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Charente Maritime Wikipedia Charente-Maritime-Position.svgToday, La Rochelle, in Charente-Maritime (pictured), is a pleasant holiday destination for the French and English. It offers an agreeable seaside atmosphere, including sailing, and is within close proximity to other tourist destinations along the Atlantic such as the Île de Ré.

However, during the French Wars of Religion, the city was the site of several Catholic-Protestant battles, including the Siege of 1572-73 and the later one of 1627-28.

Prior to that, La Rochelle was home to a number of well-educated and enterprising merchant class. Some were involved in shipbuilding. Others pioneered the famous pottery for which the city is renowned.

These men made a good living and were open to the ideas of the Renaissance. Most were also increasingly imposed to taxes imposed on them by the French Crown. They desired some degree of independence from Paris.

They were quite taken with the theology behind the Reformation and it was not long before some quietly converted to Lutheranism. Later, once Calvinism became more widespread in the 1550s, they adopted it, despite running the risk of being brought before Henry II’s religious tribunals against heresy.

The Protestant leader Admiral Coligny, whose murder kicked off the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, urged a small group of his co-religionists from La Rochelle to sail to France Antartique, modern-day Brazil, in 1556. He thought they could begin colonising it — and with the Protestant faith. Although that venture — vibrantly documented by one of the colonists Jean de Léry — failed in 1558, another of that group, Pierre Richier, returned home to become the famous Father of the Church of La Rochelle. Richier was a former Carmelite monk, incidentally.

Richier’s position as Calvinist minister bolstered the Huguenot presence in La Rochelle. In 1560, in the aftermath of the controversial Amboise plot — a failed attempt to abduct the young Francis II, arrest his fellow Catholic courtiers and install a Protestant regent — the city, along with Rouen, were the first to experience religious violence. More unrest occurred in 1562, following the Massacre of Vassy far away in the Champagne region. La Rochelle’s Huguenots pillaged Catholic churches and murdered 13 priests.

By 1568, La Rochelle had become a Protestant stronghold and its government declared it a city-state, adopting Geneva’s model. Whilst this created inevitable problems with the Crown, it enabled the Dutch government of William of Orange easy entry to the port. This afforded the Netherlands an easy way of attacking Spain’s — their enemy’s — ships which docked there.

In 1571, the French Navy blockaded La Rochelle’s port. The following year, after the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the city suffered attacks in the famous Siege, which began in November 1572 and ended in July 1573. The Catholic Duke of Anjou led the Siege, which stopped only when he was elected King of Poland and left for his coronation. Not long after that when he returned to assume the French throne as Henry III, after the death of Charles IX.

Incidentally, England’s Elizabeth I sent a few ships to help the Huguenots during the Siege. She was hesitant to send more aid because of the obligations between England and France in the Treaty of Blois.

The Edict of Boulogne (1573) allowed Protestants in La Rochelle, along with the southern cities of Montauban and Nîmes, to worship freely.

Pierre Richier died in 1580. Afterward, Henry IV — a Huguenot who became a Catholic when he became king — left La Rochelle to prosper. However, in 1622, his successor and son Louis III allowed Charles de Guise — whose family which headed the Catholic League — to put 35 ships at nearby Saint-Martin-de-Ré. The Huguenots were no match for Guise’s fleet.

In 1625, the powerful Huguenot the Duke of Rohan and his brother Soubise led a revolt on the Island of Ré, which Louis XIII put an end to with the support of his ally Montmorency. This episode is known as the Revolt of Soubise.

The outcome of this battle outraged England. In 1624, they had hoped to bring France on board as an ally against the Habsburgs. That same year, Cardinal Richelieu came to power; the following year, he used English warships against the Huguenots at Ré. England was outraged. More treachery would come in 1626, when France negotiated a secret peace with Spain. The French Navy became stronger after that, and the English government dropped their alliance with France.

The result was another Siege of La Rochelle which occurred between 1627 and 1628 and was part of the Anglo-French War, which would last another year. In June 1627, Charles I sent the Duke of Buckingham to the Île de Ré with 80 ships and 6,000 men. Although the people of Ré were Huguenots, they still supported the French king, something on which the English hadn’t reckoned. French Royal boats were supplying the people of Ré, defeating Buckingham’s best efforts. Eventually, he and his men — ill, injured and without money — sailed back to England.

In September 1627, Cardinal Richelieu successfully blockaded La Rochelle for 14 months. The following year, the Earl of Denbigh led a fleet to the area but quickly turned back. The Earl of Lindsey led an expedition in September 1628 but was similarly defeated. La Rochelle surrendered in October of that year.  The city lost its mayor and its previous privileges.

In 1661, Louis XIV — the Sun King — was in power. Although he had nothing to do with this particular conflict, La Rochelle’s Catholics decided they had had enough of financing Huguenot prosperity — Protestants still owned most of the city’s property — and rebelled. Three hundred Huguenot families had to leave, as illustrated below in this engraving by the Dutch artist Jan Luiken (courtesy of Wikipedia):

La Rochelle Wikipedia 751px-Expulsion_from_La_Rochelle_of_300_Protestant_famillies_Nov_1661_Jan_Luiken_1649_1712

In 1685, after he married devout Catholic Mme de Maintenon the previous year, Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes. This made life impossible for the Huguenots. It is estimated that 400,000 packed their belongings and fled the country. Many never returned.

In reading about Huguenots who made their new homes in England, the Netherlands or North America, many either set sail from La Rochelle or had lived there at some point.

La Rochelle emigrants who arrived in New York established New Rochelle in Westchester County. (This is where Dick van Dyke’s Rob Petrie and his family lived in the early 1960s television show.) As late as the mid-18th century, it was said that the settlement had a distinctly French flavour to it. French was widely spoken and emigrants from France arrived in steady numbers.

Even today, despite a change in demographics, New Rochelle is the safest city of its size in New York State and the fifth safest (by size) in the United States. Could the spirit of the original Calvinism still be alive and well?

Tomorrow: The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes – the Edict of Fontainebleau

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