ANGELA BIRD'S

 

 

The
Vendée 

 

 



 


A SHORT(ish) HISTORY OF THE VENDÉE

 

 

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Photo: Angela Bird

When Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henri Plantagenet, Duke of Normandy (and, later, King Henry II of England) in 1152, she brought as her dowry vast areas of western France. Combined with her husband's existing lands in the north, this meant that half of France was in English hands.

 

The pretty Vendée village of Nieul-sur-l'Autise is thought to be the birthplace of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Nieul's Romanesque abbey, left, was the burial place of Eleanor's mother.

 

 

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Photo: Angela Bird

Eleanor's son Richard the Lionheart - Richard I of England - liked the Bas-Poitou (as theVendée was then known) and often based himself in the region, notably at Talmont (left), either for fighting or hunting. A century later the English king Edward III, grandson of king Philippe IV of France, made a claim to the French crown. The resulting Hundred Years' War betwen the two countries - sustained by England's Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V - turned much of north and western France into a battleground until 1453 when the French succeeded in winning back everything but the town of Calais.

 

 

 

Software: Microsoft Office

Photo: Angela Bird

Since the Vendée held a considerable number of influential Protestants, the region was also greatly marked by the 36-year Wars of Religion which broke out in 1562. Eventually the French king Henri IV, who had been brought up a Protestant and converted to Catholicism on his accession, granted freedom of worship to the Protestants in 1598, through the Edict of Nantes, and the Wars of Religion came to an end. (The Edict of Nantes was revoked in 1685, causing many Protestants to flee from France.)

 

A stone Plantagenet-style figure, left, visible in the Romanesque church of Angles is thought to be of Richard Coeur-de-Lion, or of his father Henry II of England.

 

 

 

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Photo: Angela Bird

 

Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642) - one-time bishop of Luçon - who was chief minister to Louis XIII between 1624 and 1642, saw the need to unite the whole of France under one crown. To reduce the power of the provincial dukes and princes, he ordered the destruction of their strongholds, reducing such Vendean castles as Talmont, La Garnache, Les Essarts and Apremont to ruins.

 

 

Richelieu, left, seen against the backdrop of Luçon cathedral

 


THE FRENCH REVOLUTION AND THE WARS OF THE VENDÉE

 

 

After the Storming of the Bastille in 1789 and the Declaration of the
First Republic in 1792 the new régime in France was total.
The nobility was abolished. Priests who refused to swear allegiance to the Republican government were deported and replaced with "loyal" ones.

 

 

 

Software: Microsoft Office

Photo: Angela Bird

New ideas permeated only slowly to the Vendée, more than 200 miles from Paris. In this rural region, then known as Bas-Poitou, social inequality was not as marked as elsewhere. The aristocrats were less rich, their tenant farmers less poor, and the priests more revered.

The Vendean peasants were dismayed to find that the Revolution removed their king (Louis XVI was executed in January 1793), forced on them the unpopular new priests loyal to the changed order, and called for the payment to the Republican government of even higher taxes than had been due under the monarchy. The confiscated goods of the old Church and deported clergy were thought to be lining the pockets of the bourgeoisie who had engineered for themselves top administrative posts. Ignoring the newly sworn-in priests who had been assigned to their churches, the Vendeans continued to worship clandestinely at open-air Masses said by rebellious, pre-Revolutionary clergy.

 

Vendean farmers, left, took up scythes and billhooks to protect themselves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Software: Microsoft Office

Photo: Angela Bird

The spark that ignited the three years of horrific civil warfare, was the Republican government's decision in February 1793 to raise a 300,000-strong army for the defence of France's borders against threatened invasion by neighbouring countries opposed to the overthrow of the French monarchy. The people of Bas-Poitou and neighbouring départements refused to submit to formal conscription so Republican soldiers were sent in to draw names at random. Riots ensued. In March the inhabitants of Machecoul massacred the Republican troops billeted in the town; other villages followed suit. But generally counted as the start of the wars was the mass refusal of conscription, on 11 March 1793, by the people of St-Florent-le-Vieil, midway between Nantes and Angers, in the département of Maine-et-Loire. Switching their scythe blades from horizontal to vertical, the populace routed the "Bleus" ("Blues", or Republican troops, sometimes referred to as "patriots"), and captured their cannon, then called upon a humble carter, Jacques Cathelineau, to lead them. Cathelineau and, later, Jean-Nicolas Stofflet were working-class generals; for the rest, the Vendean peasants prevailed on trusted members of the local aristocracy to take command - François-Athanase Charette de la Contrie, Henri de Lescure, Henri de la Rochejaquelein, the Duc d'Elbée - whose names have passed into local folklore.

