brussels, the French secretly tried to bribe him so that he served them again. Unfortunately he wanted double of what they wanted to pay him and the negotiations broke down.
Marshin had failures in his career too. For example he participated in the disastrous campaign in the Portuguese Restoration War. He also led the Spanish troops against the French in the north of France, where he was defeated in 1667 by François de Créquy.
Following that defeat, Marchin then retired to his estate at Modave Castle, where he spent his entire fortune on its restoration. The restauration took 15 years.
He died in 1673 while having baths in the nearby famous town of Spa.
Remodelling the castle
Marshin demanded that the ancient fortified castle be rebuilt to resemble the most modern ideas of European country house buildings of the time. It is particularly close to the country houses of François Mansart, the architect of Versailles. Modave in fact is the most prominent preserved example of High Baroque country-house architecture in the Southern Netherlands and the Prince-Bishopric of Liège.
The château is unique for its splendidly preserved historic interiors and furniture dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. The stucco ceilings dating from the second half of the 17th century are truly impressive.
Marshin wanted to show his importance with this estate and to cover up his low gentry origins. Come and see for yourself whether he reached his goal.
Towards the present times
Château de Modave was inherited first by Marshin’s son, then a number of aristocratic families lived here till the beginning of the 20th century. In 1941 it was bought by the Brussels Water Company, as the estate has important water sources.
You may be surprised to know that nowadays it belongs to Vivaqua, the successor of the Brussels Water Company. There is a small monument in the shape of the logo of the company when you enter the estate.
Another interesting thing about the Château is that the tiles on the 19th century kitchen walls are the same ones as used in the Paris metro stations. The metro was freshly opened at that time and it amazed people, so it was in fashion to mimic it, even in the kitchen.
We do hope you’ll enjoy the visit to the Château de Modave as much as we did!