Lawrence’s route through France

In tracing Lawrence’s 1908 route and related matters I have been guided, in part, by the
highly detailed thesis presented by Maurice Larès at the University of Paris in 1976.23 I should also mention that Nicholas Lynch has retraced most of Lawrence’s route by bicycle, thereby gaining hard-won appreciation of the physical demands entailed.24

The course of Lawrence’s progress through France is portrayed in Fig. 5 together with identification of the fortified châteaux visited. Lawrence disembarked at the port of Le Havre in mid-July, 1908. He rode through Normandy along the river Seine, past Rouen, and visited Château-Gaillard and Gisors, both of which were familiar to him from the previous summer. His route then curved clockwise through northern France, taking in the castles of Pierrefonds, Coucy-le-Château and Provins. After visiting the famous pilgrimage church at Vézelay, he continued southward into difficult hilly country and, after reaching the volcanic region of Le Puy in the Auvergne, headed east for the Rhône valley. From Valence25 he rode into the sun to Avignon and Arles. From a high place somewhere near the strange deserted town of Les Baux26 he believed that he glimpsed the shimmer of the distant Mediterranean and was stirred by thoughts of one day travelling to the Near East and the old Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. Travelling westward, he was fascinated by Aigues-Mortes, an inland town still completely enclosed by a rectangle of intact thirteenth century walls. This fortified town, once a port with a channel to the Mediterranean sea, was founded by King Louis IX of France (Saint Louis) in 1248. From here his armies departed on two ill-fated crusades. By 1908 the channel had gradually silted up and the old town was surrounded by salty marshes with an extremely active population of mosquitos. Its name, implying dead waters, is derived from aquae mortuae or eaux mortes. Here Lawrence contracted a mild form of malaria, a disease that would trouble him from time to time in later life.

Fig. 5 -Lawrence’s route through France, (Summer, 1908)

Further west he reached the fortified city of Carcassonne and was duly enchanted by the extensive restoration work of Viollet-le-Duc. Thereafter his northward course was a zig-zag which included important sites and crossed the Tarn, Aveyron, Lot, Dordogne, Loire and Loir rivers. After savouring the splendours of Chartres cathedral27 he headed for the Atlantic coast and the port of St. Malo. Approximately eight weeks after his departure he arrived back home in Oxford.

En route, he visited medieval churches, abbeys and ancient towns, such as the former bastides of Aigues-Mortes and Monpazier. It must be borne in mind that the face and condition of some of the historic sites that he visited more than a century ago are much changed. Fontenay Abbey, built by Cistercian monks in the twelfth century near Montbard in Burgundy, is a case in point. Sold off in 1790 during the Revolution, it passed into the ownership of the Montgolfier family28 in 1820 and served as a paper mill until 1906. The new owner, a relative by marriage to the same family, then began the formidable task of restoration. This work had only been under way for a year or so when Lawrence arrived there. Today the restored complex is a splendid reminder of the former glories of a great medieval monastery.

In all, he had cycled 2,400 miles through France and just about managed financially by staying at modest hotels and subsisting on ‘bread, fruit and milk’. As anticipated, wear and tear of his tyres had been a problem and he recorded ‘34 punctures in 1,400 miles’ and resort to ‘repair bands’. For the record, he took photographs, bought picture postcards, made careful sketches and used letters home to convey detailed observations.

In the next section, I will comment upon ten of the twenty-seven fortified châteaux that Lawrence visited and studied.

  1. Maurice Larès, T.E. Laurence: La France et Les Français
    (Université de Lille: Service de Reproduction des Theses, 1978) ISBN 2747519732 []
  2. Nicholas Lynch, Journal of the T.E. Lawrence Society Vol. I, No.1 Spring, 1991) and Vol. IX, No. 2 (Spring, 2000). []
  3. A 16 year-old sous-lieutenant named Napoleone di Buonaparte joined the La Fère artillery regiment at this garrison town in 1785: it was his first posting as a commisioned officer. []
  4. Rose Macaulay, Pleasure of Ruins (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1953) 303-6 []
  5. Spiro Kostof, A History of Architecture: Settings and Rituals (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995) 333-341 []
  6. In the late eighteenth century, the Montgolfier brothers Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne, invented the hot-air balloon and achieved the first untethered manned flight []