Bellencombre and la Varenne River 2006-2007

By James R. Warren

The French Village of Bellencombre is a small community of just over 600 residences that live today just about the same as Mr. M. A. Lower found in 1845. His description of this ancient seat of the De Warennes in Normandy was read at an antiquarian meeting at Arundel, August 9, 1894.  Below he describes the place:


“At the distance of a league and a half from S. Victor, at a place little known to the antiquary and rarely visited by the tourist, stand the remains of the habitation of the once potent De Warennes.  A picturesque village of one broad street, consisting of irregular antique houses, chiefly constructed with wood, and flanking the mairie, constitutes the bourg of Bellencombre, which occupies a very agreeable and picturesque situation on the western side of the river Varenne.  This river which rises in, and gives name to, the neighboring commune of Omonville-sur-Varenne, is now more generally known as the riviere d’ Arques, because it passes the castle and town of Arques on its way to join the Bethune, which debouches a few miles northward at the haven of Dieppe.  The town itself, in early times, bore the same name as the river, and from it the De Warennes took their surname.  It was not until the graceful mound upon which the castle stands had been cast up, that the spot assumed another name, and was called Bellencombre, which, as Mr. Stapleton observes, may be literally translated Bellus Cumulus, “the fair mound or pile.  At the present day, Bellencombre is the chef-lieu of a canton in the arrondissement of Dieppe, containing a population of less than 1000 inhabitants.

     The castle of Bellencombre recently belonged to M. Godard de Belbeuf, of the Chateau de Belbeuf, near Rouen, and previously to the Duchess de Fontaine-Martel, near Bulbee, chatelaine de Cletes, who married the Duke de Bethune Charrost.  It is now in the hands of a small proprietor named M. Dillard.

     It occupies the artificial mound alluded to, and is apparently about 100 feet above the river Varenne.  A few massive walls of stone and brick, once a portion of the keep or donjon constituted the whole of the existing remains.  Nor will this excite surprise, when I state that the property was purchased by the present possessor for the sum of 10,000 franks, in the year 1835, for the express purpose of selling the materials; and so little ashamed is the old man of his sordid spoliation, that he told us, with an air of the utmost satisfaction, that he had, within the last ten years sold 18,000 feet of freestone, procured by the demolition of the two entrance towers only.  The height of these towers was above 50 feet.  Unless some friendly influence should arrest the progress of destruction, in a few years more it will have to be said of Bellencombre—.


“Etium perierunt Runae”


In the middle of the donjon, according to Mr. Dillard’s statement, stood a Chapel, no remains of which are now visible.  The area, enclosed by the valium and fosse, measures between two and three acres, and includes the parish church of St. Peter.  Within the memory of man, a long flight of steps, extend from the warder’s lodge to the keep: but this also has disappeared.

The accompanying etchings have been made from drawings taken on the spot in 1832, before the building was delivered over to the spoiling cupidity of Mr. Dillard.  At that date it consisted chiefly of two lofty round towers, with machicolations, but the battlements had disappeared.  Between the towers were a principal and a side gateway; and over these were two longitudinal openings, by means of which the drawbridge was raised.  Internally the towers were square; but the interior walls of the left-hand tower had been removed previously to1832.

I need hardly state, that the present owner of Bellencombre Castle had never heard the name of a De Warenne!

     Very little appears to be known of the history of the descent of this castle.  That it was the caput baroniae of the Earls of Warenne is beyond question, although the Norman antiquaries and historians scarcely recognize the fact.  Indeed, I was assured, by a very erudite archaeologist, that the earliest record respecting it to be met with in Normandy was dated no earlier than the time of John sans Terre.  It is not, therefore, surprising that Dr. Watson, the English historian of the family, gives only two or three incidental notices of Bellencombre.  It appears from Dugdale, that William de Warenne, the second earl, with Isabel, alias Elizabeth, his wife, gave to the church of All Saints, at Bellencombre, and the infirm brethren there serving God, all his arable lands at St. Martin’s, probably part of the ancient paternal estate of the family.  The brethren thus referred to where the constituents of a hospital of lepers, founded here in early times.  Isabel, Countess de Warenne, likewise in the year 1135, gave to these lepers the sum of one hundred shillings, arising out of the borough of Lewes.

