Tours, the City of St-Martin

Tours, the former capital of Touraine, suffered massive destruction during WWII. 

Medieval city of Tours
Medieval city of Tours

The historical district, however, was rebuilt stone by stone around the Basilica of Saint-Martin.

Tours is considered the cradle of French Christianity and remained for centuries under the patronage of the kings of France.

It also remained the focus of the territorial disputes that opposed the French to the English during the Middle Ages.

An important University Town, present day Tours is also a major trade centre for the Centre-Ouest area.

The history of Tours started 2000 years ago…

From a Gallic village, it grew into the Gallo-Roman Caesarodunum – Caesar’s Hill, a prosperous city that spread over 40 hectares.

The inhabitants lived in peace until the barbarian invasions of the 3rd century AD, when they demolished their amphitheatre in order to build a rampart. 

Some remains of this wall are still visible near the cathedral.

Caesarodunum was the centre of the Roman province that included the current Touraine, Maine, Anjou and Brittany regions.

The city was renamed Turones in 372AD.

Legend of St. Martin

St. Martin was a Roman legionary who converted to Christianity.

He became famous after splitting his cloak in half and sharing it with a beggar.

City of Tours - Nouvelle Basilique Saint-Martin
Nouvelle Basilique Saint-Martin

St. Martin founded his first monastery in Ligugé in Poitou and became bishop of Tours in 372AD.

Turones became also known as the City of St. Martin.

A talented preacher, he devoted his life converting people, destroying their pagan idols and temples and replacing them with chapels and churches. 

He later built the monastery of Marmoutier near Tours.

St. Martin died in Candé near Saumur in November 397AD.

However, the two monasteries quarrelled about his place of burial!

The monks of Marmoutier stole his coffin during the night while the monks of Ligurgé slept, and brought it back by boat to Tours.

However, a unusual event occurred during this trip. 

The trees on the river banks indeed began to bloom miraculously in the middle of autumn!

Since that time, this phenomenon resulting from exceptional mild temperatures that stimulate very early flowering, has been known as Eté de la St. Martin – S. Martin’s Summer.

A major religious centre under the patronage of the French kings

Medieval city of Tours
Medieval city of Tours

The basilica was erected in 471AD over the tomb of St. Martin.

Circa 496AD, Clovis the first king of France, came to meditate on the tomb of St. Martin. 

He vowed to convert to Christianity if he won his battle against the Germanic tribe Alemanni.

He defeated them in Tolbiac, then the Visigoths in Vouillé near Poitiers.

Clovis was baptised in 498AD. He returned to Tours to give thanks to St. Martin for his victories.

He offered financial and material support to the monastery, starting a long tradition faithfully honoured by its descendants. 

Tours became a prosperous city and an influential religious centre.

Gregory of Tours

Medieval city of Tours
Medieval city of Tours

The city’s prestige increased with the arrival of Grégoire, a young priest born in an aristocratic Gallo-Roman family of Auvergne.

Grégoire suffered from poor health, but was cured after praying at the tomb of St. Martin. 

As a result, he devoted his life to the saint, and settled in the Abbey of Tours where he became bishop 10 years later.

A man of religion, but also a historian, Gregory of Tours  (538-594) wrote several books.

His History of the Franks is still the primary source of information on the Merovingian dynasty!

Alcuin of Tours

Emperor Charlemagne invited the Anglo-Saxon monk Alcuin to Tours in 796AD.

Alcuin enhanced the prestige of the abbey.

 He indeed reformed the monastic school and founded the university, which attracted students from all Europe.

Tours the City of St. Martin had therefore become a major intellectual and artistic centre. 

It kept thriving after the death of Alcuin in 804AD.

A religious council met in Tours few years later and ruled that the Bible should be written in French instead of Latin, in order to reach a wider audience. 

This masterpiece is known as Bible of Alcuin.

Hugues Capet, Honorary abbot of St. Martin

The Norman invasions of the 9th century put an end to this brilliant era.

City of Tours - Nouvelle Basilique Saint-Martin
Nouvelle Basilique Saint-Martin

The city was sacked. The relics of St. Martin, however, were safely transported to Auvergne.

By the beginning of the 10th century, the new town of Martinopolis (the future Châteauneuf) had developed outside the cathedral’s enclosure.

In 987, Hugues Capet (941-996), Count of Orléans and Honorary abbot of St. Martin, was elected King of the Kingdom of France. 

He took his surname from St. Martin’s cloak (Cappa in Latin).

His descendants honoured their role as protectors of the Christian Church. 

They endowed the abbey with generous donations of money and fiefdoms and allowed it therefore to remain a major spiritual and intellectual centre.

Tragically, the abbey and Martinopolis were completely destroyed by fire in 997.

