Following the French Revolution of 1789 one part of the Loire population became pitted against another. Basically, while the inhabitants of towns quickly saw the benefits accruing from the Revolution, rural peasants were inclined to oppose change (1). This led the areas of Orléanais and the Touraine to support the Revolution while the peoples of Maine and Anjou rejected the religious and administrative reforms that resulted from the Revolution. It was in Maine and Anjou (the Vendée) that local armies were quickly formed to support of the Catholic Church and the king under the white flag of royalism (though it can be argued that the peasants of the Vendée were more anti-revolution than counter-revolution, i.e. they were more against the demands of the revolution that wanting to see the restoration of the ancient régime. It was their
officer-class of monarchist nobles who were instinctively royalist and counter-revolutionary). These Catholic armies captured the towns of Saumur and Angers on the Loire but were later defeated at Cholet, in the Maine-et-Loire department, in October 1792. However, after reforming as guerrilla troops they continued fighting and, known as the “Chouans”, they based themselves south of the Loire River, in the Vendée region. The Vendée region was known at that time as Bas-Poitou, and the areas of opposition to the Revolution included large sections of the departments of Loire-Inférieure (Loire-Atlantique), Maine-et-Loire, Deux-Sèvres, and the Vendée proper. The Chouans’ troops consisted, in the main, of unarmed and extremely poor peasants (male, female and children) who fought against the better armed, professional troops of the Republic. The “Vendée War” lasted from 1793-1799 and consisted of a mix of classic surprise guerrilla attacks and 21 fierce confrontational battles. There were early signs in the region of opposition to the 1789 revolution, but the first real discontent occurred the following year with the government’s enactment of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (July, 1790). This legislation attempted to bring strict controls over the Roman Catholic Church and included; confiscation of church property, the banning of traditional priests, and the suppression of all religious orders. In the following year of 1791 the Ecclesiastical Oath forced priests to come under state rather than episcopal control. Those priests who refused, and in the Vendée most did refuse, were outlawed and replaced by state-appointed priests. Then on March 3, 1793, there was a national prohibition of public worship and the closing of all Catholic churches. The sale of church lands meant that they were frequently bought up by the bourgeoisie of the towns, who then often raised rents. The town-dwelling bourgeois who were successful in buying such land were supporters of the Revolution as a guarantee of what they had gained; those who failed to increase their landholdings were hostile to the central government. These dramatic social changes were compounded by the wars being fought by the French state against Austria and Prussia and the consequential call for the country-wide conscription of 300,000 more men for the French army. The fiercely
Catholic population of the Vendée defied this conscription and instead they took to arms against the Revolution. Their revolt began in earnest on March 11, 1793; just a few days after France had declared war on Spain. The Vendean achieved some early victories but when the re-equipped revolutionary army returned to the region it quickly inflicted defeats on the rebels; first at Nantes and then at Cholet. The Whites, as the rebels were also known, hoped for reinforcements from exiled French nobles in England and made a lightening maneuver, known as the Virée de Galerne, north across the Loire River. On October 18, 1793, the Vendeans ferried between 60,000 and 100,000 men, women and children over the wide, fast-flowing Loire. In November, after a march of 200 kilometers, in an attempt to capture a Channel port ready to receive expected English aid, the Vendeans laid siege to the town of Granville, in the Manch department, north-west France. After failing to take the port they started to retreat back towards the Loire. At Le Mans, around 10,000 of their number were killed by much better armed Republican troops. Thousands more died, either in combat or from sickness or hunger. In December 1793 just a few thousand managed to re-cross the Loire. The state troops carried out a scorched-earth policy against all remnants of resistance and in Nantes alone some 3,000 people were executed. Those members of the rebellious army of peasants and farmers who had not died in battle were executed by the republican army by either mass drowning in the Loire, firing squad or guillotine. No one knows exactly how many people of the Vendée region died during the years of the war; some historians estimate a figure between 40,000-100,000, others that one-third of the region’s population was lost. The Vendée was only finally pacified and placed under centralised control in 1804; when Napoleon founded La-Roche-sur-Yon (originally named Napoléon-Vendée) as a military and administrative stronghold to prevent further uprisings. The peace pact that was signed with Napoleon ultimately won the restoration of religious freedom for all citizens of France.
There were two further attempts to rekindle the counter-revolutionary wars. In 1815, Louis de La Rochejaquelein carried out an unsuccessful invasion near Croix-de-Vie. While in 1832 the Duchesse de Berry tried to seize the French throne for her son, the Duke of Bordeaux and grandson of Charles X.(1) This is not to say that there were no benefits from the Revolution for the peasantry. Post 1790, peasants no longer had to remove their hats, lower their heads and address their masters as Monsieur le compte. Many increased their landholdings by taking over abandoned land on the estates of nobles (many land records were destroyed by peasants during the revolution to prevent the nobles reclaiming what has once been theirs). Peasants could also kill rabbits, chickens, geese, etc. which had previously eaten their smallholding produce and they also began to hunt wild animals and birds which had previously been the prerogative of their Lords ~ to do this they were permitted to use firearms; ownership of which had previously been forbidden. Peasants could also buy and sell land, elect representatives to the Assembly (though women in mainland France did not get the right to vote until 1944 and “Indigenous Muslim” women in French Algeria had to wait until 1958), stand for elections themselves and take their grievances to court.