     William, fourth Earl of Warenne, by accord between King Stephen and Henry Duke of Normandy, resigned certain rights, on condition that Reginald de Warenne (son of William the second Earl) should, if he thought fit, have the custody of the castle of Bellencombre and Mortimer, giving hostages to the duke for same, until Henry should become king of England.


On the separation of England and Normandy, the conation of the De Warennes with Bellencombre ceased.  The castle, however, remained as a fortress till a much later date.  In the parish church (which exhibits very evident traces of the style known among us as that pertaining to the Norman period, and which was probably created by one of the early earls) is  an incised slab, with an inscription which shows that the governorship of the castle was an office existing so lately as the year 1519.  It is to the following effect:


“Beneath lie the viscera and intestines of the late noble and puissant Lord, Monsieur James de Moy, in his lifetime Chevalier, Baron of Moy, and hereditary Castellan of this land, lordship, and castelry of Bellencombre.  His heart and body are buried in the collegiate church of Moy.  He died on Sunday, the 12th of February, in the year of grace 1519.”

     I inquired of Mr. Dillard if any other articles had been found, and he stated that about two years since his wife had picked up silver ring and an antique spur, both of which she had sold.  Many tiles of medieval date had also been found.  The grater part of them were taken from a corridor in the castle, and now laid down in the kitchen of the old man’s cottage.

     I was fortunate enough to procure one relic of extremely interesting character, for which this modern Baron of Bellencombre demanded the moderate sum of two francs, and the sale of which seemed to him a very satisfactory transaction.  It is a bronze wyvern – in the opinion of M. I’Abbe¢ Cochet, of the 13th century.  The wyvern or two-legged dragon was the crest or rather badge of the De Warenne family; and the article in question bears a striking general resemblance to some drawings of it made in the time of Henry VII, and engraved at page 13, vil.1, of Watson.  The only material difference between them is, that the latter have expanded checquy wings, while in my bronze figure the wings are close, and very slightly relieved from the back.  I may mention that Alice, Countess of Warenne, and consort of John, the seventh earl, was buried in Lewes Priory, in 1296, before the high alter, under a marble tomb, whereon was sculptured a wyvern, or heraldic dragon, with a branch in its mouth.  The coincidence may be accidental, but it is certainly highly curious, and deserving of further consideration.


     These few facts, however meager they may appear, are all that I was enabled to glean regarding this once important and interesting spot.  I trust, however, that their relation to Sussex history, and their connection with a distinguished race, represented at this time by the noble proprietor of Arundel, will render them acceptable to the members of a Society which may truly be said have been called into existence by the discovery of the bones of William de Warenne and Gundrada. ” 


     If Mr. Lower could return today he would find much unchanged as we did in September 2006 and 2007.  A more recent timeline description can be found on the Internet as follows:


Name of the commune





Seine-Maritime (76)

Postal code




666 inhabitants


1291 hectares


83 meters



Historical general information

·        Find the name “Bellencumbre” quoted in the 11th. century

·        Formed community beginning 19th by the fusion of the old parishes of Bellencombre, Saint-Martin-under-Bellencombre (“Sancto Martino” in 1154), Heuze (“Hosa” in 1120) and Them Authieux-on-Bellencombre (“of Altaribus” in 1240).

·        Neolithic presence.

·        Exploitation of mines of iron and forging mills of the Gallo-Roman time with 17 th.

·        The châtellenie (castle Bellencombre), initially belonged to the Norman family of Warenne, passed to the royal field at the time of the annexation of Normandy.

·        Saint Louis gave it to a clerk in 1269, then Philippe the Beautiful one yielded it to perpetuity in 1309 with the family of Heuze.

·        The castle Bellencombre was built in 11th century, altered with 16th century, was dismantled only in 1833/35. 

