The seventh largest city in France, Nantes is situated on the confluence of the Erdre and Loire Rivers in western France, and is the capital of the Loire-Atlantique department. 56 km from the Atlantic Ocean, the port is able to accommodate large vessels.
Nantes was originally the capital of the territory controlled by the Gallic tribe, the Namètes. Nantes was then occupied by the Romans and the city evolved into a trading centre. Nantes was fought over by the Normans and Bretons in the ninth and tenth centuries. After Norman occupation, the city was finally claimed by the Bretons in 937. Nantes was made the capital of Brittany by Peter I of Dreux, who was Count of Brittany between 1213–37 and Prince of the Capetian dynasty. Nantes was in direct competition with Rennes for the sovereignty of Brittany throughout the middle ages. One combatant was Gilles de Rais, Marshall of France who fought alongside Joan of Arc. Burned at the stake in Rennes in 1440, he was the inspiration for Charles Perrault’s infamous Blue Beard, in his Contes of 1697. In 1560, the conflict was resolved by Francis II, who granted a communal constitution.
Nantes was firmly on the Catholic side during the Wars of Religion (1562–98). Henry IV entered the town in 1598 and there signed the Edict of Nantes, marking the end of the Wars. This decree secured the rights of the Protestant Huguenots, granting them freedom of conscience and civic and religious rights. The edict was unpopular with the Catholic Church and was revoked by Louis XIV in 1685 causing a large number of Huguenots to flee the area.
During the eighteenth century, Nantes became France’s most important centre for the slave trade. This triangular trade with Africa and the West Indies provided great wealth for Nantes inhabitants. Sugar from the West Indies was used in the manufacture of fruit preserves and baked goods that are still in production today. This period of affluence prompted the construction of Baroque and Neo-classical buildings, including the Grand Théâtre and mansions on the Ile Feydeau. This riverside island, along with the Ile de la Glonette, was surrounded by canals that have since been filled in. The Revolution (1789) ended this period of prosperity. Not satisfied with the effectiveness of the guillotine, Jean-Baptiste Carrier, representing the Committee of Public Safety, implemented noyades. People were stripped, tied together and put in barges, which were sunk in the Loire River.
An urban renewal plan begun in 1920 was interrupted by the German occupation in World War II. Air raids between 1943–44 caused structural damage. After the war Nantes expanded and developed and has since become an important economic and industrial centre.
Nantes’ industries include shipbuilding, oil refining and engineering as well as food industries. The city is accessible by rail, sea and the Nantes-Atlantiques international airport. It also has a tram network. In 1961 a second University was founded, the first one, built in 1460, having been destroyed during the Revolution.
Places of Interest
Museums include the Musée des Beaux-Arts, the Musée Jules Verne and the Musée d’Histoire Naturelle. In 1466 the medieval castle was rebuilt by Francis II. The external medieval façade built in stone is contrasted with the luxury of the Renaissance-style interior. The king is buried in the Cathedral of St Pierre. The cathedral, begun in 1434 by Guillaume de Dommartin, was not completed until 1893. It was damaged in World War II and in a fire in 1972, but has since been restored. The tomb of Francis II and his wife was sculpted by the renowned fifteenth-century Gothic artist Michel Colombe. Completed in 1507, the marble sepulchre was commissioned by Francis’ daughter, whose heart was temporarily entombed there.