Vendée History

Richard the Lionheart

Richard the Lionheart idealised portrait from circa 18th Century

People have lived in the Vendée since prehistoric times; there are menhirs and dolmens scattered all around the region and these date from 2,500 BC. With the arrival of the Romans in 57 BC, the provinces of Aquitaine and Poitou were united under the “Pax Romana” this precipitated the building of many roads which are still visible today.

Feudal castles began to appear towards the end of the 10th century after Charlemagne’s empire collapsed. Two particularly good examples of these are of these are Tiffauges and Talmont – the latter being a favourite hunting base for Richard the Lionheart. Owing to the popularity of The Shrine of St James the Elder at Santiago de Compostela, the Vendée saw as many as half a million pilgrims passing through the region on their way to the shrine which is situated in north-west Spain and to provide these pilgrims with shelter, many abbeys, alms-houses, hospitals, convents and churches sprang up on the most popular routes.

One of the most important characters in the Vendée during the middle Ages was Eleanor of Aquitaine who married Henry Plantagenet (Later King Henry II) in 1152. Henry was Duke of Normandy and upon his marriage to Eleanor, her dowry of large areas of western France combined with his lands in the North to create a situation whereby much of France was now effectively in English hands.

In 1327, Edward III staked his claim to the French throne on the basis that it came rightfully to him through his mother’s line and this claim soon precipitated the Hundred Years War which was propagated successively by Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V. Vast areas of northern and western France were turned into a battleground until in 1453 the French had succeeded in winning back all but the town of Calais.

Cardinal Richelieu was for a time the Bishop of Luçon

Portrait of Cardinal Richelieu 1637 by Philippe de Champaigne

The next major wars were centred around religion and because of the fact that the Vendée was home to many influential Protestants, The Wars of Religion began in 1562 and lasted for over 35 years causing many religious buildings throughout the region to be damaged. This volatile conflict was only brought to an end when the French king Henri IV allowed freedom of worship to the Protestants in 1598 through the edict of Nantes. Henri had actually been brought up a Protestant but had converted to Catholicism on his accession. (A century later, the edict was revoked by Louis XIV causing many Huguenots to flee from the Vendée).

Cardinal Richelieu, (Left) for a time Bishop of Luçon, felt that there was a need to unite the Protestants and Catholics under one crown and sadly he ordered the destruction of many castles including Les Essarts because he believed this would reduce the power of provincial Dukes and Princes and prevent strategic fortresses falling into Protestant hands.

The Wars of the Vendée

General Jean Baptiste Kléber

Republican General General Jean Baptiste Kléber

Three main reasons led the Vendéen people to war in 1793. Firstly with the Civil Constitution of the Clergy which was introduced, the people found the change of religion difficult to accept. The second cause was the execution of King Louis XVI on January 21, 1793 and the third was the introduction of mass conscription. All this led people to rebel in March 1793. A local wagoner Jacques Cathelineau was called upon to lead them and farmers asked military men to lead their troops.

At first the rebels were extremely successful and between March and June local towns were captured without too much bloodshed. There were spectacular Vendéen  victories at Bressuire, Fontenay-Le-Comte, Thouars and Saumur at least for a while making the royalist Vendéens, sometimes referred to as ‘Whites’ or ‘brigands’ seem almost unbeatable but soon, the Republicans who had at first been ill-prepared for the conflict were reinforced by General Jean Baptiste Kléber’s crack troops – known as the ‘Mayencais’ and very soon, Nantes was lost. This was the Whites’ first serious defeat.

General François Athanase de Charette de la Contrie

General François Athanase de Charette de la Contrie

A second major defeat came at Cholet on 17 October when Kléber led the 100,000 strong ‘Blue’, republican army to victory in recapturing the town. The Vendéens retreated to St. Florant-de-Vieil. Soon after, almost 100,000 Vendéens crossed the Loire River heading north in an attempt to take a port on the Cotentin hoping to secure help from the English. Unfortunately they were forced to turn back and once again had to cross the Loire. In much disarray, and were easy prey for the Republican armies. The republican General Turreau sent his ‘infernal columns’ of infantrymen to the Vendée with the objective of capturing and holding 13 villages but setting fire to all the rest! Most of the able-bodied men had been killed in battle but the women, children and old people left behind were to be badly persecuted. In February 1794, the Cordelier column went in Les Lucs-sur-Boulogne and killed 564 people: men, women and children. The parish priest Barbedette registered the names of all the victims of this massacre in a document called “the Martyrologe.” Although the guerrilla warfare went on for another two years, the last two leaders were shot in the year 1796, firstly Stofflet in February and then the famous General Charette  in March and this effectively brought the Wars of the Vendée to an end. Read much more on the Wars of the Vendée

During the 19th century, large areas of pine forest were planted in order to anchor shifting coastal sands and with the coming of the railways in the 1860s, tourism flourished around the ports of Les Sables and Croix-de-Vie. At this time also there was a general exodus from the area as people left this rural area and headed to the towns to seek out better paid work.

Bunker near La Tranche Sur Mer

Bunker near La Tranche Sur Mer in the Vendée

During World War I, many Vendéens (up to 20,000) died in the trenches. The peace treaty was in fact signed on behalf of France by Vendée-born Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau. During the Second World War the Vendée was occupied on 21 June 1940 by the German army. Blockhouses or bunkers were built around the coast in an attempt to prevent an invasion. Many Vendéen men were forced to march to Germany to work in prison camps and factories but during the course of the war, the local resistance in the area was able to bring together up to 3,000 men who were to play a significant part in the liberation of the Vendée and indeed the whole of France.

The closeness of the population brought about by years of conflict, an eagerness to succeed, and ingenious solutions to economic problems often in the face of hostilities from central Government have today put the Vendée as the second most productive agricultural region in France and with a faster growing and more diverse ecomomy than any other Départment in France.

Today the Vendée is a name recognised world-wide with its promotion of the Vendée Globe yacht race and the much celebrated Puy du Fou entertainment spectacle. After tourism, the wealth of the Vendée in the modern era is based upon agriculture, cereal growing, fishing and boatbuilding.