·        The priory of All-the-Saint and his leper-house, founded in 1130, were removed with the Revolution.



Prehistoric and ancient vestiges

·        2 frank cemeteries: bones, vases and armours.

·        Gallo-Roman stone furnace bridge Christianized, in re-employment in the vault of Heuze.


Civil architecture

·        Ruins of the château (castle Bellencombre) 11th/16th, dismantled then restored 19th: large trenched enclosure with round towers surrounding the mound which carried a square keep until 1833/35 (cut up by a realtor).

·        Castle of Large Heuze 16th: ditches, turrets, vault.

·        Castles of the Split, Quaine, the Mount-Roty.

·        Vestiges of the Arundel camp former to the English invasions.


Structure crowned

·        Church of Saint-Martin-sous-Bellencombre 12th/18th: drink carved Renaissance.

·        Old chapelle* of the priory of All-the-Saint 13th Gothic (MH) (firm).

·        Vault Saint-Christophe of Heuze 1531, in the enclosure of the castle: stone Rebirth retable, Gallo-Roman furnace bridge; stone and wood statues.

·        Church Saint-Pierre-and-Saint-Paul de Bellencombre rebuilt with 19th in néo-novel, in the enclosure of the castle: statues Rebirth.  

·        Cross of way 16th with the Split.



·        National forest of Eawy: beeches, alley of Limousins.

·        Banks of the Game preserve.

Resources and productions

·        Forestry development Pastures, cereals, mixed-farming.

·        Bovines, sheep, porcine.

·        Technical visits - “the Valley of Bore-holes”: goat's milk cheeses Norman.

·        Technical visits - the Attic of Heuze: production of dried flowers.


Local life

Fair: 3/4, 9/10. Market: Tuesday. Employers' festival: 29/6, Saint-Christophe with Heuze: 26/7. Pilgrimage of the motorists: 26/7. Pedestrian and equestrian paths marked out, passage of the GR225. Camp-site with the farm. Culture and compositions of dried flowers, visit.



In September 2007 I returned to Bellencombre, France thanks to Alan and Sandy Warren again providing their home and transportation.  My daughter Cathy accompanied me this trip and helped record our trip on digital camera and camcorder.  At the Castle Mount we made a new discovery of a Curtain Wall extending off the right front of the castle mound and sweeping southeast some 150 yards making a left turn east around the Presbytery garden to the front drive.  The wall at its highest point is about 25 feet and lowers down to three feet at the driveway.  Like the castle ruins it is a masonry mixture of flint and lime mortar made in part as a retaining wall holding the west bank.  Foliage covers more than half the wall especially in the garden area and is very hard to see the stone work unless you can get very close.    We also found the remains of a second column on the right side.  It had been covered with Ivy and was behind the bench on the front edge standing about 4 feet above the surface extending some eight or ten feet down the side.  Now we can account for six on the left and two on the right and this time made good photos of them all.  I will attempt to describe the mount and ruins.


