Poitiers is a city on the Clain river in west central France. It is a commune and the capital of the Vienne department and of the Poitou-Charentes region. Poitiers is a major university centre. The centre of town is picturesque and its streets include predominant historical architecture, especially religious architecture and especially from the Romanesque period. Two major military battles took place near the city: in 732, the Battle of Poitiers (also known as the Battle of Tours), in which the Franks commanded by Charles Martel halted the expansion of the Umayyad Caliphate, and in 1356, the Battle of Poitiers, a key victory for the English forces during the Hundred Years' War.
Poitiers was founded by the Celtic tribe of the Pictones and was known as the oppidum Lemonum before Roman influence. The name is said to have come from the Celtic word for elm, Lemo. After Roman influence took over, the town became known as Pictavium, or later "Pictavis", after the original Pictones inhabitants themselves.
There is a rich history of archeological finds from the Roman era in Poitiers. In fact until 1857 Poitiers hosted the ruins of a vast Roman amphitheatre, which was larger than that of Nîmes. Remains of Roman baths, built in the 1st century and demolished in the 3rd century, were uncovered in 1877.
In 1879 a burial-place and tombs of a number of Christian martyrs were discovered on the heights to the south-east of the town. The names of some of the Christians had been preserved in paintings and inscriptions. Not far from these tombs is a huge dolmen (the Pierre Levée), which is long, broad and high, and around which used to be held the great fair of Saint Luke.
The Romans also built at least three aqueducts. This extensive ensemble of Roman constructions suggests Poitiers was a town of first importance, possibly even the capital of the Roman province of Gallia Aquitania during the 2nd century.
As Christianity was made official and introduced across the Roman Empire during the 3rd and 4th centuries, the first bishop of Poitiers from 350 to 367, Saint Hilarius, proceeded to evangelize the town. The first foundations of the Baptistère Saint-Jean can be traced to that era of open Christian evangelization.
In the 4th century, a thick wall 6m wide and 10m high was built around the town. It was long and stood lower on the naturally defended east side and at the top of the promontory. Around this time, the town began to be known as Poitiers.
Fifty years later Poitiers fell into the hands of the Arian Visigoths, and became one of the principal residences of their kings. Visigoth King Alaric II was defeated by Clovis I at Vouillé, not far from Poitiers, in 507, and the town thus came under Frankish dominion.
During most of the Early Middle Ages, the town of Poitiers took advantage of its defensive tactical site and of its location, which was far from the centre of Frankish power. As the seat for an évêché (bishop) since the 4th century, the town was a centre of some importance and the capital of the Poitou county. At the height of their power, the Counts of Poitiers governed a large domain, including both Aquitaine and Poitou.
The first decisive victory of a Christian army over a Muslim power, the Battle of Tours, was fought by Charles Martel's men in the vicinity of Poitiers on 10 October 732. For many historians, it was one of the world's pivotal moments.
Eleanor of Aquitaine frequently resided in the town, which she embellished and fortified, and in 1199 entrusted with communal rights.
During the Hundred Years' War, the Battle of Poitiers, an English victory, was fought near the town of Poitiers on 19 September 1356. Later in the war In 1418, under duress, the royal parliament moved from Paris to Poitiers, where it remained in exile until the Plantagenets finally withdrew from the capital in 1436. During this interval, in 1429 Poitiers was the site of Joan of Arc's formal inquest.
The University of Poitiers was founded in 1431. During and after the Reformation, John Calvin had numerous converts in Poitiers and the town had its share of the violent proceedings which underlined the Wars of Religion throughout France.
In 1569 Poitiers was defended by Gui de Daillon, comte du Lude, against Gaspard de Coligny, who after an unsuccessful bombardment and seven weeks, retired from a siege he had laid to the town.
