On the way back from Nantes to Dieppe we stopped off at Saint-Florent-le-Vieil, one of the key "places of memory" of the War in the Vendée. The little town, to the north of Cholet, occupies a strategic promontory over the Loire at the entry to the Mauges, later the heartland of the Army of Anjou. It was here that the war is traditionally said to have begun, on 12th March 1793.
It was only a flying visit - just enough time to take in the atmosphere and see the famous tomb of Bonchamps sculpted by David d'Angers.
12th March 1793: The War in the Vendée begins
John Haycraft visited Saint-Florent in 1989 in the company of the local historian and ardent Royalist Dominique Lambert de La Douasnerie:
When we asked Dominique about the start of the insurrection, he took us to the little town of St-Florent-le-Vieil, which is not far south of Angers. Approaching it from the north bank of the Loire, we could see the houses jostling up the hill to a picturesque church with a spire. Most of St Florent was burnt in 1793. However, it was rebuilt shortly afterwards, and still looks much like old prints, standing beyond the flat islands in the river, on which tall poplars stand, their small leaves rustling in the breeze.
We stopped beyond the suspension bridge on the Place Maubert. "It was here," said Dominique, dramatically, "that the war started."
He looked round at the old houses in the little square. "On Sunday March 12th, 1793, on this spot, the municipal authorities announced that lots would be drawn for conscription, as there were insufficient volunteers for the army. Hitherto, the Vendeans had accepted the Revolution passively, but they were certainly not prepared to leave their farms and fight on distant frontiers for ideals they detested. They resented, too, that the municipal authorities and the National Guard were exempt from conscription, and that the burden therefore fell mainly on them. Protesting, the crowd jostled the officials and several young men were arrested and taken to the local jail.
|The Place Maubert - nowadays truncated by the D752 as it enters the town via a suspension bridge|
"The following Tuesday," continued Dominique, "more than 2,000 peasants marched into the town, wearing white royalist cockades. As the confronted the municipality and shouted to them to suspend the drawing of lots, the National Guard panicked and fired. The crowd then surged forward, and the Guard fled down the slope, just there, to the river." We walked through a narrow passageway between an old chapel, now a museum, and an ugly, rectangular cinema, and descended a cobbled path through trees to the banks of the river. Before us, the Loire flowed swiftly past. "The National Guards took refuge there, on those islands, and the town was in the hands of the insurgents."