Posts Tagged ‘France’

In the year 469 (or 470) a large Celtic British army under the leadership of a king called Riothamus was defeated in a battle in Gaul (now France) by the Visigoths under their king Euric. Who Riothamus’s Britons or Bretons were, where they had come from, what they were doing in France and where this battle was actually fought will be the subject of a forthcoming essay. Some serious historians have even suggested that Riothamus was the legendary British King Arthur, although I doubt it. What is clear is that after their defeat at the hands of the Goths the British survivors retreated to Burgundy. They were never heard of again. But why Burgundy?

The Burgundians had crossed the Rhine into Roman Gaul along with various other Germanic tribes in 406. They settled on the Roman left bank of the Rhine, between the river Lauter and the Nahe. They seized Worms, Speyer, and Strasbourg. The Roman emperor Honorius later legitimized their land grab and made them official allies or mercenaries, called foederati. Despite this official Roman status, the Burgundians continued to make raids into the Roman province of Gallia Belgica. Exasperated, the Roman general Aëtius called upon his Hunnish mercenaries for help. Although much is still obscure, probably in two engagements in 436/7 Aëtius and the Huns nearly exterminated the Burgundians under their king Gundahar (Gunther).

Aetius 'Attila's Nemesis'

Aetius ‘Attila’s Nemesis’

The contemporary Iberian chronicler Hydatius wrote: “The Burgundians, who had rebelled, were defeated by the Romans under the general Aëtius.” Prosper of Aquitaine, another contemporary, and closer to the events, wrote: “Aëtius crushed [Gundahar], who was king of the Burgundians living in Gaul. In response to his entreaty, Aëtius gave him peace, which the king did not enjoy for long. For the Huns destroyed him and his people root and branch.”

It is alleged that King Gundahar/Gunther and 20,000 Burgundians were slaughtered by the Huns. Gundahar was succeeded as king by his son Gunderic.  These events became the kernel of the great German Nibelungenlied epic which so inspired Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle operas.

Following their defeat Aëtius allowed the surviving Burgundians to settle in Savoy, with a capital in Geneva. In 451 the Burgundians helped Aëtius and his primarily Gothic army defeat Attila the Hun at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, near Châlons, a decisive event in European history. Following the defeat Attila withdrew and never threatened Gaul again.

The Kingdom of Burgundy in the late fifth century

The Kingdom of Burgundy in the late fifth century

In 455 the Burgundians, under Gunderic and his brother Chilperic, accompanied Theodoric’s Visigoths to Spain to fight the Sueves on behalf of the Romans. After their return Lyon became the Burgundian capital in 461.

So by 469 the Germanic Burgundians, with their capital now in Lyon, were still Roman allies. The Visigoths however had by this time repudiated any nominal allegiance to the Roman Empire and were trying to extend their hegemony further north from their kingdom of Toulouse.

Here we can introduce the description of the battle between the British and the Goths in 469/70. It comes from the History of the Goths written by the sixth-century Gothic Roman bureaucrat Jordanes:

Euric, the king of the Visigoths, observing the frequent changes of the Roman princes, attempted to seize the Gauls for his own. Anthemius, the Emperor, receiving intelligence of this, immediately invited the aid of the Britons, whose King Riothimus, coming with twelve thousand by way of ocean, and disembarking from his ships, was received into the city/state of the Bituriges. Euric, king of the Visigoths, came against them leading an innumerable army, and fighting for a long time, overcame Riothimus, the king of the Britons, before the Romans had joined company with him. Having lost a great part of his army, he fled with all whom he could save, and came to the neighbouring nation of the Burgundians, then confederate with the Romans. But Euric, king of the Visigoths, seized Auvergne, a city of Gaul…..When Euric, as we have already said, beheld these great and various changes, he seized the city of Arverna (Clermont- Ferrand), where the Roman general Ecdicius was at that time in command. He was a senator of most renowned family and the son of Avitus, a recent emperor who had usurped the reign for a few days–for Avitus held the rule for a few days before Olybrius, and then withdrew of his own accord to Placentia, where he was ordained bishop. His son Ecdicius strove for a long time with the Visigoths, but had not the power to prevail. So he left the country and (what was more important) the city of Arverna to the enemy and betook himself to safer regions.

As this report makes clear, Riothamus and the British survivors of the defeat at the hands of the Goths retreated to Burgundy because it was ‘confederate with the Romans’: ‘Having lost a great part of his army, he fled with all whom he could save, and came to the neighbouring nation of the Burgundians, then confederate with the Romans.’

British Brittany

British Brittany

What became of these British is not known. Some suggest they returned to Britain (if Riothamus was either King Arthur or another Romano-British chieftain such as Ambrosius Aurelianus,). Others think they might have returned to Brittany. To be honest we don’t know. Maybe they were even granted lands in Burgundy and blended into the local mix of Gallo-Romans and Germanic Burgundians?