The type of political organisation existing in Poitiers during the late medieval or early modern period can be glimpsed through a speech given on 14 July 1595 by Maurice Roatin, the town's mayor. He compared it to the Roman state, which combined three types of government: monarchy (rule by one person), aristocracy (rule by a few), and democracy (rule by the many). He said the Roman consulate corresponded to Poitiers' mayor, the Roman senate to the town's peers and échevins, and the democratic element in Rome corresponded to the fact that most important matters "can not be decided except by the advice of the Mois et Cent" (broad council).1 The mayor appears to have been an advocate of a mixed constitution; not all Frenchmen in 1595 would have agreed with him, at least in public; many spoke in favour of absolute monarchy. The democratic element was not as strong as the mayor's words may seem to imply: in fact, Poitiers was similar to other French cities, Paris, Nantes, Marseille, Limoges, La Rochelle, Dijon, in that the town's governing body (corps de ville) was "highly exclusive and oligarchical": a small number of professional and family groups controlled most of the city offices. In Poitiers many of these positions were granted for the lifetime of the office holder.2
The city government in Poitiers based its claims to legitimacy on the theory of government where the mayor and échevins held jurisdiction of the city's affairs in fief from the king: that is, they swore allegiance and promised support for him, and in return he granted them local authority. This gave them the advantage of being able to claim that any townsperson who challenged their authority was being disloyal to the king. Every year the mayor and the 24 échevins would swear an oath of allegiance "between the hands" of the king or his representative, usually the lieutenant général or the sénéchaussée. For example, in 1567, when Maixent Poitevin was mayor, king Henri III came for a visit, and, although some townspeople grumbled about the licentious behaviour of his entourage, Henri smoothed things over with a warm speech acknowledging their allegiance and thanking them for it.2
In this era, the mayor of Poitiers was preceded by sergeants wherever he went, consulted deliberative bodies, carried out their decisions, "heard civil and criminal suits in first instance", tried to ensure that the food supply would be adequate, visited markets.2
In the 16th century, Poitiers impressed visitors because of its large size, and important features, including "royal courts, university, prolific printing shops, wealthy religious institutions, cathedral, numerous parishes, markets, impressive domestic architecture, extensive fortifications, and castle."3
The town saw less activity during the Renaissance. Few changes were made in the urban landscape, except for laying way for the rue de la Tranchée. Bridges were built were the inhabitants had used gués. A few hôtels particuliers were built at that time, such as the hôtels Jean Baucé, Fumé and Berthelot. Poets Joachim du Bellay and Pierre Ronsard met at the University of Poitiers, before leaving for Paris.
During the 17th century, many people emigrated from Poitiers and the Poitou to the French settlements in the new world and thus many Acadians or Cajuns living in North America today can trace ancestry back to this region.
During the 18th century, the town's activity mainly depended on its administrative functions as a regional centre: Poitiers served as the seat for the regional administration of royal justice, the évêché, the monasteries and the intendance of the Généralité du Poitou.
The Vicomte de Blossac, intendant of Poitou from 1750 to 1784, had a French garden landscaped in Poitiers. He also had Aliénor d'Aquitaine's ancient wall razed and modern boulevards were built in its place.
During the 19th century, many army bases were built in Poitiers because of its central and strategic location. Poitiers became a garrison town, despite its distance from France's borders.
The Poitiers train station was built in the 1850s, and connected Poitiers to the rest of France.
20th century and contemporary Poitiers
Poitiers was bombed during World War II, particularly the area around the railway station which was heavily hit on 13 June 1944.
From the late 1950s until the late 1960s when Charles de Gaulle ended the American military presence, the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force had an array of military installations in France, including a major Army logistics and communications hub in Poitiers, part of what was called the Communication Zone (ComZ), and consisting of a logistics headquarters and communications agency located at Aboville Caserne, a military compound situated on a hill above the city. Hundreds of graduates ("Military Brats") of Poitiers American High School, a school operated by the Department of Defense School System (DODDS), have gone on to successful careers, including the recent commander-in-chief of U.S. Special Forces Command, Army General Bryan (Doug) Brown. The Caserne also housed a full support community, with a theater, commissary, recreation facilities and an affiliate radio station of the American Forces Network, Europe, headquartered in Frankfurt (now Mannheim, Germany).
The town benefited from industrial décentralisation in the 1970s, for instance with the installation during that decade of the Michelin and Compagnie des compteurs Schlumberger factories. The Futuroscope theme-park and research park project, built in 1986–1987 in nearby Chasseneuil-du-Poitou, after an idea by René Monory, consolidated Poitiers' place as a touristic destination and as a modern university centre, and opened the town to the era of information technology.