1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Poitiers

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POLTIERS, a town of western France, formerly the capital of Poitou, and now the chief town of the department of Vienne, 61 m. S.S W. of Tours on the railway to Bordeaux. Pop. (1906), town, 31,532; commune, 39,302. Poitiers is situated at the junction of the Boivre with the Clain (a tributary of the Loire by the Vienne), and occupies the slopes and summit of a plateau which rises 130 ft. above the level of the streams by which it is surrounded on three sides. The town is picturesque; and its streets are interesting for their remains of ancient architecture, especially of the Romanesque period, and the memories of great historical events. Blossac park, named after the intend ant of the “generality” of Poitiers (1751–1786), and situated on the south side of the town, and the botanical garden on the north-east, are the two principal promenades. Till 1857 Poitiers contained the ruins of a Roman amphitheatre more extensive than that of Nimes; remains of Roman baths, constructed in the 1st and demolished in the 3rd century, were laid bare in 1877; and in 1879 a burial-place and the tombs of a number of Christian martyrs were discovered on the heights to the south-east-the names of some of the Christians being preserved in paintings and inscriptions. Not far from these tombs is a huge dolmen (the “Pierre Levée”), 22 ft. long, 16 ft. broad and 6 or 7 ft. high, around which used to be held the great fair of St Luke.

The cathedral of St Peter, begun in 1162 by Henry II. of England and Eleanor of Guienne on the ruins of a Roman basilica, and well advanced by the end of the 12th century, is a building in the Romanesque and Early Gothic style, the latter predominating. It consists of three naves almost equal in height and width both of which decrease towards the west, thus enhancing the perspective. Its length is 308 ft., and the keystone of the central vaulted roof is 89 ft. above the pavement. There is no apse, and the exterior generally has a heavy appearance. The principal front, the width of which is excessive in proportion to its height, has unfinished side-towers 105 and 110 ft. in height, begun in the 13th century. Most of the windows of the choir and the transepts preserve their stained glass of the 12th and 13th centuries; the end window, which is certainly the first in the order of time, contains the figures of Henry II. and Eleanor. The choir stalls, carved between 1235 and 1257, are among the oldest in France. The church of St Jean near the cathedral is the most ancient Christian monument in the country. Built as a baptistery in the first half of the 4th century, it was enlarged in the 7th century, since when it has suffered little structural alteration. It contains frescoes of the 12th century and a collection of tombs of the Merovingian period. The church of St Hilaire was erected at the close of the 4th century over the tomb of the celebrated bishop. At first an oratory, it was rebuilt on a larger scale by Clovis, and afterwards became, in the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries, a sumptuous collegiate church, of which the nave was flanked by triple aisles and surmounted by six cupolas. Great damage was done to it in the Wars of Religion and the French Revolution, and the facade was entirely rebuilt in the 19th century. The confessional or oratory under the choir contains the relics of St Hilary and a Christian sarcophagus of the 4th century. The church of St Radegonde, a great resort of pilgrims, commemorates the consort of Clotaire (d. 587), and preserves in its crypt the tomb of Radegonde, who founded at Poitiers the abbey of the Holy Cross, and two others reputed to be those of St Agnes and St Disciola. The choir and tower above the entrance are of the 11th century, while the nave (late 12th century) is in the Angevin style. In a recess in the nave known as the Chapelle du Pas de Dieu, there is a footprint which tradition asserts to be that of Christ, who appeared in a vision to St Radegonde. Notre-Dame la Grande, which dates from the close of the 11th century, and represents a collegiate church of one or two hundred years older, has a sculptured Romanesque facade rivalled in richness only by that of St Pierre of Angouléme. The first stone of the church of Montierneuf (Monasterium Novum) was laid in 1077 by William VI, duke of Aquitaine and count of Poitiers, who is buried within its walls; and the choir (in the 13th century modified by the erection of a “lantern”) was solemnly consecrated by Urban II. in 1096. Mutilated about 1640 and during the Revolution, the building was partly restored between 1850 and 1860. The tower of St Porchaire, a precious remnant of 11th-century architecture, was restored in the 19th century under the auspices of the well-known Société des antiquaires de l’ouest.

