The prisoner of Gisors

Gisors is a city in the département Eure in the Haute-Normandie in France. It lies in the historical region Vexin at the confluence of Epte, Troesne and Réveillon and had 11.677 inhabitants in 2007. Northwest of the town centre lies the forest of Gisors. The city was founded in Gallo-Roman time and became important in the 11th century. It was a border town for the kings of England and dukes of Normandy. William II of England (Guillaume II le Roux) built a castle in 1095. The Order of the temple owned the castle from 1158 to 1161. Legend has it that the treasure of the Knights Templars was hidden there, when the French king Philip IV arrested the leaders of the order in 1307. That’s not very likely though, because Gisors was conquered in 1198 by Philip II of France. He refused to use the old octagonal keep, but built a new, round keep. Nowadays the round keep is called “Tour du prisonnier” („tower of the prisoner“).

The tower of the prisoner on an old postcard in the archives of the département Eure

The Catholic League of France positioned a garrison during the French Wars of Religion (1562-1598) in Gisors. In the round keep was at that time a man imprisoned who used a nail to decorate the walls of his prison with reliefs. Some of the motifs have Christian origins, the entombment of Christ and the copy of a gisant of the church in Gisors, some motifs show his love to his wife, hearts and poems in Latin language, other motifs show castles and coats of arms. Since some of the reliefs depict a cross pattée, which was sometimes used by the Knight Templars, those crosses contributed to the formation of legends. Gérard de Sède related the reliefs to the mysterious treasure, which the parson Bérenger Saunière reputedly had found in Rennes-le-Château (département Aude).

Key and lock of the tower

The prisoner himself was only carving the initials of his name in stone, “NP”. But his full name “Nicolas Poulain” was a pseudonym. Nicolas is derived from Greek and means “victory of the people”. A “poulain” was in mediaeval times a person, that had lived in the orient or was born there. Nowadays it means “foal”. No idea why, but the “conspiracy theorists” translate it with “vanquisher of stone”.

Local historians assume, that the wife of the prisoner was Catherine de Basian and he was Éli de Beaumont. Knowing his name doesn’t help much though, at that time there were more “de Beaumont”s than sand on the shore.

The reliefs have remained. A man has carved with a nail the most valuable values of mankind in the hostile walls of his prison, love, courtesy, bravery, beauty, and eternity.

Reliefs of the prisoner in the archives of the département Eure

Romantic picture of the prisoner in his cell in the archives of the département Eure

And more romantic in the archives of the département Eure

The tower of the prisoner 2007, photo by CJ DUB on Wikimedia Commons, licence: CC Attribution

Further reading and references:

Histoire mystérieuse et insolite des Régions de France, La Normandie, by Claude Sellier and Mathurin Hémon, published by Micberth in Paris 1994, page 17-24, ISBN 2-84126-053-4

Nicolas Poulain, le prisonnier de Gisors – Gérard de Sede a tv report of 1976. Gérard de Sède (1921-2004) was a French journalist.

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