Royan (French pronunciation: [ʁwa.jɑ̃] ; locally [ʁwe.jɑ̃] in Saintongeais dialect) is a commune in the Charente-Maritime department, along the Atlantic Ocean, in southwestern France.
A seaside resort, Royan is in the heart of an urban area estimated at 38,638 inhabitants, which makes it the fourth-largest conurbation in the department, after La Rochelle, Saintes and Rochefort. Capital of the «Côte de beauté», the city is located at the mouth of the Gironde Estuary, the largest estuary in Europe. Royan has five sandy beaches, a marina and a fishing port.
The site of Royan was occupied from prehistory: cut flints brought to light by archeological excavations give evidence of this. The Celtic people of Santones began to emphasize the peninsula of Arvert. Romans developed the cultivation of vineyards, the breeding of oysters and the saltern technique. Tibulle celebrates the coast after the victory of Messala, and Ausone built a residence there. In 418, the Visigoths arrived at Saintess. To protect itself, Royan surrounded itself with walls in 419, the date on which this city is mentioned for the first time in an old man cartulaire. Grégoire of Tours mentions a usurpation of the church of Royan by the Arian Visigoths. In summer 844, the Vikings came up the Gironde, plundering everything on their passage.
At the beginning of the 11th century, a precarious peace returned, and the peninsula was slowly reborn at the instigation of small seigneuries and abbeys. Between 1050 and 1075, the prieuré of Saint-Vivien de Saintes built Saint Pierre priory on the plateau Saint-Pierre, two kilometres from the village. This fixed a small hamlet. In 1092, the abbey of the Grande-Sauve established another priory, Saint Nicolas, not far from the village. This one is on the rock of Foncillon, by the sea. Attached to the village, a small castle protected the bottom of the beach of Grande Conche which served as a harbour. Already at the end of the 11th century, harbour activity was important. Numerous lighters made the Gironde a stopover waiting for winds or favorable currents. The Lord of Didonne took advantage of this to impose a tax on any boat stopping at the foot of the castle.
In 1137, Eleanor of Aquitaine married the king of France, Louis VII. Royan became an integral part of the duchy of Aquitaine and passed under the direct control of the king of France. But in 1152, the marriage was annulled and Eleanor was married again, to Henri Plantagenet, who became King of England in 1154. Royan then passed under English control.
The King of England strengthened the defences of the village, protecting it with robust bulwarks and a solid donjon. The various taxes paid by ships in the 13th century were codified by the Lords of Royan in 1232, under the name of Coutume (Custom) of Royan. On May 20, 1242, Henry III, king of England, at war against Louis IX (saint Louis), landed at Royan with 300 knights. Beaten at Taillebourg, the English kingdom kept, by the treaty of Paris, control of the South of Saintonge, with the city of Royan. In 1355, during the Hundred Years War, the Black Prince, heir to the throne of England, occupied Saintonge. He strengthened the defences of Royan, which became a large village administered by twelve Echevins and twelve councillors. At the end of the Hundred Years War, in 1451, the region of Royan was definitively part of French kingdom, but the city was totally ruined.
In 1458, Marie de Valois (1444–1473), natural daughter of Charles VII and his mistress Agnès Sorel married Olivier de Coëtivy, Count of Taillebourg. She brought a dowry of 12 000 ecus and the châtellenies of Royan and Mornac. In 1501 Charles de la Trémoille, by his marriage with Louise de Coëtivy, became baron of Royan. Business developed there. But walled up in its ramparts, access to the town was difficult. From the beginning of the 16th century, a suburb developed bordering the beach.
However, in the 16th century, the religious wars raged, and almost all the great captains of the time, such as Henri de Navarre, the future King Henry IV, and the Sire of Brantôme (who would become a prior of Saint-Pierre-de-Royan), fought under the walls of the citadel. In 1592, Henry IV established the city as marquisate to the advantage of Gilbert de la Trémoille. At the beginning of the 17th century, the Duke of Épernon considered that, «it is one of better places of its size in France». After the Edict of Nantes, Royan was a Protestant fortified town under King Henry III.