The question remains: why had the defeated British fled to Burgundy? Of course Burgundy offered a safe haven because the Burgundians like the British were Roman allies opposing the threatening Goths. But geographically Burgundy only makes sense if the location of the British defeat at the hands of the Goths took place at a place from where it made more sense to retreat to Burgundy (possibly to Lyon) than it did to flee north to the comparatively safe British settlements in Armorica (now called Brittany).

I will explore these issues in a forthcoming article. Here I would just like to point out that in the mid-sixth century British Celts were intimately involved in the battle for the future of what is now France.

Das Nibelungenlied

Das Nibelungenlied


I was going to call this muse simply ‘Why is the French language so irritating?’ I thought I’d add the ‘if you are English’ bit as a sort of get out of goal free card. Maybe other nationalities don’t think the same? Maybe even other English people don’t. It’s funny this as I’ve lived in France for eight years and, although I hate to admit it, I find most individual people here extremely pleasant and the country itself has much to teach shabby old Britain. But still I find French irritating. Why is this?

Where do I start? Many English people find French a beautiful language, though usually, it has to be said, when they don’t understand it. I personally much prefer German – its sound, its poetry. Most French people will tell you that French is a very difficult language to learn. Actually it’s no different in terms of difficulty to any other language. I guess it’s just that the French are the world’s worst at speaking any language other than their own. The British used to hold this honour, but no longer, while the Americans can certainly give the French a run for their money.

I’ll pass over the rather comic institution called the Académie française, a type of bureaucratic thought-police that determines which words are allowed to be French. Luckily most French people are not so limited. Let me start with a few expressions which when my English ears hear them invariably make my hackles rise. Vous n’avez pas le droit is the first one. Literally it means ‘You don’t have the right’. It’s used all the time. Who the heck are these people telling me I don’t have the right to do something? I always want to answer in good Anglo-Saxon ‘Fuck off!’ In a similar vein there’s C’est interdit. This means ‘it’s prohibited’ – same reaction from me. As my father used to say, laws are there to be broken.

Why are such everyday expressions so irritating? For the French they mean no more and no less than ‘It’s not allowed’ in English. Of course the French legal system is based on a Napoleonic Code that tries to stipulate every situation that might arise and provide a law to cover it. French jurisprudence tries to avoid ambiguity and interpretation. There is a law with a long number for every conceivable situation. The law defines that you need a medical certificate if you go on a school trip or play any sport. The law tells you if you can swim in the sea or not. Sometimes I joke that that there is a law telling you when you can go to the toilet. It’s all very different to the base of English law, although I hate to say that this is changing too, and in the wrong direction. When I studied English jurisprudence – which is all about how you make laws – with the late and magisterial Professor Twining, we literally spent weeks on trying to define the entry rules or criteria for a club for bearded men. Should the criterion be the average length of facial hair? The density of hairs per square inch? The proportion of the face covered? Did a moustache count? You could never define these things precisely enough and certainly never to everyone’s satisfaction. So the drafting of English law was supposed to be about defining some basic things but allowing enough room for later interpretation and judgement by the courts.

If I hear that something worthwhile that needs to be done is ‘not allowed’, ‘prohibited’ or ‘against the law’, my reaction is to look for ways to get round it. Not so the French. It’s ‘interdit’; end of story!

Moving on, even simple everyday French words can annoy me, even seemingly innocuous words. The other day I was driving my normal route to Bayonne. It had been raining for days and days, the roads were flooded. There were signs warning of inondations, floods. Why did this annoy me? Having thought about it I realized it had to do with the Norman Conquest of England in 1066.

Most of you will know that the English language has a massive component of French; in fact Norman French brought in by William the Bastard and his henchmen. All these French words were slowly added to our Germanic Old English, which morphed first into Middle English and then the English we know today. But the hated French Normans were the conquerors, they became our rulers. The French despised the English and their language, in fact some of them still do. French became the language of the English nobility, the rulers. It’s why we so often have two or more words for the same thing in English. We have the Germanic cow for the animal in the field and we have the French ‘beef’ (boeuf) for the meat the thuggish nobles ate. It’s the same with swine and pork or sheep and mutton. In fact modern English is a completely mongrel language. Most of the basic words, the words for everyday living, are Germanic, as is our basic grammar, while all the highfalutin, even ‘educated’, words are either French or derived from Latin or Greek.