The stone, left, at Nuaillé - near Cholet - marks the place where Henri de la Rochejaquelein fell.

 

The initially ill-equipped Republicans were soon reinforced, and the early Vendean victories turned to defeat at Nantes (where Cathelineau was mortally wounded). The Vendeans (also known as "Whites", or "brigands") lost Cholet and then, in search of hoped-for reinforcements from England (whence many of the French nobility had fled), made a seemingly-impossible dash, known as the "Virée de Galerne", north across the river Loire. On 18 October 1793 the Vendeans ferried between 60,000 and 100,000 men, women and children over the wide and treacherous river. After an epic 200km march north in an attempt to capture a suitable Channel port ready to receive the expected English aid, the Vendeans laid siege to the town of Granville in November. Having failed to take the port, they set off back towards the Loire. At Le Mans, 10,000 were cut down at the hands of the heavily-armed Republicans. Tens of thousands more died, either in combat or from sickness or hunger. In December 1793 just a few thousand managed to re-cross the Loire.

Determined that such insurrection should never happen again, the Republicans sent "colonnes infernales" ("fiery columns" of troops) to lay waste every village and kill every remaining person in the département of Bas-Poitou - that would henceforth be renamed "Vendée". From early 1794 these death squads passed from village to village burning, pillaging and massacring. At Les Lucs-sur-Boulogne 563 people - women, children and old men - were shot as they knelt in church.  (Try clicking on various headings on the Les Lucs/Chabotterie website for “virtual tours” of memorial and chapel)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Software: Microsoft Office

Photo: Josette Ahuir

The few surviving Vendeans returned home to ruined houses, murdered families. Hiding out among the gorse and the forests, they continued to wage a guerrilla warfare for many months. Charette and Stofflet signed peace treaties with the Republicans in 1795, though Charette continued to lead skirmishes and ambushes against the Blues until his capture at La Chabotterie in March 1796, and his subsequent execution.


A stone cross, left, marks the spot where the Vendean general Charette was captured by Republican soldiers in the woods of La Chabotterie.

 

Under a treaty drawn up by the Republican General Hoche in 1799, freedom of worship returned to France. Napoleon Bonaparte made supervision of the unruly region less difficult by transferring the capital from Fontenay-le-Comte to La Roche-sur-Yon, then a mere village, in the geographical heart of the Vendée.

Although, with Charette's death, the wars had reached an end, some further attempts were made to rekindle them. In 1815, Louis de La Rochejaquelein (brother of Henri) carried out an unsuccessful invasion near Croix-de-Vie. Seventeen years later the Duchesse de Berry tried to seize the French throne for her son, the Duke of Bordeaux - grandson of Charles X.

 

© Angela Bird

 

 

 

 

 

 

PLACES ASSOCIATED WITH THE VENDÉE WARS

 

Tourist offices stock maps describing Les Routes de la Vendée Militaire.
Among the most interesting museums and other places associated with the Vendée Wars are:

Photo: La Chabotterie website

The Logis de la Chabotterie, near St-Sulpice-le-Verdon; an elegant manor house where the Vendean general Charette was captured and interrogated. Now an informative museum and discovery centre, with large park, and a beautifully-tended garden.
(try clicking on various headings for “virtual tours” of house and gardens)

 

 

The south façade of La Chabotterie, left, overlooks the colourful parterre garden..

