A brief history of the Loire Valley
The Loire Valley is an area steeped in history and because of its riches, one that has been fought over and influenced by a variety of adversaries from by the Romans to Atila the Hun. The formation of the region as we know it today began after its conquest by Julius Caesar in 52BC. It is however Emperor Augustus who is credited with bringing peace and stability to the Loire Valley. This stability saw the growth of towns such as Orleans (Genabum),Tours (Caesarodunum), Le Mans (Noviodunum), Angers (Juliomagus),Bourges (Avaricum) and Chartres (Autricum).Their influence is still evident in these now fine cities in varying degrees. The Roman's greatest influence however might be considered to be the introduction of the first vines to the region.
Christianity spread to the region due, to a large extent, to the work of the first Bishop of Tours, St. Gatien and in the 4th century was further accepted throughout Touraine due to the influences of the now much admired, bishop St. Marin.
After the Huns were repelled at Orleans in 451 the area was eventually conquered by the Frankish king Clovis in 507 but this didn't stop the Saracens from the south or Vikings from the north trying to lay claim to this fertile land.
From then and during the middle ages (5th to15th century) the foundations were laid for the great political and religious centres that were to follow. With all the major cities of the area having a part to play in the formation and destiny of the France we know today.
Tours was actually a larger city than Paris at this time with its growth centred around the followers of Saint Martin. Angers to the west and Blois to the east had feuding, powerful nobles building fortresses to protect their territories. Many of these were the responsibility of prolific builder of fortifications, Folk Nerra Count of Anjou (970-1040) and they would later become the sites of many of the grand chateaux we see today. Chinon was to become the popular residence of the Plantagenet kings of England after they had gained the County of Anjou through marriage during the 11th century. Orleans was home to original 'kings of France' with a dynasty dating back to the 9th century, which would endure right up to the French revolution. In Vendome we see the rise of the Bourbon dynasty which would provide future kings of France and Spain.
By the 15th century the country was looking to unite as a national force but this was hampered by England's desire to conquer the whole of France for itself. During what was to become known as the 'Hundred Years' War' (although it lasted longer!) most of the Loire Valley had been captured and in 1429 as Orleans was being besieged it looked like they would succeed in their desire. What they didn't expect was a French saviour in the form of a 17 year old peasant girl from Domremy in Champagne. Joan of Arc (Jeanne d'Arc) who rallied the French army and freed the city and chased the English from the Loire Valley. Her reward for this is well documented (see here) but her actions did lead to her canonisation as St Joan.
The 16th century saw several French kings fight and for a short time, rule in Italy. These adventures resulted in a great Renaissance of French architecture, art and design. It also saw the French nobility relocate to the Loire Valley. Shortly after his Italian patron Giuliano died in 1516,Leonardo de Vinci was enticed here by the arts loving Francois I, with the promise of a pension and comfortable residence. His and other Italian influences have left their mark in the form of the glorious chateau and gardens throughout the Loire Valley. All their energies were not however devoted to the pursuit of the arts and as many of the chateaux stories and legends will testify, they set aside much time for seductions, trysts and rendezvous of an amorous nature.
In the mid 16th century the war between Catholics and Protestants (War of Religion), which would last 30 years, was followed by the plague and these events all but ended this 'golden age' of Loire Valley history. The French kings retreated back to Paris and their grand Châteaux became glorious relics of a bygone age.
The 17th and 18th centuries saw the re-establishment of the Catholic Church. This resulted in an increase in the number of convents and seminaries and a decline in the Protestant movement within the Loire Valley. The 17th century saw the economy of the region thrive with the growth of its agricultural and textile industries but by the 18 century the textile industry had become unsustainable due largely to the effects of the Revolution. The region was split in its support, with the areas of Maine and Anjou joining the people of the Vendee against and Touraine and Orleans for the Revolution. Its effects would be longstanding both materialistically ( it left many ruins) and physiologically, with bitterness engrained in the psyche of its people.
The Revolution is often seen as the "dawn of the modern era" and within France, it was responsible for draining the wealth of the Church and dismantling the power of the aristocracy. That said, the two institutions endured despite the damages they sustained. We will let historians debate the success or otherwise of this historical event. Its effects on the Loire valley are still visible and indeed invisible, like the chateau at Richelieu, today.
The 19th century wasn't a great time for the French military what with the fall of the Empire and the Franco-Prussian War. The armies of the Loire Valley were heavily involved in protecting the country from invasion by the Prussians with Orleans again being a key strategic position.
The area also had its parts to play in the 'Great wars' with the American Expeditionary Force setting up its headquarters in Tours during the First World War and serving as a temporary base for the French government before continuing down to Bordeaux at the beginning of the Second. The town of Montoire near Vendome was to play an interesting part in the Second World War as it was here on a train that Hitler met with Marshal Pétain and agreed to his terms for an armistice see article here. This leads to the country being divided into two zones - the occupied zone (2/3) and free zone (see map). The effect on the people of the Loire Valley was a splitting of the region with all but the people of Southern Touraine being held within the occupied zone. This again was a testing time for families and friends split by a border control not of their own making. It would not be until September 1944 before the French Resistance and Allied forces retook the area from the German occupiers.
As a visitor to the area today you can only imagine the history that has gone before but through the sites and tourist information available you can begin to scratch at its surface... you just have to experience the Loire !