Besançon (French and Arpitan: ; archaic) is the capital and principal city of the Franche-Comté region in eastern France. It had a population of about 237,000 inhabitants in the metropolitan area in 2008. Located close to the border with Switzerland, it is the capital of the department of Doubs.
The city is first recorded in 58 BC as Vesontio in the Book I of Julius Caesar's Commentarii de Bello Gallico. The etymology of Vesontio is uncertain. The most common explanation is that the name is of Celtic origin, derived from wes, meaning 'mountain'. During the 4th century, the letter B took the place of the V, and the city name changed to Besontio or Bisontion and then underwent several transformations to become Besançon in 1243.
From the 1st century BC through the modern era, the town had a significant military importance because the Alps rise abruptly to its immediate south, presenting a significant natural barrier.
The Arar (Saône) River formed part of the border between the Haedui and their hereditary rivals, the Sequani. According to Strabo, the cause of the conflict was commercial. Each tribe claimed the Arar and the tolls on trade along it. The Sequani controlled access to the Rhine River and had built an oppidum (a fortified town) at Vesontio to protect their interests. The Sequani defeated and massacred the Haedui at the Battle of Magetobriga, with the help of the Arverni tribe and the Germanic Suebi tribe under the Germanic king Ariovistus.
Julius Caesar, in his commentaries detailing his conquest of Gaul, describes 'Vesontio' (possibly Latinized), as the largest town of the Sequani, a smaller Gaulic tribe, and mentions that a wooden palisade surrounded it.
Over the centuries, the name permutated to become 'Besantio', 'Besontion', 'Bisanz' in Middle High German and gradually arrived at the modern French Besançon. The locals retain their ancient heritage referring to themselves as Bisontins (feminine: Bisontine).
It has been an archbishopric since the 4th century.
As part of the Holy Roman Empire since 1034, the city became the Archbishopric of Besançon, and became the Free Imperial City of Besançon (an autonomous city-state under the Holy Roman Emperor) in 1184. In 1157, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa held the Diet of Besançon. There, Cardinal Orlando Bandinelli (the future Pope Alexander III, then adviser of Pope Adrian IV) openly asserted before the Emperor that the Imperial dignity was a Papal beneficium (in the more general sense of favour, not the strict feudal sense of fief), which incurred the wrath of the German princes. He would have fallen on the spot under the battle-axe of his lifelong foe, Otto of Wittelsbach, had Frederick not intervened. The Imperial Chancellor Rainald of Dassel then inaugurated a German policy that insisted upon the rights and the power of the German kings, the strengthening of the Church in the German Empire, the lordship of Italy and the humiliation of the Papacy. The Archbishops were elevated to Princes of the Holy Roman Empire in 1288. The close connection to the Empire is reflected in the city's coat of arms.
In 1290, after a century of fighting against the power of the archbishops, the Emperor granted Besançon its independence.
In the 15th century, Besançon came under the influence of the dukes of Burgundy. After the marriage of Mary of Burgundy to Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor, the city was in effect a Habsburg fief. In 1519 Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, King of Spain, became the Holy Roman Emperor. This made him master of Franche-Comté and Besançon, a francophone German city. In 1526 the city obtained the right to mint coins, which it continued to strike until 1673. Nevertheless, all coins bore the name of Charles V.
When Charles V abdicated in 1555, he gave Franche-Comté to his son, Philip II, King of Spain. Besançon remained a free imperial city under the protection of the King of Spain. In 1598, Philip II gave the province to his daughter on her marriage to an Austrian archduke. It remained formally a portion of the Empire until its cession at the peace of Westphalia in 1648. Spain regained control of Franche-Comté and the city lost its status as a free city. Then in 1667, Louis XIV claimed the province as a consequence of his marriage to Marie-Thérèse of Spain.
Louis conquered the city for the first time in 1668, but the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle returned it to Spain within a matter of months. While it was in French hands, the famed military engineer Vauban visited the city and drew up plans for its fortification. The Spaniards built the main centre point of the city's defences, "la Citadelle", siting it on Mont Saint-Étienne, which closes the neck of the oxbow that is the site of the original town. In their construction, the Spaniards followed Vauban's designs.
In 1674, French troops recaptured the city, which the Treaty of Nijmegen (1678) then awarded to France. At this time the city became the administrative centre for Franche-Comté, with its own Parlement of Besançon, which replaced Dole.
In 1814 the Austrians invaded and bombarded the city. It also occupied an important position during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71.
The Nazis occupied the citadel during World War II. Between 1940 and 1944, the Germans executed some one hundred French resistance fighters there. However, Besançon saw little action during the war. The allies bombed the railway complex in 1943, and the next year the Germans resisted the U.S. advance for four days.
Besançon was also the location, between 1940 and 1941, of an Internment Camp (Konzentrationslager), Frontstalag 142, also known as Caserne Vauban, which the Germans set up for 3-4,000 holders of British passports, all women and children. The conditions were harsh; many hundreds of internees died of pneumonia, diarrhea, food poisoning, dysentery, and frostbite.
In 1959, the French Army turned the citadel over to the city of Besançon, which turned it into a museum.
The forts of Brégille and Beauregard sit across the Doubs from the town. In 1913, a private company built a funicular to the Brégille Heights. The funicular passed from private ownership to the SNCF, who finally closed it in 1987. The funicular's tracks, stations and even road signs remain in place to this day.