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1775 - A English tourist through Aunis and Saintonge

Saturday 9 August 2008, by Pierre, 2211 visites.

Marans, La Rochelle, Rochefort, Saintes and Pons are the stopovers of this alone traveller. Description of a lost country.

Source : Tour through the western, southern and interior provinces of France - N. W. Wraxall - London - 1784 - Books Google

Rochelle, Wednesday, 20th Sept. 1775.

I slept at Aigrefeille last Saturday night, a little, village on the confines of Bretagne, and breakfasted next morning at Montague, the first town in Poictou. I continued my journey the whole day through that province, and arrived, as the sun set, at Moreille. The evening was uncommonly beautiful, and I should have proceeded some miles farther, if a very large convent, which stood opposite to the post-house, in one of the finest situations to be conceived, had not seemed to invite my attention. I ordered horses for the next morning, and walked up to look at the monastery. The great gates were open, and admitted me into a spacious court, or lawn, in front of the building. Here I met the Prior : he was a thin, spare figure, in appearance past his fiftieth year, if his dress did not tend to deceive my judgment. He accosted me with extreme politeness ; and, on my informing him that I was a traveller, induced by curiosity to visit his convent, he conducted me into the church, and through the apartments. " We are," said he, “of the Cistercian order, and owe our foundation to Eleanor, queen of England, and wife to Henry the second: but during the unhappy wars of the League, the chief scene of which lay in this part of the kingdom, our archives were all carried away, and the building itself defaced, by the soldiers of Coligni."

When we had finished our view of it, he insisted on my company at supper. Our repast was served up with great elegance, and followed by a desert from the gardens of the priory, which were very extensive. I staid till near midnight, and left my generous host with the utmost regret.

I got to Marans, Monday morning. It is a miserable town, situate on the river Sevre, which divides Poictou from the “Pays d’Aunis." At a small distance from the place, on the bank of the river, towards its mouth, tradition yet points out the spot rendered celebrated by the interview of Louis the eleventh of France, and his ’brother Charles, duke of Guyenne. The artful monarch exhausted in vain all his treacherous policy to gain his brother ; and their interview, like most others between princes, was unaccompanied with any salutary, or beneficial effect.

It is only twenty miles from Marans to Rochelle, through a rich country, covered with vines. This city, so famous in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries - the refuge at that time of the Hugonots, and their grand barrier against the royal power - is still a commercial and populous place, tho’ much declined from it’s ancient lustre. The port, tho’ it does not admit vessels of any considerable burthen, is yet well calculated for trade. It may be divided into three parts ; the bason, which is the innermost of these, is only a quarter of a mile in circumference ; and at the entrance are two very noble Gothic towers, called the "Tour de St. Nicolas," and the " Tour de la Chaine." They are now in a state of decay, but were anciently designed to protect the town and harbour. Without thee towers, is the "Avant Port," extending more than a league, and bounded by two points of land, to the north and south. Beyond all, is the road, where the largest ships usually anchor, protected from the south-west winds by the islands of Re, Oleron, and Aix. Previous to the cession of Canada to England, and of New Orleans to the crown of Spain, the trade of Rochelle was very lucrative. It has again revived within these two last years, to the coast of Guinea, and the East Indies.

This plaice cannot lay claim to any remote antiquity. It was only a little collection of houses on the shore, inhabited by fishermen, when William the ninth, last Count of Poictou, rendered himself master of it in 1139. From that prince it descended to his only daughter Eleanor, who, after her divorce from Louis the seventh of France, brought all her ample dowry in marriage to Henry the fecond of England.

Louis transgressed every rule of true policy in suffering. so great a princess to carry her possessions into-the family of his vassal Henry, already too powerful. The charter of Eleanor, incorporating the town of La Rochelle, yet subsists, in the registers of the city. She granted them many peculiar privileges, which her son Richard the first afterwards confirmed. Under John, the English affairs declined ; and though St. Louis, actuated by scrupules of honour and.conscience, restored to Henry the third all Saintonge, and Aunis, yet his son, Philip the Bold, re-conquered them again some years after. The battle of Poitiers, under Edward the third, in 1356, was followed by the surrender of all the adjoining provinces and cities to England. Rochelle constituted part of the dominions given to the Black Prince by his father ; but his reign was very short, and he lived to see them again re-united to France by Charles the fifth, in the latter years of Edward’s reign.

The Reformed religion, which was first introduced into the kingdom about 1540, met with a most favourable reception here j and this city became, under Charles the ninth, the grand asylum of the Protestants. The massacre of Paris was followed soon after by the memorable siege of Rochelle, which began in November 1572, and was raised in June 1573- Enthusiasm supplied the besieged with constancy and courage, which rendered them superior to the assailants; and the Duke of Anjou, afterwards Henry the third, who commanded the royal army, was happy to find a pretext in his election to the crown-of Poland, for withdrawing his Mattered troops, aster having lost twenty-two thousand men before the place. This success conduced towards inspiring them with resolution to withstand Louis the thirteenth, in 1627, but Richlieu’s daring genius was not to be awed into any submission. After having precluded every source of assistance by sea and land, and having invested the place for thirteen months, it surrendered to the mercy of the king. The calamities which the garrison endured from famine, are only to be compared with those of Jerusalem under Titus, and perhaps even exceeded them. It was the last effort of religious opposition, and the aera which established an unlimited royal power throughout the kingdom.

