The ‘Viking’ of Quincampoix

THE SOURCE OF ANQUETIL’S distinctive looks – blond hair, piercing blue eyes – and his associated character traits – reserve, hauteur, even arrogance – have been the subject of much debate. Indeed, their importance seems to have been magnified by his unique personality. Only an explanation based on his origins can account for his individuality, the theory goes – nature rather than nurture. His exceptional physical abilities and his scorn for social norms must be due to genetics rather than upbringing.

The most appealing of these deterministic explanations, and the one to which Anquetil himself was most attached, is that he was originally of Viking stock. He would no doubt have been encouraged in this line of thought by the historical association between Normandy and the Vikings. After all, the Vikings not only pillaged northern France, as they did much of the rest of Europe, but they also settled in the seaward reaches of the Seine valley. In AD 911, the local Frankish king signed a treaty with the invaders ceding much of the land between Rouen and the Channel, and by AD 933, five generations before William the Conqueror, Vikings had definitively colonised most of modern-day Normandy.

To establish a link between the Vikings of that time and Anquetil’s immediate predecessors is beyond the scope of this book, but it’s clear that he was passionate about the Normandy landscape in which he was raised. Late in his cycling career, for example, he turned down a lucrative contract to race for an Italian team, as it would have involved him moving away from his beloved Rouen countryside. Even if Anquetil’s close friend Richard Marillier says his decisiveness meant he wasn’t a typical Norman – ‘If there’s one person you shouldn’t cite as an example of a Norman, it’s Jacques Anquetil. “Perhaps yes. Perhaps no,” that’s a Norman answer. Always hesitant. In rugby, the Norman answer is to kick to touch and see what happens next. He was the opposite. He was a Norman who wasn’t a Norman.’ – the immediate family tree unearthed by his daughter Sophie for her book about her father Pour l’amour de Jacques (For the Love of Jacques) confirms a long-standing link to the region.

Going back for several generations, his ancestors all came from within a small radius centred on Rouen. His parents, Ernest and Marie, were from modest stock in neighbouring villages, Ernest originating from Quincampoix – some eight miles north of Rouen – where the family would again settle when Jacques was seven. Underlining the intimacy of family liaisons in that area and at that time, their own union came about as a result of the marriage of Ernest’s sister to Marie’s brother.

Both Ernest and Marie had had their childhoods curtailed – another common feature of French village life in the early part of the twentieth century. Ernest’s early assumption of adult responsibilities resulted from the death of his father in the First World War. Two years after his father’s demise, at the age of only eleven, Ernest completed his period of compulsory education and assumed the traditional role of the only man in a house of six (he had one younger and three elder sisters at that time) by becoming an apprentice to a local builder. The extra income was essential to supplement the meagre living afforded to his mother Alexandrine through her daily efforts selling wild produce collected from the local woodlands – mushrooms, berries, asparagus. These were transported by handcart to the market in Rouen, after which Alexandrine still found sufficient energy for her nocturnal activity as a seamstress. An unintentional side effect, however, of Ernest’s contribution to the family coffers was to put a definitive end to his own aspirations as a cyclist, already limited by his mother’s opposition to the sport: his two elder brothers (both also called Ernest) had died as infants because of chest infections, leading Alexandrine to ban bikes from the house.

As for Marie, she was raised in the state orphanage from the age of two. Her lowly status was perpetuated by her position as a linen maid for the Count of Amiens, until the independence brought about by her marriage to Ernest on 25 May 1929.

Further back in Anquetil’s lineage, the same pattern of French provincial peasantry is repeated, the only notable feature being a passion for the name Ernest. Not only were Jacques’ father and his two unfortunate siblings called Ernest, Ernest’s eldest sister – Jacques’ aunt – was called Ernestine, while his grandfather was Ernest Victor Anquetil. This Ernest was a lumberjack, while his wife, Augustine-Alexandrine, was a seamstress.

If you think that this suggests not just a passion but an obsession with Ernest, you’d be right. It stems from the previous generation, that of Jacques’ great-grandparents, and reveals a considerable deviation from the conventional genetic heritage discovered so far. Ernest Victor’s mother was Melanie, but Ernest Victor was not the son of her husband, Frédéric Anquetil. Although Frédéric is the origin of the name Anquetil in this family, he was in fact only Ernest’s adopted father. The story of his biological paternity is much more complex.

The central character is Melanie Grouh, later to become Melanie Anquetil. The picture painted of her by Sophie is again of someone from lowly stock, earning a living as a maid with a wealthy bourgeois family in Alsace. The location is significant, as is the timing – 1870, the year of the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. By the end of the war, Melanie had given birth to a child, her son Ernest, the fruit of a relationship with a German colonel who was killed during the fighting.