To me this is the explanation for my irritation with the French language. It’s all to do with the connotations a word has. For the French inondation just means a flood. English people know that a flood can be called an inundation, as well as an inundation being just some overflow of anything. But if an English person were to say: ‘Beware of the inundations today’, you’d probably think that he or she was being at the very least pretentious, if not something of a prat. It’s all to do with what linguists call ‘false friends’. We hear a word in for instance French, a word which we use in English too. We think we know what it means in the original French, but we are mistaken. Its whole register, all its connotations, might be different.  An English person calling a flood an inundation tells me something about them. A French person saying inondation, simply means he’s referring to a flood.

Inondation is a rather mild example of all the French words and phrases that irritate me. I now know the reason for my irritation but it still doesn’t help, the language still irritates me. And I’ve not even got to the French themselves! That’s for another day.

A short micro-history on “The Myth of The Tragedy of the Commons”

Many European mountain communities held on to their common rights to use the forest well into the 19th century. Elinor Ostrom is fond of highlighting the example of how this was the case in the Swiss Alps – where viable and long-standing communal use and ownership patterns in the highlands co-existed with private ownership in the valleys. Such was also the case in the French Pyrenees in the early decades of the 19th century.

This was still a highly forested and remote world. Local historian Georges Labouysse describes it thus: ‘The conditions of life of these mountain dwellers were hard. They live in autarky in remote valleys where the means of communication were difficult…. They didn’t know what was happening in the outside world. Most of the time they weren’t even aware of the successive changes of regime since the Revolution: from 1815 to 1830 as follows: Napoleon 1st, Louis XVIII, Charles X, and Louis-Philippe: four sovereigns in fifteen years!’ He goes on to tell us:

From times immemorial, the poor country people of the Pyrenees had freely used the forest to survive: tree trunks to construct their houses, dead wood to warm themselves, grazing for small herds, poaching and wild foraging and clearing and burning to create  a few pastures.

A charcoal burner’s hut in the forest

These community rights of usage (usufruct) were coupled with quite widespread communal ownership of land and, particularly, of forests. In fact, French historians have shown that, in contrast to the situation in the rest of France, in the Pyrenees forests were, in the majority of cases, owned in common by the local communities who lived in them. Some such communal rights and ownership patterns went back to Roman and Visigoth times, but others had had to be extracted in the early Middle Ages from the local Lords – either voluntarily or often after long fights. What is more, these rights of use did not constitute a free-for-all. Just as with the English ‘commons’, these mountain communities knew precisely who had a right to what and the extent of these rights in terms of how much could be used or taken. Mostly these rights were not written down, which was to cause problems later on, but they were explicit and informal mechanisms had evolved to ensure that the rights were not abused.

In terms of any Tragedy of the Commons, the first important point here is that there wasn’t one. The local communities had used the forests for centuries, and although they had carved out a few small plots to cultivate agricultural products, or on which to graze their cattle, there had been negligible impact on the extent of forest cover and on the health of the trees. Such communities led a rather meager life to be sure, but it had certainly been, to use a modern word, ‘sustainable’.

Yet things were changing in the outside world, and not just in terms of monarchs. In the early days of the French Revolution, communities were turned into ‘communes’, but these communes remained the proprietors of the forests. Things soon changed when Napoleon took charge of the country. He called the Ariège, the Pyrenean region with which I will be primarily concerned, ‘the land of iron and of men’. He had need of both – the men for his armies, and the iron mines to supply his forges. He also needed the Pyrenean forests to supply charcoal for these forges. So he nationalized them all – they all became the property of the state. It was at this time, and over the next few decades, that deforestation in the Pyrenees started to pick up.

Iron forges like this sprang up all over the Pyrenees – they consumed huge quantities of charcoal

With the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the ‘national’ forests were privatized. They were sold, often at knock-down prices, to the ‘rich bourgeoisie’. They became private property. The new proprietors of the forests, who were often also the owners of the large iron forges of the region, didn’t want to have any truck with the local communities’ ancestral forest rights, which they vehemently contested. Their sole interest was their own profit. Many significant fortunes were made by cutting down the trees ‘sans pitié’ to feed a rising French industry and its steam engines. It should be added that French industry was at this time (the 1820s and 1830s) still almost totally dependent on charcoal – only much later did coal come into general use.

The new regime was brought into law in 1827, with the passing of a national Forest Code. All rights of forest usage were suppressed and any ‘paysan’ who continued to exercise such rights would in future be considered, literally, an outlaw and be liable to huge fines or imprisonment. During the debates, one Deputy explicitly stated why the Forest Code was necessary:

Industry whose prosperity is growing every day demands immense resources from our forests, (resources) that mining in the entrails of the earth can’t replace, above all for reasons of combustible quality.

