Beside the Thouet, which rises in the Deux Sèvres 20 km to the north east of the Poitevin wetlands, lies the town of Montreuil-Bellay, a rich, complex historical site and the result of a many layered transformation linked to continuous human occupation of the site.
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Situated at the meeting point of Anjou, Touraine and Poitou, the town has been the stake for rival feudal powers. After powering the watermills, the Thouet, by becoming navigable as far as Montreuil-Bellay, reinforced the town’s essential trade role in the region. Ecclesiastical and administrative organisations were also influenced by this strategic location. These advantages would favour Montreuil-Bellay’s emergance as an administrative and commercial centre until the 18th century, when Saumur asserted its predominance when the young Republic appointed it the Sous-Préfecture.
The districts of St Eloi, Rasibus and Ardenne would be the locations of the first inhabitants before the year 1000AD on the site of the first traces of the town, still small, with cave-dwellings and humble hovels.
At the foot of the actual château, at the access to the ford linking the route towards Angers, nowadays the rue Chèvre (goat’s way), the first urban centre developed. It was also at this place, at the crossroads of several main routes, that the first church, St Pierre, was erected.
In the first half of the 11th century, around 1025, Foulques Nerra built a fortified keep on the escarpment to reinforce his control of the crossing.
The creation of this fortress would alter the site’s occupancy. The lower town continued its development boom: the parish church was rebuilt. The widow of Berlay II, the second lord, “by the favour” of Foulques Nerra, founded the Nobis priory alongside the church.
But already the centre of gravity was moving towards the summit of the hillside, immediately beside the château. The keep was surrounded by three walls, mentioned in the archives, until the first half of the 12th century.
The external earth wall, supported by two external facings, is elliptical and surrounds the fortress itself.
If the main route remained the lower one, it is certain that a new route branched off from St Hilaire d’Ehaent to meet up with the higher village and to pass through a gateway situated opposite the curtain wall. On the other bank, a route parallel to the Thouet, passing the base of the la Salle château, also joined the ford. Here, the suburb across the bridge began to develop, originally as troglodyte dwellings.
At the time of the château’s reconstruction, ruined during Geoffrey Plantagenet’s conquest in 1151, the upper village emerged from its narrow limits within the ancient walls and extended further south, including the lands levelled by the attacker and perpetuating the market that had been established there. This was where the shops and timbered houses, some still standing, were created.
At the beginning of the 13th century (1212), the family of the Viscounts of Melun decided to enclose the internal quarters within new ramparts and, at the same time, to enlarge the village’s territory. A large part of the footprint of today’s surrounding wall probably dates from this time.
This would be completed and revised during the 14th and 15th centuries, particularly by Guillaume IV, then by his heirs, the d’Harcourt family.
The four monumental gateways date from this period. The old route beside the Thouet was replaced by a new route that crossed the new town from east to west, from the Nouvelle (New) gateway to the gateway near the main hospital, belonging to the order of Saint Jean (St John), which gave the gateway its name.
The new wall surrounding the old village of the original wall and the market place has a curious oblong shape. But it increased the area of the enclosed town and juxtaposed to the ancient districts a freer and more regular town planning with roads crossing at right-angles. This new layout allowed the development of several religious establishments on the south side, while the civilian settlement remained grouped around the extension of the château and the market place.
St Laurent, St Christophe, St Thomas, the Grands Augustins and the main hospital, the Hôtel Dieu, were spread along the east-west route.
A row of bridges were built alongside and to replace the ancient ford, but, built on ground that was too loose, they were always cause for concern.
In the 18th century, the town was the administrative centre of an important Election, the second in Anjou, monitoring parishes as far as Cholet.
Geographically, it was also the first port of embarkation for commodities coming from Aquitaine and the Charentes destined for the provinces of the northern Loire.
This period of development and prosperity corresponds with the constructions of the fine dwellings of the traders and the administrative notables. It was also the time that the suburban districts developed north of the river and near the quays.
The first empire saw the final collapse of the old bridge and its replacement by a new bridge, further upstream, whose building would completely alter the city’s access. The old course that had followed the right bank from Saumur fell into disuse. The new strategic routes now accessed the town via the left bank of the Thouet. The bridge itself was linked to the old town by a large opening through the wall and met up with the principal road at the Place Toussenel.
In 1841, a new route towards Doué was opened in the bridge’s extension and the access ramp to the square. The principal road was widened and its name changed according to the government of the time: Imperial, then Royal to become National. The descending road of the Ardenne was also eased with a large bend.
During the second half of the 19th century, the town was extended to the south east of the ramparts with the creation of the Mail district. The surrounding wall was demolished and the moat filled in. The stone was used to construct the retirement home.
A new group of buildings appeared with the construction of a school opposite the Mail aux Belles. Homes were built all along the Avenue Duret, at the entrance to the town on the Loudun side and near the development led by the creation of the railway line and the station.
The town turned its back on its port activities which had been declining since the end of the 18th century, in spite of an attempt to revive it with the construction of St Catherine’s port in 1860.
The 20th century consolidated this displacement of the town towards the new industrial quarters, the zones of Europe-Champagne and Méron, built on the site of the old American military camp. The old town was more or less abandoned in favour of the new districts, some of which were constructed on greenfield sites, like the Herse. Urban extension stretched out from the historic town along the route to Saumur.
Access was disrupted by the construction of a bypass linking Saumur and Thouars, which avoided the walled town but surrounded its suburbs.
The housing estate on the grounds of the Perruche, opposite the ramparts, demonstrates a change of opinion, initiating the regaining of an equilibrium accompanied by a care for the respect and preservation of the rich heritage we inherit from its long pages of history.