The birth of the city on military grounds
The city was born after military fortifications had been built on the territory of Les Damps. A wooden bridge had been thrown across the Seine from 862 and it was protected by two forts on either bank of the river. The building of those defences, which marked the reign of Charles II known as the Bald, was decided and made official in the assemblies in Pîtres. Towards 869, the bridge and the two forts may have been completed. They were particularly used in 885 when the “North men” launched an offensive with the purpose of besieging Paris. The pont “de l’arche (that’s to say the fortress) was used to hold up the Northmen’s advance. It took the latter four months to reach Paris from the mouth of the Seine. However, the Frankish kings had difficulty in mobilizing their vassals’ troops thoroughly. Thus the fort in Pont-de-l’Arche must have been short of garrison: one century and a half later, Guillaume Caillou, a monk who wrote the chronicles in Jumièges, remembered (although quite inaccurately) that Frankish reinforcements had come to Les Damps to support the garrison in Pont-de-l’Arche. That was in vain then.
After that, one loses the thread of history during the space of time when the power shifted from the Frankish kings to the dukes of Normandy. What did the bridge and the city become after 911, when Normandy was born?
The fact remains that St. Vigor parish in Pont-de-l’Arche appears in a deed signed by Richard II in 1020, which granted Jumièges abbey numerous spiritual and also financial rights (especially on the river trade).
The city seemed to develop around the bridge, which required the towing of boats and made it possible to collect taxes.
The development of a fortified town: at stake in the conflict between the kings of France and England
Later, Pont-de-l’Arche appears more definitely in the archives when Richard the Lionheart, duke of Normandy and king of England, and Philippe Auguste, king of France, were fighting. Richard the Lionheart had the bridge of the city restored and he provided the necessary funds to found Bonport abbey (2 km from Pont-de-l’Arche). In the conflict between the two kings, Le Vaudreuil Castle was razed, which made the choice of Pont-de-l’Arche as the local military chief-town easier when the king of France regained Normandy.
As a matter of fact, Philippe Auguste took Pont-de-l’Arche as his main place of residence in Normandy. He had the city surrounded by walls mode of ashlars from Vernon which are still visible nowadays. He did the same for the fort of Limaie, on the other side of the bridge, on the right bank, whose access he blocked, and use it as a barbican. There was a “philipian” tower in that fort, which made an ideal observation post overlooking the river-trade and the towing of boats. The geographic as well as military advantages resulted in the city becoming the seat of a bailliage subordinate to the one in Rouen. We don’t know when exactly that was established.
The part played by Pont-de-l’Arche in territorial command and the kingdom’s police
The military seat offered many advantages, as well for territorial command facing potential invaders as for police in the interior of the kingdom.
Pont-de-l’Arche allowed command of the river trade and consequently the supplying of Rouen, a city which could fall into enemy hands. That’s why our city was at stake when the kings of France and England fought the Hundred Years’ War. Thus Henry V, king of England, took possession of Pont-de-l’Arche in 1418. The town then was under English occupation till 1449. In 1346, Edward III could not take Pont-de-l’Arche and rode on towards Mantes.
And what’s more, the town offered an ideal rear-base in case of an assault against the Norman capital:
- as part of his fight against the League of Public Good in 1466, Louis XI pitched a huge camp in the valley between Pont-de-l’Arche and Pont-Saint-Pierre, that after retaking the fort of Limaie which had fallen in the hands of the nobles of Louviers who were members of the League. That camp might have received an army of about thirty thousand men in order to retake Rouen and then the whole of Normandy. In that place, the reputed Picardy troops were formed, who were the ancestors of French infantry;
- in 1589, Henry IV’s troops, who were besieging Rouen, were supplied from Pont-de-l’Arche. Let’s specify that the city’s commanding-officer Leblanc du Rollet had been among the first to open the city gates to the king, who was contested. That monarch had presented its arms with three royal fleurs-de-lys to thank the city. Since that time, the city was boasted them on its coat of arms.
As a fortress off Rouen, Pont-de-l’Arche was a withdrawal base in case the Norman people revolted. It was a safe place too insofar as there were not enough inhabitants to start a rebellion overtaking the local policies forces. Moreover, the control of the town was not enough. The fort of Limaie had to be assaulted as well, across the Seine. So Pont-de-l’Arche was a strategic place if one considered the police of the interior of the kingdom, and command of the territory if there should be a war:
- that’s how protestants from Rouen besieged the town in 1562 with six pieces of ordnance, hoping to plunder it. They attacked royal authority straight, but in vain, for the town loyally remained Roman Catholic;
- in 1650, the Fronde inverted the part played by the fortifications of the city, the duke of Longueville used the garrison and the castle of Limaie against royal authority. The Earl of Harcourt, who was protecting the king’s journey in Normandy was ordered to besiege the town. He picked his camp next to the walls with the help of the inhabitants, who had aimed three guns at the castle from across the Seine. The duke of Longueville used the fortress as one more argument to negotiate peace with the king.
The walls of Pont-de-l’Arche, which can still be seen nowadays, had become a weapon for potential rebels. The Norman parliament and the people in Rouen asked for their demolition several times.
However, the nobles who collected taxes negotiated the maintenance of the fortifications. They fell into disuse only at the end of the 18th century.
