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The Saintonge: from its origins through the centuries

D 21 February 2008     H 11:38     A Margaret     C 2 messages A 2368 LECTURES


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This account will use key events over the centuries that have led to the Saintonge becoming what it is today. It is not intended to be long and tedious, nor one of those chronologies that are usually too pithy to be of much interest.

Historians may be disappointed at not finding what they expect, but the way the past is presented is always a matter of selecting from a wide choice of episodes.

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5th and 6th centuries – the Franks and Visigoths dispute a critical region

Quelques uns des objets trouvés dans le tombes du cimetière franc d'HerpesSome objects found in tombs in the Frankish cemetery of Herpes

By the 5th century, the Visigoths had become rulers of what remained of the province of Aquitaine where previously many different groups of migrants, also in search of land, had settled.

But when they tried to expand northwards they clashed with the Franks, and in the spring of 507 at Vouillé, near Poitiers, their ambitions met with a serious setback.

Thoroughly defeated, their chief, Alaric killed in battle, they abandoned the whole of Aquitaine to the Franks. The Franks then settled what was (in the distant future) to become the Saintonge.

Remarkable traces of Frankish presence in this region were found in the cemetery of Herpes in the commune of Courbillac (16). In 1886, Philippe Delamain, a merchant from Jarnac who also practiced archaeology, excavated the cemetery and found some exceptionally beautiful pieces.

In 1891, he wrote a report for the Bulletin de la Société Archéologique et Historique de Charente: "I have explored just about the whole of the area supposed to contain sepulchres, and I have thoroughly searched about 900 graves. I found several hundred objects of all kinds: arms, jewels, earthenware and glass vases and pearls of every shape."

Lithograph illustrations of some of the objects were printed separately from the Bulletin. See this document from Philippe Delamain with the lithographies of 1891.

But there is a sad ending … Unfortunately, Philippe Delamain sold the best pieces of this treasure to a collector who then sold them on to the British Museum in London (no comment!) where they can still be admired today. See site of British Museum

13th century – Isabelle d’Angoulême and the dirty tricks of kings

Opening scene: In the year 1200 Aymard Taillefer d’Angoulême invited everyone who was anyone to Angoulême for the marriage of his only daughter, the 14 year old Isabelle, to Hughes X de Lusignan.

However, an unexpected guest arrived and abducted the young lady before the incredulous gaze of her fiancé and the other guests.

This character was none other than John Lackland who had become king of England after the death of his brother, Richard the Lionheart. As well as the English crown, John succeeded to the duchy of Aquitaine (including the Saintonge and Angoumois, though they did not yet exist as separate provinces). John had just repudiated his wife, Isabelle of Gloucester.

He married Isabelle d’Angoulême a few days later on 30 August 1200 at Chinon.

[English versions of this episode are, of course, different:
- A popular version is that Isabelle’s father preferred to have the king of England as son-in-law rather than a lord of Lusignan, earl of March.
- A more political version is that John would not want two powerful families like the Lusignans and the Taillefers of Angoulême united. This would have been a threat to his hold on power in the region.]

When John invaded Lusignan lands in the spring of 1201, Hughes IX de Lusignan, and several Aquitaine barons appealed to Philippe-Augustus. As duke of Aquitaine John was the king’s vassal. In the meantime, perhaps to make amends, John nominated Hughes X de Lusignan governor of Saintonge!

Scene 2. Philippe-Augustus summoned John, duke of Aquitaine to answer the allegations of abduction of Isabelle and invasions of Anjou, Poitou and Normandy.

Isabelle d’Angoulême - Abbaye royale de Fontevraud
Photo : P. Collenot - 2006

Scene 3. On 28 April 1202 John refused to attend. He was judged to be a felon and under feudal law the court confiscated all the lands he held in fief to the king of France. Normandy and Anjou returned to the French fold.

The leading nobles of Anjou, Maine, Touraine and Poitou did homage to Philippe Augustus. But for the Aquitaine, things were a lot more complicated …

A real life fairytale ending: after John’s death in 1216 Isabelle, by then 30 years old, returned to Angoulême and married her erstwhile fiancé, Hughes X de Lusignan. They had many children – seven.

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