For every stage of the 2023 Tour de France – men’s and women’s – José Been is bringing you stories about the history, castles, geology, culture, food, and people around the race. A bit of couleur locale while you enjoy lush fields of sunflowers, beautiful mountains, and pretty little villages, oh, and the bike race too.
One week done, two to go. On stage 8 we start just outside of Bordeaux in Libourne and make our way to Limoges to the northeast. At 44 km from the line, we find Châlus, a town known as the place where English king Richard the Lionheart was mortally wounded in 1199.
Although Richard was well known for his heroic acts in battle and the Third Crusade, his death was actually not so heroic. Richard was of course King of England but spent most of his time in France. After all his mother was French and he inherited a lot of land. It was also in France that he died.
After supper on the evening of March 26, 1199, Richard went to check the progress of an ongoing castle siege in Châlus, a rebellious part of Aquitaine. And because he wasn’t going into battle, he didn’t bother with body armour. The bloodshed among the locals in Châlus was enormous. One boy lost his father and his two brothers. He knew that he would also die in the besieged castle. As revenge for his family being murdered, he fired an arrow at the king which struck Richard in the shoulder.
Back in the royal tent, a surgeon, working by flaming torchlight, eventually dug out the offending barb and the wound was dressed and bandaged.
Richard then showed mercy on the young bowman who was named Pierre … or Basile, or John. It’s 800 years ago and chronicles really differ in their actual account of that time. The young boy had expected to be executed, but according to the chronicles he heard the King say: “Live on, and by my bounty behold the light of day.” Then he ordered the boy to be freed and sent away with 100 shillings.
The King continued to recover but as medieval European surgery wasn’t big on infection control he quickly succumbed to this seemingly minor wound because it had turned gangrenous. For the young bowman it was also not a happy ending. The moment the king died Pierre was captured again and skinned alive. Richard’s heart was buried in Rouen, his body in Anjou, but his entrails stayed in Châlus. The boy was probably tossed in an anonymous grave.
Our finish town is in Limoges today on the western foothills of the Massif Central. In 1995 the 18th stage of the Tour de France finished in Limoges as well. It was three days after the tragic death of Fabio Casartelli. The Motorola team had crossed the line together the following stage, a moment we sadly also witnessed quite recently after the death of Gino Mäder.
Two days after this sad tribute to their Italian teammate, Casartelli’s American Motorola teammate Lance Armstrong, attacked and won the stage in Limoges solo. Armstrong pointed to heaven when he crossed the line.
For me personally it was the moment I started following the sport more closely. This mix of emotions really got to me. From a profound loss of a young rider and father and a peloton in tears to the perseverance of his teammate winning a stage for a fallen friend. There was so much more to this cycling my dad always watched on TV than I thought.
By the way, that win in Limoges is one of the 44 victories Armstrong did get to keep.
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