Among the secular buildings the first place belongs to the law courts, formerly the palace of the dukes of Aquitaine and counts of Poitiers, and rebuilt between the 12th and the 15th century. The Salle des Pas Perdus forms a fine nave 160 ft. long by 56 ft. wide, with a vaulted wooden roof. The southern wall is the work of duke Jean de Berry (d. 1416), brother of Charles V.; above its three vast fireplaces are mullioned windows filled with stained glass. The Maubergeon tower attached to the palace by the same duke represented the feudal centre of all the lordships of the count ship of Poitiers. The house known as the prévôté or provost’s mansion, built about 1500, has a fine fagade flanked by turrets, and there are other houses of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. In the Hotel de Ville, erected between 1869 and 1876, are museums of natural history and painting. The museum of the Antiquaires de l’ouest occupies the chapel and the great hall of the old university, adjoining the old Hôtel de Ville; it is a valuable collection comprising Roman antiquities, Merovingian sculptures, medals, a fine Renaissance fireplace, &c. The building devoted to the faculties also contains the library. The municipal records are very rich in charters of Eleanor of Guienne, Philip Augustus, Alphonse of Poitiers, &c.

Poitiers is the seat of a bishop, a prefect, a court of appeal and a court of assizes, and centre of an educational division (académie), and has tribunals of first instance and of commerce, a board of trade arbitration, a chamber of commerce and a branch of the Bank of France. Its educational institutions comprise a university with faculties of law, science and letters, and a preparatory school of medicine and pharmacy, a school of theology, training colleges for both sexes, a lycée for boys and a school of fine art. Trade is in farm produce, wine, cattle, wool, honey, goose-quills and leather. The industries include the preparation of goose-skins, printing, tanning, and the manufacture of brushes, paint and candles.

Poitiers, called Limonum at the time of the Roman Conquest, afterwards took the name of its Gallic founders, the Pictones or Pictavi. Christianity was introduced in the 3rd century, and the first bishop of Poitiers, from 350 to 367, was St Hilarius. Fifty years later the city had fallen into the hands of the Arian Visigoths, and became one of the principal residences of their kings. Alaric II., one of their number, was defeated by Clovis at Vouillé, not far from Poitiers, in 507, and the town became a part of the Frankish dominion. This was the first occasion on which the peoples of northern and southern Gaul met in conflict in the neighbourhood of the town which was destined to see them so frequently join battle. By his victory in 732 over the Mahommedans at Moussais-la-Bataille in this region, Charles Martel proved the saviour of Christendom. Eleanor of Guienne frequently resided in the city, which she embellished and fortified, and in 1199 entrusted with communal rights. Alphonse of Poitiers, at a plenary court held in 1241 in the great hall of the Palais de Justice, received the homage of his numerous vassals. After the battle of Poitiers in 1356 (see below), Poitou was recognized as an English possession by the treaty of Brétigny (1360); but by 1373 it was recovered by Bertrand Du Guesclin. It was at Poitiers that Charles VII. was proclaimed king (1432); and he removed thither the parlement and university of Paris, which remained in exile till the English withdrew from the capital in 1436. During this interval (1429) Joan of Arc was subjected to a formal inquest in the town. The university was founded in 1432 Calvin had numerous converts at Poitiers. Of the violent proceedings which attended the Wars of Religion the city had its share. In 1569 it was defended by Gui de Daillon, comte du Lude, against Gaspard de Coligny, who after an unsuccessful bombardment retired from the siege at the end of seven weeks.

Counts of Poitiers.—In the time of Charlemagne the countship of Poitiers, which was then a part of the kingdom of Aquitaine, was represented by a certain Abbon. Renoul (Ranulph), who was created count of Poitiers by the emperor Louis the Pious in 839, was the ancestor of a family which was distinguished in the 9th and 10th centuries for its attachment to the Carolingian dynasty. One of his successors, Ebles the Bastard (d. 935), took the title of duke of Aquitaine; and his descendants, who bore the hereditary name of William, retained the same title. William IV., Fièrebrace, joined Hugh Capet, his brother-in-law, in 987. William V. the Great (993–1030) was a patron of letters, and received from the Italian lords the offer of the imperial crown after the death of the emperor Henry II. in 1024. William IX. (1086–1127) went on crusade in 1100, and had violent quarrels with the Papacy. His son William X. (1127–1137) sided with the anti-pope Anacletus against Innocent II. In accordance with the dying wishes of William X. his daughter Eleanor was married in 1137 to Louis, the son of Louis VI. of France. Sole heiress of her father, she brought her husband a large dowry, comprising Poitou, Saintouge, Aunis, a part of Touraine and Berry, Marche, Angoumois, Périgord, Auvergne, Limousin, Bordelais, Agénois and Gascony. After the dissensions between Louis VII. and Eleanor had resulted in a divorce in 1152, Eleanor married the count of Anjou, Henry Plantagenet, who became king of England as Henry II. The west of France thus passed into the hands of England, a transfer which gave rise to long wars between the two kingdoms. Philip Augustus reconquered Poitou in 1204, and the province became in succession an apanage of Alphonse, son of Louis VIII., in 1241; of Philip the Tall, son of Philip the Fair, in 1311; of John, son of Philip of Valois, in 1344; and of John, duc de Berry, son of John the Good, in 13 56; and passed to the dauphins John (1416) and Charles (1417), sons of Charles VI. When Charles VII. ascended the throne he finally united the count ship of Poitiers to the Crown.

