Confolens – a brief history of my town

Since moving to France two years ago life has been very hectic trying to balance working on the very overgrown garden, integrating into the French system and visiting all the historical and archaeological sites.

I am living at the edge of a village in South West France called Ansac sur Vienne approximately 3 kilometres from a small medieval town called Confolens.

The town of Confolens itself is situated at the confluence of two rivers, the Gloire and the Vienne (hence its name). It was originally built round a fortress and was first mentioned in the 11th century. The town grew in importance because of its location on the Vienne river along the via Agrippa from Lyon to Saintes via Limoges.


Old Bridge

The present bridge across the Vienne which was built of granite in the 14th century replaced a Roman bridge. It boasted three fortified towers up to 10metres high until they were demolished in 1777. There were also shops built in from the parapets which made passing over the bridge quite difficult.

As it was the only bridge for many kilometres it saw very heavy traffic of men, animals and merchandise which at times, because of the shops, caused many traffic jams. The last span on the left side of the bridge was originally a drawbridge leading into the industrial side of the town.

On this side of the river stands the church of St Barthelemy built in the 12th century. St Barthelemy was the patron saint of Tanners which attests to the presence of the tanneries, leather workers and merchants in this quarter. Another striking building is the convent of St Clare, constructed in the 17th century, occupied until the revolution and converted to a hospital in 1792.

In the old town stands the old Manor House with a tower which formed part of the fortification at the entrance to the old town guarding the 13th century toll bridge over the River Gloire. There were also many tanneries along this stretch of the Gloire.


Rue du Soleill

Leading from this bridge is one of the oldest streets in the town named Rue de Soleil where several old 15th and 16th century half-timbered houses still survive. At the end of this street stands the church of St Maxime built in the 13th century. The original church was first mentioned in 990 and has mostly disappeared because of numerous alterations. The interior was completely altered in 1499 to provide 2 unequal naves separated by elegant columns. The large stained-glass windows were made at Tours in the 19th century.

The old 13th century courthouse indicates the importance of the town within the judicial system; the arched gateway allowed access to the courtyard of the castle and into the town itself. At this end of the town stands the Donjon built between the 11th and 12th centuries. All that remains of the old fortress is the donjon and small remnants of the walls after most of the fortifications were destroyed during the 18th century to make way for new streets and buildings.


Courthouse archway looking to spire of St Maxime

The 19th century saw a new Confolens emerge with the construction of a sous- prefecture, prisons, law court and hotels. A new bridge was built to accommodate an increase in traffic. A rail station was also built with a line to Angouleme.

During the second world war Confolens was very active in the birth of the maquis Foch, the French resistance movement.

Much has changed since the 20th century, the railway has closed, and new house building projects along with industrial and commercial zones on the outskirts of the town have been constructed.

My village also has its own history with the church of St Benoit and chapel of Notre Dame. Both these possess exceptional paintings from the 18th century in the artistic style of the Nazarine movement. Similar paintings were done in the Notre-Dame de Lorette in Paris and Notre-Dame de Fourviere at Lyon.

Other towns and villages of historical interest in the region are: – St Germain with its 14/15th century castle and its 12th century chapel of St Vincent, the Village gaulois Coriobona at Esse, a reconstructed village of the 1st century BC Iron Age, Oradour sur Glane, a martyred village which has been preserved in memory of the inhabitants murdered by the Germans, and Chassenueil Sur Bonnierre with its grand memorial to the French resistance movement. There is also the underground church of St Jean at Aubeterre Sur Drone, hewn out of the rock in the 12th century.

There are a few very large archaeological sites I have visited in the region. The nearest is a Roman site at Chassenon called Cassinomagus with possibly the largest Baths Basilica in Europe. The town of Nanteuil en Vallee has a monastic site, there is a prehistoric site at Charme near Poitiers, and near this is a castle dig at Scorbe Clairevaux.


Scorbe Clairvaux

There is only a small amount of evidence of the prehistoric in this area with a few dolmens and menhirs dotted about the countryside plus an old hunter gatherer camp at Hiesse being the most obvious testament to this period.

I am hoping to get out and about again next year to explore more of the history and archaeology in this part of France.

Irene Milhench