Set amid the lush green hills surrounding Baigorri in Lower Navarre, the Etxauz Château is one of the most important buildings, historically and culturally speaking, in Iparralde, the Northern Basque Country. It is thought to have been constructed around 1555 on the orders of Grazian Etxauz, Viscount of Baigorri, a member of one of the oldest noble houses in Lower Navarre (whose family name has historically also been spelled Echauz, Eschaud, (de) Echaux, and Etchauz). Thereafter it enjoyed a remarkable history that included some illustrious owners and guests.
The grandson of Grazian Etxauz, Bertrand Etxauz (c. 1556-1641), inherited the title Viscount of Baigorri together with the property on the death of his father Antoine, who had been breadmaster to King Henry II of France (an important position at the French court). Bertrand entered the Church and, possessing good connections as an almoner to both his kinsman King Henry IV (Henry III of Navarre) and his successor Louis XIII, was appointed Bishop of Baiona in 1599. Then in 1617 he was made Archbishop of Tours, a post he held until his death in 1641. Bertrand Etxauz was a strong advocate of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, especially in response to the rise of Calvinism in the Basque Country in the sixteenth century (on which see a previous post on Jeanne d’Albret, Queen of Navarre) and also took part in organizing the Catholic Church’s witch hunts. In regard to the latter, however, it would appear that Etxauz called for clemency where possible and a peaceful solution o to the issue of suspected witchcraft. In The Basques of Lapurdi, Zuberoa, and Lower Navarre: Their History and Their Traditions, Philippe Veyrin notes (p. 179): “on the advice of the prelate [Etxauz], who was disturbed by the excesses of the criminal commission [on witchcraft], Henry IV recalled the cruel councilor De Lancre who had been unwisely granted overextended powers.” Etxauz even intervened personally to save the lives of five priests who had been condemned to death for alleged witchcraft activities.
Interestingly, a 1584 letter written in Basque by Etxauz to his brother is housed in the French National Library and he was clearly involved in Basque cultural circles. He was a friend and patron of Pedro Agerre, “Axular” (c. 1556-1644)–widely considered the most prominent among a productive school of writers of religious literature in the Lapurdian dialect of Basque in the early seventeenth century–whom he appointed parish priest of Sara, Lapurdi, in 1600; and this in the face of some protest because Axular was considered in some quarters a “foreigner,” having been born in Urdazubi, Navarre. Indeed, and probably at Etxauz’s insistence, Henry IV even had to write a letter supporting the appointment of Axular to the post – an extraordinary act in many ways, given that he was just a humble parish priest in a relatively quiet backwater of the kingdom. Toward the end of his life Axular published Guero (Later, 1643), one of the classic founding works of Basque literature, in which he included a dedication of thanks to Etxauz. What’s more, another writer and poet associated with this school, Joannes Etxeberri of Ziburu (c. 1580-c.1665), also included a dedication to Etxauz in his Eliçara erabiltçeco liburua (A book to use in church, 1636).
The château remained in the Etxauz family, which had married into another noble family, the Caupenne d’Amous, until the nineteenth century, when the last Etxauz-Caupenne d’Amou–Jeanne Marie Marguerite de Caupenne d’Amou (1772-1830) and her husband Jean Harispe died childless. In 1848, Jeanne Marie Marguerite’s niece, who had inherited the property, sold it to Jean-Charles d’Abbadie d’Arrast (1821-1901), who lived there until his death. He was the son of a well-to-do family with a father from Ürrustoi-Larrebille (Arrast-Larrebieu) in Zuberoa and a mother from Dublin, Ireland (in fact, the couple’s children were born in Dublin). One of his brothers, Arnaud-Michel d’Abbadie (1815-1893) was a geographer who explored and wrote about the geography, geology, archaeology, and natural history of Ethiopia. Arnaud-Michel was accompanied on his travels by older brother, Antoine Thomson d’Abbadie d’Arrast (1810-1897), the great explorer, geographer, ethnologist, linguist, and astronomer, who was also a key figure in promoting Basque culture in the nineteenth century. Antoine had his own château in Hendaia, Lapurdi, which remains an important site of historic and cultural interest to this day (see an earlier post on this château).
Following Jean-Charles’s death in 1901, the château remained in the family and was used as vacation home by subsequent generations. Prominent among these younger members of the family to use Etxauz was Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast (1897-1968). Born in Argentina, Harry served in the French army in World War I and later became a Hollywood screenwriter and director, being nominated at the 4th Academy Awards for the now defunct category of “Best Story” for the film Laughter (1930). In the 1920s and 1930s he also entertained many Hollywood luminaries at the Etxauz Château in the heart of the Basque Country, including Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Gloria Swanson as well as frequent guest Charlie Chaplin (who visited in 1925, 1926, and 1931). Harry had been an assistant director on Chaplin’s classic The Gold Rush (1925) and the two formed a friendship as a result (a friendship that later withered resulting in Harry’s name being removed from the credits during future screenings of the movie). One anecdote goes that Chaplin was not best pleased with the badly functioning out-of-date phone at the château, so on one of his visits he brought his own phone with him, which he subsequently left there and which became a feature of the residence.
In yet another amazing twist, the château was occupied by Nazi forces in World War II. Many of the soldiers stationed there were actually Austrians from similarly mountainous regions back home, They left their physical mark on the place, drawing murals that still survive to this day. Harry no longer returned to Etxauz after the war. He had married retired silent film actress Eleanor Boardman (1898–1991) in 1940 and after he died in Monte Carlo in 1968 she sold the estate, which had been in the family for over 100 years, in 1976. The new owners did not treat the property so well, unfortunately, and it was left to decay. That said, in 1989 it was officially classified as a historical monument (monument historique), the designation given to a site of national heritage in France. And in the mid-1990s it was bought, restored, and turned into a guesthouse. Then in December 2003 it was bought by a Miami-based businessman and his wife (from Erratzu in Navarre).
They are now looking to sell and this has prompted a grassroots campaign to buy the property, which this campaign refers to as Etxauzia, to be used by the local community in the service of Basque culture and transformed into the Nafartarren Etxea (the home of the Navarrese). This is a campaign intended to mobilize all the Basque Country and the diaspora in order to create a singular meeting point in one of the most important historical Basque buildings still in existence.
Check out the campaign website here.
Nagore Irazustabarrena, “Etxauz: Axular eta Chplin lotzen ditun haria,” Argia (May 31, 2015).