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Charleville-Mézières (Municipality, Ardennes, France)

Last modified: 2005-03-19 by
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[Flag of Charleville-Mezieres]by António Martins

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Presentation of Charleville-Mézières

The city of Charleville-Mézières (60,000 inhabitants, Carolomacériens; 108,000 inhabitants when including the outskirts), located 240 km north-east of Paris and close to the border with Belgium, is the préfecture of the department of Ardennes.
The current municipality of Charleville-Mézières was created in 1966 by the merging of the two cities of Charleville and Mézières and the incorporation of Mohon, Etion and Montcy-Saint-Pierre to the new municipality.

The Gallo-Roman city of Castricum was built on the site of Montcy-Saint-Pierre. It was trashed during the Great Invasions in the Vth century. A royal villa (estate) was built a few centuries later on the site of Charleville; in the IXth century, it was superseded by the city of Arches. King of Francia Occidentalis Charles le Chauve had a palace in Arches, where he received in 859 his nephew Lothaire, King of Lotharingia. The treaty of Verdun, signed in 843, made of the Meuse the border between France (Mézières, left bank) and Lotharingia (Arches, right bank), later incorporated into the German Empire.

The Gallo-Roman city of Maceriae (in Latin, rampart) was built inside a meander, on the left bank of the river Meuse. This was a strategic place on the Reims-Cologne Roman way, built in the Ist century. In the IXth century, a small wooden castle was built in order to protect the way and the fords on the Meuse. Mézières became an important economical center in the Middle Ages; five postils (river ports) allowed trade between France and the German Empire. During the Hundred Years' War, Mézières was the main port of shipping of Burgundy wines to the north of Europe.
In the XIIIth century, Mézières and Arches were incorporated into the County of Rethel and Nevers. Arches included the two parishes of Montcy-Saint-Pierre and Montcy-Notre-Dame.

In 1521, Knight Bayard lifted with difficulty the siege of Mézières set up by the Imperial troops. France decided to increase the fortifications of Mézières, which became a garrison city and lost most of its trade activities. The Basilique Notre-Dame d'Espérance was built in Mézières from 1499 in Flamboyant and Renaissance styles; on 26 November 1570, the wedding of King of France Charles IX and Elizabeth of Austria (Hapsburg) was celebrated in the basilica.

Around 1565, the merchants of Mézières asked to their lord, the Count of Rethel and Nevers, to help them to maintain trade in the city. The lord was Louis de Gonzague, from the Gonzaga family in Mantua (Lombardy), which inherited the County of Rethel after his marriage with Henriette de Cleves in 1565. He was succeded in 1595 by his son Charles de Gonzague (1580-1637). Gonzague improved the local economy by obtaining from Kings of France Henri IV et Louis XIII the suppression of the tax on salt. In 1606, he started the building of a new city superseding the ancient village of Arches, which was named it Charleville. Gonzague obtained from Louis XIII a franchise for the trade with France; when he left Charleville in 1627 for Mantoua, the building of the city was nearly completed. The city was built in a check pattern after the Italian principle of the citta ideale.

The Place Ducale is the main element of the new city: it was designed by the architect Clément Métézeau (1581-1652), the Duke's personal architect, whose brother Louis is credited of the design of the Place des Vosges in Paris. The Place Ducale is 126 m x 90 m; the perfect symmetry of the square was altered in 1843, when the city hall replaced the ducal palace. The square is bordered by a gallery of basket-handle archs and pavillions built in pink brick and ocher stone, topped by high roofs covered with blue-violet slates. The pavillions are built on a quaternary model: they have four bays and four windows on each floor, four dormer windows and oculi in the roof. On the four angles of the square, the half-pavillions have one more floor and are topped with a dome. There is nothing on the square but Gonzague's statue placed in the middle (and cars parked everywhere). The Place Ducale is a must see, especially at sundown in winter.

Charleville became the capital city of the sovereign Principality of Arches and lived mostly from trade, whereas Mézières was an administrative and military city. In 1590, the borough of Entre-Deux-Portes in Mézières was suppressed to built a big citadel, upon request of Marshal de Saint-Paul, one of the leaders of the Catholic League. The citadel stopped 20,000 Prussians for nearly two months in 1815. During the First World War, Mézières was the seat of the German GHQ, whereas Emperor William II often stayed in Charleville.

Charleville is the birth city of the politician Louis-Alexis Dubois de Crancé (1747-1814). Dubois de Crancé studied in Charleville and became a musketeer; he was appointed Lieutenant of the Marshals of France. In 1789, he was elected Deputee to the States General by the assembly of the third estate, although he was the lord of Balham. The painter David portrayed Dubois de Crancé on his famous painting Le Serment du Jeu de Paume. During the States General, the deputees of the third estate met in Versailles in the Salle des Menus Plaisirs and proclaimed themselves the National Assembly, and they were expelled upon King Louis XVI's order. They moved to the Salle du Jeu de Paume, a royal-tennis court: on 20 June 1789, they swore "not to split up without having drafted a Constitution for France". On David's painting, Dubois is shown standing on a chair. He was reelected in all the successive assemblies during the Revolution, and attempted to modernize the army by imposing the conscription. Dubois was one of the founders of the Comité du Salut Public and directed the bloody repression against the insurrected city of Lyon. Very opportunistic, he changed sides just in time and contributed to the fall of Robespierre. He was later Minister of War in the Directoire government. When Bonaparte overthrew the Directoire by the 18 Brumaire coup, Dubois went to the new ruler and offered him his services. Bonaparte sent him back and told him "I thought you had came to give me back your portfolio". Dubois withdrew from politics and retired in his domain of Balham.

