Posts Tagged ‘River Adour’

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.