The history of the Manoir de la Bonnerie

The history of the Manoir de la Bonnerie is closely tied to the history of Essay and its royal castle, as well the noble family, the Ruault de la Bonnerie, who owned the manor house before the French Revolution.

The main manor house as we see it today dates from the fifteenth century, with its mullioned windows and fairytale staircase tower. However, this part of Normandy was menaced by troops raiding the peasantry and burning crops during the Hundred Years' War,  and a big manor house like this also had a defensive role to play. The staircase has meurtriers to allow archers to defend the house, and lots of period ammunition has been dug up in the garden. The manor was no doubt a key part of Essay's defences, along with its walls and castle.
The manor was extended in the 17th-18th centuries, and many of the delightful garden buildings were added at this point; these currently house exhibition and boutique space. La Bonnerie also once had a dovecot, but this was destroyed in the early nineteenth century.

The Ruault de la Bonnerie lived in this house until the French Revolution, when they fled from France as émigrés, and the house was seized by the Revolutionaries.  The last surviving family inventory from the house shows that whilst they were noble, they were not particularly rich, and had very frugal furnishings. Proof of their limited wealth lies in the fact that Jeanne-Marie Ruault de la Bonnerie attended the royal school at St-Cyr, established by Madame de Maintenon and Louis XIV for the daughters of poor, but good families. She later went on to serve the Dowager Duchess of Orléans as her reader and companion, and would have met many notable characters of the Ancien Regime.


The last member of the family to be noted in the public record was Jean Baptiste Isidore, Lieutenant Colonel of the Chasseurs Cantabre bataillon in 1786, Field Marshal at Lille in 1792 in the Armée du Nord.

He gained military renown at the siege of Lille, against the Austrians under the Duke of Saxe-Teschen. His name figures on the north pillar of column A of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. A road in Lille still bears his name today. He held senior military command during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, and retired in 1809. He died at Gratz in 1816; neither he nor his descendants were able to regain the Bonnerie.


After the Revolution the house was used as Essay's gendarmerie, and many of the house's original features were destroyed in order to create offices, prison cells and lodgings for the police officers.

Creation and development

In a period of just ten years, the current owners have developed the gardens with an eye to the beautiful backdrop of the hilltop village of Essay. From the manor's lawns, one can see the chapel of Marguerite of Lorraine, the only surviving part of Essay's royal castle, and the red tiled roofs of Renaissance houses.
When Sabine Dunais and Jean Bastien moved to the house in 2000, the gardens were an untended pasture of 7400m², richly infested by snakes and amphibians, and littered with building rubble. They set about remodelling the garden in order to maximise the view to Essay, and to profit from, and protect the garden's out-buildings, wells and mature trees. The magnificent Himalayan Cedar and varieties of apple trees were safeguarded. Heavily shaded areas were minimised, and many months were devoted to attacking the ivy which had taken over the dependances and garden walls.
Only when all the cleaning work had been done could the owners begin to plan their gardens, starting with the management of the perspective, inspired by the work of Carlos de Bestigui at the château de Groussay. A yew 'room' was planted in 2002, followed by a significant collection of hemerocallis.
The box framework for the rose garden was established, followed by the first roses, and the planting of a 'green' theatre in 2007, based on a non-implemented design for the Petit-Trianon at Versailles.

The gardens deeply reflect the passion of their owner, Sabine. Inspired by the history of noble and royal parks and gardens, and as a self-taught gardener, she has selected the rare and beautiful specimens to be seen at la Bonnerie. Her passion and expertise have combined with great aplomb, and to visit the gardens is to feel truly refreshed. The garden has been developed on modest means, and does not rely on state support. Please come to enjoy them.