See P. Guérin, Recueil des documents concernant le Poitou Paris, 1880–1906); and A. Richards, Histoire des comtes de Poitou (Paris, 1903).

Battle of Poitiers.—This battle, fought on the 19th of September 1356 between the armies of King John of France and Edward the “Black Prince,” was the second of the three great English victories of the Hundred Years’ War. From Bordeaux the prince had led an army of his father’s Guienne vassals, with which there was a force of English archers and men-at-arms, into central France and had amassed an enormous booty. King John, hitherto engaged against the army of John of Gaunt duke of Lancaster, in Normandy, hurried south to intercept the raiding army and to bar its homeward road. The Black Prince, by forced marching, was able to slip past the French, but reaching Maupertuis, 7 m. south-east of Poitiers, with the king’s army in chase, he found himself compelled to choose between fighting and abandoning his spoil. He chose the former course, in spite of the enemy’s great superiority in numbers (16,000 to 6500), and in order to give his trains time to draw off took up a defensive position on the 18th of September, with a slight hollow in front and a wood behind, between the Poitiers-Bordeaux main road and the River Maussion.[1] John, instead of manoeuvring to envelop the English, allowed the Cardinal Talleyrand de Périgord to attempt to negotiate a peace. This proving vain, the French army attacked without any attempt at manoeuvre or reconnaissance, and on a front so narrow that the advantage of superior numbers was forfeited. Moreover, King John ordered all but the leading line to dismount and to attack on foot (tactics suggested by the success on the defensive of the dismounted English men-at-arms at Crecy and the Scots at Bannockburn), and thus condemned the best part of his army to a fatiguing advance on foot across difficult country in full armour.

The French arblasters, who might have crushed the relatively few English archers present, were mingled with the 300 picked mounted men in first line, but, as the latter charged, their advance masked the fire of the arblasters in the first few seconds, besides leaving the other, dismounted, lines far in rear. Thus the first attack on the Black Prince’s line, which was greatly strengthened by trees and hedges in front of it, was promptly brought to a standstill by the arrows of the archers lining a hedge which overlooked the hollow in front; and the earl of Oxford hastily drawing out a body of archers beyond the defenders left, into the low-lying ground of the Maussion valley, completed their rout by firing up the hollow into their flank. But it was not so easy to deal with the second line of dismounted men-at-arms, led by the dauphin, which was the next to arrive on the French side. The hedge indeed was held, and the assailants, unable to advance beyond the hollow, gave way, but to achieve this the prince had to use all but 400 of his men. Had the third body of the French advanced with equal spirit the battle would probably have ended there and then, but the duke of Orleans, who commanded it, was so demoralized by the retirement of the dauphin’s division that he led his whole force off the field without striking a blow. Thereupon the king himself advanced furiously with the fourth and last line, and as it came on the situation of the English seemed so desperate that the prince was advised to retreat. But his determined courage was unshaken; seeing that this was the last attack he put his reserve into line, and rallying around this nucleus all men who could still fight, he prepared not only to repulse but to counter-attack the French. He dispatched a small force under the Captal de Buch to ride round the flank of the enemy and to appear in their rear at the crisis of the fight. Though a medieval knight, he knew as well as Napoleon at Arcola that when the moral force of both sides has passed its culminating point even a materially insignificant threat serves to turn the balance. And so it fell out. When both lines were fighting hand-to-hand, the fifty horsemen of the Captal de Buch appeared in rear of the French. The front ranks fought on, but the rear of the French melted away rapidly, and at last only a group of the bravest, with King John and his son Philip, a boy of fourteen, in their midst, were left. This band continued their hopeless resistance for a time, but in the end they were killed or captured to a man. The rest of the French army, totally dispersed, was pursued by the victors until nightfall. Two thousand five hundred of the French, 2000 of them knights and men-at-arms, were killed, including the constable, one of the marshals, the standard bearer and six other great lords. The prisoners included the king and his son Philip, the other marshal and 25 great lords, and 1933 knights and men-at-arms as well as 500 others.

  1. The view adopted is that of Professor Oman, Art of War, Middle Ages, p. 631.