The Arras which Robespierre knew in the 1780s was a bustling provincial capital. Following annexation to the French crown in 1652 the Artois had flourished, with a thriving textile trade and one of the biggest grain markets in the country. In the years after 1730 the clergy and nobility of Arras, with their vast rural estates, benefitted from a boom in grain production and an accompanying rise in land prices. The town was still on a relatively small scale, with population of just over 20,000 and, within the confines of its medieval ramparts, could be traversed in fifteen minutes. Nonetheless, it was already divided into distinct districts: well-to-do central parishes; the crowded streets of the poor along the River Scarpe and its tributary the Crinchon, the military "citadelle" and the "town" which housed a plethora of lawcourts and administrative buildings.
Almost none of the original buildings survive today. The Hôtel de Ville, with its famous belfry, and the elegant 18th-century Flemish-style houses which adorn the two central squares are all replicas, the originals destroyed in the bombardments of 1915. A sense of how the town once looked is conveyed by the Vauban relief plan preserved in the Musée des Beaux-Arts:
This beautiful maquette by the engineer Ladevèze in 1716 was constructed as part of Vauban's plan for the defence of the north-east frontier. It is constructed of wood, cardboard paper and silk, to a scale of 1/600. It was bought by the town of Arras from the collection in Les Invalides in 1904 and has been patiently studied and restored by M.Honoré Bernard over a thirty-year period. The model shows clearly the cathedral, the central city around the abbey of Saint-Vaaste, the squares, the belfry, the crowded mass of houses, and the many churches and religious houses of the town, almost all of which were already destroyed in the Revolution.
Le plan relief de la ville d'Arras, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Arras
Honoré Bernard, "La restauration du plan en relief d'Arras ", Bulletin archéologique du Comité des travaux historiques et scientifiques, no 12-13, 1976-1977, p. 99
The ecclesiastical establishment
|Adam Frans Van der Meulen, Arras Cathedral in the late 17th-century.|
The Cathedral was entirely demolished in the Revolutionary period
|Plan of the parishes of Arras in 1710. All these churches have since been destroyed|
Almost all the churches of Arras were destroyed during the Revolution. St-Nicolas-des-Fossés alone survived, transformed into a Temple of Reason - renamed St-Jean-Baptiste, it served as Arras cathedral until 1833. The present church, however, dates only from the 1920s.
|Abbey of Saint-Vaast, now the Musée des Beaux-Arts|
|Present-day cathedral, the former Abbey church|
|Entrance to the Abbey in the place de la Madeleine|
Fabrice Mrugala, "L'abbaye Saint Vaast d'Arras" - medieval.mrugala.net
|The entrance to the Abbey in the place de la Madeleine Lithograph by Charles Desavary, 1877.|
Archives départementales du Pas-de-Calais, 4 J 484/83
An administrative and legal centre
In Arras the military, royal and provincial administrations of the Artois converged. The great citadel to the southeast of the town made the army a constant presence; the garrison held up to 5,000 men and many more were billeted in the town. The military hierarchy was closely integrated into Arras society : it may be observed that one of the two witnesses at Jacqueline Robespierre's burial was Antoine-Henry Galhant, lieutenant-major of the garrison (McPhee, p.9). In addition, Arras was the seat of the provincial Estates of Artois, an aristocratic body which met annually under the presidency of the Bishop. The Palais des États also housed the Arras Royal Academy of Belles-Lettres. The site, in the Place des États d'Artois, is now occupied by the High Court (Tribunal de Grande Instance).
The complexity of local administration was reflected in Arras's interwoven complex of legal jurisdictions; there were no less than four ordinary and five Royal courts serviced by a professional body of 85 lawyers. (Paris, Jeunesse de Robespierre, p.30-31). The supreme court, the Conseil d'Artois, was located in the rue de la Gouvernance, off the place de la Madeleine, in a site now occupied by the Collège Saint-Joseph.
In 1722 Maximilien de Robespierre, grandfather of the revolutionary, moved to Arras to become a lawyer in the Conseil d'Artois. He enjoyed income from property and settled in the prosperous parish of Saint-Aubert. (McPhee, p. 3). He was to be followed in due course by his son François and in 1781 by his grandson and namesake.
Arras in the 18th century was a place of busy construction, both public and private. In the thirty years before Robespierre's birth, 1,500 permits for building or rebuilding were issued in the town (McPhee, p.8). The great central squares had already taken on their 18th-century appearance. An ordinance of 1692 required new owners on both squares to match the facades of their gabled homes to those of the newly completed Maison de l'Ecu d'Or (now destroyed). A further ordinance of 1718 stipulated that all rebuilt facades be identical "brick for brick or stone for stone".
The surrounding area was home to the elegant townhouses of a wealthy landed elite, mostly drawn from the fifty noble families of Artois. A dozen or more grand hôtels are recorded in the district of known as the petit-Saint-Germain, bounded by the modern rues Gambetta, Pasteur and Emile-Legrelle. The best surviving examples are the hôtel Dubois de Fosseux in the rue du Marché-au-Filé and the hôtel de Guînes, rue des Jongleurs, formerly the residence of the First President of the Conseil d'Artois, now a cultural centre.
|The hôtel de Guînes|
|The duc de Guînes, governor of Artois from 1788, is |
the chosen guide for modern tours of the historical town
|The present-day place Victor Hugo, centre of the Basse Ville|
Historic Arras on the internet:
En voiture pour une visite d' Arras - YouTube video, published June 2017
Monumentum. fr - Pas-de-Calais
Arras - Histoire (Nordmag.fr)
Website of Fabrice Mrugala - photographs of Arras and the Pas-de-Calais, including parish plan (Mrugala.net)
Arras -Flickr album