No question here of any Tragedy of the Commons or such like. Industry needed the wood and thus the forests would fall. To enforce their private property rights the new proprietors kicked the local people off the land and recruited ‘forest guards’ to keep them off. For the local communities all this was a disaster. For generations they had relied on the forests to survive; now they were facing destitution. Most local people couldn’t be expected to fully understand the larger political and economic forces that were starting to play out, but they could see what the consequences were for themselves in their own locales. They had been kicked out of their ‘ancestral’ forests, hated forest guards had been employed to keep them out, whole swathes of forest were being felled and more and more charcoal burning forges were appearing everywhere.

They had to resist. Starting 1n 1828 they did so. This was the famous (at least locally) Guerre des Demoiselles. The new forest proprietors, who were usually also the owners of the forges, had contested the communities’ right to use the forests. When the communities had sought redress in the local courts they were asked to show written documentary proof. Of course such ‘charters’ granting these rights had either never existed or had long since been destroyed. But the locals looked for them in any case. On the 4th September 1828 they broke into the Town Hall of Sentein in the Ariège and broke open chests looking for such documentary proof – but in vain. Labouysse describes what happened next, in despair:

They undertook actions which were to mark the collective memory of this country (pays). Thus in February 1829, in the forest of Bethmale, the agents of repression – the famous forest guards paid by the private proprietors or by the State and whom the population called Salamanders (because their uniforms were black and yellow) roughly searched the houses of a few isolated peasants. Suddenly eight men appeared, disguised and armed with various instruments, who chased them away. This is the start of a permanent insurrection.

In 1829 and 1830 the resistance grew and spread over the whole region. Eventually it is estimated that 150,000 people were involved. In general, the resistance was comprised of young men, usually under twenty, joined by numerous veterans of the Napoleonic Wars. The bands became larger, and local leaders emerged. The most famous of these was called ‘Vidalou’ – in reality a certain Jean-Baptiste Lafforgue. Wherever they went, the forest guards, the Salamanders, were confronted by groups of such ‘disguised’ young men, who tried to stop them preventing access to the forests. They were in fact disguised as women or ladies (Demoiselles), hence the name given to the insurrection: La Guerre des Demoiselles. On eyewitness has left us this description of the Demoiselles:

The leader with whom I spoke was very tall, wore a underskirt over his …  grey trousers, had a sheep’s skin on his head which covered his whole face, (and) where he had made three openings to be able to see and breath; he wore a light cavalry sabre. Another, armed with an axe and of normal height, was covered with a dress tightened with a red belt to which was attached a pistol; his face was smeared black, with pig bristles implanted all over his face, and mainly in his eyebrows and top lip; he was ‘coiffured’ with a ‘shako’ (a hussar’s helmet). The rest of the band was more or less dressed in the same manner.

The bizarre disguises were necessary to prevent the Demoiselles from being identified. When individuals were brought before the courts they were often released because there was no solid evidence as to true their identity. Yet the manner in which they were dressed also finds echoes in the history of the local carnivals when, similar to the tradition in much of Europe, for a few days each year the world really was ‘turned upside down’. Lords served the peasants and women lorded it over men.

The Demoiselles had the support of nearly all the local population, including most of the village Mayors. The prefect of the Ariège wrote to the French Minister of the Interior in 1830 that it wouldn’t be of any use to try to plant spies or informers in the communities because:

The interests of the country people of the Ariège, in matters that concern the forests, are so linked that one can’t hope to find secret agents for the authorities, other than by buying them at a very high price.

The people of the Ariege still celebrate the victory of the Demoiselles

But the central government needed to act to protect the rights of private property. They had been told that ‘the inhabitants of the Ariège were ‘as savage and brutal as the bears they raise’. They sent in thirteen companies of infantry and eight brigades of gendarmerie. But to little effect, despite instituting the notion of ‘collective responsibility’ even for individual ‘subversive’ acts. Not only did the Demoiselles have the support of the local populace – even the local freemasons, clergy, postmen and customs men were on their side – but they were also employing classic hit and run guerilla tactics, which the French troops found difficult to counter. As military repression didn’t seem to be working, the government decided to negotiate. Finally, on the 23rd February 1831, the French Interior Ministry issued an ordinance revoking all the statutes of the 1827 forest code. A general amnesty was proclaimed; all convicted offenders were released and all trials stopped. Ancestral rights to the use of the forest were restored. The people of the Ariège had won a significant, historic, but ultimately Pyrrhic, victory!

By the 1830s, many regions of the Pyrenean uplands were indeed experiencing significant deforestation. Michael Williams quotes several contemporary reports that described the scene ‘with phrases and words like “landscapes of desolation,” “blasted,” “terrible aspect,” and “terrible nudity of bare and sterile rock.”’ But, as we have seen, this deforestation, at least in the Pyrenees, was not the result of local communities having had common use of the forests, it was quite clearly the result, first of Napoleon’s need to wood to supply his armies and, later, of the privatized forests being exploited by private owners to supply wood and charcoal for the French industrial revolution.

