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La Rochelle

LA ROCHELLE

LA ROCHELLE. The primary characteristic of La Rochelle was its isolation. Situated on the Bay of Biscay, the city was all but cut off from the interior by marshland. Yet this very isolation allowed La Rochelle to become one of France's most prosperous towns by the end of the Middle Ages. At the beginning of the twelfth century the port barely existed. It blossomed into prominence with the subsequent expansion of the export trade in wine and salt, a salt yielded in abundance by the encircling marshes. The city also profited from seigneurial rivalries and ambitions to secure an unusual degree of municipal autonomy. It barely paid any royal taxes, and the economic life of the commune was regulated by its one hundredmember council headed by the mayor.

The most dynamic elements of La Rochelle's population of twenty thousand consisted of merchants, shopkeepers, and artisans. Royal authority was nominally represented by the senechal (who had the honor of selecting the mayor from three names offered by the council) and from 1553 by a diminutive corps of legal officers. Despite the existence of a number of monastic houses, La Rochelle boasted only five parish churches, and the ecclesiastical hierarchy was weak compared with that of many other towns.

This social physiognomy helps explain the receptiveness of the Rochelais to the Reformed Church. Clerics, artisans, merchants, and municipal and royal officers all adopted the Protestant doctrines, and by 1570 the municipality was firmly attached to the Huguenot cause, providing a virtually impregnable retreat for the Huguenot grandees in times of difficulty. La Rochelle withstood a siege lasting six months in 1573 and emerged from the Wars of Religion with its privileges bolstered. The resulting sense of security almost certainly explains why, as in the southern Huguenot towns of Montauban and Nîmes, the Huguenots sustained their congregations, which embraced the overwhelmimg majority of the population.

By the 1620s, however, La Rochelle's privileges had become an intolerable barrier to the government's plans to enhance its fragile control of the Atlantic seaboard, an ambition that dovetailed with the renewal of war against the Huguenots. The two processes reached a spectacular climax with a fourteen-month blockade that culminated in the entry of Louis XIII (ruled 16011643) into the city at the head of his troops on All Saints' Day 1628. Reduced by death and desertion to a mere five thousand survivors, La Rochelle emerged into a different world. La Rochelle's municipal institutions and autonomy were destroyed along with most of the city walls. The wealth of its merchants was subject to the soaring fiscal exigencies of the crown, a fact most strikingly brought home by the progressive abandonment of the heavily taxed salt marshes.

It is testimony to the power of the Atlantic economy that the decline in La Rochelle's fortunes was relative rather than catastrophic. By 1675 the population had returned to its former level, and expanding colonial trade together with the growth of the brandy trade compensated for the decline in the quality of the local wines. By 1720 brandy formed 37 percent of total exports, while the West Indian slave trade gave the merchant community a new lease on life.

Yet the effects of royal taxation on a modestly sized town with an inadequate harbor and no major river ultimately could not be avoided. As the populations of Nantes and Bordeaux soared in the decades after 1720, that of La Rochelle declined once more. Although the value of its trade had risen, its share of France's colonial trade declined from 20 percent in 1730 to 7 percent in the 1770s.

See also Huguenots ; Richelieu, Armand-Jean Du Plessis, cardinal ; Wars of Religion, French .

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Clark, John G. La Rochelle and the Atlantic Economy during the Eighteenth Century. Baltimore and London, 1981.

Meyer, Judith Chandler Pugh. Reformation in La Rochelle: Tradition and Change in Early Modern Europe, 15001568. Geneva, 1986.

Parker, David. La Rochelle and the French Monarchy: Conflict and Order in Seventeenth-Century France. London, 1980.

Pérouas, Louis. Le diocèse de La Rochelle de 1648 à 1724. Paris, 1964.

Robbins, Kevin C. City on the Ocean Sea, La Rochelle, 15301650: Urban Society, Religion, and Politics on the French Atlantic Frontier. Leiden, 1997.

Trocmé, Étienne, and Marcel Delafosse. Le commerce Rochelais de la fin du XV siècle au début du XVIIe. Paris, 1952.

David Parker

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Rochelle, La

La Rochelle (lä rôshĕl´), city (1990 pop. 73,744), capital of Charente-Maritime dept., W France, on the Bay of Biscay. Industries include naval, aircraft, and automobile construction. La Rochelle is the principal French fishing port on the Atlantic coast. Chartered in the 12th cent., it soon became one of the chief seaports of France. It was a Huguenot stronghold during the Wars of Religion and successfully resisted Catholic besiegers for half a year (1572–73). However, when Cardinal Richelieu resolved to crush the Huguenots, La Rochelle fell after a siege of 14 months (1627–28). Louis XIV had the port refortified by Vauban; his revocation (1685) of the Edict of Nantes resulted in the foundation of New Rochelle, N.Y., by Protestant refugees. La Rochelle prospered again as it became the chief center of trade with Canada, but it suffered from the loss of Canada by France and from the Continental System under Napoleon. Although its fisheries, canneries, and shipyards still make it a busy port, La Rochelle never recovered its former importance. The principal harbor is now at La Pallice, some 3 mi (5 km) distant. The picturesque old fishing port in the heart of the city, the Renaissance town hall, and other old buildings make the city a favorite tourist center.

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La Rochelle

La Rochelle Seaport on the Bay of Biscay, w France; capital of Charente-Maritime department. An English possession during the 12th and 13th centuries, it changed hands several times during the Hundred Years' War (1337–1453). In the 16th century, it became a Huguenot stronghold, but capitulated to the forces of Cardinal Richelieu in 1628. Industries: shipbuilding, oil refining, sawmilling, fish-canning, cement, fertilizers, plastics. Pop. (1999) 76,711.

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La Rochelle

La Rochelle a port on the Atlantic coast of western France, which in the 17th century was a noted Huguenot stronghold. Having supported the English invasion of Ré, La Rochelle was besieged and finally conquered by the forces of Louis XIII and Richelieu. Many of its inhabitants starved to death during the siege.

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