“La Rochelle : belle et rebelle“, as the saying goes. For ten centuries, La Rochelle liked to be different: democratic ahead of its time, protestant when the rest of France was catholic, the “rebel” city is still a stop not to be missed when you travel through France!
La Rochelle: very first settlement
Though it is difficult to find any trace of settlement in La Rochelle during the Gallo-Roman time, some signs of salterns and villas show that the Romans first worked on the resources of La Rochelle bay.
La Rochelle through the Middle Ages
The little rocky harbour
Little by little, until the 9th century, La Rochelle developed in to an important village built on a rocky promontory in the middle of the marshes. This special location gave La Rochelle its first name: Rupella, meaning “little rock”.
In 961 the destiny of Rupella changed when it was allowed to receive and ballast the ships in its harbour. The harbour, thanks to its strategic location in the middle of the Atlantic coast and protected from storms by two big islands, Ré and Oléron, was about to become one of the most important harbours of its time.
Under the influence of the Dukedom of Aquitaine
During the 12th century, the Duke of Aquitaine, Guillaume X, gave La Rochelle privileges: after the first surrounding wall was built, he freed the town from French crown taxes. This enabled the development of the area’s wine and salt trade and the harbour thereby became the biggest on the Atlantic coast.
Then, like Bordeaux, La Rochelle benefited from the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine with the English king, Henri II, by becoming an English possession in 1154. As well as building a second surrounding wall for the expanded town, La Rochelle opened up to Northern and English markets. In spite of the political unrest during the 12th century, it remained faithful to the English, which allowed it to be granted a charter confirming its tax privileges. Later, at the end of the 12th century, Eleanor of Aquitaine herself gave the city extensive political powers. In 1199, one of the first mayors in French history was elected in La Rochelle: Guillaume de Montmirail.
In 1223 Henri III of England built fortifications in order to prevent an attack from the French. However, a year later in July 1224, it was attacked and reverted to the French again but still retained its privileges.
The Hundred Years War 1337-1453
In 1356 Jean II of France was arrested during the battle of Poitiers. Four years later, the Treaty of Brétigny was signed and La Rochelle was returned to the English. For 12 years it remained English, but its heart still belonged to France, so much so that in 1372 the inhabitants expelled the English. Although willing to return to the French embrace, they still held onto their privileges which were confirmed by Charles V. La Rochelle became French for good and was integrated into the French kingdom but remained independent of the crown in certain matters.
By the end of the century harbour was relocated to its present site.
La Rochelle’s famous towers
In 1345, a tower was built at the entrance to the harbour. Due to the swampy soil, the building works began to subside. War interposed and the construction work was postponed. Finally, at the end of the Hundred Years War, French architects decided that although they couldn’t do anything about the angle of the tower, they could strengthen the foundations to prevent collapse. In 1376 the Tower was completed and staffed by soldiers to protect the harbour entrance.
The Chain Tower
Two years after the Saint-Nicolas Tower was finished, construction on the Chain Tower started. It was named according to its function: to support a chain between the two towers to prevent access of enemy ships to the harbour. From the end of the 14th century, the sea approach to the city, with its two famous towers, looked as it does today.
The Lantern Tower
With its 55 metres high, it is one of the tallest towers of La Rochelle. The tower is composed into two parts. The base is a cylinder of 25 metres high and 15 metres of diameter. The second part was built in the late 15th C as an octogonal flamboyant Gothic spire.
The Lantern Tower was famous for hosting four sergeants who rebelled against the royal authority in the 1820s, and was then nicknamed “the tower of the four sergeants”.
La Rochelle in the 16th Century: a protestant city
The Religious wars
The latter part of the 16th century was the scene of religious wars between Catholics and Protestants. During the 1530s La Rochelle had converted to Protestantism.
In January 1568 propaganda against Catholics began, led by the pastors of the city who encouraged the Protestant mayor to expel Catholics. All fled but 13 were slaughtered and thrown from the top of the Lantern tower. Three churches were destroyed, one of which was Saint-Sauveur church which you can still admire from the old harbour. The city, wealthy and with 22,000 inhabitants, proclaimed itself independent and Protestant. Charles IX of France ordered an invasion but before the troops reached La Rochelle a treaty, the Peace of Longjumeau, was signed in March 1568, between the Catholic Charles IX and the Prince of Condé, the leader of the Protestants.