The Ariege forests were saved as much by the shift to coal as by reforestation programmes

The Demoiselles were to return sporadically over the course of the next forty years. But in the long-term they weren’t able to stop the private felling and exploitation of the Pyrenean forests. This went on. The local people found it more and more difficult to survive, as their forests were cut down and their access and use was increasingly hampered. Like millions of Europeans in the 19th century, they emigrated in their droves to the growing towns and cities of France. There to become new members of the burgeoning urban proletariat. As regards the forests of the Pyrenees, what is left of them today can’t be put down to later French reforestation efforts, of which there were many, but rather they owe their existence to the fact that eventually French industry shifted to the use of coal, and later imported oil, and away from charcoal, as its primary source of energy. In this sense fossil fuels did save some of Europe’s forests.

What I hope is clear from this modest micro-history is that the deforestation that took place in the French Pyrenees was not caused at all by a Tragedy of the Commons. It was the result of political and economic developments in France as a whole and, at the local level, the deforestation was carried out by the new private owners of the forests, not by the local communities who had lost their rights to use the ‘commons’.

Sources and references

 Georges Labouysse,  D’étranges demoiselles,  Occitania, 2006 ; François Baby, La guerre des Demoiselles en Ariège (1829-1872), Montbel, 1972;  Jean-François Soulet, Les Pyrénées au XIXe siècle. L’éveil d’une société civile, éditions Sud-Ouest, Luçon, 2004;René Dupont, La guerre des Demoiselles dans les forêts de l’Ariège (1829-1831), Travaux du laboratoire forestier de Toulouse; Toulouse ; Prosper Barousse, Les Demoiselles, La Mosaïque du Midi, 1839 ; Michel Dubedat, Le procès des Demoiselles. Résistance à l’application du Code forestier dans les montagnes de l’Ariège (1828-1830), Bulletin de la société ariégeoise des sciences lettres et arts, 1899-1900.

Throughout history, rivers, river mouths and ports have been of the utmost importance for the development of trade; we might even suggest of civilization itself. Until fairly recently overland transport was long, arduous and expensive. Transporting people and goods by rivers and over the sea was how Europe and much of the rest of the world developed economically. Even today, when motorways and air routes crisscross the world, water transport remains a mainstay of the modern world – 90% of world trade still goes by sea.

Many of the world’s great cities rose to eminence precisely because of the advantages afforded them by their geographic location on rivers or where rivers met the sea. We could name London, Boston and Rotterdam but there are countless others.  Yet even once firmly established maritime towns and cities still need on occasion to struggle to retain their importance. The northern European Hanseatic cities vied for control of the trade between the Baltics and northern Europe; Genoa, Venice and other Italian maritime states battled to dominate trade and commerce in the eastern Mediterranean; while in the 17th century, Britain and Holland were repeatedly at war to establish which country would control the seas.

The right bank of the River Adour in Bayonne today

From time to time climatic changes or natural events threaten the livelihood of a trading port. What do they do then? Despite their best efforts some, such as Bruges in Flanders, will slowly dwindle away; one or two will disappear forever. Yet some ports manage to hold onto their role, even if it means battling the power of nature. One such case is the history of the town and port of Bayonne in France. In the 16th century Bayonne was faced with the very real possibility of the disappearance of its whole raison d’être. How it came to find itself in this predicament and what it did about it is the subject of this essay.

I hope that what happened in 16th century Bayonne will not just be of antiquarian interest – though it may be that. In a way it’s also a story of how the element of chance and personality is always important in history.  I think it illustrates the fact that throughout human history all ‘lived experience’ has taken place at a local level. Even in our so-called age of Globalization this remains true today. Every single person on the planet today, however cosmopolitan or international they may be, has still lived and experienced all parts of their own life at a local level. They were born somewhere, they grew up somewhere, their children were educated somewhere and they have made their living somewhere. There is no individual whose own life has not been led at a local level – in one of more specific geographical locales.

Returning our focus to the locality of Bayonne; the town lies in the extreme South West of France in the ancient region of Aquitaine. At least since Roman times it has been an important commercial seaport; its calm and deep harbour offering safe anchorage. In the Middle Ages, under ‘English’ Plantagenet rule, the town flourished. The merchants and shipbuilders of the town had even been granted special privileges to trade with England. Hundreds of river craft plied their trade along a great part of the 150 mile long River Adour – which rose in the foothills of the Pyrenees. The river boats, which could be up to 24 metres in length, brought resin, pitch, pine wood, cork, rock, salt, fish and wine from all over Gascony and Béarn down to Bayonne; where their cargoes were loaded onto large ocean-going merchant ‘galleons’. They carried back consignments of imported spices, cider, wool, cloth, wheat and iron as well as barrels of cod, sardines and whale – caught by Basque fishermen.

