ORIGIN OF CITY NAMES – The drafting of Figaro invites you to rediscover each week the origin of the names of French cities. Today, we are talking about the ocean gate, aptly named Le Havre.
Five hundred years. This is an anniversary that is being celebrated for the city moored between earth and sky! Former royal city, cradle of the greatest writers of our beautiful country, from Madeleine de Scudéry to Raymond Queneau via Bernardin de Saint-Pierre and Casimir Delavigne, the “defensive gate of Paris” stands out as one of the main ports of France, after Marseilles.
Le Havre. City like no other, city of a thousand chimneys, formerly named François-de-Grâce… The ocean metropolis has a thousand and one stories. But why is Le Havre called Le Havre?
Let’s go back in time for a moment. We are in 1517. The world has just entered a new era: that of the Great Discoveries. A few years earlier, Christopher Columbus revealed to the eyes of the world a new continent called America while Vasco da Gama crossed the deadly cape of the Storms (today that of Good Hope) and exhibited many treasures of Calicut, in India. The major powers are becoming aware of the high economic, strategic and military value of the oceans. To become the master of the waters is not only to take the lead in the maritime routes but to take possession of all that derives from them, such as precious metals for the Spaniards and spices, pepper and cinnamon for the Portuguese.
Francis I, in a state of grace
As announced by Pope Alexander Borgia in 1493, the world was then divided between the hands of the Portuguese and the Spaniards. Because, at that time, if France emerged victorious from the great land battle of Marignan, it was however lagging behind on the oceans. In 1517, as brilliantly reminded by Michel Vergé-Franceschi, professor of modern history in Tours in his book Le Havre is 500 years old, François I, then in Milan, realizes that “Brittany is not there for him. Brest, Nantes, Saint-Malo belong to a duchy foreign to the kingdom of France. […] The king-knight, far from Provence, has really only two coasts which allow him to open his land kingdom, rich, populated and fertile, on the oceanic world: Poitou, Charente, Aquitaine, and, further north, Normandy.”
But do not see there, the catastrophic management of the kingdom of France! Because, facing his Spanish rival Carlos I, François I is “in a state of grace”. His victory at Marignan, his negotiation of a concordat with Pope Leo X soon establishing him as “master of the Gallican Church” and the nomination of Leonardo da Vinci as “first painter, engineer and architect”, made him already become legendary, as noted by Jean-Baptiste Gastinne, doctor of history from the University of Paris IV Sorbonne in his book Le Havre, a renaissance dream. François I knows that to establish his power in History, it is necessary to fix it in stone.
A haven of peace named Le Havre
So, while the king dreamed of creating the ideal city and his kingdom suffered the threat of two new ports: Portsmouth and Plymouth founded by the Tudor, Henry VIII, Francis I ordered by a letter of commission to the Admiral of France Bonnivet, February 5, 1517, the construction of a haven. The goal? Make it the “(defensive) gate of Paris” and a place capable of “keeping in safety the ships and vessels of us and our navigating subjects in the ocean sea”. In short, a “haven of peace”. Thus was created the ancestor of our city of Le Havre!
To establish this new “shelter”, this new “haven”, in short this new “port”, François I designated the place called Grace. A small cove sheltered from storms and swells which will have the particularity of having a high tide conducive to casting off. But not only! It will also be, because of its chapel called Notre-Dame de Grâce, the place where fishermen and sailors can “give thanks” for this protective “Haven”. Thus the new inhabited cove will be called “Bassin du Roy” during the urbanization of the city in the 1540s, but also “Havre-de-Grâce” and “François-de-Grâce”. The name of Le Havre for its part quite naturally derives from its ecosystem and its historical past some three centuries ago.
This is the end of our story!