The top of the castle mound is 50 yards deep, 35 yards wide and rises some 30 to 40 feet above the drive and parking area of the Presbytery.  A gravel road extends around the northwest side ascending up and around to the front entrance on the southwest where the ground appears to level out into a grassy court yard in the shape of the oval mound.  The land southwest and behind the entrance is level and covered by trees and vegetation for several yards before rising up a gradual hillside into farmland.  There are two pillars or columned ruins on the right and left of the entrance both some 20 feet high and appear as what one could imagine would stand before a drawbridge.  The left column has three more attached like jagged teeth then a space of 10 yards before the fifth rises as a heap six feet high another space of five yards and the sixth and last column about 15 feet.  Out of its side a small wood roof covers the ceramic statue of the Virgin Mary and a kneeling Mary Magdalene holding a candle.  Some ten feet out from this is a crucifix that stands on a platform of cut stone all being approximately 14 feet in height and facing the main street of the village to the east.  The right side has a wood bench of two by ten planking held up by cut logs that starts at the center of the back of the mound and circles about half the length on the right opposite the memorial.  It can easily seat more than 50 people and in all probability the place is used for religious purposes by the church.  As stated before a small ruined column on the right front behind this bench accounts for the two columns on the right side of the mount.  A four foot chain link fence stretches across the back of the mount which overlooks the town.  There are many hemlock and beech trees on and around the ruins.  They tend to fill in the spaces of the missing pillars forming a green wall where stone and mortar once stood.  This is especially true on the right side where six hemlocks grow behind the bench.  Much of the stone is covered with ivy which has to be continually trimmed.  The supporting or Curtain wall discovered this September 2007 embraces the right front of the mound and can be seen by following a trail that follows the rounded contour of that side descending down to the back before reversing direction leading into the Presbytery yard facing the wall.  It is an impressive site to see and a mystery as to why we did not notice it on our first visit. The whole mound, walls and ruins seem to be hidden by a green camouflage of ivy, hemlock and beech trees tucked behind the Church, Presbytery, outbuildings and two homes now all upon what was once the Castle of Bellencombre.  A real curiosity struck me as to why the town and church has not featured and promoted the Ruin as it stands so prominent over the community.  You really have to look hard to see the large wooden cross with the outstretched arms of a ceramic Jesus hanging there facing the main street. No one could miss it with just a few trees removed and the mound cleaned.  One reality followed us as we left for our return trip back to Newhaven and on to Alabama. Very few people ever get the opportunity to stand upon and explore the very ground from which their name was created.  The first people to use the WARREN sir name left this place in the year 1066, joined their kinsman William the Conqueror in the conquest of England and built Lewis Castle there becoming one of the new king’s strongest supporters.  This became the heritage of this Warren Family down to the third Earl at which time the Plantagenet king’s relation married the Earl Warren’s widow taking the name.  This would last until 1347 when last Earl Warren died without legitimate sons.  His titles passing through his sister, mother of Richard Fitzalan, 3rd Earl Arundel. It is my belief our Warren family descends from Edward Warren a son of the last and eighth Earl Warren of Poynton, England.

Entrance Towers of Bellencombre from Mr. Lower’s Book

Interior of Bellencombre 1832

Driving north into Bellencombre 2006

Parked beside Church.  Sandy checking out petrol prices

Front of Saint Pierre Church Bellencombre

Hotel de Deippe on main street Bellencombre  

Looking up Main Street Bellencombre.  If you know what you are looking for it should jump out at you in this photo.

Alan and Sandy on their way to a new discovery

The Presbytery

Hill Street overlooking village above Presbytery entrance which is behind the golden rods.

Trees above this driveway on Hill Street block the view of the front of the castle mount.

Alan and Sandy enquiring from the mailman about Castle Ruins (Nothing but Devine timing

Alan and Sandy using best French while I am snapping away with camera.

Photocopy of Bellencombre Castle given to us by lady of Presbytery a drawing by P. Atunx.   The castle Bellencombre was built in 11th century, altered with 16 th century, was dismantled in 1833/35.

Back of Castle Mount from Presbytery Drive (notice where workman have cut weeds)

Road up to Castle ruins from Presbytery Driveway

Up we go

Front entrance of Castle Bellencombre



Left and right entrance columns to castle ruins inspected by Sandy Warren

Castle Remains from Interior

Interior of Bellencombre Castle




Alan Inspecting Shrine 2006


Shrine of Bellencombre Castle




View of Saint Pierre Church and Village from Castle Mount the reverse of page 15



View of Presbytery from Castle Mount


Benches on Right Side of Castle mount where there is only two wall sections


Right rear column covered with foliage 2007

Interior View of first four left remaining wall fragments 2006


Interior View of first four left remaining wall fragments 2007

Fifth and sixth columns left side 2007


Fifth and sixth columns left side 2007


Right side of castle mound 2007

Curtain Wall as it meets right front of castle mound 2007

Curtin Wall as it meets right front of castle mound 2007

Further down Curtain Wall 2007

 Further down Curtain Wall 2007

Curtain Wall as it runs down into the Presbytery Garden 2007  Curtain Wall in the Presbytery Garden covered with follage 2007



Ronnie and Alan Warren standing on the very ground from where their name was first used.


