Châtellerault

Posted on September 8, 2018 by

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We enjoyed an interesting day in Châtellerault on the river Vienne, a tributary of the mighty Loire, the longest river in France. The Vienne flows through Limoges, where we once spent a wonderful Christmas and through Chinon, one of our favourite towns, before joining the Loire.

Châtellerault gets its (for English speakers) unpronounceable name from a château built in the 900s by Viscount Airaud. Old French for chateau was chastel hence Chastel Airaud.

The town has a long history with many claims to fame especially for fans of Eleanor of Aquitaine. She was the Queen of France until she married her toy boy Henry Plantagenet after which she became Queen of England. Châtellerault is where Eleanor’s mother Aenor was born. Aenor was nothing like her scandalous mother who left her marriage, her husband and her castle to be the brazen mistress of William, Count of Poitiers, Duke of Aquitaine. No wonder her nickname was La Dangereuse. Aenor called her daughter Aliénor. which means ‘the other Aenor’. The English don’t do accents so mangled it to Eleanor.

Châtellerault was famous in the 1300s for the manufacture of cutlery and was to become even more famous for making swords.

This is also where the French genius philosopher and mathematician René Descartes (1596 – 1650) I think, therefore I am, grew up in the house where his father was born. René’s mother died when he was just a year old so he was brought up here by his grandparents. Built in 1500 the house is now a museum dedicated to him. Known as the father of modern Western philosophy, his writings are still in vogue.

Another interesting fact.

The duke of Châtellerault was not French, he was a Scot. Because of the ‘auld alliance’ between France and Scotland (both countries hated England) French titles were given to Scots nobles for services to the French Crown.

The title was conferred on James Hamilton, Earl of Arran, Regent of Scotland during the infancy of Mary, Queen of Scots, for arranging the marriage of Mary to the Dauphin Francois, first son of Francois I.

A seal on a document shows his Coat of Arms with the French ducal coronet and the collar of the French order of Saint-Michel. He used his title on his seals and named his country estate in Scotland, Châtellerault. It’s still there. He was given the Duchy with all its revenues, a title, a guaranteed income and permission to hand it down to his heirs.

However, his French lands and estates were confiscated by Mary Queen of Scots in 1559 when he was accused of treason. He died in 1575. None of his descendants used the Arms of Châtellerault on their seals and the title became extinct until the 12th duke of Hamilton, the third cousin of Emperor Napoleon III through his mother, daughter of Stéphanie de Beauharnais, the adopted daughter of Napoleon I. She married William Hamilton, I1th Duke of Hamilton. Their son William became the 12th Duke of Hamilton. In 1864, she asked the Emperor to restore the title to her son which he did.

The duke of Hamilton has been maintained and confirmed by decree of Apr 20, 1864 in the hereditary title of duc de Châtellerault created by the king of France Henri II in 1548 in favour of James Hamilton, earl of Arran.

The 12th duke of Hamilton died in 1895. He was succeeded by a distant cousin Alfred, who claimed the title Duke of Châtellerault which his successors do to this day.

The impressive Bridge named for Henri IV completed in 1611 is featured in Bridges of the World by Charles S. Whitney. When their old wooden bridge crumbled away, Châtellerault asked Dowager Queen Catherine de Medici for help. She sent her two master-architects Laurent Joguet and Gaschon Belle to choose the best location, to build the new bridge, using the best materials. Joguet helped design The Tuileries Palace in Paris.

In 1594 Henri IV appointed the architect Charles Androuet du Cerceau to oversee work on the bridge but the Treasurer of France based in nearby in Poitiers told the king the architect was useless and the work could be done better by a master mason remaining on the job, who would be satisfied by working for fifteen sols (became the sou) per day, instead of the architect who appeared now and again being paid two hundred écus a day to do nothing. Despite the écu being worth forty-five sous, multiply that by two hundred, the architect kept his job.

King Henri IV visited Châtellerault on a few occasions to watch the construction of the bridge. The work was completed in 1609. In 1610, Henry IV was assassinated in Paris.

In 1611 the architect’s son, René Androuet du Cerceau, built a pavilion between the two towers of the bridge on the left bank.

The town has a long tradition in the manufacture of arms. in 1816 the French Artillery Commission founded a Government factory in Châtellerault. The Manufacture d’Armes known as MANU developed rapidly. When it opened it had seven hundred workers. Less than a century later, it had eight thousand.

In the early days only axes and spades were made but production increased with the manufacture of swords. French Officers were allowed to buy their own swords and often ordered very decorative etched blades which were no good on the battlefield. They then had to use a sword issued and controlled in the government factory. The blade could be hilted by a private sword maker or by the factory. Today officers swords still turn up with the blade stamped Châtellerault but with no markings on the hilt.

By 1830 Châtellerault was making all swords issued to the French army so needed new, bigger premises. Two entrepreneurs took over the Government contract. They bought the source materials, paid the workers, ran the company and complied with the terms of the contracts. The government bought the products leaving them a profit of 20%.

Those enlisted to the Ministry of War and worked only on military weapons were paid the same as artillery officers. Soldiers were detached from their regiments to work in the factory. If they left they were prosecuted as deserters and court-martialled. On the other hand after twenty-five years they could retire on a generous state pension.

In 1837 the government closed two other arms factories and transferred all production to Châtellerault.

1886 saw the mass production of the Lebel rifle, the main French infantry weapon used during the First World War. As the production of arms increased sword production declined and finally stopped when WWI started.

The factory continued to produce arms until 1968.

Chatellerault, which now specialises in high-tech industries in aerospace and automotives, is well worth a visit.

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