The Coalman is maître chez lui…but does he have his own moat?

According to legend, in the 16th century King Francis I of France presumably lost his way whilst hunting and found himself, late on a Winter’s evening, outside a collier’s hut. Requesting food and lodging for the night, he was admitted by the lady of the house and proceeded to make himself comfortable by the fire (seated in the dwelling’s only chair), whilst awaiting the return of the absent collier. Upon arrival this collier is said to have greeted the king amiably but, completely ignoring his guest’s (infinitely higher) social status, and no doubt failing to recognise him, demanded both chair and fireside location, stating that this was where he always sat, that it was his chair and that ‘charbonnier est maître chez lui’. Apparently Francis I was a good sport – he perched himself instead upon a stepladder and didn’t immediately vow to have the poor man imprisoned for insubordination. Supposedly they then discussed current affairs as equals and parted on good terms the next morning, after the king had revealed his true identity and paid his host for his hospitality.

I cannot verify the historical accuracy of this tale, or whether the collier’s hosting skills, and seeming disregard for his own wife’s comfort (with only one chair in the hut I doubt she ever sat down), were really as dreadful as they were made to appear. Dubious manners aside, however, I applaud the sentiment. No-one should ever feel themselves inferior to a guest in their own home (and certainly not to one of the uninvited and intrusive variety). Homes have a duty of care towards their occupants; they should support, uplift and protect, building self-esteem, and confidence, whilst promoting a general sense of well-being.

The equivalent expression from my homeland is that ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’. It is a maxim that I have had to cling to, since, despite the existence of a wealth of châteaux in my locality, to my continuing chagrin my husband steadfastly refuses to acquire one for me (I have no idea why). I have therefore had no choice but to dive, head first, into the depths of my imagination to create my own castle within the framework of my (actually quite lovely) French farmhouse. As an anglaise I am revelling in my right to embellish as the queen of my own castle. I have reimagined rooms into The Back Kitchen, The Library and The Reading Room (where nobody has ever read), and my pièce de résistance is The Minstrel Gallery (a dark upstairs corridor where various musical instruments gather dust and where a large, railed-off hole looks down upon our dining table thanks to the removal of an unwanted staircase).

My imagination becomes somewhat unstuck regarding the creation of the moat, which any self-respecting English castle ought to possess. There was the exciting possibility of half a moat when we first made the acquaintance of our home – the agent immobilier casually gestured towards a ruisseau at the bottom of the garden, which my husband became unwilling to translate, no doubt fearing that my inevitable reaction would raise the asking price (I squealed, a garden with a stream is my ideal), but disappointingly it has stubbornly remained blocked and come to nothing. I have, therefore, had to improvise wildly and to reach back into my dim and distant past to retrieve a higher level of maths than I currently possess, in order to convince myself (fairly easily done, we are usually in agreement with each other), by way of proportions, that I could still have my moat.

Here is my logic: the extent of a figurative Englishman’s castle’s moat must surely depend upon the proportion of Englishmen living within. There isn’t a huge amount of pure English-ness in my blood, less in my son’s, and goodness only knows in my husband’s. Proportionally, then, we should be allowed to claim a smaller body of water on the boundary of our property as our moat…and I have found a perfect specimen. It is the tiniest moat in existence, probably more of a ‘moatlet’. It is rectangular, measuring a few feet in length and a few feet deep (I am guessing). It is patrolled by two sentry toads, and guarded by very distant cousins (several times removed) of the dragon: beautiful black and yellow salamanders. Wikipedia informs me that Francis I’s personal emblem was coincidentally the salamander, which clearly justifies my entire argument and renders all the maths unneccessary (as usual). We inherited the staff. Water can be seen if you peer closely into the gloom, taking a form similar to that of a puddle. Normally the only people to venture within are men from the waterboard, who brave the guards to read our water meter.

Until recently a drawbridge has always been down, covering the entirety of the moat. You would be forgiven for mistaking it for an old piece of bent metal. It has always provided safe passage up until recently, however, when my husband discovered that the wooden supports had rotted away, turning our little moat into a combination of a ha-ha and Edgar Allan Poe’s most excellent pit. It suddenly become a trap to ensnare unworthy fiends, trespassing monarchs and our unwitting selves. Happily there are many other ways to access our home so only the most foolish or least worthy had any occasion to fear falling to their doom. Until such time as my husband was able to repair the damage an old car trailer was heaved over the hole. The farmhouse to castle transformation was now complete, and we were fortified against siege. Enemies beware!

Mots du jour:

charbonnier est maître chez lui – the collier is master in his own home, or the Engligh equivalent: an Englishman’s home is his castle châteaux – castles anglaise – English woman agent immobilier – estate agent ruisseau – stream

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