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Pont-l'Abbé (Municipality, Finistère, France)


Last modified: 2021-01-16 by ivan sache
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Flag of Pont-l'Abbé - Image by Arnaud Leroy, 24 October 2004

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Presentation of Pont-l'Abbé

Pont-l'Abbé (in Breton, Pont-n'-Abad, 8,400 inhabitants; municipal website) is the capital of Pays Bigouden, a traditional district located in southern Brittany (Cornouaille). The town of Pont-l'Abbé is located between the end of the estuary of the Rivière de Pont-l'Abbé (in Brittany, rivers are often named after the city built on their estuary) and a big pond.
Like (mostly) everywhere in Brittany, prehistorical megalithic monuments have been found near Pont-l'Abbé, namely the menhirs (erected stones) of Guiric and Pen Laouic (today in the river), and the dolmens (lying stones) of Menez Bodillo and Merc'hen (both destroyed).
After the conquest of Brittany, the Romans built a castrum (fortified camp) on the top of the hill dominating the today's town of Pont-l'Abbé, a place locally called Menez (mount) Roz Ar Hastel. There was a Roman roa between Quimper and the point of Penmarc'h.

The name of the town (lit., the Abbot's Bridge) comes from the bridge built between the port and the pond by the monks of the abbey of Loctudy, located on the mouth of the Rivière de Pont-l'Abbé. In the 9th century, the Northmen sailed back the river and sacked the abbey. The monks abandoned the domain of Pont-l'Abbé to feudal lords, who built a small fort in the 11th century. The first known Lord of Pont-l'Abbé is Juhel du Pont, who was captured during the siege of Dol in 1173.
The dynasty of the Barons of Pont throve during the nexts centuries. Several Barons of Pont played an important role in the military and religious history of Brittany. In 1214, Hervé du Pont and his brother Eon were bannerets (they were allowed to lead their vassals under their own banner) during the battle of Bouvines, when King of France Philippe-Auguste defeated a coalition set up by German Emperor Otto IV, John Lackland, the Count of Flanders and the greater vassals of the Kingdom. In 1223, Hervé du Pont retroceded to the Abbot of Loctudy the rights on the parish and the tax on wine. In 1294, Robert du Pont, Baron Geoffroy's brother, was appointed Bishop of Saint-Malo. Baron Hervé III founded in 1350 the St. Johns' Hospital near the river and the St. Tudy's chaplainy in his castle. In 1383, Baron Hervé IV built a White Friars' monastery, whose chapel became later the parish church, and the first wharf of the port. Baron Hervé VI was killed in 1426 during the siege of Saint-James-de-Beuvron.
In 1441, Jean I du Pont was appointed Greater Baron of Brittany and was invited to the crowning of Duke François I. Baron Pierre fought in 1488 during the siege of Saint-Aubin-du-Cormier.
The last Baroness, Louise du Pont, died in 1426. Jean V du Quélennec, grandson of one of Louise's aunts, was granted the Barony. Quélennec was sent two times to the King of France Henri II to negotiate franchises for the Duchy of Brittany. In the beginning of the 16th century, Charles du Quélennec, aka Soubise, converted to the reformed religion. He expelled the chaplains from his castle and led an uprising in Périgord (south-west of France) during the Wars of Religion. He was captured and jailed in Jarnac but escaped. He was killed in the court of the palace of Louvre in Paris when defending Admiral de Coligny (1519-1572), the leader of the Protestant party, during the St. Bartholomeuw's slaughter (23-24 August 1572) ordered by Queen of France Catherine de' Medici and the Guise family.

At the end of the 16th century, the civil war between the Holy League and the Royalists spread to Brittany. The Royalists seized Pont-l'Abbé in 1588 and the castle was looted; its clockwork, then the best in Brittany, was shipped to the neighboring city of Concarneau. The warlord Guy Eder de la Fontenelle sacked Cornouaille. He set up his headquarters on the Tristan island, off the port of Douarnenez, whose fortifications he had destroyed. In 1595, Fontenelle sacked the village of Penmarc'h; the next year, he killed 1,500 peasants in Plogastel-Saint-Germain. The garrison of Pont-l'Abbé besieged Tristan island, to no avail. In 1598, King of France Henri IV appointed him Governor of the island, provided he stopped his criminal acts. Fontenelle was involved in a plot, arrested, sentenced to death and put on the wheel on the place de Grève in Paris in 1602. Baroness Hélène de Beaumanoir, aged 18, was besieged in 1604 in her castle by an army commanded by her husband and had to surrender.