16th century merchant ships like those using Bayonne at the time of Louis de Foix

However, even though the port lay only about five miles from the Atlantic coast, there was no direct outlet to the sea in the immediate vicinity. Just past Bayonne the river found its route blocked by huge sandbanks and dunes. Near enough to the coast to hear the Atlantic surf breaking it took a sharp turn north and flowed for another nine miles, parallel to the coast through the flat and marshy pine forests of the Landes, and eventually found its way to the sea at Cap Breton. English, Flemish, Basque and other merchant ships had to use this route to reach the sea. The river had shifted repeatedly throughout the ages, sometimes even forming what one French hydrologist called a ‘veritable delta’. Yet probably since Roman times it was at Cap Breton that the river had found its principal outlet. In the 9th century Vikings had used this route to gain access to the easily navigable upper reaches of the Adour; occasionally pillaging the settlements situated along its banks – including Bayonne itself, where they decapitated and martyred the Christian missionary Léon in 890.

Quite a number of French historians suggest that things started to go wrong for Bayonne in the early 14th century (various dates are given between 1310 and 1360). We are told that following torrential rains the river mouth suddenly shifted nine miles further north to a place now called Port d’Albret and Vieux-Boucau (“Old Mouth”). Little by little, it is claimed, the river beyond Bayonne started to silt up and, as it became less navigable, Bayonne’s importance as a port began an inexorable decline. Whether the river shifted or not in the 14th century, there is almost no evidence that Bayonne’s trade was severely affected. It continued to be a flourishing port and shipbuilding centre throughout the Hundred Years War and beyond – after the town for the first time became attached to the Kingdom of France in 1452. Indeed in 1419 the shipbuilders of Bayonne were busy constructing the largest ship that the English King Henry V had ever ordered. Hardly a thing they would be entrusted with if there were any doubt at all as to the feasibility of getting the finished vessel to the open sea.

Another version of how Bayonne’s problems started seems more likely. The French historian Jean Baptiste Bailac, in his 1827 book, A New Chronicle of the Town of Bayonne, gives his variant of events:

At the moment when the discovery of America was going to open a new source of prosperity for the people of Bayonne, an extraordinary event struck the most deadly blow to their maritime commerce. We know that at the mouth of the Adour there exists a bank or dike maintained by the continual collapsing of the moving dunes. The river, by the force of its current, had cut several passages, which are at the same times those (used) by ships, and emptied into the Ocean.

Around the year 1500 following a storm, a prodigious quantity of sand piled up on this dike and made an impenetrable barrier. The waters of the Adour, flowing back violently on themselves, force the river bed into the sandy plain of Cap Breton; in part they took their course along the coast towards Cap Breton and all to way to Messanges (Vieux-Boucau); about seven leagues from the town (of Bayonne).

With his use of the phrase ‘towards (vers) Cap Breton’, Bailac seems to imply that the ‘impenetrable barrier’ that had formed had not done so at Cap Breton but further south, and had blocked one of the several ‘passages’ used by ships to reach the sea. It would be interesting to find hard documentary evidence to prove or disprove this conjecture. Certainly, as I have said, the river often formed a delta, although most evidence seems to suggest that Cap Breton had been the river’s principal, though not only, outlet for centuries. If there had been a more southerly passage before 1500 this was no longer the case. An ordinance of 1511 confirms that large ships could now only reach Bayonne via this ‘new’ ‘canal’ and only with great difficulty.

Map showing the former course of the River Adour – the date of 1310 is highly debatable

The people of Cap Breton and Vieux-Boucau were of course delighted by this turn of events – at least initially. They saw, in M. Bailac’s words, a ‘new existence’ for themselves as real sea ports and not just as points of entry. We know from contemporary sources that they felt a certain Schadenfreude at Bayonne’s misfortune. They began to develop their own port infrastructure and slowly attempted to divert trade from Bayonne. They even tried to hinder the passage of ships down to Bayonne – by putting fish traps, long canes and piles of sand into the river.

Bayonne’s reaction was not slow in coming. The town’s municipal ‘corps’ sent a written warning that they should abstain from all these acts and respect the town’s right of jurisdiction over the whole course of the river. ‘Seized with fury’ on reading this the inhabitants of Cap Breton ‘maltreated’ the Sergeant who had brought the message. Vengeance swiftly followed. Four thousand men from Bayonne assembled and, after having destroyed the obstacles placed in the river, they marched on Cap Breton where they ‘committed great disorders, burnt several river vessels moored in the harbour as well as a Danish ship loaded with pine and resin’. It was only the intervention of the Governor of Guyenne, the Duke of Longueville, which prevented things escalating further. Yet, with Royal assent, Bayonne continued to be allowed to levy taxes on Cap Breton and Vieux-Boucau for any merchandise passing through these towns.

