We visited Poitiers in September for the wedding of our godson. The weather was glorious, and we had time to explore the town.
The region of Poitiers was the scene of three important battles. In 507 Clovis, King of the Franks, defeated and drove out the Visigoths under Alaric II, thus establishing the borders of France. According to legend, Clovis was assisted by a miracle performed by the local cleric St. Hilaire, since the Visigoths were Arian heretics. The church of St. Hilaire, in the south of Poitiers, was founded soon afterwards.
An even older church is the Baptistery of St. John, which dates back to the 4th century, with frescoes from the 12th and 13th centuries.
One of the most important battles in European history took place nearby in 732. Moslem forces had overrun Spain and crossed the Pyrenees to Toulouse, but their progress northwards was now stopped by Charles Martel, “Mayor of the Palace” of the French Merovingian kingdom. Never again was there to be a major Moslem invasion of France. Finally the “Black Prince”, the son of Edward III of England, defeated and captured King John II of France just south of Poitiers in 1356. More about this later.
Poitiers was under English rule for most of the Middle Ages, thanks to the spectacular career of Eleanor of Aquitaine.
The province of Poitou, of which Poitiers is the capital, formed part of the Duchy of Aquitaine, a vast and immensely rich domain in the south-west of France. This was the time of the great "Twelfth-century Renaissance", when it was increasingly no longer sufficient for noblemen to be illiterate warlords, and the ducal court at Poitiers was a home for troubadours. The Dukes of Aquitaine could trace their ancestry back for many generations, and tended to regard the Kings of France as uncultured provincial upstarts. Some of the most magnificent churches of Poitiers date from this period, such as Notre Dame-la-Grande in the city centre.
The west front has been restored. Inside there are frescoes and elaborately painted columns.
The best colours are to be found at the church of St. Radegonde, rebuilt in the 11th century to replace an earlier church destroyed in an earthquake.
Eleanor was born in 1122, the eldest daughter of Duke William and the granddaughter of a crusader. She was taught to read, and her father wrote poetry. When she was 15, her father died. He left no son to succeed him, so Eleanor became the heiress to the province of Aquitaine. The King of France, Louis VI, (known as “Louis the Fat”), saw the dynastic possibilities, and was quick to arrange a marriage between Eleanor and his own son, another Louis, who was just a year older, thus bringing this region, amounting to as much as a quarter of present-day France, under direct royal control for the first time. The young couple had only been married a few weeks when King Louis died, and Eleanor found herself Queen of France.
The marriage proved to be disastrously unsatisfactory for both parties. Louis was ineffective both as a ruler and a war leader, and Eleanor failed in her principal duty as Queen: after several years of marriage, she had not produced a son and heir, having given birth only to a daughter. Matters came to a head when the young royal couple led the French contingent on the Second Crusade, which proved to be a disastrous fiasco. Under pressure, the Pope gave his consent to an annulment of the marriage in 1152. Under the terms of the arrangement, Eleanor regained her vast inheritance of Aquitaine, which thus passed outside of the control of the French crown.
Less than two months later, Eleanor married Henry Plantagenet, a claimant to the throne of England. She was 29 and the mother of two girls, he was only 18; and although a glamorous and exciting figure, he seemed at first sight a youth of very limited prospects, for King Stephen ruled England. But then, sensationally, his luck changed. In 1153 Stephen’s son Eustace died (with Eleanor giving birth to her first son on the very same day), and Stephen recognised Henry as his heir and successor. Then next year Stephen himself died, and in December 1154 Henry and Eleanor were crowned King and Queen of England in London. Suddenly they were far richer and more powerful than the unfortunate King Louis, since Henry also ruled William the Conqueror’s homeland of Normandy and his father‘s homeland of Anjou, and thanks to Eleanor they also held the vast fief of Aquitaine.
One of my few regrets from our visit to Poitiers was that the palace of the Dukes of Aquitaine, where Eleanor held court, was closed to the public, and I was only able to view the outside.
Despite her advancing years, Eleanor and Henry had eight children, of whom Richard became the most famous of English kings, and John the most infamous. They quarrelled bitterly in later years; Eleanor encouraged her sons to rise in rebellion against their father, and in consequence spent several years under house arrest at Salisbury in England, while Henry spent most of his time in France. Eleanor was only freed when Henry died in 1189 and their eldest surviving son, Richard "The Lion-Heart", always his mother’s favourite, succeeded as king.
The soaring gothic arches of the Cathedral of St Peter date from this era, and it was here that Eleanor and Henry were married.
The magnificent stained glass window at the east end was the gift of Eleanor and Henry, and shows Henry and his four sons adoring the crucified Christ.
Aquitaine continued to be contested between England and France for many centuries. Much of it was lost by King John before 1216. The Black Prince’s stunning victory in 1356 secured the whole of south-western France for England, but in the 15th century the English position declined rapidly. In April 1429 the Dauphin of France had Joan of Arc questioned by eminent theologians to establish her credibility. They were cautiously supportive, and soon afterwards Joan led French forces to raise the siege of Orleans, generally seen as the turning-point of the Hundred Years’ War.
Today much of the centre of Poitiers is pedestrianised, and the old churches are within easy walking distance of the centre. On Saturdays there is a superb indoor market.
Our godson’s wedding was held in the 19th century baroque splendour of the Hotel de Ville.
Here is a view over the city from near the statue of Notre Dame-des-Dunes, on the eastern bank of the river. The spire of St. Radegonde is prominent on the left, with the cathedral behind and to the right. Notre Dame-la-grande is in the distance.