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Savoy (Traditional province, France)


Last modified: 2019-01-14 by ivan sache
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Flag of Savoy - Image by Arnaud Leroy, 11 July 2000

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History of Savoy

The region known today as Savoy was conquered by the Roman Consul Domitius Ahenobarbus in 122-118 BP, and incorporated into the Provincia narbonensis. Among the local Gallic tribes, the Allobroges resisted to the invaders until the conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar.
In 380, the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus (c. 330 - c. 400) coined the word Sabaudia, or Sapaudia, which is the origin of the name of Savoy. However, the meaning of the word Sabaudia and the exact limits of the region, as meant Ammianus, are unknown.

Very little is known on Savoy before the Middle Ages due to the lack of written sources and archeological remains. In 443, Burgundian tribes defeated by the Roman General Aetius (d. 454) were allowed to settle in Savoy and conversion of the region to Christianity began. The capital of the Burgundian kingdom was Geneva. King Gondebaut unified the Kingdom between 480 and 500, while his son Sigismond rebuilt the St. Peter cathedral in Geneva and founded in 515 the abbey of Saint-Maurice d'Agaune in Valais.
In 534, the sons of Clovis, King of the Franks, conquered the Kingdom of Burgundy, which was incorporated to the Merovingian kingdom. A new Burgundian kingdom appeared, which was in permanent struggle with its neighbours, the Alamans and the Lombards. This period was characterized by the dispersion of power and the emergence of strong local rulers, such as the bishop of Geneva and the abbot of Agaune.
In 843, Charlemagne's Empire was shared by the Treaty of Verdun, Savoy being allocated to Lotharingia, the median part of the former Empire. Lotharingia was rapidly dismembered. The southern part of Savoy was incorporated to the Kingdom of Provence, whereas its northern part was incorporated in 888 to the Kingdom of Transjurane Burgundy. The two kingdoms were merged in 947.

Rodolphe III, the last King of Burgundy, died in 1032, and the German Emperor Konrad II inherited the Burgundian kingdom. Humbert Blanches-Mains (White-Hands), a local lord of Burgundian origin, maybe already Count of Savoy, wisely supported Konrad and founded a feudal state. The Humbertians had to cope with the Counts of Geneva, rulers of Genevois, whose root Gerold did a bad choice and fought Konrad. The rivalry went off in 1394 with the extinction of the lineage of the Counts of Geneva.
The ascension of the Humbertians in Savoy has been compared to the ascension of the Capetians in Île-de-France. Humbert, and later his son Odon I allied with the Susa family and increased their domain on both sides of the Alps. At the end of the XIth century, Amédée I crossed the river Rhône and ruled Bugey. The princes of Savoy had powerful neighbours: the Dolphin of Viennois, the Count of Geneva, the Duke of Burgundy and the King of France. However, the princes of Savoy were able to preserve the independence of their domain.

Amédée VI (1343-1383, aka the Green Count) incorporated Faucigny to Savoy in 1355 and accepted the homage of the Count of Geneva. In 1365, he proclaimed himself perpetual and hereditary Vicar of the German Emperor, which placed Savoy under the official protection of the Empire and allowed Amédée to accept the homage of all the bishops of the region located between Grenoble and Geneva. His son Amédée VII (1383-1391, aka the Red Count) incorporated the County of Nice to Savoy in 1388.
When Amédée VIII (1391-1440) was erected Duke in 1416, the Duchy of Savoy included Faucigny, Bresse, the Duchy of Chablais, the Duchy of Aosta (now in Italy), the Bishop's castle of l'Île in Geneva, Moudon (now in Switzerland), a great part of the Country of Bern (now in Switzerland), Nice and Genevois (Albanais, Annecy and Saint-Julien).
Amédée bought in 1401 the County of Geneva and eventually incorporated Piedmont (now in Italy) to Savoy. Amédée created a Resident Council and a Chamber of Accounting, and issued the Statuta Sabaudia, a compendium of laws and administrative texts. In 1439, Amédée VIII was elected Pope, as Felix V, by the Council of Basle. Considered as an anti-Pope, he resigned ten years later in order to help the solution of the Great Western Schism, ending his life as Bishop of Geneva and Pontifical Legate.
At that time, Savoy controlled the roads and passes of the Alps to Italy, so that the Duke of Savoy was nicknamed "the gatekeeper of the Alps".

From 1439 to 1536, Savoy was ruled by young and unexperienced dukes. Charles III (1504-1553), François I's oncle and Charles V's brother-in-law, took the Austrian party. Geneva allied with Bern and Fribourg and forbid the Catholic religion in 1535. The Bishopric of Geneva was transferred to Annecy, which became one of the capitals of the Counter-Reformation. François I invaded Savoy in 1536, while Valais invaded the Country of Evian and Bern invaded Chablais and a great part of Genevois. Having lost his entire domain, Charles III ran away to Vercelli, in Piedmont.
In 1559, the Duchy of Savoy was restored by the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis, with Emmanuel-Philibert as the Duke. He created in Chambéry a Senate, on the model of the French parliaments, and set up an organized tax system to support the rebuilding of the state. Chablais, the Country of Gex and the Bailiwicks of Ternier and Gaillard were reincorporated to Savoy in 1567. Believing that Chambéry was too close to the borders and threatened by potential invaders, Emmanuel-Philibert transfered the capital of the Duchy to Turin, in Piedmont, in 1556. Savoy became the province au-delà des monts (beyond the mounts).