The most famous child of Charleville is the nefarious writer Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891). From 1869 to 1875, Rimbaud lived with his family in the house today named after him and wrote there his most famous poem Le Bateau Ivre. During that period, he ran away to Charleroi, Paris, where he met the poet Paul Verlaine and fled with him to Belgium and London, and eventually to Roche, near Vouziers, after Verlaine had shot him. Rimbaud achieved there Une Saison en Enfer (1873) and Les Illuminations (published only in 1886). Aged 20, he abandoned poetry and traveled a lot. In 1880, he settled in Abyssinia in Harar, where he lived from smuggling. Very sick, he came back to France, died in Marseilles, and was buried in the family vault in Charleville.
Rimbaud's enigmatic poems are the subject of a cult, sometimes idolatric, and of several erudite interpretations. His most famous verses are probably:
Il faut être absolument moderne (You must absolutely be modern)
Je est un autre (I is someone else) and
La vraie vie est absente (Real life is away), which inspired Milan Kundera's La vie est ailleurs (Life is elsewhere). The hero of Kundera's book is a revolted and insolent young poet, who calms down and becomes the official poet of the Czechoslovak regime.
Rimbaud's legacy, including a serigraphied portrait by Ernest Pignon Ernest, and mottos have been overused by marketers and advertizers.

Charleville-Mézières is one of the world capital cities of puppeteering. In 1941, the young puppet-master Jacques Félix decided to open in Charleville a puppet theater. His project could be achieved only in 1945, when he created with seven friends the Compagnie des Petits Comédiens de Chiffon (The Rag Little Comedians' Company). In 1961, they organized the first puppeteering festival in France, and a second one in 1967. In 1972, the scope of the festival increased and was sponsored by the UNIMA (Union Internationale de la Marionnette) as a world puppeteering festival. The inhabitants of Charleville warmly welcomed and housed the 800 festival delegates. In 1976, Jacques Félix was appointed director of UNIMA-France and decided to organize the world festival of puppeteering every three year in Charleville. The last edition took place in September 2003, featuring 250 troops from 36 countries for the pleasure of 130,000 spectators. The most famous puppeteerers, such as the Brazilian Alvaro Apocalypse and the French Philippe Genty have performed their shows in the festival. In spite of the increasing success of the festival, the tradition of housing the artists in the homes of local people has been maintained; there is still no contest and no prize nor honour awarded to the performers.
The Institut International de la Marionnette was created in 1981, followed by the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette in 1987, where 15 students from all over the world are trained every three year.

Source: Municipal website

Ivan Sache, 27 January 2005

Municipal flag of Charleville-Mézières

The flag of Charleville-Mézières is vertically divided blue-yellow-red, therefore similar to the national flag of Romania. It can be seen, hoisted over the entrance of the city hall.

The municipal website of Charleville-Mézières says that the three colours of the municipal flag recall the blue slates, the ocher stones and the red bricks that were used to build the new city of Charleville in 1606.

These three colours are also found on the municipal arms. Here is the history of these arms, as related by Brian Timms.
Before the formation of Charleville-Mézières (1966), the municipal arms of Charleville were:

D'azur au dextrochère de carnation mouvant du flanc senestre d'une nuée d'argent, armé d'une épée haute d'argent à la garde d'or, entre deux rameaux, l'un à dextre de palmier, l'autre à senestre d'olivier, de sinople, la pointe de l'épée surmontée d'un soleil d'or.

In English:

Azure a dexter arm proper issuant from a cloud in sinister base holding a sword in pale argent pommelled ensign by a sun in his splendour or overall a wreath of laurel also proper.

These arms can be seen on a token of Charles de Gonzague dated 1613, and were confirmed in 1824. The sun is also shown on the crown of the Dukes of Nevers.

The municipal arms of Mézières were:

De gueules, à deux râteaux d'or en chef, et à la lettre capitale M du même en pointe.

In English:

Gules two rake's heads in chief and in base the capital letter M or. Mézières belonged to the Duchy of Rethel, whose arms had three rakes and were probably canting (rake is râteau in French). Mézières seems to have kept only two rakes and added the letter M in a later stage, since a seal of the échevinage (municipality) from the XIIIth century does not have the M. The arms were confirmed in 1823.

The arms of Charleville-Mézières are a combination of the arms of Charleville and Mézières:

D'azur au dextrochère de carnation mouvant d'une nuée d'argent tenant une épée d'argent montée d'or, une paume et une branche d'olivier au naturel, le tout surmonté d'un soleil d'or ; au chef cousu de gueules chargé de deux râteaux démanchés d'or.

In English:

Azure a dexter arm carnation issuant from a cloud bearing a sword in pale erect argent pommelled or overall a branch of palm and branch of olive proper ensigned by a sun in his splendour or a chief gules two rake's head or.

A newspaper cutting claims that the arms of Mézières were placed in chief to placate the inhabitants of Mézières; when the merging occurred, Mézières was bigger than Charleville and was the see of the préfecture.

The banners of Rethel and Nevers are shown on the Gelre's Armorial. Louis de Nevers was Count of Flanders, Nevers and Rethel in 1322-1346 and has several problems with the Flemish. Louis was Philippe V's son-in-law and supported France; he died during the battle of Crécy.

Ivan Sache, Pascal Vagnat & Jan Mertens, 27 January 2005