Pont-de-l’Arche and the lust for royal privileges under the Old Regime
Pont-de-l’Arche focused interest and ambition. The town held many offices which attracted lust:
- that of chief-commander of the town (the local military police). The greatest nobles who obtained that office from the king were Concini, marshal of Ancre, close to Marie de Médicis, Albert de Luynes, Jean-Baptiste d’Ornano, Richelieu;
- there were four courts: the bailliage or court of first instance, the collection of tallage, the salt authority, and the forest authority. Those courts attracted a lot of royal officers to the town;
- the minor tax-offices (the bridge tolls, the market-taxes, the town dues, …).
Because of those offices, the city was a bit off-balance. Apart from a cloth-mill which lasted but for sometime, there was no industry in the city which could feed its 1700 inhabitants just before the French Revolution. It was nevertheless the chief-town of local administration.
The French Revolution and the Empire or the end of privileges
The French Revolution got things straight by making Louviers the chief-town of local administration. The military part of Pont-de-l’Arche had long since given way to the profit made by the manufacturing industry in Louviers, a town with a lot more inhabitants. In 1790, Elbeuf was not included in the new Eure department, because Louviers refused to cohabit with its rival cloth manufacturing town. Both those local cities could then become the chief-towns of two districts. Pont-de-l’Arche lost its administrative office.
During the Revolution, the new municipalities in Pont-de-l’Arche confronted the same controversies as the ones that tore apart the nobles before the revolution.
Nevertheless, theirs were public. After 1792, the progressive Republicans prevailed in local policy. Alexandre de la Folie became the mayor of the town of Criquebeuf and acquired old Bonport abbey. He was thrown out by the Thermidorian reaction in 1795.
The main problems known by the town during that period involved altercations between the regiments of the revolutionary troops and the inhabitants who were the most faithful to Roman Catholic cult. Most of all, they also involved famine, which was ghastly as everywhere else except that, for centuries of the city had helped the boats go through the bridge blocking the river. Then they towed the boats carrying the wheat meant to feed the people in Paris, but they had an empty stomach! And they could not even eat anything to regain strength. Thus, they ceased working and took the wheat from the boats… before the troops came to stop them.
Napoléon Bonaparte, who went through Pont-de-l’Arche twice understood the menace it represented for the police and had a lock built, which was opened in 1813. It allowed them to do without the local people, while forwarding the bread to calm them down, and so stop potential rebellion in Paris. Remember that the people in arms had already changed the course of the Revolution several times (when the king had been dethroned, and the Girondins repressed).
The start of the 19th century was a time of extreme poverty for the town. There were no particular events except that the Prussians occupied it in 1815. There was a freemason’s lodge and the railway-station in Alizay / Pont-de-l’Arche was opened in 1843.
The Industrial Revolution. The shoe and slipper industry
The Industrial Revolution reached the area: the slipper industry developed, which gave the inhabitants of the area quite badly-paid jobs. The slippers, which were first made in the workers’ homes, were afterwards made in factories built in the medieval streets of the city from the half of the 19th century. That industry spread, and in the inter-war years, there were about twenty factories, which employed several thousand people. The slipper industry, and then the shoe-industry after the First World War, only made the manufacturers rich, and their fine villas still exist nowadays in the suburbs of the town. As they gradually realized their situation, the town-workers went on strike in 1900, 1932, 1936, and 1954… in order to maintain, even increase their wages.
The wars and their damages
The city was occupied by the Prussians in 1870 because of the bridge, which was very close to being blown up. The British forces had a camp there from 1915 to 1920. Rommel’s panzers and the Franco-English troops fought there in 1940. The bridges were among the main local targets for the air-raids in the Second World War. However, those raids did not destroy the architectural heritage of the city: the 16th century gothic church, the timber-framed houses dating back to the end of the Middle Ages and the Old Regime, the 18th century bailliage, the chief-commander’s house (15th century?), the 13th century walls, Manon’s manor-house.
The famous people who came to or stayed in Pont-de-l’Arche
The last bridge in the town was opened in 1955 by Pierre Mendès France who was the president of the Council at that time, and also general councillor of Pont-de-l’Arche canton.
Writer Octave Mirbeau, composer Jules Massenet, and photographer Jacques-Henri Lartigue also lived here.
But the greatest man in the city was Eustache-Hyacinthe Langlois (1777-1837) a native, who was an archaeologist, a drawer, a short story writer. He was one of the initiators in the investigation of Norman medieval heritage. He was the first instigator of the Museum of antiques in Rouen, and he also taught at the Art-school there. Many of his cultural friends associated to pay a tribute to him and put up the money for a bust (which is missing) and a medallion. The representatives in Pont-de-l’Arche gave his name to the main town square.
Hyacinthe Langlois (rue Alphonse-Samain)
The demographic growth and the development of the public services since 1945
Since the Second World War, the town has known a very high demographic growth, as a consequence of numerous building schemes, to host the inhabitants willing to live in a pleasant setting. As it is between the Eure, the Seine, and Bord forest, Pont-de-l’Arche is close to Rouen, Val-de-Reuil and Paris, employment areas whose access has been easy since the A 13 motorway was opened in 1967.
Therefore, the local councils, who are mostly left-wing on the political stage, have since them supported the development of the publics services defined by the State, and they have also faced the town’s demographic growth (with schools, crèches, sport equipments, road works). Today, there are over 4 200 inhabitants in Pont-de-l’Arche.
Since 2001, the town has been part of the Community defined as Seine-Eure, which reunites the local councils close to Louviers and Val-de-Reuil.