This 13th century house, owned by Maison Taittinger, is a major site in the heritage of Reims. Yet its history remains partly unexplored.
In the heart of Reims and just a few hundred metres from the cathedral, the Demeure des Comtes de Champagne (Comtes de Champagne residence) is unquestionably the oldest civilian building in the Coronation City. This is confirmed by academic Patrick Demouy, an acclaimed specialist in medieval history and Reims itself. “There are several, very ancient, half-timbered houses near to the Basilica of Saint-Remi, but their construction only goes back to the 16th century,” he states. “We have evidence, however, that the Comtes de Champagne residence has existed since the 13th century”. And although it has been remodelled several times, it retains all the features of a wealthy medieval building, with its ground floor arches and gallery on the first floor.
Legend has it that it was the urban residence of the Comtes de Champagne, who used it in particular as a dwelling during royal coronations, at which time the cream of French nobility would gather across the city. “This name appeared in 1730, in an entry written by one of the canons of Reims Cathedral, also an eminent historian. He refers to a ‘Hôtel des Comtes de Champagne’, which had previously been called the ‘Hôtel du Palais Royal’.” From his research in the city’s archives, Patrick Demouy retrieved a sheet dated 1328, from during the Coronation of Philippe VI. It is a register of the size of the ‘Sacres’ – a tax levied on the wealthiest inhabitants of Reims to finance the reception of the Court – and features this house, which at the time was owned by Pierre Le Châtelain. “He belonged to one of the great families of the Reims bourgeoisie, whose fortune had been made through contact with the Archbishops of Reims. The ‘Le Châtelain’ or ‘Châtelain’ name includes several provosts and bailiffs. These were important public figures.” Their “home” was valued at £1,600, a considerable sum at the time. It is extremely well located, connecting directly with the square in which the cloth trade was conducted.
During his enquiries, Patrick Demouy has not ruled out that this building was constructed by a rich merchant wishing to display his success. “He could have used the ground floor for his business, with the first floor being reserved for his family’s home. Remember, the building is located on Rue du Tambour, or rather ‘Rue du Tabouret’ – meaning ‘bench’ – a vital accessory of the money changing profession. So, we are in the street of the money changers. The most high-profile traders in the city”, notes the historian.
The theory that the Comtes de Champagne stayed there is not to be dismissed, however. During the Coronations, it was convenient for the great lords of the Court to lodge in the city. Only a very small few could stay at the Palace of Tau. So, these guests could spend a few weeks in private homes like this, the homes of the rich bourgeoisie. “It is easy to imagine that this house, one of the most beautiful and prestigious in Reims, would have been allocated to the greatest lords of the kingdom,” surmises Patrick Demouy, who has recently been able to study in detail the organisation of the coronation of Louis XV, some 400 years ago.
If the Comtes de Champagne did stay there, it would have been before 1284, the date on which the County was reunited to the Royal Domain, on the occasion of the marriage of Joan I of Navarre and the future Philip the Fair. In any case, the building still stands out for its nobility, its size and the quality of its architecture. “The walls are very characteristic of medieval architecture, with their ‘shepherd’s cobblestone’ masonry structure separated by thick cement mortar. Once again, this is a testament to the wealth of its patrons. At a time when local architecture was predominantly timber-framed, they wanted to stand out with this type of construction.” Inside, the firstfloor gallery contains a superb carved fireplace and several statues of the Comtes de Champagne.
Damaged during the First World War, the house was purchased by Maison Taittinger and restored under the steer of what was then called the Ministry of Fine Arts. Far from belonging to the past, it “lives” still. Maison Taittinger will soon be offering a unique sound and taste experience, themed around the symbolic figurehead of Thibaud IV. Participants will enjoy a banquet, like those held during the time of the Comtes de Champagne, with musical accompaniment and, of course, the tasting of two symbolic cuvées from Maison Taittinger. Yet another opportunity to debate, and daydream, about the ever guarded history of this house.