France: Sully’s Peace Trees

Terry Brown explores the arborial legacy of a penny-pinching duke.

During the French Wars of Religion (1562-98), the tiny Protestant village of Riverie in south-west France was attacked by a force from nearby Lyon. All the local males, including infants, were massacred. This horrific event is remembered today by a street named Rue des Morts and by a 400-year-old lime tree which grows near the church. A plaque states that the tree was planted on the suggestion of the Duke of Sully (1560-1641), Henry IV of France’s first minister, as a symbol of reconciliation and hope for the future.

When I saw first saw this tree I thought it just an isolated example of Sully’s tree-planting. But in subsequent years I came across others. Another lime in St-Maurice-en-Valgaudemar (Hautes-Alpes) celebrated the promulgation of the Edict of Nantes, which tolerated Protestants, and one in Saint-Martin-en-Vercors (Drôme) was planted by Sully to celebrate the industrial success of the village.

All this set me thinking. Historians deal with more weighty matters than trees, so I searched through old guide books. I found several references to Sully’s trees, including an elm tree in Vernou-sur-Brenne (Loire) which Frederic Lees, writing in 1909, said was one of many planted to celebrate the Edict of Nantes.

It is a well-documented fact that Sully halted the deforestation of France, was responsible for the planting of millions of trees, and began the tradition of planting trees alongside roads. But is it also the case that he ordered the planting of memorial trees in particular communities? It would certainly be in character for a man as parsimonious as he was with public money; after all, trees make cheap memorials. But contact with Sully-sur-Loire, the main home of the great Duke, drew no information about the existence of such trees.

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