The Dordogne - A Short History

Dates can be a bit of a moving feast in history but it seems likely that man first arrived in this region as Homo erectus, some 400-500,000 years ago. He was replaced by Neanderthal man approximately 100,000 years ago, only to be superseded in turn by the first modern humans – Cro-Magnon man - some 35,000 years ago. The two species of human co-existed for perhaps 5,000 years and Neanderthal man was not the primitive brute often depicted. His brain capacity was actually greater than ours and the reasons for his disappearance are far from clear. However it was Cro-Magnon man who first made

his indelible mark on the region. The Dordogne is a

treasure trove of pre-historic art, with mammoth,

bison, horse, ibex and more depicted using paint

made from magnesium, charcoal, iron and ochre.

Occasional human stick figures can also be seen,

together with mysterious geometric patterns.

Why Cro-Magnon man went to so much trouble,

producing fine art deep in these caves by the light

of primitive oil lamps, is not known but the figures

may have had ritual or shamanistic meaning.              

Over the ensuing several thousand years, mankind in Europe began moving toward a more settled lifestyle..

The many examples of Dolmen (three or more upright stones supporting a large flat horizontal capstone) found in the Dordogne were built during this period. Their purpose is not certain, the most popular theory being that they were tombs or burial chambers.

In the next major migratory wave to sweep across the region, Celts reached the area about 2,500 years ago. The Celts were more sophisticated than the previous inhabitants and established towns, usually on hilltops to aid their defense - including nearby Belves and the city that is now Perigueux. Unfortunately for the Celts, in 56BC one of Caesar’s lieutenants (one Publius Crassus) led an invasion of the region and vanquished the people the Romans referred to as Gauls. (Gaul comprised what is now France and northern Italy). In AD16 the Aquitaine was born as Aquitania and the fertile land attracted Roman settlers with more advanced agricultural techniques. In their inimitable fashion, the Romans also brought their lifestyle and that meant bigger, more sophisticated towns and cities - the chief among them being Perigueux and Cahors. However it is fair to say that evidence of the Dordogne’s Roman period is not on the same scale as that found in south-eastern France. If the region’s history had been one of successive ‘invasions’ to this point, the pace was about to pick up a bit. When the Roman Empire started going the way of all empires, those on its borders took the opportunity to encroach upon its territory. Among these were the Germanic tribes of the Visigoths and Vandals, who established a presence in southern France, after taking the scenic route via Rome. As it turned out, their presence was relatively short-lived and they headed for Spain with the arrival of their ‘countrymen’, the Franks, who conquered most of Gaul during the 6th century. (The Visigoths left reminders of their visit to the south of France - Bergerac, Armagnac and Aubrac all sound very French but their root is apparently Germanic : Berger, Arman, Aubert. Interestingly, one of the prominent German tribes that stayed at home was the Alemanni, the source of the French word for Germany –Allemagne.)

The arrival of the Franks was portentous. They promoted the spread of Christianity across western Europe and ultimately established the Carolingian Empire, which in turn would produce the state of France and the Holy Roman Empire. But even the Franks couldn’t maintain control of the region, as the Moors and Vikings successively added their names to the ever lengthening list of invaders. The Moorish advance through France was reversed in a battle at Tours-Poitiers in AD732 but its influence in the areas of 

Toulouse, Narbonne and Lyon only finally ended in AD975. For their part, the Vikings held Bordeaux for more than one hundred years from 855 and, as was their wont, used the Dordogne and Isle rivers to visit their own version of merry hell upon the populace. As the Viking threat abated in western Europe, a number of prominent families gained power in the Dordogne, achieving a degree of stability.

Then, just when people thought it might be safe to go outside, Eleanor of Aquitaine married the future

King of England. Heir to much of the Aquitaine, Eleanor had first married the King of France, Louis VII, but this marriage was annulled after 15 years and Eleanor married Henry Plantagenet.

Henry then became king of England and a large

part of France fell under English rule. When

Henry died, his son Richard (‘the Lionheart’)

inherited the throne. Surprisingly, given his

iconic status, Richard actually spent less time

in England than any other English/British

monarch before or since. However he does

have a connection to the Dordogne through

the Chateau de Beynac, only 43 km north east

of Monpazier. After his ill-fated attempts to

recapture Jerusalem during the Third Crusade, Richard headed for England. Unfortunately he was intercepted on the way and imprisoned for more than a year by the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VI. (Richard had irritated the Emperor by supporting the king of Sicily in a dispute with Henry). Richard was released in February 1194 and took possession of the Chateau de Beynac in that year. Its previous owner, having also returned from the Crusades, had died without a direct heir. Richard claimed the castle, as he was Duke of Aquitaine at the time, and left it under the control of his lieutenant, Mercadier – who apparently spent a good part of his time ravaging the countryside. Richard died of a crossbow wound at the siege of Châlus-Chabrol (about 30 km south-west of Limoges) in 1199. Apparently he was taunting the defenders and made two mistakes – the first was electing not to wear protective armor, the second was underestimating the range of a crossbow. When Mercadier was killed by a rival English mercenary in 1200, the castle returned to the Beynac family. In fact this family has another claim to fame (or notoriety).

