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. The centre is picturesque and its streets are interesting for predominant remains of historical architecture, especially from the Romanesque period. Two major military battles occurred 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 English forces during the Hundred Years' War.
Poitiers was founded by the Celtic Pictones tribe as the oppidum Lemonum before Roman influence. The name is said to have come from the Celtic word for elm, Lemo. After Roman influence, the town became known as Pictavium.
Remains of Roman baths, built in the 1st century and demolished in the 3rd century, were laid bare in 1877.
In 1879 a burial-place and tombs of a number of Christian martyrs were discovered on the heights to the south-east, the names of some of the Christians being 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 officialized and introduced across the Roman Empire during the 3rd and 4th centuries, the first bishop of Poitiers from 350 to 367, Saint Hilarius, evangelized the city. The first foundations of the Baptistère Saint-Jean are traced to that era.
In the 4th century, a thick wall six meters wide and ten meters high was built around the city. It was 2.5 km (1.6 mi) long and stood lower on the naturally defended east side and at the top of the promontory
At this time, the town began to be known as Poitiers, after the original Pictones inhabitants.
Fifty years later the city 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 came under Frankish dominion.
During most of the Early Middle Ages, the town of Poitiers took advantage of its defensive 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 the capital of the Poitou county. The Counts of Poitiers governed a large domain, including both Aquitaine and Poitou.
Eleanor of Aquitaine frequently resided in the city, which she embellished and fortified, and in 1199 entrusted with communal rights.
In 1418, the royal parliament moved from Paris to Poitiers, where it remained in exile until the Plantagenets withdrew from the capital in 1436. During this interval (1429) Joan of Arc was subjected to a formal inquest in the town. The University of Poitiers was founded in 1431. Also, John Calvin had numerous converts at Poitiers. Of the violent proceedings which attended the Wars of Religion, the city had its share. In 1569 it was defended by Gui de Daillon, comte du Lude, against Gaspard de Coligny, who after an unsuccessful bombardment retired from the siege at the end of seven weeks.
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 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. We should also note that 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.
The city at this time lived mostly off of its administrative functions: royal justice, évêché, monasteries and the intendance of the Généralité du Poitou. The Vicomte de Blossac, intendant from 1750 to 1784, had a French garden landscaped. He also had Aliénor d'Aquitaine's wall razed and boulevards 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 train station was built in the 1850s.
Poitiers was bombed during World War II, particularly the area round the railway station which was heavily hit on 13 June 1944.
During the late fifties until the late sixties 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. Today, hundreds of graduates (called "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 Futuroscope theme park and research park project, built in 1986–1987 in nearby Chasseneuil-du-Poitou after an idea from René Monory, established the city as a touristic destination and opened it to the era of information technology.