For the second time in its history the region of Poitou-Charentes, of which Deux-Sèvres is a part, has been invaded by the British, in recent years as a result of the introduction of Ryanair flights into Poitiers airport, but in the 12th century it actually became part of the United Kingdom and was ruled by the Plantagenet dynasty.
Originally part of the duchy of Aquitaine ruled by Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, who wore a piece of broom (Latin name genista) in his cap which earned him the nickname Plante-geneste, Poitou came into Angevin hands in 1152 when the English king Henry II became the second husband of Eleanor of Aquitaine, who had inherited the duchy of Aquitaine from her father in 1137. Covering the present-day departments of Vendee, Deux-Sèvres and Vienne, a Plantagenet society was established, with its own currency, and charters were awarded to encourage the development of towns, trade and culture.
There were rebellions aplenty in Poitou so Henry decided to reduce the power of the barons, notably the Lusignan family and the lords of Mauleon, Thouars and Parthenay, La Rochelle became the port of entry for the English to reach Poitou, sailing up-river to Niort, and a network of fortifications was established, mainly placed to defend a river-crossing or bridge, or to control a route from which to launch expeditions and raids. Thus the Route des Rois d’Angleterre was established.
Originally a port on the Sèvres river, Niort was important to the Plantagenets as a secure base and, in order to protect the harbour and warehouses, they built a huge castle, of which only the central part remains, the Keep. Research and excavation suggest that it was probably a military garrison castle defended with multiple arrow slits facing the town. Nowadays it houses the archaelological collections of the Niort museums.
On the main road from Niort north to Parthenay is the first Sèvres river crossing at Echiré. Legend has it that the fairy Queen Melusine built the castle here in a night, but it was more likely that the lords of Parthenay, the Larchevêque, constructed the Château de Coudray-Salbart, in order to control the Niort plain and the Gâtine. The first documentary reference to the castle is in 1219 and its 6 high towers were good observation posts. As it was neither modified nor demolished, it is considered an important example of what was known as Angevin military architecture, and these days a local association ‘Les amis du Coudray-Salbart’ manage and preserve it on behalf of the Direction Régionale des Affaires Culturelles.
The river Thouet at Parthenay was the next strategic river crossing on the road north. By 1202 King John was on the English throne, and granted the lord of Parthenay money to improve his fortress, with a further grant from Henry III in 1227. The town had three lines of fortification and the best preserved are the St Jacques Gate to the north, at the bottom of the mediaeval Rue Jacques, and the Citadelle Gate to the south, the latter providing a wonderful view of the plain of the Gâtine and the river below. The foundations of the castle are clearly visible today, including the tower du Châtelet, or de la Poudrière, together with parts of a tower with multiple arrow slits facing the town.
Henry II was responsible for demolishing the original castle at Thouars, the next river crossing on the route north, after a crisis in 1156 at the beginning of his reign during which he seized control of the castle from the rebellious local viscount. However, as the town guarded the frontier of Anjou and was of great importance to the English, a new castle was built before the end of the 12th century, facing the town, on a promontory surrounded by the river Thouet. New stone walls were built to enclose the town, with two gatehouses as points of entry and exit. The main entry to the walled town was at the Prévost’s gate, with a portcullis, and a machicolation slot in the vault of the passage through which stones could be dropped onto unwanted visitors! The circular Prince of Wales’ tower defended the East front of the town, and both these buildings survive today. This second castle was also demolished, replaced in 1635 by the current chateau of the Dukes de Tremoilles.
Saumur is the final stopping point on the Route des Rois d’Angleterre, and a castle originally stood on the rocky outcrop overlooking the mighty river Loire, where the present-day château now stands. After the castle’s destruction in 1067, the château was rebuilt by the Plantagenets as the fortified stronghold where Henry and Eleanor sometimes held court at Christmas. Part of the original wall and towers remain, the Grenetière tower and the Papegault. During its long history, the castle has been an army barracks and then a state prison under Napoleon Bonaparte. Restoration works have recently been completed and the castle serves as a museum of decorative arts and, in line with Saumur’s equestrian tradition and its famous ’Cadre Noir’, as a Museum of the Horse.
Although these were the main fortified castles on the Route des Rois d’Angleterre, it is believed that the châteaux at Amailloux, Saint-Armand-Sur-Sèvre and Bressuire, all of which have examples of medieval fortresses, were also built during the reign of Henry II as all are constructed in a similar style.
No trip along the Route des Rois d’Angleterre would be complete without a visit to the Abbey of Fontevraud, just south of Saumur. Through the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry Plantagenet, and their sons Richard the Lionheart and John Lackland, the English royal household ruled in Poitou from the middle of the 12th century, for about one hundred years. Fontevraud was founded in 1101 as a large monastic city and it was to here that Eleanor retired, where she died aged 84 on 1st April 1204. She is buried at the Abbey, alongside her husband Henry II, her son Richard, and Isabelle of Angouleme, the second wife of King John and, after his death, wife of Hugh de Lusignan.
You won’t find it mentioned in the tourist leaflet, but the historical termination of the Route des Rois d’Angleterre is at Taillebourg near Saintes, where the Battle of Taillebourg took place in 1242 between King Henry III and Louis IX. Henry and his French baron allies had retreated here, where there was a strategic bridge over the Charente just south of the Château de Taillebourg. The English were defeated and their reign in Poitou ended. A painting of the battle by Eugene Delacroix can be seen in the Château at Versailles.
A leaflet entitled Kings of England Historic Tour is available in English from tourist offices, and gives details of the opening times of the museums, castles and abbey. If your French is up to scratch, then Les fortifications des Plantagenet en Poitou by Marie-Pierre Baudry studies the fortified strongpoints constructed by the Plantagenets.