In this article, our deputy reviews editor Kirsty Bolton takes a look at the medieval port town of La Rochelle, its legendary founder, and its fraught political history…
In June, I spent a few days in La Rochelle, a medieval port town on the south west coat of France. It was supposed to be an anniversary trip with my husband, but it was also a bit of a fan-girl pilgrimage, as the town was allegedly founded by Melusine, who features heavily in my thesis. La Rochelle is mentioned in Jean d’Arras’ Roman de Melusine (1393) as not only one of Melusine’s many fortress foundations, but the port from which her sons set out on many a knightly adventure – “when Uryan and Guyon were departed fro Rochelle they saylled long in the see, and passed by many yles” (Melusine, Early English Text Society, 1895).
There are three towers along the coast of La Rochelle. Melusine loved a good tower. The 14th century Chaîne tower and Saint Nicholas tower flank a narrow entrance to the harbour, while the Lanterne tower, originally built in the twelfth century and transformed into a lighthouse between 1445 and 1468, is a little further north. We climbed the Chaîne and the Lanterne, but Saint Nicholas was closed for renovation. There’s a charming terrace bar connected to the Chaîne tower, where we spent an evening looking out over the harbour. From the 16th century, the Lanterne tower was used as a prison, firstly for sailors and privateers and from 1820 as a military prison. There are over 600 graffiti inscriptions on the walls of the rooms used as cells, from simple names and dates to skilful, beautiful scenes.
The Roman de Melusine was commissioned by Jean duc de Berry to emphasise his claim to Lusignan, a territory that been subject to much Anglo-French tension. It’s not surprising, then, that d’Arras chose to include La Rochelle in the romance, as the port town had also been variously under French and English rule over the centuries. In 1137, the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine to King Louis VII made La Rochelle part of the crown estate. In 1152, Eleanor was remarried to Henry Plantagenet and the city became English. La Rochelle finally became French again in 1372, just a few decades before d’Arras wrote Melusine. The two harbour towers became a symbol of the renewed alliance with the King of France – for a time. As a Protestant capital between 1568 and 1628, the city attracted the wrath of the king. The Great Siege (1627-8), led by Cardinal de Richelieu, subjugated La Rochelle to Louis XIII’s authority. The king ordered the destruction of the city’s fortifications, only sparing the towers. It was a lovely serendipity that I picked up Kate Mosse’s Carcassonne in the airport and read it in La Rochelle, as the setting really evoked the Huguenot struggles for me.
Due to its tax and customs privileges, La Rochelle enjoyed increasing prosperity from the 12th to the 14th centuries. It was a major export centre for wine and salt from northern Europe and the Iberian peninsula. From the 17th century, it was one of the main ports for immigration and transatlantic trade. Today, it is a delightfully relaxed harbour city in which tourists and locals seem to coexist quite happily. It is the sort of town where you can’t assume everyone speaks English, which I really liked, even with my limited French. Melusine’s connection with the towers isn’t emphasised, though I was able to buy two books (in French!) about her in the Chaîne tower gift shop. I definitely felt it, though, as I walked the streets and climbed the towers. Melusine, the mermaid who built fortresses, could definitely be felt in the foundations of La Rochelle.
University of Southampton
Feature Image: La Rochelle, Sebastian Münster c. 1544