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Siege of La Rochelle

Siege of La Rochelle (1627–1628)
(Siège de La Rochelle 1627–1628)
Part of the Huguenot rebellions

Cardinal Richelieu at the Siege of La Rochelle, Henri Motte, 1881.
Date September 1627 – October 1628
Location La Rochelle
Result French Royal victory
Belligerents
Kingdom of France La Rochelle
French Huguenot forces
 England
Commanders and leaders
Louis XIII
Cardinal Richelieu (Siege commander)
Toiras (Governor of Île de Ré)
Bassompierre
Jean Guitton (mayor)
Soubise (commander)
Duke of Buckingham (commander)
Strength
Siege Army: 22,001
Toiras:1,200
La Rochelle: 27,000 civilians and soldiers
Buckingham:80 ships 7,000 soldiers
Casualties and losses
Siege Army: ?
Toiras:500 killed
La Rochelle:22,000 killed
Buckingham: 5,000 killed

The Siege of La Rochelle (French: Le Siège de La Rochelle, or sometimes Le Grand Siège de La Rochelle) was a result of a war between the French royal forces of Louis XIII of France and the Huguenots of La Rochelle in 1627–28. The siege marked the apex of the tensions between the Catholics and the Protestants in France, and ended with a complete victory for King Louis XIII and the Catholics.

Contents

  • Background 1
  • English intervention 2
    • First La Rochelle expedition 2.1
  • Siege 3
    • Foreign support for the French Crown 3.1
      • Dutch support 3.1.1
      • Spanish alliance 3.1.2
    • English relief efforts 3.2
      • Second La Rochelle expedition 3.2.1
      • Third La Rochelle expedition 3.2.2
  • Epilogue 4
    • Birdeye views by Jacques Callot 4.1
    • Maps by Jacques Callot 4.2
    • Others 4.3
  • Numismatics 5
  • Siege in fiction and film 6
  • Notes 7
  • References 8

Background

La Rochelle at the time of the siege. Detail of Claude Lorrain Le siège de La Rochelle, Louvre.

In the Edict of Nantes, Henry IV of France had given the Huguenots extensive rights. La Rochelle had become the stronghold of the French Huguenots, under its own governance. It was the centre of Huguenot seapower, and the strongest centre of resistance against the central government.[1] La Rochelle was, at this time, the second or third largest city in France, with over 30,000 inhabitants.

Huguenot rebellion. In 1621, Louis XIII besieged and captured Saint-Jean d'Angély, and a Blockade of La Rochelle was attempted in 1621-1622, ending with a stalemate and the Treaty of Montpellier.

Again, Rohan and Soubise would take arms in 1625, ending with the capture of the Île de Ré in 1625 by Louis XIII. After these events, Louis XIII wished to subdue the Huguenots, and Louis' Chief Minister Cardinal Richelieu declared the suppression of the Huguenot revolt the first priority of the kingdom.

English intervention

The Duke of Buckingham attempted to lift the siege.

The Anglo-French conflict followed the failure of the Anglo-French alliance of 1624, in which England had tried to find an ally in France against the power of the Habsburg. In 1626, France under Richelieu actually concluded a secret peace with Spain, and disputes arose around Henrietta Maria's household. Furthermore, France was building the power of its Navy, leading the English to be convinced that France must be opposed "for reasons of state".[2]

In June 1626, Henri de Rohan and his brother Soubise.[2]

First La Rochelle expedition

Left image: Landing of Buckingham in Sablanceau (detail).
Right image: English forces in the Siege of Saint-Martin-de-Ré.

On the first expedition, the English king Île de Ré with 6,000 men in order to help the Huguenots, thus starting an Anglo-French War (1627-1629), with the objective of controlling the approaches to La Rochelle, and of encouraging the rebellion in the city.

The city of La Rochelle initially refused to declare itself an ally of Buckingham, in a state of war against the crown of France, and effectively denied access to its harbour to Buckingham's fleet. An open alliance would only be declared in September at the time of the first fights between La Rochelle and Royal troops.

Although a Protestant stronghold, Île de Ré had not directly joined the rebellion against the king. On Île de Ré, the English under Buckingham tried to take the fortified city of Saint-Martin in the Siege of Saint-Martin-de-Ré (1627), but were repulsed after three months. Small French Royal boats managed to supply St Martin in spite of the English blockade. Buckingham ultimately ran out of money and support, and his army was weakened by diseases. After a last attack on Saint-Martin they were repulsed with heavy casualties, and left with their ships.

Siege

La Rochelle during the siege.
The Siege of La Rochelle (map), Stefano della Bella, 1641
La Rochelle, surrounded by Royal fortifications and troops, Jacques Callot, 1630.
Siege of La Rochelle, with nearby Île de Ré, by G.Orlandi, 1627.
First seawall, built by Pompeo Targone, 1627.
Second seawall, designed by Clément Métezeau.
Construction of a Royal fort in the area of Les Minimes.

Meanwhile, in August 1627 Royal forces started to surround La Rochelle, with an army of 7,000 soldiers, 600 horses and 24 cannons, led by Charles of Angoulême. They started to reinforce fortifications at Bongraine (modern Les Minimes), and at the Fort Louis.

On September 10, the first cannon shots were fired by La Rochelle against Royal troops at Fort Louis, starting the third Huguenot rebellion. La Rochelle was the greatest stronghold among the Huguenot cities of France, and the centre of Huguenot resistance. Cardinal Richelieu acted as the commander of the besieging troops (during those times when the King was absent).

Once hostilities started, French engineers isolated the city with entrenchments 12 kilometres long, fortified by 11 forts and 18 redoubts. The surrounding fortifications were totally completed in April 1628, manned with an army of 30,000.

