French History: The Charente River

The Charente River flows from the Limousin region of France and westward through Angoulême, Jarnac, Cognac and Saintes before emptying into the Atlantic near Rockefort. One of it’s tributaries, La Guirlande, breaks from the main river at the eastern end of our town, Bassac and runs through town, flowing directly behind the abbey and under the mill, before rejoining with the Charente on the western side of town near the Vinade Bridge. The main portion of the Charente River flows just south of town and is reachable from Bassac by walking past the town’s garden plots, through the forest and a few corn fields and out to the river. There, you can find a series of locks set up to help boaters freely navigate the swiftly moving river. Molly and I often spend the afternoon watching old men fish on the river near the locks as we walk along the edge to the explore other towns nearby.

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La Guirlande tributary in Bassac

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town garden plots

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forest entrance

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through the forest

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sign for the Saintonge locks

The Charente was used for navigation and transport for centuries, but being smaller and narrower than the Dordogne and the Gironde, goods are now transported on those rivers to and from Bordeaux’s shipping port. The Charente River has recently become navigable again, for tourism purposes. In Jarnac, a few miles down river, docks and small river boats line the embarcadero. They are mostly dirty and neglected, sitting and waiting for summer tourism (we can only assume). And in every town along the Charente in our region there is a small public dock to which one can tie a canoe or small boat and signs directing travelers to local restaurants, hotels and historic sites.

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The Charente River has provided the backdrop for many important moments in the history of Western France. Caesar invaded this part of France and after putting down several rebellions, the Romans established straight roads, an amphitheater and even built an arch in Saintes. In the 12th century, King John of England, who was famously forced to sign the Magna Carta (and also was Robin Hood’s nemesis), actually married the Princess of Angoulême. The marriage was, at least in part, to legitimize his rule over this area of France, an area which had been gained for England by John’s father, Richard the Lionheart. Richard won many battles along the Charente River, conquering the castle at Taillebourg and forcing all the local barons to surrender to England’s rule. For a hundred years France and England would then fight over areas surrounding the Charente River until Louis IX solidified his rule over the area by destroying the army of King Henry III of England on a bridge over the Charente near the Taillebourg castle.

Within the town of Bassac there two events which greatly illustrate extremely important time periods in French History. On the north end of town there is a road to Jarnac on a hill above the Vinade Bridge. Here, during the French Wars of Religion, a Catholic Calvary encountered a Huguenot army lead by Prince de Conde. Prince de Conde, part of the Bourbon family ruling France, had been fighting on the Protestant side of The Wars of Religion and had actually assisted in negotiating a treaty a few years early which increased the rights of Protestants. In some ways, this treaty only increased the Catholics will to destroy all forms of Protestantism in France. So, early one morning in 1569 the Catholic Calvary crossed the Charente south of Bassac and stealthily hugged the river moving through the forest unnoticed until it passed the Abbey of Bassac and moved towards the road on the hill that Prince de Conde and his forces were controlling. Surprising the Prince and his army withheld several attacks, the Catholics quickly defeated the Huguenots and the Prince was killed in the ensuing surrender. The French Wars of Religion divided the ruling aristocratic class, leaving Princes like de Conde to fight against other Frenchman in civil wars. Ultimately, the Edict of Nantes in 1598 put an end to the civil war. Protestantism, though not widely accepted, was, at least, permitted in France going forward.

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Pyramid de Conde

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Vinade Bridge

The Pyramid de Conde commemorates the spot where de Conde was killed and it is actually visible from the Vinade Bridge that crosses the Charente below the hill. Molly and I cross this bridge almost daily on foot or via the car. Here, during World War II, Major Hasler and Marine Sparks of the British Marines, crossed the bridge in the dead of night, moving through German-controlled Occupied France towards the town of Ruffec. Hasler and Sparks had been part of a commando mission in Bordeaux 11 days before where the British Marines sent twelve men in six canoes up the Gironde estuary into Bordeaux to destroy the German cargo fleet. After the first night, four of the canoes were lost in violent and turbulent seas. The two remaining canoes managed to survive several more days in enemy waters and make it to the cargo fleet where they attached mines to the ship’s hulls and successfully blew them up. They purposefully sunk their canoes and continued their plan to head on foot overland to Spain where they could catch a British ship home. The men from each canoe split up to remain more difficult to spot. The men from the first canoe were soon to be found by the local French police who then turned the marines over to the Germans to be killed. Hasler and Sparks were much luckier, coming in contact with French Resistance groups who shepherded them north towards a major resistance group in the Charente region. Early on the morning of December 16th, 1942 Hasler and Sparks crossed the Charente wearing old clothes given to them by local Resistance groups to hide their uniforms. They soon reached their target and were then easily smuggled back towards Spain where they found a British ship home.

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Abbey of Bassac

At the center of Bassac is the abbey, which tolls its bells every hour and rings the convent chimes at 7am and 7pm every day. The abbey is the most dominant sight in town and across the land spreading out from Bassac. We can see it from our doorstop where it towers over town, we can see it from the hill where Prince de Conde died and we see it from miles away as we walk through the vineyards and the steeple rises above the forest. The abbey was founded in 1002 by the first Lord of Jarnac and his wife after a religions pilgrimage to Rome. The steeple and chapels were built a few hundred years later. During its time gazing over Bassac and the Charente River below, the Abbaye Saint-Etienne de Bassac has seen a great deal of change. In the 12th century, Englishman attacked its walls under the orders of Richard the Lionheart. In the 15th century the English attacked again and the abbey’s residents and local villagers were killed or dispersed for resisting English rule. It was refurbished after the English were expelled, only to be attacked over and over again by it’s own countrymen. First, the Huguenots and then again by the Catholics attacking the Huguenots besieged inside. In the 18th century the French Revolution banished all forms of organized religion, the monks were expelled and the abbey was only allowed to be used for civic purposes. On the facade of the abbey’s entrance it still reads Robespierre’s infamous mark still found on most French churches: “The French people recognize the Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul.”

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5 thoughts on “French History: The Charente River

  1. I’m having a hard time deciding if using a canoe as a stealthy warship of sorts was crazy like a fox or just crazy. Given the outcome, I suspect the former. Also, had disguises not been invented in the 40s? If I’m paddling into enemy territory under the cover of darkness and my getaway car is only slightly larger than a kayak, I’m definitely taking a change of clothes to wear that less resembles a bullseye. This was a very interesting read, brother.

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  2. Thanks Mar!! Yah, it’s so crazy, I”m pretty sure it was seen as a suicide mission, but either way, I guess the Brits hadn’t advanced very far since the revolutionary war when they thought it proper to wear red coats while marching through the green forest (burn!).

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