A city in the heart of the French-English conflict

The County of Tours became English when the Count of Anjou Henry II Plantagenêt became King of England in 1154.

Medieval city of Tours
Medieval city of Tours

In 1025, King Philippe-Auguste re-seized Tours which then entered a long period of prosperity and peace. 

The currency of Tours, the Denier Tournois, even became the official currency of the French Kingdom.

Touraine was formally annexed to the Kingdom of France in 1259.

The 14th and 15th centuries were marked by the terrible Black Death and the Hundred Years War (1337-1453).

In 1429 Joan of Arc sojourned in Tours, while waiting for her armour to be ready.

In 1444, the victorious Charles VII signed the treaty of Tours with Henry VI.

Tours from the Wars of Religion to the French Revolution

During the 16th century, Protestant ideology attracted the city’s intellectuals, artists and craftsmen.

City of Tours - Tour Charlemagne
Tour Charlemagne

However, this religious war ended in a bloodbath, when the Protestants sacked the abbey as the Catholics retaliated.

Once the Wars of Religion over, Henry IV withdrew to Tours with the Parliament and once again made the city the capital of the kingdom.

The city’s demography and economy steadily increased, until the king decided to return to Paris with his Court.

New districts had indeed grown out of the city’s boundaries and a new perimeter wall had been built. 

The current Boulevards Heurteloup and Béranger replace this rampart.

The absence of the royal court had an undeniable negative impact on the political and administrative activity of the city.

Revival of Tours

Local economy was re-launched in the 1850s with the construction of the railway line Tours-Orléans and station at St-Pierre-des-Corps in the city’s eastern outskirts.

The writer Honoré de Balzac, who was born in Tours, made the Loire Valley the main setting for his work, La Comédie Humaine. 

Tours returned momentarily on the front of the political scene when it was chosen as seat of the Government of National Defence from 12th September to 9th December 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War.

The 20th century brought its share of devastation, as the most of the city was bombed during the WWII.

Today, the former capital of the County of Touraine is a large city, which has grown well beyond the limits of the ancient Turones.

Numerous industries, including the manufacture of tires Michelin or the weaver Jacquard, stimulates the city’s prosperity and economy.

An important university town, Tours is also a major trade centre for the Centre-Ouest area.

Place Plumereau, the historic centre of Tours

An extensive rehabilitation program began in the 1970s to recreate the medieval city with its timbered houses, shops, markets (carroi) and Renaissance mansions.

Medieval city of Tours - Place Plumereau
Place Plumereau

1- The lively and pedestrian Place Plumereau is bordered with timbered houses. It is renowned for its Carroi aux Chapeaux – hats market.

2- The nearby Place St-Pierre-le-Puellier was named after the vestiges of the Romanesque church.

3- Excavations have unearthed the foundations of the Gallo-Roman wall erected during the 1st century AD, as well as two cemeteries dating from the 11th and 13th centuries.

4- The 19th century Hôtel Raimbault houses the Musée du Gemmail, which exhibits an unusual collection of non-leaded stained-glass windows.

5- The Centre d’Etudes de Langues Vivantes – Study of Modern Languages was founded in the Maison de Tristan.

City of Tours - Hôtel Gouin
Hôtel Gouin

The 15th century mansion boasts an unusual pierced gable.

6- The facade of the Hôtel Gouin is all that is left of the original 16th century mansion. 

The Hôtel Gouïn was initially designed for a wealthy silk merchant named Gardette.

It was the first private French Renaissance building erected in Touraine. 

The Gouïn, a prosperous family of bankers, bought the mansion in 1738.

The mansions was burned and almost entirely destroyed in 1940.

The vestiges were listed as National Heritage in 1941 and entirely restored from 1950 to 1960. 

It is now home to the Musée Régional d’Archéologie – Regional Museum of Archaeology.

St. Martin Basilica

In the 9th century, the Normans ransacked the chapel erected over St. Martin’s tomb.

City of Tours - Tour de l'Horloge
Tour de l’Horloge

The basilica was erected on the site during the 11th century. It was enlarged during the 13th century, but was sacked by the Protestants during the Wars of Religion.

The ruins were demolished during the 19th century to open the Rue des Halles.

The only remnants of the medieval basilica are the Tour Charlemagne and the Tour de l’Horloge (Clock Tower).

The Byzantine Nouvelle-Basilique-St-Martin was built between 1886 and 1924 on the transept of the old basilica. The shrine of St. Martin was placed in the crypt.

The nearby Chapelle St. Jean houses the Musée St. Martin which relates the story of the basilica.

N.B. It takes a whole day to fully discover the historic city!

Department of Indre-et-Loire
Coordinates Tours: Lat 47.393031 – Long 0.683534

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