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Travels of a Templar
E Kt Martin Hampton is a frequent visitor to Templar sites around Europe and has forwarded this article on a visit last year. If you have anything similar that you would like to share then please send any contribution to the webmaster.

Grand Sacre - Villedieu les Poeles, Normandy
8th June 2008

Friends of my wife and I invited us over to stay with them at their home near Vire, in Normandy last year. Ian, (a fellow Mason) knowing my connections and enormous interest in all things Templar, thought I might just be interested in taking a trip to a small nearby town Villedieu-les-Poeles, where once every 4 years there is a unique event Le Grand Sacre (The Great Rite) the origins of which date back to the mid 17th Century.

So, ferry booked, car packed, off Victoria and I went, not quite knowing what we were headed for but I for one was full of excited expectation. We were certainly not disappointed!

To help understand the occasion I have below included a brief history of Villedieu-Les-Poeles and the Grand Scare itself, followed by some photographs of our experience.

Maybe other travelling Templars finding themselves in Normandy in June 2012 might bear this event in mind and make a visit.

Villedieu-les-Poles, first French Commanderie of the Knights of Malta

The origin of Villedieu
Villedieu was founded in the 12th century by the Hospitaliers of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem. Having obtained some twelve hectares of land in the Valley of the River Sienne, the Order decided to set up a Commanderie in the part known as: Villedieu de Saultchevreuil.

The influence that the Knights of Malta had on the town
Different legal Acts of which one dating from 1187, shows the rapid development of the Commanderie under the direction of the Commander. This Commanderie having the right of "legal representation" and of "policing" had also a "Grand Chaplain" so that the medical services and the Hospitaliers could receive the pilgrims, the homeless and the sick. Guarding the hospital as with the town, was assured by the middle-class militia – the Captain and the Lieutenant being chosen by the Commander.

The ceremonies of the "Grand Sacre" (the Great Rite)
From 1655 until the French Revolution, the brotherhood of the Saint Sacrament organised under the supervision of the Knights of Malta a grand religious procession: "the Grand Sacre" (Great Rite). The procession recommenced in 1955, to celebrate the 300th anniversary of this event and now takes place every four years in Villedieu-les-Poles. It is a very popular event and attracts dignitaries from around the world.

The day starts with an open air Mass at what was the original Commanderie, conducted by Knight Malta Priests and in this instance The Archbishop of Toulouse, followed by a photo call on the steps of the Marie (Town Hall). A spot of lunch for all and sundry, to be ready for the main event in the afternoon – Le Grand Sacre – the procession of the assembled dignitaries, Knights, Townspeople and various livestock – the odd goat and sheep or two!. This starts from the Church at the Main church and proceeds around the town stopping at various major or minor points to offer prayer.

The success of copper manufacture from the Middle Ages
The start of industry in Villedieu les Poles
Numerous commercial privileges donated by Henry Beauclerc 1st, Duke of Normandy and King of England, allowed the Hospitaliers to create a favourable financial climate for the establishment of a number of artisans: pan-makers, potters, founders, carpenters and copperware manufacturers in the town.

Strangely, pan-making, up to this point unknown in the region, was a great success. In 1328, the pan-makers formed a "professional" brotherhood, employing nearly all the local population. Over the centuries the products that they produced represented a major source of wealth for Villedieu. The reputation of the pan making of Villedieu exceeded the national average to such a point that Rabelais (15th century historian) made reference to this fact in his book "The childhood of Pantagruel".

Business continued to boom with the arrival of the railway line in the 19th century running from Paris to Granville, and attracted many grand families to the town. Around this time the founders collected the pieces of copper left over from the artisans to make their bells (the bronze was made from approximately 70% copper).

Lastly, lace making, the last traditional craft to be set up in Villedieu, which also had its hour of glory in the 19th Century and represented the second source of wealth for Villedieu after the copper. Whilst the men worked the copper, the women developed a lace-making tradition that they passed on to the following generations.

Villedieu de Saultcheveuil became Villedieu-les-Poles
At the end of the 19th century, the pan-making industry employed 700 families. At this time Villedieu was known as Villedieu de Saultchevreuil, but became Villedieu-les-Poles (translates as Villedieu the "pans") in reference to the pans produced here. The inhabitants were given the name of  sourdin  (meaning deaf) because of the loud and consistent hammering of the copper, the workers often became deaf.