At the end of the year, under the leadership of Jeanne d’Albret, La Rochelle became the headquarters of the Protestant movement and was affiliated with other Protestant nations and princes. The Peace of Saint-Germain-en-Laye in August 1570 permitted two years of respite between the two religions and gave the Protestants four important possessions of which La Rochelle was one. Nevertheless, in August 1572 the slaughter of Saint-Barthelemy against Protestants took place in Paris and spread to about twenty other cities in France. Many Protestants found refuge in La Rochelle. An attempt of reconciliation was made by the king in order to keep control of the Protestants but the inhabitants turned it down.
The first siege of La Rochelle
In February 1573, Charles IX of France ordered the siege of La Rochelle and his brother, the Duke of Anjou (the future Henri III), took charge of operations at the head of 28,000 Catholics soldiers. There were both sea and land battles. It is important to stress the help the English ships gave the city, even if, officially, the English king had not planned the aid. In May the Duke of Anjou was crowned King of Poland, which was a distraction, as the French troops retreated a month later.
A religious peace
In July 1573, the treaty of Boulogne was signed: the Protestants were granted the freedom of religion in only three cities: La Rochelle, Montauban and Nîmes. In 1598, the Edict of Nantes proclaimed religious peace in France.
In May 1621, in view of Louis XIII policy, La Rochelle declared itself an Independent and Protestant state and planned to become a republic. This same year royal ships attacked the city three times, but were always defeated by the Rochelaise fleet.
A year later, the Duke of Guise, in the name of the king, landed again in La Rochelle, with a large fleet. After several days of fierce fighting the city weakened. But fighting was stopped by the fortuitous treaty signed in Montpellier between Catholics and Protestants. As a result, the city became famous for being “impregnable”.
In spite of the peace, the tension lasted and in 1627 the English fleet landed on the Île de Ré in order to support La Rochelle. This provoked the military intervention of the French royal command led by Richelieu.
The siege of La Rochelle 1627-1628
First, Richelieu decided to fortify Ré and Oléron, the two main islands near La Rochelle. Then 20,000 men were deployed around the city. Finally, a sea wall (la digue de Richelieu) was erected on the previously sunk ships near the harbour and cannons were pointed toward the ocean to dissuade the British ships from assisting. All supply was blocked and food became short. A year after the siege began the city was defeated, with only 5,500 out of 28,000 inhabitants remaining.
On the 7th November 1628 a violent storm destroyed Richelieu’s sea wall. Had this happened a week before, the destiny of La Rochelle would have been different…
After the defeat, the Peace of Alès was imposed on the city: the Protestants lost their political and territorial rights; but they retained, thanks to the Edict of Nantes, their freedom of religion. The city lost all its communal privileges.
During the 1630s and 40s, different cities of the administrative area of Charente-Maritime were forbidden freedom of religion and the French king offered to reward those who converted to Catholicism. Finally in 1685, Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes which ended all freedom of religion.
The revocation provoked emigration of Protestants to Holland, Germany, England, and most of all, to New-France, the east coast of North America, mostly Quebec. It is estimated that 65% of the settlers of New-France came from the French administrative area of Poitou-Charentes. Consequently, the city of New Rochelle, NY, USA, was founded in 1689.
This migration marked the beginning of new commercial relations with America and New-France, which helped La Rochelle to regain its prosperity. Under the influence and policy of Charles Colbert, the harbour was extended at the end of the 17th century, more than 200 Royal Fleet buildings were built and the trade with the colonial companies developed.
The Enlightenment (18th c.) trade and extension of the harbour
The 18th century was the one of the enrichment of the harbour: the colonial trade equaled more than half of the trade of the French Kingdom. It was also the period of the Three-Way Trade, the slave trade. La Rochelle became the second slave harbour in France, equal to Bordeaux with 11.4% of the traffic, while Nantes had 43%.
The trade ships had not been able to enter the harbour as the entrance was too small, so the entrance was widened and two wet docks were built to accommodate larger ships.
Communal rights were returned to La Rochelle in 1718 and towards the end of the century, Louis XVI, a king less “absolute” than his grandfather Louis XIV, created the Edict of Tolerance which ended the persecution of Protestants. After the Revolution, the religion of the Huguenots, Protestantism, was accepted.