Alan Warren had been to Bellencombre on two other occasions. French custom maintains strict privacy and not wanting to disturb the people living around what he thought was the remains of the castle mount he was reluctant to explore their drives and property.  But this time our timing was right. As if it was meant to be, a mailman drove out of what turned out to be the driveway to the Priest’s House just when we were walking down the hill.  See photo.  He directed us to the Presbytery where we were welcomed to visit the mount and take all the photos we wanted by the lady of the house.  She brought out photocopies of the old castle before being torn down and one of Lewes Castle in England explaining in French while Alan and Sandy picked out the main points of the conversation and thanked her for such great hospitality.  As you can see we made the most out of this rare opportunity.


Close Up View of Flint Wall Construction.  Identical to that used at Lewes Castle

Cathy and Ronnie on Castle Bellencombre Mount 2007

Ronnie and Alan on Castle Bellencombre Mount 2007


Road back down from castle mount

Alan leads us out ruins to the Presbytery grounds and back to the village 2006

View of Presbytery from Street on the way out 2006


View Down Main Street in Front of Post Office and Church

Saint Pierre Church Door


 Looking down right side of Main Street   

Bridge over La Varenne River Bellencombre


La Varenne River looking north from bridge in Bellencombre


La Varenne River looking south in Bellencombre

Bellencombre form the East Overlook by Grammar School.  The shape of the Castle Mound can be seen by the rise and

fall of the trees behind and right of the Church. 2007







La Varenne River Leaving Bellencombre

Following the La Varenne back to Dieppe



Described in 1849 by Mr. M. A. Lower


This river which rises in, and gives name to, the neighboring commune of Omonville-sur-Varenne, is now more generally known as the riviere d’Arques, because it passes the castle and town of Arques on its way to join the Bethune, which debouches a few miles northward at the haven of Dieppe. The town itself, in early times, bore the same name as the river, and from it the De Warennes took their surname.  



While viewing the satellite maps found on my PC I was able to follow the la Varenne River where it begins at the headwaters below the small Normandy villages of Saveaumare and Beaumont.  They lye just a few miles below Saint Martin Osmonville described by Mr. Lower in 1849.  It travels north through La Boissierre then to Saint Saens where we spent the night and on through Rosay.  Flowing northward a few more miles we began photographing the river at Bellencombre.  Much of the river amounts to no more than a few meters wide and would be considered a “creek” in the US.  As it meanders northward near the village of Le Bois Robert the river has been diverted into dozens of fishing lakes.  We drove west on a road that led to an overlook of this farming valley flanked by the lakes amounting to as small as 5 acres to one over 30.  The river must flow through them helping to maintain good level and current for as it emerges below the Lake District it is considerably wider and faster flowing.  We could keep a visual contact on its meanderings and when we reached the community of Martigny Alan spotted a farm lane that appeared to lead to the la Varenne.  The photos show our last good look at the stream from which our last name took its trails down through history.  



La Varenne River Leaving Bellencombre

Le Bois Robert Village by la Varenne Lakes

Close-up of la Varenne Lakes

Close-up of la Varenne Lakes by Le Bois Robert Village


La Varenne River at Martigny where two streams meet around an island

La Varenne River at Martigny flowing toward Dieppe and the Sea

Church and barn from farm lane to river at Martigny

Farm Lane to La Varenne River at Martigny

Liberte Egaute Frateanite Martigny


The head water of the Varenne River lies in the lower right below Osmonville-sur-Varenne flowing north

Joining the Bethune above Arques-la-Bataille where they empty into the sea at Dieppe

The Church and Castle Mount are marked below the road at the “Gie”

This is where we drove behind the church and farm where the Varenne flows around an island

The Varenne and the Bethune Rivers meet above Arques-la-Bataille and proceed on north into the sea at Dieppe.

The Varenne and the Bethune Rivers meet above Arques-la-Bataille and become the L Arques at Dieppe.