The Siege of La Rochelle, Part I

G.A. Rothrock describes how, at the close of the French Wars of Religion in 1627-8, the Protestant centre of La Rochelle succumbed to royal siege.

La Rochelle is an old port on the French west coast, built on a rocky cape standing in wide salt marshes. It can trace its origins to mention in late tenth-century acts of the Dukes of Aquitaine, and by the twelfth century it was a flourishing town that had won chartered privileges of self-government from its dukes. Toward the middle of the twelfth century the heiress of Aquitaine married the King of England; for the next three hundred years the French and English crowns struggled for control of western France and, courted by both sides, La Rochelle grew ever more powerful and more independent. By the mid-fifteenth century it was a well-fortified port governed by its bourgeoisie through an elected mayor and city council.

In the sixteenth century La Rochelle, like many other commercial centres, welcomed the religious teachings of John Calvin. The wealth and independence of the town soon made it one of the great bastions of the reformed religion in France, and its shipping connected it to the Protestant states of England and the Dutch Netherlands. During the late sixteenth-century religious wars La Rochelle gave only nominal allegiance to the Catholic crown of France, and the religious settlement established in 1598 by King Henry IV allowed it to retain a large measure of autonomy. The Protestants were permitted to maintain fortified towns as ‘places of security’, and the famous west coast port was one of the foremost of them; solidly Calvinist and proudly independent, it treated with the officers of the crown almost as one sovereign government with another. But in Bourbon France the pride of over-mighty subjects invited disaster. Under Henry’s son, Louis XIII, the town met a terrible vengeance, and in its death throes it led the whole French Protestant party to defeat.

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