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La Flèche (Municipality, Sarthe, France)

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Keywords: sarthe | fleche (la) | arrow (white) | towers: 2 (white) | fleur-de-lys: 3 (yellow) |
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[Flag of La Fleche]by Olivier Touzeau

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Presentation of La Flèche

La Flèche (16,900 inhabitants) is a sous-préfecture of the department of Sarthe, located on the river Loir (not to be confused with Loire), c. 45 kms of Angers and Le Mans.

The name of the city (lit., the arrow) was most probably derived from Latin fixa, peg, as a reference to an early settlement built on piles on the Loir. Another explanation for the name of the city is related to the spire (flèche) of the St. Thomas' church, which was the early center of the city.

Little is known on the early history of La Flèche, except the presence of a Roman villa (estate) in the neighborhood.
The first lord of La Flèche was Jean de Beaugency, who built in the XIIth century a fortified castle surrounded with moats. Until the XVIIth century, La Flèche remained a village of lesser importance.
Hélie de la Flèche, count of Maine, married his daughter Gremburge to count Foulques of Anjou. Their son was Geoffroy Plantangenet, father of Henri II Plantagenet, the founder of the Anglo-Angevin Empire.

In 1540, Françoise d'Alençon, lord of La Flèche, built the château neuf (new castle) to replace the old medieval castle. Françoise married Charles de Bourbon-Vendôme; their son Antoine de Bourbon (1518-1562) married Jeanne d'Albret (1528-1572) and was crowned king of Navarra in 1555. Antoine and Jeanne had a son, Henri (1553-1610), later known as king Henri III of Navarra (1572-1610) and Henri IV of France (1589-1610). The good fortune of La Flèche was due to Henri IV. It is said that he was conceived in La Flèche. Wherever Henri was conceived, he spent a part of his youth in La Flèche and seems to have enjoyed his stay there.

When king of France, Henri appointed Guillaume Fouquet de la Varenne as his porte-manteau, the officer who was in charge of carrying the king's coat. Fouquet became his confidant and promoted his birth city, La Flèche. In 1603, Fouquet persuaded Henri IV to found and fund in La Flèche a Royal College administrated by the Jesuits.
The architect Louis Métezeau (1572-1615, from a famous dynasty of architects from Dreux) drafted the plans of the College. It was organized around a row of five courtyards, the Royal (or Fathers') Courtyard; the Classes Courtyard, with the church; the Boarders' Courtyard; and two smaller courtyards for the outhouses, called the Fathers' Farmyards. The church and the Acts Hall were built in 1621, whereas the Fathers' Courtyard and the Royal Gate surmonting an equestrian statue of Henri IV, were achieved in 1655 only.
The College housed in 1625 1,500 students. Although the College was religious, its boisterous students disrupted the quite life of the small city: a long conflict opposed the students, supported by the Fathers, to the military governor of the city, who wanted to forbid them catching frogs in the moats of the city. This episode is known as la guerre des grenouilles (the frog war).

After the building of the College, Fouquet continued to improve the city, funding the cobbling of the streets, the building of new walls and a guardpost in 1615.
In 1764, the Jesuits were expelled from France. The College was transformed into a College for Cadets, preparing them for the entry to the Ecole Militaire in Paris. In 1776, it wa transformed once again into the Collège Royal et Académique, administrated by the Fathers of the Christian Doctrine. The Fathers were expelled in 1792 following the Revolution.

The Directoire government founded in 1800 the Prytanée, as "a free college for the sons of those who had served the state, mostly in the Army" (Littré). The Prytanée was named after the Ancient Greek prutaneion, a public building where the prytanes met. In Athens, the prytanes were chosen among the ten founding tribes and could be appointed among the 50 senators. In other Greek cities, a prytane was a magistrate of first rank (Grand Robert de la Langue Française). Most Prytanées set up by the Directoire became our modern Lycées (named after Aristoteles' philosophy school in Athens). However, the Prytanée of La Flèche kept its original name and military organization. It was named in 1808 Prytanée Militaire Impérial, and is known today as Prytanée Militaire de La Flèche. Today, the students, known as brutions, prepare in the Prytanée the entry to the High Military Colleges.

