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Castles : at the heart of France and England history

The castles around Niort, at the heart of France and England history

The double Romanesque keep of Niort: Eleanor of Aquitaine's keep

The Donjon of Niort

It is one of the great Poitevin monuments built by the Plantagenets.

At the end of the XIIth century, the keep replaced an older wooden castle which was mentioned in the middle of the Xth century. Right from this period, Niort was the centre of a small district and a border with the Aunis (Charente-Maritime), controlling access to the sea and the salt marshes which were exploited, and protecting the Sèvre Niortaise (small coastal river which flows into the Atlantic and was navigable up to Niort).

In 1104, this primitive fortress was burnt down either by accident or during the fighting between Guillaume VII, the count of Poitou, and Geoffroy Martel, the count of Anjou. Sometime later, it was rebuilt in wood and stone and then entirely in stone by Henri II Plantagenet and Richard the Lionheart. It became a garrison for the defense of English possessions against the king of France and a base for supplies (food and ammunitions) for the troops on their expeditions in the area.

Four arches on machicolations support the terrace of the south tower. This technique of defense, used in Niort for the first time in Western Europe, is an invention from the Orient which was imported by Richard the Lionheart on his return from a crusade. It allowed different projectiles to be shot vertically upwards: stones, pitch, lime or burning sand.

This building which has never been captured is today one of the largest Romanesque keeps in France.

Since December 15th of 2012, it has been a centre of patrimony and a centre for temporary exhibitions. The access to the terrace gives you a panoramic view of the town. It is possible to have a guided tour the last Sunday of the month at 15.00.

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Coudray-Salbart and the Plantagenets

The castle of Coudray-Salbart to Echiré

Impressive 13th century fortress attributed to the legendary Fairy Melusine, in the heart of fights between kings of France and England. It controlled the crossing of the river Sèvre Niortaise, south border of the lords of Parthenay-Larchevêque.

- 10 rooms exceptionally conserved;
- arch and ribbed vaults or dome shaped pierced by an oculus; big and beautiful fireplaces; numerous arrowslits; latrines;
- a corridor (built in the thickness of the walls) unique in Europe.

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The Pilory : a miniature of the Donjon

The 2nd town hall of Niort was built in the XIVth century on the square of the pillory (the place where the condemned were exposed). Then, it was enlarged in the XVIth century by Mathurin Berthomé in first Renaissance style. The style of the decoration was copied from the château of Azay-le-Rideau. The Pilory was Niort's town hall until the Revolution. Today, the historical monument houses a visual arts centre (centre for temporary exhibitions).

It is a miniature of the keep so as to remind us that the mayor and the counsellors used to be equerries and were named sire. They were the first to take up the sword during public debates.

On the eastern facade of the belfry, the oldest side, is a representation of the town's coat of arms, with savages with a thick fleece on each side. It dates back from 1392 (fortified tower, fleur de lys – emblems of the French royalty). The side door of the building has the imaginary coat of arms of Niort which were invented in the XIXth century held by two rampant lions (arms of Richard the Lionheart and the symbol of the struggle for power between the knight king and his father or his brothers).

The Town Hall Today

The Town Hall of Niort

On the 27th of April 1897, 101 canon shots were fired to welcome the President of the Republic, Félix Faure, when he got down from the train at Niort station. He had come to lay the first stone of the new town hall which would be built over the next four years by the Niortais, Georges Lasseron in neo-renaissance style. A declension of Paris town hall, the republican palace conformed to the Hausmann spirit of the 2nd Empire because of the perspective of its situation at the end of an important street (a symbolic representation of power). Moreover, in the specifications, it can be noted that the bell tower had to hide the tower of Notre-Dame church which could be seen from rue Royale (today rue Thiers) so as to mark the supremacy of the republic over religion.

In the right wing, the town council room is furnished with walnut seats with the town's coat of arms, made by the cabinet-maker Baptiste Marot. The room has a public tribune which is unique in the area.

An historical fresque dating from 1901 by Charles Fouqueray, painter of history and of the Navy, born in Le Mans, illustrates the confirmation of the charter of the town of Niort by Eleanor of Aquitaine. The queen is shown as a young person, though in 1203 she was over 80 years old. The counsellors are represented with the characteristics of the town counsellors of 1901. Standing up, the queen is holding the document out to a kneeling man (this was a frequent gesture of submission in the Middle Ages). Niort became one of the first communes of France. The painting is a photograph of medieval society, showing those who fought (the nobles, the soldiers), those who pray (presence of a bishop behind the queen. He is holding a bishop’s staff near to a crucifix, a monk and a nun), those who work (the inhabitants of the commune). The scene takes pace in a large vaulted hall. Is it the Royal abbey of Fontevraud ? In the background the first keep which bent down in 1104 is represented as well as a tower and a cloister. The inscription in Gothic-Latin letters explains the scene. The artist’s signature is accompanied by a naval anchor.

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