As time passed, and depending on the vagaries of the weather, it started to become more and more perilous for ships to use the outlet at Cap Breton. Sometimes it proved completely impossible. To make matters worse, whether ships had used Port d’Albret or Cap Breton as their point of entry, over its course to Bayonne the river now really did start to silt up and it became less and less navigable. If Bayonne didn’t have a deep and reliable route to the sea its days as an important port and shipbuilding centre were numbered. Something had to be done!

The town started to lobby the King for help. They envisaged giving the river a new outlet by digging a canal from Bayonne directly west to the Atlantic. This would require blocking the downstream part of the river which led to Cap Breton and Vieux-Boucau. Obviously the people of the Landes vehemently opposed this project from the start.

In 1561 the French King Charles IX finally responded and sent a certain Claude Grimal, called Captain Flayol, to make a study on how to change the course of the river. The decision was made to construct a barrage where the Adour turned north, just outside the town at Trossoat. Works began, but after four years the results were ‘deplorable’. The municipality sent a letter to King Charles in January 1565:

The harbour which has cost so much is in such a state that Sieur de Fontoney (sic) remains today without funds, having made the canal cross from the sweet water to the great sea. However if it (the work) is not continued and maintained the winds which are common here will completely refill the canal.

There was no response and lacking money, the Superintendent, M. De Fontenay, had no choice but to order work to stop.

Louis de Foix – The engineer in charge of turning the River Adour

At this point we first hear of the man who was finally to succeed in altering the course of the river and ensuring the town’s continuing prosperity: the engineer Louis de Foix. Born in Paris sometime in the 1530s, Louis was either the son of a humble father from the town of Foix (in the modern French département of the Ariège) or, just possibly, he could have been a bastard son of one of the ‘noble house’ of Foix, which had dominated the country surrounding the town for centuries. If so this might explain how Louis was later to have such close working relationships with the Kings of both Spain and France. We find him first in Spain, where he spent many years in the service of the Spanish King Philip II – he of Spanish Armada fame. A lot of legend has accumulated about Louis’s activities there; but the facts seem to be as follows: He was a horologist, i.e. a skilled clockmaker, and we know that he made some fine clocks for both King Phillip and his troublesome son Prince Don Carlos of Asturias. As was not infrequent at the time his mathematical and mechanic skills as a horologist could be put to other uses. He worked as an engineer helping to build the Royal Palace and Monastery of El Escorial just north of Madrid. In the old Visigoth capital of Toledo, he performed a similar role in the design and construction of a machine to lift water from the River Tagus to the very top of the town – a machine that was viewed at the time as one of the wonders of the age. It seems Louis also he played a role in the drama that opposed King Phillip to his son Prince Don Carlos. Don Carlos was by this time slightly mad, possibly due to too much inbreeding in the family. He feared his father was a danger to him and bizarrely ordered Louis to make him an ornate faux-livre or false book which could serve as weapon, indeed as Spanish sources tell us as a ‘club’! In addition, Don Carlos ordered the engineer to design him a pulley system with which he and only he could open and close the door to his room from his bed. Louis de Foix betrayed the Prince’s confidence and told the King of these precautions. Phillip decided to imprison his son and he died, still incarcerated, six months later – probably of natural causes but there has always been a hint of murder.

Charles the ninth of France – with whom Louis made his contract.

By 1570, Louis saw new opportunities for himself in France. In December he wrote a letter to the King Charles praising himself in glowing terms, informing him of his ‘great experience’ as an engineer and horologist and offered his services at Bayonne. Early in the new year the King sent his ambassador M. De Fourquevaux to Madrid to recall Louis to France. The Spanish King didn’t want to lose his services and resisted, holding Louis to the terms of his contract. Eventually, however, he relented but not before he made Louis promise to be gone for only three months and pay a ‘bond’ of 5,000 ecus against his timely return. Louis never did return and lost his money.

Upon his arrival in Bayonne in 1571, Louis first agreed a contract with the town to undertake the required works on the river and to construct new wharves on the new canal that had already been partially dug. He soon started to irritate the good burghers of the town, showing a side of his personality that one French historian has characterised as ‘touching on megalomania’. On the 22nd June he imperiously told the council:

Not to bother me in the future, if you please, until I tell you of anything I would like you to do.