 

Photo: La Chabotterie/
Les Lucs website

Les Lucs-sur-Boulogne, scene of a terrible massacre where 563 people were locked in a church, shot and then burnt by Republicans. Memorial chapel of Les Petits-Lucs, built on the site; new, state-of-the-art Chemin de la Mémoire building; stained-glass windows in village church.
(try clicking on various headings for “virtual tours” of memorial and chapel)

The solid grey stone of the Mémorial des Lucs is a focal point for memory..

 

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Photo: Angela Bird

 

The Historial de la Vendée, also at Les Lucs-sur-Boulogne, is a comprehensive modern museum on Vendée history from earliest times.  It has a large section devoted to the “Guerres de Vendée”.

 

There’s so much to take in at the Historial, you might want to take advantage of the annual “pass” for 24€ which gives free admission for 12 months, not only to the Historial but also to all the other sites run by the Vendée Conseil Général. These are: Logis de la Chabotterie- Château de Tiffauges – Haras de la Vendée – Cité des oiseaux – Prieuré de Grammont – Abbaye de Nieul-sur- l’Autise and Abbaye de Maillezais.

 

Software: Microsoft Office

Photo: Noirmoutier tourism brochure

Noirmoutier Castle, on the island of the same name, for the bullet-ridden chair where d'Elbée was shot on the square outside, also the painting of this scene, and other souvenirs.


The silhouette of Noirmoutier Castle, left, is visible from afar across the island’s salt-marshes. The building houses collections relating to the history of the island.

 

 

Photo: Angela Bird

 

Le Mont des Alouettes, near Les Herbiers; three remaining windmills of the seven whose sails were used to pass coded messages to the guerrilla warriors indicating the whereabouts of the Republican troops.

One of the remaining windmills, left, at Le Mont des Alouettes.

Software: Microsoft Office

Photo: Refuge de Grasla brochure

Forest of Grasla, north of La Roche-sur-Yon; 2,500 Vendeans hid out here for six months in 1794.

 

One of the most attractive corners of the Vendée, the Refuge de Grasla, left, is a reconstruction of the woodland shelters constructed by Vendeans trying to hide from the Republican forces.

 

 

Software: Microsoft Office

Photo: Cholet
tourism brochure

Musée d'Art et d'Histoire, at Cholet; paintings, objects and explanations in an ultra-modern setting.


Cholet's art and history museum, left, gives an excellent explanation of the Vendée Wars.

 

Le Panthéon de la Vendée, cemetery at La Gaubretière , near Les Herbiers, where many combattants are buried.



WEB SITES DEALING WITH THE WARS

in French
Click here for a highly informative site, with mini biographies of some of the greatest leaders (Republican and Vendean) and chronological details of the battles. Look for the names in the vertical menu on the left of the page. 

You can click on links to see some of the stained-glass windows (vitraux) in the area that tell parts of the story.

 

 

 

BOOKS DEALING WITH THE VENDEE WARS

 

 

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LA VENDEE

by Anthony Trollope
Published by Penguin Books, 1993

Available here for download, free from Project Gutenberg

First published in 1850, Trollope's historical novel based on the diaries of Madame de la Rochejaquelein (who was married to - and lost - two husbands who were civil war leaders), is an excellent introduction to this tragic episode in Vendée history.

 

   Order "La Vendée" from Amazon

 

 

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CITIZENS

by Simon Schama
Published by Penguin Books, 1994

Fascinating and highly readable account of the French Revolution, by well-known historian Simon Schama, including an excellent section examining the often-ignored Vendée Wars.

 

    Order "Citizens" from Amazon

 

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VICTORY OF THE VANQUISHED

by Veronica Bamfield
Available for download, or printed to order, from www.lulu.com

A study of the major leaders in the Vendee Wars by the late Veronica Bamfield, a traveller, writer and broadcaster, who became fascinated by the Vendée Wars in the 1970s. She based herself in the area, and interviewed the descendants of many of the people involved.