The Chateau de Beynac was described in the chronicles of a Cistercian monk as “Satan’s Arch” because the family supported the Cathar heresy. From 1209 to 1229 Catharism was the target of the Albigensian Crusade, initiated by Pope Innocent III to eliminate them. The Cathars (or Albigensians) were a medieval Christian sect that originated in Dalmatia and Bulgaria, calling for a return to the basic Christian message of perfection, poverty and preaching. They gained a strong following in the Languedoc but their influence reached into the Dordogne. Chateau de Biron, only 8km from Monpazier, was seized by the Cathars in 1211 but lost again the following year. Monpazier was actually established during the ensuing period in 1284 as a bastide (fortified town) by the English king Edward I (also known as Edward Longshanks and, more grimly, the Hammer of the Scots). Back to the big picture. In 1328 Charles IV, king of France, died without leaving a direct heir. Edward III, king of England, claimed the crown as Charles was his uncle (Edward’s mother being Isabella of France). French jurists determined his claim was invalid, as the female line could not inherit the throne and his mother could not transmit to her son a right which she did not possess. The French crown went to the male line heir, the Count of Valois, Philip VI. Edward accepted the decision and paid homage to Philip VI for his possession of the Duchy of Guyenne, which included Bordeaux. However disputes over the nature of Edward III's feudal obligations to Philip led the French king to order the return of the Aquitaine to the French crown in 1337 – and thus began the Hundred Years War.

Edward III assumed the title of King of France in 1340 to press his claim to the throne. In fact the kings and queens of England/Britain continued to claim the French throne, including the words "of France" in their titles until 1801 - by which time France had no monarch, having become a republic. In the Dordogne, opposing forces in the Hundred Years War occupied fortified chateaux within sight of each other and bastides changed hands as first one side, then the other, gained the advantage. Domme, originally French, became English in 1346, returned to the French the following year, was taken by the English again in 1393 after a 24 year siege and finally became French once more in 1438. Monpazier had a slightly less turbulent time of it, being taken by the French in 1327, recovered by the English in 1345, but lost again to the French in 1370. Regardless of who had the upper hand, armies took their toll of the peasantry. Famously revitalized by the ‘Maid of Orleans’, Joan of Arc, the French monarch Charles VII eventually gained the upper hand and won a final victory in 1451 at the Battle of Castillon (now re-enacted each year).

The ensuing century of relative peace must have been too much for a country so accustomed to strife. Unassailed by external enemies, the French took to fighting amongst themselves in the Wars of Religion.

Between 1562 and 1598, Catholics and Protestants

(Huguenots) fought a series of bitter and brutal

wars, interrupted by a succession of fragile treaties.

This conflict ravaged the Dordogne, with entire

 towns being massacred. Spanish troops supported

the Catholic side but the English fought this war

by proxy, with Queen Elizabeth giving financial

support to the Huguenots. Ultimately the Catholic 

cause triumphed, even if it was finally achieved

by the conversion of Henry III from Protestantism,

Henry realizing that there was no prospect of a Protestant king succeeding in resolutely Catholic Paris.

Late in the 16th century, poor harvests in the Dordogne led to food shortages and rising prices which, combined with falling wages, made life increasingly difficult for the peasant population. At the same time, unpopular taxes were seen to be making the nobility richer. The imposition of a salt tax was the straw that broke the camel’s back - in 1594 a peasant revolt erupted across the region between Bergerac and Sarlat. In a small victory, there was a slight lifting of the taxes but uprisings continued for many years. Due in part to similar conditions and peasant unrest late in the 18th century, the French throne fell to the Revolution. In the volatile atmosphere of post 1789 Paris, the moderate voice in the Legislative Assembly and National Convention was that of the delegates from the Gironde and its capital, Bordeaux. To their everlasting credit, whilst campaigning for the end of the monarchy they resisted the spiraling blood lust of the Revolution. This brought them into conflict with the radical Montagnards, sadly resulting in the fall of the Girondists and their mass execution - the beginning of the Reign of Terror.

Only fifteen years after the Revolution had deposed the monarchy, Napoleon declared himself Emperor of France. The course of events from that point on is fairly well known and the circumstances of the Dordogne are largely those of France as a whole: a succession of victories as Napoleon subjugated much of the continent; the catastrophic Russian campaign and ultimately his final defeat at Waterloo; the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71; the devastation of the First and Second World Wars. In the latter, the ‘line’ between the occupied and free zones ran north-south through the Dordogne, virtually bisecting the region. More recently the Dordogne has experienced the continuing population drain familiar in much of rural Europe, as people gravitate to the larger cities. Fortunately the region’s history, natural beauty and relaxed lifestyle are attracting both tourists and permanent residents from many parts of the world, revitalizing and preserving this lovely part of France.

(Every effort has been made to ensure that this brief history is as accurate as possible. If it contains any errors, please bring them to our attention and we will incorporate any necessary changes.)