So, that’s the castle in France where the English republican Algernon Sidney (1623-1683) spent roughly five years of his exile during the Restoration period: le château de Nérac in the capital of the Pays d’Albret in the south west of the country.
The area was traditionally protestant and associated with rebellion and resistance to monarchical power. At the time Sidney lived there, between about 1672 and 1677, the castle belonged to Godefroi-Maurice da La Tour d’Auvergne, Duc de Bouillon.
The Duke’s father had fought alongside the Prince of Condé in the Fronde, the French Civil Wars of 1648 to 1653, to limit the powers of Louis XIV, and the English republican had found in Godefroi-Maurice a kindred spirit willing to offer him protection and shelter.
The building is much smaller than I expected and, located in the heart of this small town, also much less isolated than I would have thought. No wonder the locals were soon getting on Sidney’s nerves (or he on theirs for that matter). In the only known letter we have of his time there, he complains about the incompetence of the local office-holders as well as about the hunting restrictions imposed by the Duke. After all, there was not much to do for an exile trying to keep his head down than to stay in his local area and pass the time shooting things. Sidney had quite a reputation for being bad tempered and impatient, and the target of his anger, besides the local partridges, apparently were the townspeople.
It all sounds terribly posh and romantic – going into political exile in the south of France and living at a friend’s castle. The area is beautiful and known for its good food and excellent wine, and the weather is most certainly better than in rainy old England. But reading between the lines of Sidney’s bad-tempered letter we can also get a sense of the frustration he must have felt over his situation.
As the younger son of an aristocratic family who had fallen out with his father and now found himself alone in a foreign country, he was always strapped for cash and had to rely on the goodwill of his friends – in this case religious and political allies – to survive. And as much as he loved France, he couldn’t wait to get back to England. He was both keen to fight for his political cause back home, where popery and arbitrary power were on the rise, and most likely desperate to see his severely ill father before it was too late to find reconciliation.
So, the news in 1677, that he would be granted a passport to return to England, was more than welcome. Sidney managed to get home only weeks before his father died. He also made a good inheritance allowing him to live a decent life and even to consider buying a place in the south west of France where he might retire during the final years of his life. Alas, the progress of religious persecution there over the following years made this dream increasingly difficult to realise, and his plans appear to have been dismissed. But a part of Sidney would always stay in the south west of France.