They also built with 4,000 workmen a 1,400 metre long seawall, to block the seaward access to the city. The initial idea for blocking the channel leading to the harbour of La Rochelle in order to stop all supplies to the city came from the Italian engineer Pompeo Targone, but his structure was broken by the winter weather, before the idea was taken up by the Royal architect Clément Métezeau (also Metzeau),[3] in November 1627. The wall was built on top of a foundation made of sunken hulks, filled with rubble. French artillery was used against English ships that tried to supply the city.

Meanwhile, in southern France, Henri de Rohan attempted to raise a rebellion in order to relieve La Rochelle, but in vain. Until February, some ships were able to go through the seawall under construction, but after March this became impossible. The city was completely blocked, with the only hope coming from a possible intervention of an English fleet.

Foreign support for the French Crown

Louis XIII at the Siege of La Rochelle.

Dutch support

Altogether, the Roman Catholic government of France rented ships from the Protestant city of Amsterdam to conquer the Protestant city of La Rochelle. This resulted in a debate in the city council of Amsterdam as to whether the French soldiers should be allowed to have a Roman Catholic sermon on board of the Protestant Dutch ships. The result of the debate was that it was not allowed. The Dutch ships transported the French soldiers to La Rochelle. France was a Dutch ally in the war against the Habsburgs.

Spanish alliance

In the occasion of the Siege of La Rochelle, Spain manoeuvered towards the formation of a Franco-Spanish alliance against the common enemies that were the English, the Huguenots and the Dutch.[4] Richelieu accepted Spanish help, and a Spanish fleet of 30 to 40 warships was sent from Cadiz to the Gulf of Morbihan as an affirmation of strategic support,[4] arriving three weeks after the departure of Buckingham from Île de Ré. At one point, the Spanish fleet anchored in front of La Rochelle, but did not engage in actual operations against the city.

English relief efforts

England attempted to send two more fleets to relieve La Rochelle.

Second La Rochelle expedition

The second one, led by William Feilding, Earl of Denbigh, left on April 1628, but returned without a fight to Portsmouth, as Denbigh said that he had no commission to hazard the king's ships in a fight, and returned shamefully to Portsmouth.[5]

Third La Rochelle expedition

A third fleet was dispatched under the Admiral of the Fleet, the Earl of Lindsey in August 1628,[5] consisting in 29 warships and 31 merchantmen.[6] In September 1628, the English fleet tried to relieve the city. After bombarding French positions and trying to force the sea wall in vain, the English fleet had to withdraw. Following this last disappointment, the city surrendered on October 28, 1628.

Epilogue

Jean Guitton and the defenders vowing to defend La Rochelle to the death.
The surrender of La Rochelle, 17th century.
Entrance of Louis XIII in La Rochelle, by Pierre Courtilleau.

Residents of La Rochelle had resisted for 14 months, under the leadership of the mayor Jean Guitton and with the gradually diminishing help from England. During the siege, the population of La Rochelle decreased from 27,000 to 5,000 due to casualties, famine, and disease.

Surrender was unconditional. By the terms of the Peace of Alais, the Huguenots lost their territorial, political and military rights, but retained the religious freedom granted by the Edict of Nantes. However, they were left at the mercy of the monarchy, unable to resist later when Louis XIV abolished the Edict of Nantes altogether and embarked on active persecution.

Aside from its religious aspect, the result of Siege of La Rochelle marks an important stage in the creation of a strong central government in France, in actual control of its entire territory and intolerant of any regional defiance of its rule. In the immediate aftermath this was manifested in growth of absolute monarchy, but had long-term effects upon all later French regimes up to the present.

The French philosopher Descartes is known to have visited the scene of the siege in 1627.

The siege was depicted in detail by numerous artists, such as Jacques Callot.

Birdeye views by Jacques Callot

Maps by Jacques Callot

Others

Numismatics

Around the time of the siege, a series of propaganda coins were cast to describe the stakes of the siege, and then commemorate the Royal victory. These coins depict the siege in symbolic ways, showing the city and the English effort in a poor light, while putting an advantageous light on Royal might.[7]

Siege in fiction and film

The siege forms the historical background for the novel The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, père and the book's numerous adaptations to stage, screen, comics and video game.

The 11th book of Robert Merle's Fortune de France series, La Gloire et les perils, deals entirely with the siege of La Rochelle.

In Lawrence Norfolk's 1991 novel, Lemprière's Dictionary, the siege is the central cause of events — entirely fictional — 160 years later in London around the writing of John Lemprière's Classical Dictionary containing a full Account of all the Proper Names mentioned in Ancient Authors.

Taylor Caldwell writes about the siege in great detail in her 1943 novel The Arm and the Darkness; however she has as its commander the fictional Huguenot nobleman Arsene de Richepin, one of the central characters of the book.

Notes

  1. ^ Warfare at sea, 1500-1650: maritime conflicts and the transformation of Europe by Glete J Staff, Jan Glete Routledge, 2002 ISBN 0-203-02456-7 p.178 [1]
  2. ^ a b Historical dictionary of Stuart England, 1603-1689 by Ronald H. Fritze, p.203 [2]
  3. ^ Duffy, p.118
  4. ^ a b by Geoffrey Parker, p.74The Thirty Years' War
  5. ^ a b by Roger Burrow Manning, p.119An apprenticeship in arms
  6. ^ by Kenneth R. Andrews, p.150Ships, money, and politics
  7. ^ Musée d'Orbigny-Bernon exhibit

References

  • Christopher Duffy Siege warfare: the fortress in the early modern world, 1494-1660 Routledge, 1979 ISBN 0-7100-8871-X

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