I went twice yesterday, to view the celebrated mound erected by Richlieu. When the sea retires, it is still visible ; and I walked out upon it above three hundred feet. It extends from side to side, across the whole harbour, nearly an English mile in length. Its breadth is, at this time, more than one hundred and sixty feet, and it widens continually towards the base. No effort of art or power can possibly impress the mind with so vast and sublime an idea of the genius of Richlieu, as does this bulwark against the sea. While I stood upon it, in the middle of the port, between the waves which rolled on either side, and contemplated its extent and strength, I" Was almost inclined to suppose this astonishing work to be superior to human power, and the production rather of a deity than of a mortal. A small opening of about two hundred feet, was left by Pompey Targon, the architect who constructed it, to give entrance to vessels, and shut up by chains fixed across it. A tower was likewise erected at each end, no remains of which are now to be seen. Neither the duke of Buckingham, or the earl of Lindsey, who were successively sent from England to the aid of the-besieged by Charles the first, dared to attack this formidable barrier ; they retired, and left Rochelle to its fate. In all probability, a thousand years, aided by storms, and all the fury of the sea, will make little or no impression on this mound, which is designed to endure as long as the fame of the Cardinal, it’s author.

From the northern point of the harbour, is a fine view of the three islands, Re, Oleron, and Aix. It was on the former of these, that the duke of Buckingham landed, and, aster his fruitless attempt on the citadel of St. Martin, was repulsed with the loss of eight thousand men. This little island, which is only six leagues in length, is separated from the main land by a channel of three miles broad. It contains, I am adjured, twenty thousand inhabitants, and is better cultivated than the finest province of France ; while. Oleron, which is more than double its size, has not near that number of people, and is neither in the same state of cultivation or improvement. This contrast is the result of their different political immunities, the island of Re being free, and exempt from all duties or taxation.

On the southern side of the port stands a convent of Minims, erected by Louis the thirteenth, after the siege in 1628, to pray for the souls of those who perished before La Rochelle. When Charles the ninth began to invest it in 1572, there were at that time, feventy-two thousand persons in the city. In the second siege, they had diminished to twenty-eight thousand ; and at present, the inhabitants are only between Seventeen and eighteen thousand ; of which scarce two thousand are Hugonots. Religious zeal and animosity have entirely subsided ; the citizens are esteemed to be as well attached to the crown as any in France ; and Louis the fifteenth permitted the inscriptions engraved on copper, and affixed by Richlieu on either side the doors of the monastery I mentioned, to be taken down a few years since, solemnly broken, and thrown into the sea.- I purpose to leave Rochelle to-morrow, and shall take the road to Rochfort and Saintes.

A gentleman with whom I supped last nighty, assured me that the family of d’Olbreuse still exists, and that they reside near Chateauneuf upon the Charente, in the province of Angoumois. He added, that their circumstances were narrow almost to distress. You will surely recollect, that this house is-allied to the blood royal of England. George-William the list duke, of Zell, married Mademoiselle d’Olbreuse, at Breda, about the middle of the last century. They had only one daughter, the beautiful and unhappy Sophia, so well known for her confinement and misfortunes, and mother to his late majesty, George the fecond.

The weather here is the most serene and delightful that can be imagined, The vintage is already begun round the city, and the peasants are engaged in all that happy festivity natural to the season and the employment. I shall have the pleasure of seeing this scene continued to the foot of the Pyrenees, as they do not begin their vintage in Guyenne and Gascony till the middle or end of October.

This is a long, historical letter. It is time to finish it, and subscribe myself, &c. &c.

Saintes, Sunday. September 24th, 1775.

The distance from Rochelle to Rochfort is seven leagues, the first four of which, are exceedingly pleasant, the road lying along the sea-shore, and in view of the istands of Oleron and Aix, which appear at a small distance. It is now almost a century since Louis the fourteenth constructed Rochfort, and the city is built in the midst of marshes, which were expressly drained for that purpose. Colbert was then the first minister, and it is said, he used to call it "La Ville d’’Or," from the prodigious sums his master had expended there. Time has however evinced the utility of the project, and the port is become as necessary and important to the crown of France, as either Brest or Toulon. It is situated on the river Charente, about five leagues from its mouth. I passed several hours, on Friday morning, in the different magazines and dock-yards. Every thing appears to be under admirable regulation, and the several branches of naval equipment are carried on with the utmost vigour and dispatch. A grand object of attention with the present ministry seems to be to restore the navy, which was almost totally destroyed during the late war with England.