How exactly a lowly French servant came to bear a son to a serving officer in the occupying army is unclear, although there are several hypotheses. First, with all being fair in love and war, it would not be unrealistic to assume a degree of coercion. The purported moral rectitude of social superiors has never been a compelling argument even in peace time, let alone during the temptations of war; the concept of noblesse oblige was not always interpreted as a responsibility to be benevolent.

Nor, on the other hand, is it difficult to imagine a situation in which the young Melanie relied on – or was compelled to rely on – her feminine charms. There is an obvious reference point in the form of a short story written by Melanie’s rather more famous contemporary, Guy de Maupassant. ‘Boule de Suif’ tells the story of an eclectic mix of ten of Rouen’s inhabitants fleeing the invading Prussians in a stagecoach. As well as various representatives of polite society, the group includes the eponymous heroine, a prostitute. After winning the favour of her initially hostile travelling companions thanks to her generosity in sharing her food with them, she is nevertheless subjected to relentless pressure to sleep with a Prussian officer who ends up detaining them. Having acquiesced, against her own better judgement, for the sake of the group and their onward journey, Boule de Suif is then once again ostracised as the voyage resumes and refused a share of the food bought in the interim by her fellow travellers.

Aside from the uncommon similarity in time and place, there is another reason for wanting to link Melanie’s story to that of Maupassant. Almost 100 years later, in 1967, Jacques bought his last house, a chateau in the village of La Neuville-Chant-d’oisel, eight miles to the east of Rouen. The chateau had previously belonged to none other than Maupassant’s grandfather, and the writer himself was a frequent visitor, along with contemporaries such as Gustave Flaubert. If nothing else, the coincidental association of one of France’s most famous and controversial writers and Anquetil’s family life, both past and present, seems fitting. Maupassant was renowned for his merciless commentary on the hypocritical social conduct of his time, as well as for his own decadent behaviour – he died of syphilis.

There is also a third possible explanation for this unlikely liaison, at the same time the most obvious and the most unlikely: that Melanie and the Prussian officer were simply lovers. In fact, the evidence for this is also the most compelling, as Anquetil’s daughter Sophie points out in Pour l’amour de Jacques:

The German was called Ernst. It’s this certainty, and the fact Melanie chose to name her child Ernest – without even mentioning his own subsequent determination to call all of his children Ernest or Ernestine – that makes me believe that it was a love story. You don’t name your child after the man who raped you, even if it were possible to know his identity in a time of war.

Whatever the truth behind the liaison between his great-grandmother and a Prussian officer, this is certainly the most realistic explanation of Jacques Anquetil’s distinctive physical characteristics, not to mention those unromantic character traits so mercilessly magnified and dissected by a voracious press and an alienated public.

All of which suggests little credence should be given to the West Indian ‘sage’ who first mooted to Anquetil that he was a scion of Erik the Red or Harald Hardrada. Even Anquetil remained sceptical as to the veracity of these claims, although not, it should be said, sufficiently sceptical to stop journalists giving him the rather flattering sobriquet of ‘The Viking of Quincampoix’. No doubt this heroic explanation of his glacial blue eyes and his fair hair appealed to him, as surely would the image of Vikings as explorers and adventurers, pushing the boundaries, as he did on a bike and in life with such audacity.

Aside from the historical link between the Vikings and Normandy, the myth has also been perpetuated by etymological study of Anquetil’s surname. Apparently, the name ‘Anquetil’ – not uncommon in Normandy, if the Rouen phone book is anything to go by – derives from an old north European language and is composed of ‘Ans’, a pagan divinity, and ‘Ketell’, a cauldron, signifying domesticity. The resulting meaning of ‘domestic divinity’ seems all the more appropriate given his later unconventional family arrangements.

This is all both laudable and plausible, but what it fails to take into account is that Jacques was not an Anquetil by blood. The name came into the family by adoption, thanks only to the stubborn independence of spirit and disregard for social mores (traits he appears to have passed on to Jacques, adopted ancestor or not) of Frédéric Anquetil, first in marrying a single mother with a child sired by the eternal enemy, and then in adopting her son. It also conveniently overlooks the disagreement as to the origins of the language from which the name is derived. Some say Scandinavian, and thus Viking; others say Germanic.

Back to square one. Yet it’s perhaps not surprising that Anquetil warmed more to a spurious Scandinavian explanation for his less publicly acceptable character traits. According to Sophie, he was the only person at home allowed to broach the subject of his half-Prussian grandfather, and when he did it was only in passing. Anquetil no doubt appreciated that in post-war France it was preferable, if only in terms of a career based largely on reputation, to associate himself with distant Viking heritage rather than the alternative of admitting bastardised German ancestry. As so often throughout his life and career, the apparent reality of Anquetil’s world – the effort he was making in a race or the amount of food and alcohol he’d consumed beforehand – is at odds with what actually happened. Whether thanks to a Viking cultural heritage, a Prussian bloodline or simply hearty Norman peasant stock, one of the essential elements of Anquetil’s character is clear: you were encouraged to see only what he wanted you to see.

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