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La Vienne, alive with history

The battles of Poitiers

Because of its geographical location, the peaceful département of La Vienne has also been the site of some major confrontations. And because it lies on the route between the Paris and Aquitaine basins, on three occasions the Poitiers area has been the site of battles that have profoundly marked the country.

The Battle of Vouillé in 507

The Frankish army led by Clovis and his eldest son Theuderic clashed with the Visigoth army under King Alaric II. At the time Clovis had just unified Northern Gaul, while the Visigoths had established a state with Toulouse as its capital. Clovis was not at all happy about that! The Frankish army marched to Poitiers, where Alaric was residing at the time. The battle between the two kings took place at Vouillé, ten miles from Poitiers. King Alaric II was killed by Clovis and the Visigothic army was defeated. This victory had far-reaching consequences, enabling Clovis to unite Frankish and Catholic Gaul for the first time, among other things.

The Battle of Moussais-la-Bataille in 732

The Frankish army led by Charles Martel stopped the advance of the Muslim army, which was putting the country to fire and sword. The clash between the two armies took place at Moussais-la-Bataille on the edge of the modern-day commune of Vouneuil-sur-Vienne. For seven days the two armies stood face to face, watching each other. On the eighth day, 25 October 732, combat began. The Muslim army, under the command of the emir of Spain Abd el-Rahman, charged the Frankish lines. After two days of fighting, the emir lay dead and his soldiers deserted the battlefield in the early hours of the morning. With this victory, Charles Martel established his authority over France, which was fragmented into several kingdoms and duchies. France was and would remain Frankish and Catholic.
The site of Moussais-la-Bataille is now marked by a giant chessboard which tells the story of the conflict in cartoon form. Visitors walk from square to square, each of which contains drawings and quotations. All around, a number of information boards in French and Arabic explain the differences between the two clashing civilisations: the Muslim East and the Christian West.

The Battle of Nouaillé-Maupertuis in 1356

This took place between the English and French during the Hundred Years’ War. To understand why, we have to go back to 1328. The last Capetian king, the third son of Philip the Fair, died without leaving a male heir. Thus began a dispute about who would succeed to the throne of France. The king of England, Edward III, claimed the crown as the rightful heir since by his mother, Isabelle of France, he was Philip the Fair’s grandson. The French barons did not want their country to become English. They decided that Philip VI of Valois, the nephew of Philip the Fair, should be made king. This disagreement gave rise to a long-running conflict interspersed with truces that became known as the Hundred Years’ War.
During this period, the English retained firm control over Aquitaine and Guyenne. From these provinces, Edward of Woodstock, the eldest son of Edward III, king of England, led raids into the French kingdom. By 1356 the king of France, John II, known as John the Good, was becoming exasperated by this pillaging. He decided to send an army to stop the English. The two armies clashed at Nouaillé. Despite being greater in number, the French army was defeated and the king of France was taken prisoner. The king’s ransom was set at the considerable sum of three million gold crowns. To pay it, a new currency called the franc (meaning ‘free’) was minted. In 1360, in the treaty of Brétigny, John the Good was forced to give up a quarter of his realm to the English, specifically the part that connected Guyenne to the Loire. So it was that the Poitou became English. It took almost a century of defeats and victories to restore the unity of the kingdom of France.

Some illustrious figures

Saint Hilary

Born in Poitiers to an aristocratic Roman family, Hilary became the city’s first bishop in the middle of the 4th century. In 355, when Arianism was spreading in Gaul, Hilary vehemently opposed this theology, preaching Christianity instead. He was exiled to Phrygia for five years, where he wrote De Trinitate, his famous treatise on the Trinity. On his return to Poitiers, his reputation won him many followers beyond the region’s borders. One of them was Saint Martin, who would become bishop of Tours. On the recommendation of Hilary, in 361 Saint Martin established the Western World’s first Christian monastery at Ligugé in La Vienne. During the same period, he probably ordered the construction of the Baptistery of Saint John on top of the remains of an old Roman house in Poitiers. It was completed in 360 and is the oldest Christian monument in the West.

Saint Radegund

Daughter of the king of Thuringia, Radegund was abducted by the Frankish kings Clotarius and Theuderic who had invaded her country. In 539 she was married against her will to Clotarius, becoming queen. She was very popular with the French people, taking the gifts given to her by the king and passing them on to the poor. After her brother was murdered by her husband, she decided to devote herself to God, founding the first abbey for nuns in Poitiers. To redeem himself and in an attempt to escape the fires of hell, the king agreed to give her some land inside the city walls and fund the building of the abbey. The community lived by the rule of cloistered nuns written shortly before by Saint Caesarius, bishop of Arles. Its reputation spread beyond the region’s borders. In her nunnery, Radegund received the poor and cared for the sick. She even asked emperor Justin II of Constantinople for a piece of Christ’s cross, and he complied with her request. The relic arrived in Poitiers in 569, when the nunnery took the name ‘Sainte-Croix’ (Holy Cross). Today, the relic is at the Abbey of Sainte-Croix de la Cossonière near Saint Benoit, where it can be viewed on the first Sunday of every month.

Eleanor of Aquitaine

From the 10th to the 13th century, the whole of what is now La Vienne and the neighbouring départements belonged to the kingdom of Aquitaine. Poitiers was its capital. On the death of the last duke of Aquitaine, William X, it was his eldest daughter, Eleanor, who inherited the duchy. By turn queen of France and then England, her successive marriages left their mark on the region. Eleanor wed Louis VII, king of France, and the couple were crowned duke and duchess in Poitiers. This was followed by a banquet in the Salle des Pas Perdus at the Palais des Ducs. In 1152, Eleanor had her marriage with Louis VII annulled on religious grounds. She later married Henry Plantagenet, king of England, and the kingdom of Aquitaine came under the yoke of the English. This situation weakened France. Henry levied heavy taxes on the Aquitaine barons. The more liberal Eleanor introduced communal charters. Fearful of invasion by barbarians and others, the city of Poitiers was fortified. New walls were built around the Abbey of Sainte-Croix (now the museum of the same name), the Church of Saint Hilary and Montierneuf. Eleanor and Henry II commissioned the construction of the Cathedral of Saint Peter in Poitiers. Eleanor of Aquitaine bore Henry several children, including the famous Richard the Lion-Hearted.

Mélusine, the serpentine builder fairy of Poitou

Mélusine is the best known of the builder fairies of La Vienne. Legend has it that in addition to the Château de Lusignan she built many Poitevin castles. According to tradition, during her night-time wanderings through the air she carried the heavy stones used to build these castles in her chiffon apron. Her story has something of a fairy tale about it…
One day, a young Poitevin lord went hunting in Lusignan Forest with his retinue and became lost. After walking for several hours, he arrived at a spring where a beautiful woman stood. He realised she was a fairy and asked her name. She replied, “My name is Mélusine, and I know that you are a noble knight. Know that I can increase the power and fortune beyond all expectation of the man whom I marry.” Beguiled by her beauty, the young knight asked for her hand in marriage. She accepted, on one condition: he was never to try to see her on a Saturday when she was to be left alone in her chamber. They married, and the happy noble soon became the most powerful lord in the country. But one day his curiosity overcame him. He broke his promise and discovered his wife’s secret: every Saturday Mélusine turned into a snake below the waist. In despair, the fairy fled and was never seen again.