The number of workmen commonly employed at Rochfort, is about nine hundred, and to these are added six hundred galley flaves, who are occupied in the most painful and laborious branches of service. They are chained two and two with heavy fetters, constantty guarded, and confined in a long building erected for that purpose in the center of the yard. Some of these wretches are thus detained for a term of years ; others during life. The precautions used to prevent their escape are excellent, and improved on continually by experience - yet in spite of every obstacle, they are continually eluded.

The armoury, the rope-walks, the store-houses of every kind, are all in the best order, and kept with prodigious neatness. Louis the fourteenth fortified the city at the time he constructed it ; but its fituation, at so considerable a distance from the sea, renders it sufficiently secure from any attack, and they have therefore lately closed up the battlements, and neglected the fortifications. It is laid out with great beauty and elegance. The streets are all very broad and strait, extending through the whole place from side to side; but the buildings do not correspond with them in this respect, as they are mostly low and irregular.

The province of Saintonge, of which this city is the capital, begins at a small distance from Rochfort : The antiquities which Saintes still contains, have chiefly detained me here since yesterday morning. It was a Roman colony, and those conquerors of the earth, who polished the nations they subdued, have.left behind ;them the traces of their magnificence. In a hollow valley between two mountains, and almost adjoining to one of the suburbs, are the ruins of the amphitheatre. Tho’ now in the last stage of decay, its appearance is august and venerable. In some parts, scarce any of the arches are to be seen; but the east end is still in a great degree of preservation. From its situation in a valley and from the ruins of an aqueduct, which conveyed .water to the town from near three leagues distance, it has been supposed that Naumachiae were represented in it, but this amounts only to conjecture. A triumphal arch, on which is an inscription in Roman letters, merits likewise attention. It was erected to Germanicus, on the news of his death, so universally lamented throughout the empire.

The river Charente surrounds this city, as the Severn does that of Shrewsbury, describing the form of a horse-shoe. I have been walking in the beautiful meadows which border upon it, and from whence the buildings of the town have a fine effect. Tho’ the Charente cannot compare with the Loire or the Rhone in size and depth, yet the actions which have been performed on its banks in different ages, wilI render it immortal in history. At Taillebourg, only six miles from hence, and. nearer to its mouth, was fought the battle between Henry the third of England and St. Louis, where the latter was conqueror, and in which, he gave proofs of undaunted prowess and intrepidity, by defending almost alone, the passage of a bridge against the whole English army, during some minutes. Francis the first, one of the most amiable and accomplished princes who ever reigned in France, was born in 1494 at Cognac, only seven leagues higher up on the Charente. Two leagues beyond Cognac still nearer its source, is the famous plant of Jarnac, where the Hugonots were beat in 1569 by the duke of Anjou, afterwards Henry the third; and where the great Louis, first prince of Condé was assassinated by Montesquiou. I am told that the present Count de Jarnac has caused a monument to be erected within these few years over the spot where perished that unhappy prince. I intended to have gone along the banks of the Charente, through both these last-mentioned places, to Angoulesme; but the difficulties are almost insuperable, as there is no post road yet established and I therefore pursue the strait route to Bourdeaux, through Pons and Blaye.

Except the remains of Roman grandeur yet .visible at Saintes, the place contains very little to detain or amuse a traveler. It is built with great irregularity; the.streets are narrow and winding, the houses mean, and almost all of them are some centuries old. The cathedral has been repeatedly defaced and destroyed by Normans and Hugonots, who made war alike on every .monument of art or piety. One tower only escaped their rage, which is said to have been built as early as the year eight hundred, by Charlemagne. It is of an enormous magnitude, both as to heighth and circumference. These cucumstances have probably, conduced more to its preservation during the fury of war, than any veneration for the memory of its founder, or for the sanctity of its institution.

The Reformed Religion seems far on the decline in this province, where anciently it had gained so many votaries. There is only one Protestant family, as I am assured, in Saintes: the reason is evident : the servour pf devotion, warm and animated in the.beginning, are nourished by persecution, but unhappily become languid and extinct in an age of more mild and tolerating principles. Interest is ever present, ever intimately felt by mankind. The Established Religion holds out office and honours ; Protestantism is barren : Her rewards are in another world. Can you wonder that it loses ground continually

Adieu !
Your’s, &c. &c.

Bourdeaux, Friday, 7th October, 1775

I continued my journey from Saintes last Sunday sennight, and slept at Pons, a small town agreeably situated on a mountain. Near the summit, in the centre of the place, is an ancient castle belonging to the Prince de Marsan, which commands an extensive and luxuriant prospest of the vales of Saintonge and Angoumois covered with vines, and watered by two or three fine rivulets which lose themselves, after many windings, in the Charente. I entered the province of Guyenne the next day, and arrived at Blaye, on the northern bank of the Garonne, on Tuesday morning. I put my carriage into a boat, and came up to this city by water; a distance of about seven leagues.

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