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 hundred–member 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 1601–1643) 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 .
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, 1500–1568. 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, 1530–1650: 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.
La Rochelle is now a yachting port about half way down the west coast of France in the old province of Aunis and the modern département of the Charente Maritime. During the sixteenth century it became the greatest of the Huguenot fortified towns and defied a royal siege in 1572. Huguenots and foreign Protestant merchants were attracted by its remoteness from Paris, whence came persecution, there being no big river leading inland like the Garonne for Bordeaux, the Seine for Rouen, and the Adour for Bayonne; and it was then surrounded by swamps. With several satellite ports, notably fishing centers such as Marennes and La Tremblade on the Arvert Peninsula, others on the Charente River some 30 miles south, and on the Sèvre-Niortaise River a few miles north, La Rochelle built up a great trade with ports in Protestant Holland and England, the Caribbean colonies, the Baltic Sea, and the Newfoundland fisheries. Dutch and English merchants intermarried with local Huguenot families to form cosmopolitan Protestant communities that traded with others around the Atlantic and the North Sea. These communities grew larger with every wave of emigration to escape from persecution.
In 1552, when La Rochelle had about 20,000 inhabitants, its Huguenot forces seized control of it in an insurrection, but remained loyal to the royal government. During the civil war in 1568 the town defended itself against Catholic forces and four years later survived a siege by royal armies, which marked it as a rebellious Huguenot stronghold. It was to remain the strongest of Huguenot fortified towns until October 1628, when it surrendered after another long siege by royal forces that, in 1620, had launched campaigns against the Huguenots in southwestern France. Louis XIII (1601–1643) and Cardinal Richelieu (1585–1642) made it the headquarters of their new Company of New France (Compagnie des Cents Associés), a missionary agency to which they awarded a monopoly of trade with Canada in order to pay for missionary work. Until the conquest of Canada in 1759, more ships sailed to Quebec and Acadia from La Rochelle than from any other port, except during wars at sea when the bigger port of Bordeaux eclipsed La Rochelle in the Canada trade.
Beginning with the "sugar revolution" of the 1640s, La Rochelle developed a brisk trade with Martinique and Saint-Domingue in sugar and slaves. It had always traded in the brandy and cheap white wines of Saintonge, and the paper produced by Dutch immigrants in Angoumois, and from 1665 it was the mainstay of the new naval base at Rochefort on the Charente River, supplying the navy and helping to finance it. Rochefort was assigned to the naval care of New France, and so these twin ports, with their smaller satellite ports, became the French center of shipping to and from North American colonies. As one of the great ports of medieval and early modern France, La Rochelle was granted its own Royal Academy of Belles-Lettres in 1734.
Over the two centuries after France lost Acadia and Newfoundland in 1715 and Canada in 1759, the Rochelais turned to fishing, Great Britain having allowed French ships to fish for cod on the Newfoundland banks from the islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon. La Rochelle's ancient harbor was too small any longer for ocean-going freight, but trade went on out of La Pallice, almost a suburb, the only big ocean port directly on the Atlantic between Brest and Lisbon. In the 1980s Spanish fishermen took over the fisheries and La Rochelle languished until it built a large yachting basin at Les Minimes nearby.
Bosher, J. F. Business and Religion in the Age of New France: Twenty-Two Studies. Toronto: Canadian Scholars' Press, 1994.
Faust, Katherine Louise. "A Beleagured Society: Protestant Families in La Rochelle, 1628–1685." Ph.D. diss. Northwestern University, 1980.
Parker, David. La Rochelle and the French Monarchy: Conflict and Order in Seventeenth-Century France. London: Royal Historical Society, 1980.
Robbins, Kevin C. City on the Ocean Sea: La Rochelle, 1530–1650, Urban Society, Religion, and Politics on the French Atlantic Frontier. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1997.
J. F. Bosher