After the end of the Wars of Religion, the Catholic religion was reestablished in Pont-l'Abbé and Loctudy by Reverend Father Le Nobletz. In 1622, the first Municipal Council was set up in Pont-l'Abbé. The Council, composed of 12 burghers and 12 craftsmen, was presided by a Syndic. In 1674, the Barony of Pont was transfered to Armand Jean de Vignerot, the grand-nephew of Cardinal de Richelieu.
In 1675, the peasants revolted in the so-called Red Caps' Revolt, after Colbert had imposed high taxes in order to fund Louis XIV's war againt Holland. The peasants released their claims in the Peasant's Code, approved on 2 July 1675 in the chapel of Treminou. The uprising spread to the whole Pays Bigouden: the lord of Cosquer-en-Combrit was hung by the peasants and the castle of Pont was looted and burned. The White Friars of Pont-l'Abbé were forced to approve the

In 1685, the Barony of Pont was sold to François Joseph d'Ernothon. In 1718, Ernothon approved the claims of the States of Brittany against the absolute power of the King of France and was exiled. His successor, Jean Théophile d'Ernothon, went mad and jumped out a window of the castle in 1738. The Barony was purchased by Henri Baude de Saint-Père in 1753 for 500,000 pounds. The literary critic Élie Fréron (1718-1776), born in Quimper, married in 1766 in the chapel of the castle. Fréron is mostly known as the unfortunate rival of Voltaire, who ridiculed him under the name of Frelon (in French, hornet) in several epigrams.
Pont-l'Abbé lost its prerogatives in the States of Brittany in 1779. The municipality of Pont-l'Abbé was established on 1st February 1790. The village of Lambour was incorporated to the new municipality on 13 December 1790. In 1791, the Constituent Assembly defined the limits of the municipality of Pont-l'Abbé, which was increased with four rural districts taken from the neighbouring municipalities of Combrit, Loctudy, Plobannalec and Plomeur. The parish of Pont-l'Abbé was set up the same year. Beforehand, Pont-l'Abbé was divided between the two parishes of Loctudy and Plobannalec, whereas Lambour belonged to Combrit.
In August 1792, baron Jean Georges Claude Baude was involved in the failed attempt of escape of the royal family and had to exile. On 7 November 1793, the name of the town was changed to Pont-Libre (Free Bridge). The castle of Pont was sold in 1799 to François Jérôme Le Déan, and eventually bought by the municipality in 1836, in order to house the Town Hall, the Court of Justice, the Gendarmerie and the School.

In 1847, a riot broke out in Pont-l'Abbé when potatoes were loaded on a ship whereas the local population starved.
In the beginning of the 20th century, lace industry was the main activity in Pont-l'Abbé. Strikes regularly broke out because of the miserable condition of the working-class life. In 1961, the farmers demonstrated violently against the low price paid to early potatoes.

As the center of Pays Bigouden, Pont-l'Abbé has two museums dedicated to the Bigouden culture: the Bigouden Museum was set up in 1955 in the castle of Pont, and the House of Pays Bigouden< was inaugurated in 1984 in the Kerazegan farm.
The most famous element of the Bigouden culture is the headdress. It is said that the height of the headdress was increased after Duke de Chaulnes had demolished the local church towers following the Red Caps' uprising, but this is only a legend. The Monument to the Bigoudens, built in Pont-l'Abbé by F. Bazin in 1931, shows relatively small headdresses (10 cm-high). The headdresses seem to have increased only after the Second World War, but are hardly seen today, except in religious and folkloric festivals, and of course in the wonderful Bigouden road-movie Western by Manuel Poirier (1997).
The Bigouden culture has been studied and described in great details by the local writer Per Jakez Hélias (1914-1995), especially in his autobiography Le Cheval d'Orgueil (1975).

Ivan Sache, 24 October 2004

Flag of Pont-l'Abbé

The flag of Pont-l'Abbé (photo) is horizontally divided in seven stripes, yellow-black-yellow-black-yellow-black-yellow. The first vertical third of the flag (near the hoist) is plain yellow with a red lion.
The municipal arms of Pont-l'Abbé are "Or a lion rampant gules armed and langued azure."

The arms "Or a lion gules" belonged to the first dynasty of the Barons of Pont, which dates back at least to the 11th century. The motto of the lords of Pont was Heb Chang (Relentlessly). On the municipal arms, the motto was changed to Heb Ken. According to Per Jakez Hélias, the exact meaning of Heb Ken is obscure; it can be read "No more no less", as a symbol of the Bigoudens, "true to all their defaults and their few virtues" and abalamour eo kaletoh or penn eged kerniel an diaoul ruz (with the head harder than the horns of the red devil).

Ivan Sache, 24 October 2004