The marquis of Tombelaine, a human tourist attraction


Tombelaine is an isle in the English Channel, it belongs to the département Manche of the region Basse-Normandie of France. It lies 2,5 km north of Mont-Saint-Michel and southwest of the commune Genêts. There are a lot of legends concerning the name of the isle. It is said, that a niece of an English king or the Celtic god Belenus are buried there. One of the names for Mont-Saint-Michel was “Mont Tombe”, mount tomb. If this was the big tomb, Tombelaine might have been the small tomb.

The isle is uninhabited today and used as a bird sanctuary. In medieval times it was inhabited. In 1048 two monks moved on the isle and built the first houses and a chapel. In the 13th century a monastery was founded on Tombelaine. English forces built fortifications on the isle during the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453). Protestants were casting money from objects they had stolen from catholic churches during the French Wars of Religion (1562-1598). In the 17th century Nicolas Fouquet (1615-1680) was the marquis de Belle Isle and of Tombelaine. He was finance minister of Louis Ludwigs XIV (1638-1715) and suspected of organizing a civil war. Tombelaine was considered as one of the bases of this revolt, thus Louis XIV gave order to destroy all buildings on the isle.

The French government bought the isle in 1933, it was classified as “Monument historique” (listed building status) in 1936 and it’s used as a bird sanctuary since 1985. Today gulls and common shelducks occupy Tombelaine.


Tombelaine, in the background lies the Mont-Saint-Michel, in the foreground you can see the mudflats. Photo by Nitot, licence: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

The marquis of Tombelaine

His birth name was Joseph-Marie Gautier, he was born on 22 April 1853 in Allineuc in Brittany. His mother was a beggar woman and so he was entrusted in the care of a hospice in Saint-Brieuc. When he was 20 years old he was convicted of a small delict to stay in prison for one day. From this day forth he used the pseudonym Jean Lideluge, respectively Jean le Déluge. Around 1880 Jean le Déluge slept, like some native fishermen, during the summer in hedges or makeshift dwellings on Tombelaine.

He was described as a tall and forceful man with a round face, big blue eyes and lots of long hair and beard. He was eloquent and attracting the interest of journalists. They described him in articles and books, they took photos of him and published them on postcards. On those postcards he wears a beret, carries a “hotte” (basket) and a “Bichette“. The bichettes of the bay of Mont-Saint-Michel are dip nets attached to two long poles. Jean le Déluge liked to pose for the photographs and was boasting about his fictitious luck with women.

He earned his living by touting for the first (private) museum on the Mont-Saint-Michel, by fishing with his bichette, by carrying tourists on his back and by selling a booklet called “Mémoires du Marquis de Tombelaine” that was printed by the museum and available in French and English.

marquis de tombelaine

the Marquis of Tombelaine, illustration in Les Enfants de Louisette by Marie Miallier published 1893, public domain

The title “marquis” was an allusion to the above mentioned Fouquet. The journalists renamed Jean le Déluge and called him marquis Jean de Tombelaine. His new image was similar to that of the literary character Jean Valjean of “Les Miserables” (published in 1862) by Victor Hugo (1802-1885). A former convict who acquires knowledge and prosperity. An allegory for the good in man and for the ability to improve oneself.

Jean de Tombelaine broke a leg in winter 1891/92 and was hospitalized. One or two months after his discharge he got lost in a mist. On 30 March 1892 a farmer found him dead on a beach of Saint-Broladre. He drowned at the age of 39. Promptly a legend emerged, his death was attributed to an attempt to rescue someone else from drowning. He was buried in Saint-Broladre.

Since the “marquis” was a popular curiosity his place was immediately taken by “false” marquis’. That caused confusion about the appearance of the “real” marquis. Till 1939 there were even two men that claimed to be his descendants. The Second World War stopped the creation of legends and the marquis de Tombelaine fell into oblivion.

Le Marquis de Tombelaine retomba dans les flots, perdit sa connaissance et noya. The marquis of Tombelaine falls back into the floods, loses his consciousness and drowns. Illustration by Ferdinand Raffin in Le tour de France en aéroplane, published 1910. Licence: public domain


Tombelaine: l’îlot de la baie du Mont-Saint-Michel by Robert Sinsoilliez, published 2000 by Ancre de Marine Editions. ISBN=9782841411573, Seite=183-186.

Toponymie générale de la France by Ernest Nègre, volume 1 and volume 2, published by Librairie Droz in 1996, pages:322 (1), 1021+1211 (2). ISBN=9782600028844 and 9782600001335

Baie du Mont-Saint-Michel by Virginie Maubourguet, Sophie Mastelinck, Odile Simon published by Nouveaux-Loisirs in Paris in 1994 pages:29+198, ISBN=2742402381

Genêts in the Base Mérimée of the French Ministère de la culture

The images are linked with their sources.

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The marquis of Tombelaine, a human tourist attraction by stanze, Stanzilla, stanzebla is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.

One thought on “The marquis of Tombelaine, a human tourist attraction

  1. The marquis of Tombelaine, a human tourist attraction « Stanze's ……

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