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Charleville-Mézières (Municipality, Ardennes, France)

Last modified: 2021-02-13 by ivan sache
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Flag of Charleville-Mézières - Image by António Martins, 27 January 2005

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Presentation of Charleville-Mézières

The municipality of Charleville-Mézières (46,391 inhabitants in 2018; 3,144 ha; municipal website) is located 240 km north-east of Paris and close to the border with Belgium. The municipality was established in 1966 as the merger of the former municipalities of Charleville, Mézières, Mohon, Étion and Montcy-Saint-Pierre.

The Gallo-Roman town of Castricum, built on the site of Montcy-Saint-Pierre, was looted in the 6th during the Migration Period. A royal estate was built a few centuries later on the site of Charleville, to be superseded in the 9th century by the town of Arches. King of Western France> Charles the Bold had a palace in Arches, where he received in 859 his nephew Lothar, 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 town of Maceriae (in Latin, "a rampart") was built within a meander, on the left bank of river Meuse, in a strategic place on the Reims-Cologne Roman road, built in the 1st century. In the 9th century, a small wooden fort was built in order to watch the road 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 13th century, Mézières and Arches were incorporated into the County of Rethel and Nevers.

In 1521, Knight Bayard tediously lifted the siege of Mézières set up by the Imperial troops. The town fortifications were increased, so that Mézières became a garrison town and lost most of its commercial activities. The Notre-Dame d'Espérance bsilica was built in the town from 1499 in Flamboyant and Renaissance styles; on 26 November 1570, the wedding of King of France Charles IX and Elizabeth of Austria (Habsburg) was celebrated in the basilica.
Around 1565, the merchants of Mézières asked to their lord, Louis Gonzaga, to foster trade in the town. Born in the Gonzaga family from Mantua, Louis inherited the County of Rethel after his marriage with Henriette of Cleves in 1565. He was succeded in 1595 by his son Charles Gonzaga (1580-1637), who improved the local economy by obtaining from kings of France Henry IV et Louis XIII the suppression of the tax on salt. In 1606, he started the building of a new town superseding the ancient village of Arches, which was named Charleville. Gonzaga obtained from Louis XIII a franchise for the trade with France; when he left Charleville in 1627 for Mantua, the building of the town was nearly completed, according to a grid plan after the Italian principle of the citta ideale.

Place Ducale, the new city's landmark, was designed by Gonzaga's personal architect, Clément Métézeau (1581-1652), whose brother Louis is credited of the design of Place des Vosges in Paris. Place Ducale is 126 m x 90 m; its perfect symmetry was altered in 1843, when the Towbn 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, with 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 Gonzaga's statue standing in the center.
Charleville became the capital of the sovereign Principality of Arches and lived mostly from trade, whereas Mézières was an administrative and military town. 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 Kaiser William II often stayed in Charleville.

Charleville is the birth city of the politician Louis-Alexis Dubois de Crancé (1747-1814), who was elected in 1789 Representative to the States General by the assembly of the Third Estate, although he was the lord of Balham. The painter David portrayed him, standing on a chair, in his famous painting Le Serment du Jeu de Paume. Re-elected in all the successive assemblies during the Revolution, Dubois attempted to modernize the army by imposing the conscription. One of the founders of the Comité du Salut Public, he commanded the bloody repression against the insurrected town 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 completed 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.

Charleville-Mézières is one of the world's capitals of puppeteering. In 1945, the young puppet-master Jacques Félix (1923-2006) created in Charleville 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.. 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.

Ivan Sache, 27 January 2005

Flag of Charleville-Mézières

The flag of Charleville-Mézières (photo; photo) is vertically divided blue-yellow-red. The colors are locally said recall the blue slates, the ocher stones and the red bricks that were used to build the new town of Charleville in 1606.

The colors were most probably derived from the municipal arms, "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", which are a combination of the arms of Charleville and Mézières.
The arms of Charleville were "Azure a dexter arm proper issuant from a cloud in sinister base holding a sword in pale argent pommelled ensigned by a sun in his splendour or overall a wreath of laurel also proper". These arms, featured on a token of Charles Goneaga dated 1613, were confirmed in 1824. The sun is also shown on the coronet of the Dukes of Nevers.
The arms of Mézières were "Gules two rake's heads in chief in base the capital letter M or". Mézières belonged to the Duchy of Rethel, whose canting arms had three rakes (râteaux); Mézières seems to have kept only two rakes and added letter "M" in a later stage, since a seal of the municipality from the 13th century does not have the "M". The arms were confirmed in 1823.

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