La Rochelle after the Revolution
The Napoleonic era came after the Revolution. One of its main policies was the Continental Blockade (Blocus Continental in French), the goal of which was to ruin the United Kingdom by preventing its trade with Europe. The blocking of the sea routes brought economic ruin for La Rochelle and for all the French Atlantic cities which traded with England.
The tower of the Lantern / The tower of the four sergeants
During the Restoration, the period when the monarchy was restored after the downfall of Napoleon, four sergeants from La Rochelle (Bouries, Goudin, Pomier and Raoulx) were suspected of plotting against Louis XVIII. They belonged to a secret organization, La Charbonnerie, and refused to name their leaders. They were condemned to death. Decapitated in September 1822 in Paris, they were considered “martyrs to freedom”. The tower where they were imprisoned in La Rochelle, the Tower of the Lantern, is also known as “the tower of the four sergeants”.
Industrial revolution and the very first tourists
As in all of Europe, La Rochelle benefited from the industrial revolution. The first railway station of the city was built in 1857. The maritime industry continued developing and in 1870, it was necessary to build a new harbour, La Pallice, north of the first.
The improvement of the railway network, as well as the expansion of La Pallice harbour and daily shuttles between La Rochelle and the Island of Ré allowed seaside tourism to develop from the end of the 19th century.
La Rochelle’s railway station
A new railway station, designed by the architect Pierre Esquié, was built in 1909. The building is monumental, dominated by a 45 metre campanile, higher than La Rochelle’s famous towers. Construction was interrupted by the First World War but resumed in 1919. The first train service took place in 1922.
La Rochelle during the World Wars
First World War
La Rochelle was spared from the fighting but it was a base for the Allies. Fuel, food and arms were stocked there and the harbour received approximately 50 ships which unloaded 800,000 tons of arms and 175,000 horses during the war.
In 1917, the American military engineers settled in La Rochelle to build a wagon factory supply the troops. This factory is still in operation, belonging to the company Alstom and producing components for French trains and trams.
During the 1930s, the aircraft industry developed and a limited airport was built just prior to the war. Many pilots were trained there.
Second Word War
The first days of the Second World War, the Luftwaffe bombed many French harbours, including La Pallice. In May 1940, La Rochelle was the departure point for many emigrants wanting to reach America. But a month later, on the 23rd June 1940, the city was invaded by 20,000 German soldiers.
Léonce Vieljeux, a figure from La Rochelle
The mayor of La Rochelle, Léonce Vieljeux, resisted the Nazis and helped the Resistance network until he was expelled from the city in September 1940. He tried to return but was arrested in 1944 by the Gestapo. He was sent to Struthof camp, where, at the age of 79, he was shot along with 392 others. On the 27th January 1945, while the city was still occupied, 3,000 Rochelais gathered at his funeral.
The occupation of La Rochelle
After 1940 all the facilities of the city were requisitioned by the Nazis. A German fleet and submarines were stationed at La Pallice and the airport was taken as well. All workers had to co operate with the Nazis. A February 1944 rising was severely put down. During the occupation, as in occupied France, conditions were difficult: a curfew and food restrictions were required. Most of the inhabitants just waited, some collaborated, and others resisted. The Gestapo headquarters were at 63, Jeanne d’Albret Street.
The defeat of the Nazis
When the Reich capitulated on the 7th of May 1945, admiral Schirlitz ordered his subordinate, Erwin de Terra, to blow-up the city, which he fortunately refused to do! La Rochelle was one of the last cities to be liberated and its harbour remained intact.
La Rochelle: the contemporary era
La Rochelle cares for its heritage and today it is one of the most picturesque cities of France. It is medium sized with approximately 80,000 inhabitants.
A socialist city since 1971, it promotes alternative energy. It was the first to create a bicycle rent network within the city and it is presently testing the first prototype electric car without a driver.
It is an ideal city for students with its university complex. It is a pedestrian city and every year hosts the Francofolies festival. Tourism was strengthened by the building of the bridge between La Rochelle and the Island of Ré.
We can understand why, with such a history, La Rochelle’s connection to the ocean is so strong. The aquarium is one of the largest on the continent and the Minimes harbour is the largest marina in Europe.