A study in grey and green is the impression left upon my mind by a first view of the old town of Poitiers. There is a sternness in the aspect of the place as you approach it by rail through the pastures of Vienne. But peace now rests upon Poitiers; the town dreams in this quiet French landscape, and the chronicles of arms are old and faded memories.
Crécy and Poitiers! Every English school-boy remembers the names of
these great battlefields, and thrills at the story of the Black Prince
and his encounters with King John of France. Poitiers sets the
reflective visitor musing upon martial valour, and the vast futile
exercise of the bellicose instincts of the French and British nations in
the time of the Hundred Years’ War. Fighting was then the proper and
exclusive occupation of gentlemen. The age that gave birth to Chaucer
was the age of vainglorious warfare with Scotland and France, followed
by intellectual stagnation, and all the bitter fruitage of battle.
In 1355 the Black Prince, at the head of an army, advanced from Bordeaux
towards Poitiers, laying waste the fertile regions of the south, where
no war had ever been waged until this aggression. Aided by the turbulent
Gascons, the English prince came on 19th September 1356 to some
vineyards and fields about four miles from Poitiers. The French host,
sixty thousand strong, awaited him. Hedgerows and vines formed cover for
the English bowmen; the warriors in armour held a point where a narrow
lane led to the encampment. Up this lane the French soldiers, in their
heavy mail, charged to the attack, meeting a terrific rain of arrows
from men in ambush.
Very soon the narrow roadway was choked with the wounded and the dying.
The French were arrayed in three strong divisions, and probably
outnumbered the troops of the Black Prince by seven to one. But their
position was open and exposed, whereas the English had entrenched
themselves and made a barricade of waggons. Moreover, the French were
worn with long marches.
A sally of English archers, under Captal de Buch, wrought havoc among
the French on the left flank of their force, and from that moment the
A great and final charge was led by the Black Prince and Sir Denis de
Morbecque, a knight of Artois. The French drew back, routed, and in
disorder, to the gates of Poitiers. After a valiant stand, King John was
taken captive. The victory was complete for England; the vanquished king
was a prisoner, his troops lay in thousands on the field. Eleven
thousand of the flower of French chivalry perished in this fierce
Petrarch gives us a picture of the harvest of this strife: “I could not
believe that this was the same France which I had seen so rich and
flourishing. Nothing presented itself to my eyes but a fearful solitude,
an utter poverty, land uncultivated, houses in ruin.”
The Black Prince treated his royal captive with courtesy, entertaining
him at his own table, and praising his bravery. In May 1357 the French
king was brought to England, and, seated on a charger, he rode side by
side with his victor through the streets of London. As a first
residence, King John was given the Savoy Palace, and afterwards he and
his son spent some time in Windsor Castle.
Watered on three sides by the Rivers Boivre and Clain, and standing on
rising ground, Poitiers was chosen as the site of a Roman settlement.
Not far from the town are the ruins of a Roman burial-place, and
antiquities that have been discovered may be seen in the interesting
Museum of Antiquaries de l’Ouest.
In 1569 the Count du Lude valiantly defended Poitiers against the seven
weeks’ siege of troops led by Coligny, finally repulsing the enemy, and
retaining the town.
Protestantism seems to have gained ground in Poitiers, for we read that
in the days of Calvin there were many “conversions” among the
In September 1559 the justices of the city published a proscription of
religious gatherings, and bade all strangers to quit the place in
twenty-four hours. No preaching was permitted, the inhabitants were
enjoined not to give necessities of life to the pastors under penalty of
punishment for sedition. This persecution, directed against the
Lutherans, was the result of the edict of Villars-Cotteret, and of an
order made in Blois, which decreed that all the attenders at religious
assemblies should be put to death, “without hope of pardon or
mitigation.” France was at this time the scene of the fierce religious
intolerance which led to the Massacre of St Bartholomew.
Gaspard de Coligny, Admiral of France, who led the siege of Poitiers,
was a convert to the teaching of Calvin, and the leader of the reformed
party. Touched with fanaticism, he was a valorous soldier, and was never
daunted by his reverses. After a long conflict with the Church, the
admiral was murdered brutally, and his body mutilated, and dragged
through the streets of Paris by a rabble.
The oldest church in the town is St Jean. A basilica once stood where St
Peter’s massive bulk overshadows the houses around. The towers of this
church date from the thirteenth century. There are some very old
stained-glass windows; in one of them are portraits of Henry II. and
Eleanor of England.
Portions of the Church of St Radegonde are probably of the eleventh
century. St Porchaine is another ancient church worth visiting.
The Dukes of Aquitaine lived in the city, and their palace is now a
court of law. One of the halls has a fine vaulted wooden roof.
Poitiers has many winding, narrow lanes of curious old houses. It is not
a busy commercial city, but it does not lack an air of comfort and
prosperity. The town has to-day a population of over thirty thousand