 

Order from www.lulu.com

 


19th-CENTURY HISTORY


The region slowly recovered from the devastation of the Vendée Wars. Vast areas of pine and "chêne vert" (holm oak) were planted from the mid-19th century to anchor the shifting sands along the coast around St-Jean-de-Monts, Les Sables-d'Olonne, and Longeville. The coming of the railways in the 1860s helped to develop tourism around the ports of St-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie and Les Sables-d'Olonne where you can still see some fine examples of Victorian-period seaside architecture. The railways also provided a means of escape for many of the inhabitants of marshland farms, leading to a rural exodus around the turn of the century. From the late 18th until the mid-20th century there was a coal-mining industry at Faymoreau-les-Mines, north-east of Fontenay-le-Comte.

 

20th-CENTURY HISTORY

 

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Photo: Angela Bird

 

 

The conscription of World War I, and the horrific loss of men’s lives in the trenches, did not spare the inhabitants of the Vendée – as can be seen from a look at any village war memorial in the area.

One event that has developed near-mythic status is “La Tranchée des Baionnettes” of 11 June 1916. On that day, French infantrymen (including many from the 93rd RI of La Roche-sur-Yon) were in a trench  near Douaumont, preparing for an assault on the enemy.  As they stood in readiness, with fixed bayonets, a massive explosion nearby caused the earth to cave in around them, burying alive 57 men (including 33 Vendeans).   In recent times, a musical has been written that commemorates this event, which is produced occasionally in the area.  It is called Clemenceau, la Tranchée de Baionnettes, and also commemorates Vendée-born Georges Clemenceau, the politician who drew up the peace treaty that ended World War I.

 

Elegant war memorial by Vendean sculptors Jan and Joel  Martel, in the village of Venansault

 

 

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Photo: Angela Bird

Vendée-born Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, who had joined General de Gaulle’s Free French in London, led French troops in a successful invasion of France from the Mediterranean in August 1944, and signed the peace treaty on behalf of France in Berlin in 1945.  There is much to see in connection with de Lattre at his home village of Mouilleron-en-Pareds (see p119 of current Vendée book).

 

After the World War II, France’s Marshal Pétain, who had surrendered his country to Germany in 1940, was tried for treason and sentenced to life imprisonment on the Ile d’Yeu, off the Vendée coast. You can visit the citadel where he was confined, the graveyard in which he is buried, and the former home of his wife during the marshal’s exile (see p60 of current Vendée book).

 

Statue of Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, on a hill above Mouilleron-en-Pareds

 

 

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Photo: Angela Bird

For more than four years of World War II, from 1940, the Vendée was occupied by German forces, who commandeered the coastline and denied access to many villages along it. Frenchmen who had been in the army at the time of the fall of France in 1940 became prisoners of war, and spent many years in captivity in Germany.

Vestiges of the defences that made up Hitler’s  impregnable “Atlantic Wall”, built by slave labour, can be seen on the beaches at Pont-Jaunay, Jard and other places. Especially interesting places to visit are the Grand Blockhaus, across the Loire at Batz (see page 150 of current book), and the vast submarine base at St-Nazaire (see page 166).

 

Le Grand Blockhaus, at Batz-sur-Mer, near La Baule.

© Angela Bird

 

 

 

 

 

FURTHER READING

 

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PÉTAIN

by Charles Williams
Paperback, available from Amazon and via UK bookshops

A biography of France’s Marshal Pétain, a military hero of World War I. However, in 1940 he handed his country to the Germans and became an enthusiastic collaborator.  After World War II Pétain was tried for treason and sentenced to death – commuted to life imprisonment in a lonely fort on the Ile d’Yeu.

 

amazonlogo    Order "Pétain" from Amazon

 

 

THE VENDÉE TODAY


Tourism has today taken the lead as the county's main money-spinner. Close behind come agriculture (beef and dairy cattle, pigs and poultry in the woods and hills of the "bocage"; cereal-growing in the plains; sheep and cattle in the marshes; and early vegetables on the island of Noirmoutier); fishing (sardines, tuna, sole and langoustines, oysters and mussels); manufacture of clothes and shoes; boat-building (St-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie is the home of the world-famous Bénéteau yachts); food-canning; and the construction of agricultural machinery.

© Angela Bird
(condensed from The Vendée and surrounding area )

 

 

 

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