The town of Montreuil-Bellay, in the LoireValley, sits on the bank of the Thouet, a river which rises in the north-east of the Poitoumarshes. This rich and complex historical area results from prolonged stratification and changes linked to its evolving human occupation.
With a labour pool of 1,500 jobs, Montreuil-Bellay is home to a population of 4,000 spread across the town and several surrounding hamlets.
The town stretched along the Thouet, near a ford. Then it naturally expanded to arrive at the top of the hillside, sheltering in the farmyard of the first fortified chateau erected by Foulques Nerra in the 11th century. The town’s life is still centred around this chateau, which has been defended through the centuries by two surrounding walls extending to the ford.
The town is distinguished by ITS FORTIFICATIONS. The chateau, built on a rocky promontory, is surrounded by a first wall. A second one, impressively large, dating back to the 13th century, still marks the boundary of the old town with two of the original city gates. A final 15th century wall, grafted onto the foot of the hillside and allowing control of navigation and tolls, completes the system.
In the heart of the Saumur vineyards, Montreuil-Bellay, with its 400 hectares of vines grouped on both sides of the Thouet, is an essential part of the Saumur AOC. Montreuil’s winegrowers produce 20,000 hectolitres of Saumur appellation wines a year using environmentally-friendly methods: grass- sowing, leaf-pruning, thinning out the grapes and, more recently, planting strips of flowers to reduce the use of chemical pesticides while maintaining impeccable grape quality.
Montreuil-Bellay, situated in a geological basin dating back to the Jurassic period, around 165 million years old, is rich in fossils, particularly ammonites, which are exceptionally well preserved. Ammonites are mollusc fossils of the Cephalopod group that developed, then disappeared, in the second era. Only one species remains, the Nautilus.
Recognition of the Montreuil site is due to Monsieur d’ORBIGNY, who identified a local species designated HECTICOCERAS (family name) – orbignyceras (in honour of d’Orbigny) – trezeense (from Trézé, species name).
History of Montreuil-Bellay
Where Anjou, Touraine and Poitou meet, the town has been a pawn for rival feudal powers since the Middle Ages. The Thouet, having driven the watermills, became navigable as far as Montreuil-Bellay, highlighting the town’s essential role in the region’s trade.
Administrative ecclesiastical organisations were also affected by this strategic situation. These advantages favoured the emergence of Montreuil-Bellay as an administrative and commercial centre up to the 18th century, which saw Saumur take predominance as the sous-prefecture in the young Republic.
The St Eloi, Rasibus and Ardenne quarters would have been the first populated areas before 1000AD on the site of the first traces of the town, still small, with troglodyte dwellings and humble hovels.
Below the chateau itself, by the ford’s access, the first urban pocket developed. It was also here, where the two routes crossed, that the first church, St Pierre, was built.
In the first half of the 11th century (around 1025) Foulques Nerra constructed a keep on the escarpment overlooking the ford, no doubt to keep an eye on and control the traffic.
The creation of this fortress would modify how the site was used. The lower town’s development continued and the parish church was rebuilt. The widow of Berlay II, second lord of the area, “by the grace” of Foulkes Nerra, founded the Nobis priory adjoining this church.
But already the centre of gravity was moving up to, and attaining, the top of the hillside, immediately next to the chateau. From then on up to the first half of the 12th century, the three surrounding walls mentioned in the archives were constructed around the keep.
The external surrounding wall, made of earth and strengthened by two external facings, is elliptic and surrounds the fortress itself.
If the lower route remained the main road, a new way probably branched off from St Hilaire of Ehaent to re-join the village higher up through a gateway through the town walls opposite the curtain. On the opposite bank, a road parallel to the Thouet, passing below the Salle chateau, re-joined the ford. At this point, the area on the other side of the bridge started to develop, apparently in troglodytic form.
At the time of the chateau’s reconstruction, destroyed when the area was conquered by Geoffrey Plantagenet in 1151, the upper village extended beyond the narrow limits of the ancient walls towards the south, including the land levelled by the attacking forces and continuing the market that they had set up there. Timbered shops and houses were also built here, some of which still exist today.
At the beginning of the 13th century, the family of the viscounts of Melun (1212) decided to enclose these areas within new ramparts and so enlarge the town’s territory. Much of today’s walls probably date from this period.
All this was completed and re-worked during the 14th and 15th centuries, particularly by Guillaume IV, then by the descendants, the d’Harcourts (1415).
The four monumental town gates date from this period. A new road, replacing the old one beside the Thouet, crossed the new town from east to west from the New gate to the gate near the hospital, run by the Order of St John, which gives it its name.
The new wall took in the old village from within the first wall and the market place with its strange oblong form. But it also increased the closed town’s territory and juxtaposed a more deliberate and regular town planning with right-angled streets alongside the previous areas. This new spatial distribution enabled the development of many religious establishments on the southern side, while non-religious settlements clustered together in the chateau’s extension and the market place.
A line of bridges served instead of or as well as the ford, but as they were built on unstable ground they were a constant source of anxiety.
In the 18th century, the town was the administrative centre of an important public election, the second in the Anjou, monitoring parishes as far as Cholet.
Geographically, it was also the first port of disembarkation for foodstuffs coming fromAquitaine and the Charente destined for the provinces north of the Loire.
This period of growth and prosperity was matched by the construction of handsome houses for tradesmen and administrative notables. It was also the time that the area north of the river and near the landing stages developed.
The first empire saw the complete collapse of the old bridge and its replacement by the new bridge, further downstream, whose completion would alter the town’s access. The old route coming from Saumur along the right bank became obsolete. The new strategic routes now led to the town by the Thouet’s left bank. The bridge itself was linked to the old town by a large opening through the wall which rejoined the main road at the place Toussenel.
In 1841, a new route to Doué was opened in the extension of the bridge and the access ramp in the square. The main road was widened, its name following the changes of government: Imperiale, then Royale, finally Nationale. The Ardenne slope was also mitigated by a gentle curve.
During the second half of the 19th century, the town extended to the south east of the ramparts into the area of the mall. The wall was razed in this area and the moats filled in. These materials were used to build the retirement home.
A new grouping developed with the building of a school opposite the Mail aux Belles. Homes grew up along the new Avenue Duret where the road from Loudun entered the town and near the newly created railway line and station.
The town turned away from its port activities, which declined after the end of the 18thcentury in spite of an attempt to re-launch it with the construction of the St Catherine port in 1860.
The 20th century increased the 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 base. The old town was more or less abandoned in favour of the new areas, some of which were created on greenfield sites, such as the Herse.
Urban development spread out from the historic town centre along the Saumur road.
Access was completely changed with the construction of a by-pass linking Saumur to Thouars, which avoided the walled town but bounded its outer area.
Opportunities and challenges
The transformation of the American base
It was in the context of the Marshall Plan that the American army converted 200 hectares on the Champagne plain. This space, already rare in its geology, pedology, flora and fauna, became even more so when it was fenced, provided with mains services, built on and used by hundreds of American soldiers and 1,300 civilian employees.
American troops went home in 1965. Edgard Pisani, then mayor of Montreuil-Bellay, succeeded in buying back this property for the town.
Restructured into an economic space benefiting from a direct rail link to the national rail network, the Méron business park is today one of the most active industrial sites in the area.
Mayor: Marc Bonnin
Hôtel de ville
02 41 40 17 60
Fax: 02 41 40 17 69
Place du Concorde