Charles-Emmanuel I attempted to be the champion of Catholicism and had big political ambitions. Accordingly, King of France Henri IV invaded Savoy in 1600. Next year, the Duke had to exchange Bresse, Bugey, the Country of Gex and Valromey againt the tiny Marquisate of Saluzzo. In 1602, an assault against Geneva totally failed (the episode is known as l'Escalade) and Savoy had to definitively recognize in 1603 the independence of Geneva (Treaty of Saint-Julien).
Saint Francis of Sales (1567-1622) founded the Académie Florimontane in 1606 and the Order of Visitation in 1610, with Sainte Jeanne-de-Chantal. Appointed Bishop of Geneva-Annecy, he reestablished Catholicism in Chablais. He is also considered as a main theologian and writer, probably one of the best users of the French language. In the XVIIth century, Savoy was under permanent French threat. France occupied the Duchy in 1690-1696 and 1703-1713. By the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), Victor-Amédée II (1675-1730) was granted the Kingdom of Sicily, which he exchanged in 1718 against the Kingdom of Sardinia. Under Charles-Emmanuel III, Savoy was occupied and plundered by the Spanish armies (War of Austrian Succession, 1742-1749).
However, the borders of the Duchy were stabilized and the organization of the state improved. The Dukes of Savoy, especially Victor-Amédée II, were considered as examples of wise princes, as opposed to their extravagant neighbours, the Kings of France. Victor-Amédée reorganized the administration and appointed provincial Intendants, placed the municipalities under his control, and compiled the laws in the Royales Constitutions. Charles-Emmanuel III founded the cadastral survey in 1738, whereas Victor-Amédée III organized the redemption of the feudal rights in 1771.

Victor-Amédée III could not prevent the revolutionary ideas to spread to Savoy. A French army commanded by General de Montesquiou entered Chambéry on 24 September 1792. The local Assemblée des Allobroges asked the incorporation of Savoy to France, which was ratified by the Convention on 27 November 1792.
Savoy was incorporated to France on 20 October 1793, as the Department of Mont-Blanc. However, the religious intransigence exported by the revolutionaries was not accepted, and uprisings took place in Thônes and Annecy in 1793. The King of Sardinia attempted a military reconquest, to no avail. In 1798, Geneva was annexated by the Directoire and became the capital of the Department of Léman.
Savoy was administratively reorganized during the First Empire. After the fall of Napoléon I, Savoy was once again occupied by the Austrian troops. The eastern part of Savoy was returned to the King of Sardinia. Victor-Emmanuel could recover his complete Kingdom after the Congress of Vienna (1816). By the Treaty of Turin (1816), 24 villages were ceded to Geneva in order to form the enclaved Canton of Geneva. The north of Savoy was made a neutral zone: in case of war with France or Sardinia, the Swiss would be allowed to occupy this zone.

The 1815-1860 period was ironically nicknamed the Buon Governo (Good Government). Whereas everywhere in Europe progressive and nationalist ideas popped up, Savoy was a kind of anachronical enclave where a paternalist absolutism was maintained. While Charles-Félix (1823-1831) preserved all the ancient laws, Charles-Albert attempted to modernize the institutions but waited until 1848 to edict a Statuto, based on the French charte of 1815. Under Victor-Emmanuel II, the House of Savoy abandoned its remote province and concentrated on the unification of Italy. Count Cavour (1852-1859) developed an anti-clerical and free-trade policy. In Savoy, the conservatives opposed Cavour whereas most of the population was attracted by neighbouring France.

Since Savoy was nothing but a remote province of the Kingdom of Sardinia, the representatives from Savoy asked for "the complete autonomy of Savoy, a country which in the past conquered Piedmont and does not want to remain its vassal anymore".
Cavour and Napoléon III set up an alliance against Austria, by the secrete agreement signed in Plombières on 21 July 1858. After the battle of Solferino, the Treaty of Turin (24 March 1860) prescribed the incorporation of Nice and Savoy to France. In order to fight against pro-Swiss feelings in Chablais and Faucigny, a "great free zone" (grande zone franche) was proposed for the north of the country.
A plebiscite organized on 22-23 April 1860 ratified (99.8% voted "yes") the incorporation of Savoy to France, with the preservation of the free zone. The official act of annexation was signed on 14 June in the castle of Chambéry. The next day, an Imperal Decree created the Departments of Savoie and Haute-Savoie.
The new border between France and Italy followed the watershed, leaving the French-speaking valleys of Piedmont and Aosta in Italy. In 1945, General de Gaulle attempted to incorporate the Val d'Aosta to France, to no avail.


  • Jacques Lovie. Savoie (Etats de la maison de). Encyclopaedia Universalis 20, 635-637
  • Guide Gallimard Haute-Savoie, section Histoire, mostly written by Paul Guichonnet, an historian author of reference books on the history of Savoy

Ivan Sache, 4 January 2004

Flag of Savoy

The flag of Savoy, red with a white cross, is a banner of its traditional arms, De gueules à la croix d'argent ("Gules a cross argent"), locally called "The Cross of Savoy" (la croix de Savoie).
The arms of Savoy have probably the same origin as the flag of the Sovereign Order of Malta. The flag may have been given by the Pope to Amédée of Savoy, when he was sent to fight the "Infidels" in the eastern part of the Mediterranean sea. A link with the Crusades is also possible.

Ivan Sache & Pascal Vagnat, 4 January 2004

Erroneous flag of Savoy

[Erroneous flag of Savoy]

Erroneous flag of Savoy - Image by Ivan Sache, 17 May 2004

A red flag with the coat of arms of Savoy bordered in black can be purchased for five euros in souvenir shops in Annecy.
Such a flag should never, ever, be considered as "the" flag of Savoy. The real flag of Savoy can be seen everywhere there, especially in Annecy, and is a simple and elegant banner of arms, a white cross on a red field. I cannot see any good reason but commercial to produce "another" flag of Savoy.

Ivan Sache, 17 May 2004