The strengthened city underwent a first siege in 1622, directed by Louis XIII, but resisted. The second siege in 1623 was terrible for Royannais, who had to abandon the city, with a ban against returning. The garrison had to surrender. But it was Cardinal Richelieu who, in 1631, made shave ramparts and houses of the suburb. The city, which no longer had a church, was connected with the rural parish of Saint Pierre.
After the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the major part of the population emigrated, especially to Holland, and the persecution continued under Louis XV. After the storm of 1735 took the elevation of its harbour, navigation was not restored before the 19th century.
During the French Revolution
When in December 1789, the National Assembly voted for the division of France into departments, instead of the former provinces, they created the département of Charente-Inférieure, and Royan became an administrative centre of the canton from February 4, 1790.
At the same time, they elected a city council, chaired by the Protestant Daniel Renaud, and the mayor Nicolas-Thérese Vallet of Salignac. On July 12, 1790, the National Assembly voted for the civil constitution of the clergy, in the canton of Royan. The priests of the parishes of Royan, Vaux and Saint-Sulpice refused to take the constitutional oath and become prêtres réfractaires, condemned to deportation.
Throughout the country, church properties were seized. In Royan the convent of the Récollets, built in 1622, was put on sale with its 33 hectares (82 acres) and was acquired on February 25, 1791, by Jean Boisseau, a shipowner, who demolished it.
Dissatisfaction due to the economic crisis built in Royan as elsewhere. To address this, clubs celebrating patriotic events are formed. On July 14, 1790, the feast of the federation took place, and a ceremony was organized in Saint Pierre church, on the occasion of the «federative oath». At the end of November, Nicolas-Thérese Vallet of Salignac was removed from office and was replaced by François d’ Aulnis de Puiraveaux.
In 1791, Daniel Renaud was elected as mayor of the commune. In May 1791, the club of «the friends of the constitution» was opened in Royan. In general nevertheless the Terror is hardly noticeable, and few notables were worried.
French seaside resorts
Paving of the streets began in 1816 and was finished only in 1826. In July 1819, the mayor, Raymond Labarthe, signed the first prescription regulating sea bathing; this forbade nude bathing from beaches bordering houses and reserved the Foncillon beach for women. In 1820, it was forbidden «to wash pigs, horses and other cattle in the sea as we have baths». In 1836, a staircase was cut out of the rock to facilitate the landing of passengers from boats. By 1845, the engineer Botton wrapped (surrounded) the cliff of Foncillon inside the port. In 1847, the engineer Lessore built the sketch of the first casino. Under the Second Empire, the city underwent much development. In 1854, the first street lights were installed. Between 1850 and 1870, the number of tourists increased from 9000 to 10,000, and the population from 3329 to 4500.
Destruction of Royan
During World War II, two German fortresses defended the Gironde Estuary: Gironde Mündung Nord (north, at Royan) and Gironde Mündung Süd (south, at La Pointe de Grave). These constituted one of the Atlantic «pockets» which the Germans held on to grimly, well after the liberation of the rest of France. In the early hours of January 5, 1945, a force of about 350 RAF heavy bombers, at the request of SHAEF which had been told that nobody was left in Royan but Germans and collaborators, bombed the centre of Royan out of existence in two raids. The blame for this raid is usually attributed to Free French General de Larminat.
The Allied operation against the German forces on Île d’Oléron and at the mouth of the Gironde River, began with a general naval bombardment at 0750 on April 15, 1945, some 10 months after D-Day. For five days, the American naval task force assisted the French ground forces with naval bombardment and aerial reconnaissance in the assault on Royan and the Pointe de Grave area at the mouth of the Gironde. American B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator aircraft carried out aerial bombing missions, including extensive and pioneering use of napalm, finishing the destruction of January 5.
More than 3,000 French civilians were in the town, of whom half were killed or injured in the air raids.
Blandford writes, «There was a Free French commander with the U.S. Seventh Army outside Royan, who was not informed until too late. The message was in French and the American signalman could not understand it. It took four hours to get it translated».
Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States, was one of the many bombardiers who attacked Royan during World War II. He later wrote of the bombardment.