The high quality of teaching in La Flèche is reflected by the list of famous people who were educated in the Prytanée: the philosoph René Descartes (1596-1650); the "first grenadeer of France" Théophile Malo Corret de la Tour d'Auvergne (1743-1800); admiral Abel Aubert Dupetit-Thouars (1793-1864), who established the French protectorate on Tahiti; marshal Louis Nicolas Davout (1770-1823), made duke of Auerstaedt and prince of Eckmuehl by Napoléon I; general Jean Andoche Junot (1771-1813), made duke of Abrantès by Napoléon I; marshal count Jean-Baptise Jourdan (1762-1833), winner in Fleurus (1794) and commander of the Spain Army (1808-1814); general count Henri Bertrand (1773-1844), who went with Napoléon I in exile to Elba and St. Helena and organized the return of the emperor's ashes to France in 1840; marshal Aimable Pélissier (1794-1864), winner in Sebastopol (1855) and governor of Algeria (1860), made duke of Malakoff by Napoléon III; marshall Joseph Gallieni (1849-1916), organizer of the French colony in Madagascar (1896-1902), military governor of Paris in 1914 and winner on the Marne, minister of war (1915-1916), made marshal posthumously in 1921; etc..

In spite of the boisterous students of the Royal College, La Flèche was known under the Ancient Regime as a very quiet, not to say boring, city.
The city had only one barber, two billiards and one café. The social life was ruled by several convents which imposed the cult of the Blessed Virgin, and the city was nicknamed La Sainte-Flèche.
The collector of the taille, Jérôme Le Royer de la Dauversière (1597-1659) was a pious man. Upset by the misery experienced by the peasants in the region of La Flèche and the ignorance of God experienced by the Indians in Canada, he organized the emigration of 278 men, 45 women and children and 3 nuns to Canada, from 1640 to 1659. The emigrants sailed from the Port Luneau, built on the Loir and active until 1914, in local flat-bottom ships called futreaux. They reached Nantes and La Rochelle and sailed to Canada. On 18 May 1642, emigrants from La Flèche founded Ville Marie, later renamed Montréal. La Dauversière organized the emigration in a very rational way, creating the Société de Notre-Dame pour la Conversion des Sauvages. In 1646, three Jesuit fathers from La Flèche were martyrized by the Hurons. A former student of the Royal College, François de Montmorency-Laval, was appointed in 1674 the first bishop of Nouvelle-France.

The poet Jean Baptiste Louis Gresset (1709-1777) was exiled from his city of Amiens to La Flèche by the Jesuits because he had published satirical poems deemed licentious. He took revenge in describing La Flèche as follows:

Un climat assez agréable / A climate fairly nice
De petits bois assez mignons / Small woods fairly lovely
Un petit vin assez potable / A small wine fairly acceptable
De petits concerts assez bons / Small concerts fairly good
Un petit monde assez passable / A small world fairly tolerable
La Flèche pourrait etre aimable / La Flèche could be pleasant
S'il était de belles prisons / If there were pleasant prisons

In 1789, La Flèche had 3,800 inhabitants. At the end of 1793, the bridge over the Loir was partially destroyed to prevent the insurgents from the Catholic and Royal Army of Vendée to enter the city, which they did twice, however.

Marie Pape-Carpentier (1815-1878) was a pioneer in teaching young children and founded in La Flèche the first elemntary school in France. In 1848, she was appointed the first Inspectrice générale des Ecoles Maternelles de France. She was also the first woman to give a public lecture in the Sorbonne University in Paris.
La Flèche is the birth city of Paul Balluat d'Estournelles de Constant, one of the founders of the International Court of Justice in the Hague, awarded the Nobel Prize of Peace in 1909.
The musician Léo Delibes (1836-1891), known for the comic opera Lakmé and the ballets Sylvia and Coppélia, was born in the village of Saint-Germain-du-Val, incorporated into the municipality of La Flèche in 1965.

The zoological park of Tertre Rouge was opened near La Flèche by Jacques Bouillault in 1971. The other main economical activity in La Flèche is the printing house Brodard et Taupin, printer of the Livre de Poche book series.

Source: Municipal website

Ivan Sache, 7 March 2004

Description of the flag of La Flèche

The municipal flag of La Flèche is white with the municipal coat of arms in the middle. It is flown on the esplanade in front of the city hall, along with the flags of the partner cities of Obernkirchen (Germany), Chippenham (United Kingdom) and Saint-Lambert (Canada)

Olivier Touzeau, 7 March 2004

Coats of arms of La Flèche

The municipal coat of arms of La Flèche is (GASO):

De gueules à la flèche d'argent et accostée de deux tours du même maçonnées de sable, au chef cousu d'azur chargé de trois fleurs de lys d'or.

Brian Timms gives a slightly more complicate blason, adding the position of the arrow:

... à la flèche d'argent posée en pal la pointe haute et accostée...

In English:

Gules an arrow in pale the point upwards between two towers argent a chief azure three fleurs de lys or.

These arms appear in a wood engraving dated 1664. The chief of France was granted by king Henri IV. The arrow is canting for the name of the city, lit., the Arrow.

Ivan Sache, 7 March 2004

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