A new contract with the King soon followed, dated June 19, 1572. The aim was to: ‘Complete the harbour of Bayonne according to the scheme that Louis de Foix has presented to his Majesty and to our ‘seigneurs’ of the said council.’ It continued by laying out the work required:

Firstly to make a closure of the river with a width of a hundred and fifty toises (one toise equals about 2 metres) according to the plan that Louis de Foix has shown to the King…. to make a good and strong carpentry sufficient to support the load of the river while it is strengthened from within with masonry … the carpentry work will be of the same width as the quays along the river…  and having three rows of squared trees… each row will have seventy-five iron-tipped (piles) driven into the bed of the river to a depth of one toise (about 2 metres) or more if no resistance is present…

Several itemized pages follow detailing exactly how the work would be done, what size and quality of materials must be used, how much it would cost (the King promised to pay 30,000 pounds) and to whom the money would be paid. One rather humorous item reminds us that things haven’t changed that much when it comes to commissioning municipal works:

All this masonry will be good and made of good quality materials … suitable for the purpose without any fraud or any monopoly whatsoever.

The work began. Cleaning out and repairing the existing canal was not a problem, but at least twice the preliminary wooden barrage collapsed under the pressure of the river’s flow. The sandy river bed just seems too soft to hold the piles in place. To understand the difficulty we might add that the quantity of water and alluvial sediment that the River Adour brought down to Bayonne was three times greater than that of the River Seine at Rouen! Work was also hampered by those dreadful Landais from Cap Breton and Vieux-Boucau. Not only did they demonstrate, but at night they sent out sabotage teams to try to destroy the barrage or at least to slow its progress, which necessitated Bayonne posting armed guards around the construction sites. By 1578, after six years of effort, the work was still not finished and people started to believe that it would never be successfully completed. The King’s money had run out and Bayonne was getting upset by Louis’s insistent demands for more.

Map of 1840 representing the course of the River Adour in 1578 just before it reached the sea – Bayonne Chamber of Commerce

It was then that nature intervened. In October 1578 there was a violent storm and the river was in high spate’, the water built up and finally poured over the last remaining earth into the new canal. But still it couldn’t break through the sandbank to reach the sea. Water flooded the countryside all around and backed up to flood the town itself. Tradition has it that people were obliged to moor their boats at the first floor windows of their houses. The population started to consider the need to demolish the barrage to save the town. Finally, on the 28th October, the sheer weight of the water suddenly managed to force a way through the dunes and reached the Atlantic. Bayonne at last had a new river mouth and its future was assured! To this day the people of Bayonne hold an annual procession on the 28th of October to celebrate this happy event.

Louis himself was ‘royally compensated’ for his efforts by the new King Henry III and was later ennobled. He was to stay on in Bayonne for several more years – there was much still to be done. The new barrage needed to be completed, the new harbour quays secured, bridges repaired and the town wanted additional fortifications. Although he was to return on several occasions, in 1582 he moved on to Bordeaux, where he was to spend the next eighteen years, and all of his own fortune, building the colossal sixty-three metre high lighthouse of Cordouan. One biographer says that after work on the lighthouse had been stopped once again because of a lack of money, Louis ‘disappeared, unknown to all, perhaps destitute’. He died sometime around 1603.

The mouth of the River Adour today – showing the canal and dikes extending into the sea

The story of the ‘turning’ of the River Adour didn’t end there. The river itself had more to say. It didn’t seem to want to follow its new canalized route; over the years it kept lurching off to north and south. Ever since the port’s authorities have constantly needed to reinforce the dikes along the canal’s edges to keep it flowing directly to the sea. Not only that, the huge quantities of sand and alluvial material flowing down the river keep combining with the shifting dunes on the coast and to reform new sandbanks, which have repeatedly threatened to block up the mouth of the river once again. Constant dredging is needed and long stone dikes or ‘arms’ projecting far out to sea have had to be built to prevent another closure of the port.

Like everywhere else in the world, Bayonne in the 16th century wasn’t immune to important social, economic and political forces that play such a decisive role in history. But in 1578, a chance flood coupled with the work of one man (helped by many others) came together in a very local way – to create a prosperous future for the port of Bayonne.


In writing this article I consulted numerous primary and secondary sources held by the Musée Basque et de l’histoire de Bayonne. The most accessible secondary works, for French readers, are: Jean Baptiste Bailac, Nouvelle chronique de la ville de bayonne, par un Bayonnais, Duhart-Fauvet, Bayonne,1827; Paul Roudie (ed), IVe Centenaire du détournement de l’Adour, 1578-1978, Actes du Congrès de Bayonne, 28-29 octobre 1978, numéro spécial du Bulletin de la Société des Sciences, Lettres et Arts de Bayonne; Claude Grenet-Delisle, Louis de foix horloger, ingénieur, architecte de 4 rois, Fédération historique du Sud-ouest, 1998.