Beautiful La Rochelle is today a peaceful city that sits comfortably on the southwestern coast of France and attracts tourists with its waters glittering in the sun. But La Rochelle wasn’t always so peaceful. Four hundred years ago, it was besieged upon order from King Louis XIII and his right-hand man, Cardinal Richelieu. More than a story worthy of Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, the Siege of La Rochelle was part of a larger conflict that opposed Roman Catholics and Protestants. With help from the King of England, the Huguenots of La Rochelle rebelled in a hard-fought battle for its religious freedom before the city’s representatives were forced to capitulate.
Independent Calvinist La Rochelle Before the Siege
A city sitting on the Atlantic Ocean, La Rochelle was a prosperous port. Thanks to its prime location on the water, it had been a trade hub, mostly of salt and wine, ever since the Middle Ages. Following the establishment of the corps de ville, the Rochelais had earned themselves freedom from royal interference by Guillaume X, the Duke of Aquitaine, as early as 1137 (See Further Reading, Emily Huber, 2014, p. 41).
La Rochelle’s walls, too, acted as literal barriers to the French King’s authority (See Further Reading, Emily Huber, 2014, p. 42). Its municipal government acted independently from the monarchy, though they were on good terms thanks to La Rochelle’s economically significant location on the ocean. The city was not entirely autonomous from the French Crown’s political power, yet it was independent in its own right.
La Rochelle’s identity – as a port city and as a walled city – differed from that of the rest of France. During the 16th century, the members of the corps de ville, the noblemen, and the prosperous merchants of La Rochelle converted to Calvinism. The city became known as a bastion of Protestantism, though it was never imposed upon the lower classes.
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Only the Siege of La Rochelle would rein in this independent Calvinist city and fully absorb it into what we now know as modern France.
The Huguenots & The Religious Wars: What Caused the Siege of La Rochelle?
For centuries before the Revolution, French religious history was fraught with tensions. Catholicism predominated in France ever since the reign of Emperor Charlemagne. The Catholic Church influenced the nobility, became the largest landowner in the kingdom, and oversaw hospitals and the education system. Meanwhile, religious minorities struggled to prosper in France, where politics and the Catholic Church were so closely intertwined.
One of these minority religious groups was the Huguenots, or Calvinists, who followed the teachings of Jean Calvin at the time of the Protestant Reformation. Prosperous times and persecutions awaited France’s Protestants. The St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572 was the kingdom’s most infamous religious slaughter. Following this three-day-long massacre, during which 4,000 people died in Paris, many Huguenots emigrated to Protestant countries such as the United Provinces of the Netherlands.
Following the signing of the Edict of Nantes by Henri IV in 1598, the end of the religious wars seemed in sight. Yet, neither Catholics nor Huguenots were satisfied with the Edict. Sharing the kingdom with “heretics” didn’t appeal to Catholic conservatives, while discontentment grew among Huguenot leaders since the Edict treated them as second-class citizens.
When King Henri IV was assassinated in 1610 by a Catholic supporter, the peace he had established became more fragile than ever. The Regent Queen, Marie de Medici, was closely tied with Catholic Spain, and violence started again under the reign of her son, Louis XIII.
Louis XIII waged religious wars against the Huguenots between 1621 and 1629, and these conflicts culminated in the Siege of La Rochelle.
Who Opposed La Rochelle? The Political Partnership Between Louis XIII & Cardinal Richelieu
Striving to take advantage of the political instability that followed King Louis XIII’s rise to power against his own mother, who wanted to keep the throne of France for herself, the Huguenots rebelled first in 1621. The rebellion was squashed in 1622. That same year, Louis XIII reconciled with his mother, Marie de Medici, who proposed her own supporter as an advisor to the King: Cardinal Richelieu.
Louis XIII’s association with the Church legitimized his reign. This was especially apparent with his incredibly close political relationship with Cardinal Richelieu. In 1624, King Louis XIII invited Armand Jean du Plessis, also known as Cardinal and Duc de Richelieu, to be part of his royal council (See Further Reading, Pat Glossop, 1990, p. 44), of which Richelieu quickly became the head. The 22-year-old Louis XIII was young and inexperienced, and he, at first, distrusted Richelieu as his mother’s associate.
With his keen eye for politics and his iron fist in handling political instability, Richelieu made himself the king’s loyal servant and became the most powerful man in all of France (See Further Reading, Pat Glossop, 1990, p. 49). King Louis XIII aimed to establish an absolutist monarchy in France, and the Huguenots stood in his way. According to Richelieu, the Huguenots threatened Louis XIII’s authority within the borders of his own kingdom, as they acted as a country within a country (See Further Reading, Pat Glossop, 1990, p. 52).
This was when Richelieu became especially interested in the case of La Rochelle.
La Rochelle & England, A Long Tradition of Allyship
Even before the Siege, La Rochelle, with its prime location on the Atlantic Ocean, had always been caught in the middle between England and France (See Further Reading, Emily Huber, 2014, p. 42). It came into the hands of the English after the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine to King Henry II of England in 1154, was taken back by France under Louis VIII, and so on and so forth, until La Rochelle fell back under French control under Charles V in 1372.
Even then, collaboration with the French kings wasn’t always easy, as the corps de ville’s independence was taken away and famine struck the city under François I. The Rochelais kept their independent spirit. Eventually, the town council was put back into place, but these quarrels for domination of the city only announced what was yet to come in 1627. As La Rochelle became a bastion of Protestantism following the Reformation, England’s attention turned back to La Rochelle once more. Agents of Protestant England were spotted in the city, and word of a Huguenot invasion helped by France’s mortal enemy reached the ears of King Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu (See Further Reading, Pat Glossop, 1990, p. 53).
When an English naval fleet was spotted off the shores of La Rochelle in July 1627, the Huguenots rebelled, and the city truly became a fortress (See Further Reading, Pat Glossop, 1990, p. 54). This gave Richelieu the pretext he needed to start the Siege of La Rochelle.
The Beginning of the Siege of La Rochelle
In July 1627, Cardinal Richelieu gathered the king’s troops, formed a makeshift navy, and sent his men by ship to the rebelling city (See Further Reading, Pat Glossop, 1990, p. 54). La Rochelle was cut off from the outside world by an army of 7,000 men, 600 horses, and 24 cannons. Military camps were set up in all nearby villages and towns to prevent supplies from reaching the city. Thirty-thousand men were stationed around La Rochelle, surrounding it and trapping its inhabitants inside.
On the water, 200 ships and 6,000 men arrived at the port. The English fleet, which had been spotted off the shore of La Rochelle and had encouraged the Huguenot rebellion in the city, was bombarded first. Alarmed and distressed, the English naval fleet retreated and thus left the Rochelais alone to fight against Richelieu’s army.
The citizens of La Rochelle prepared to bunker down and wait. The French army didn’t have enough soldiers or resources to take the fortified city by land. Meanwhile, the fleet Richelieu sent was too weak in numbers to attack the harbor directly. Instead, for days, Richelieu and the King instructed their men to pick up their pickaxes and build a dam between La Rochelle and the open ocean. With the city isolated, the siege of La Rochelle began.
When the English Came to Aid La Rochelle
Because of its historical links with England, its position as a bastion of Protestantism, and its prime location on the Atlantic Ocean, King Charles I wanted to free La Rochelle. In the spring, the King of England sent an expedition to La Rochelle in hopes of bringing supplies and provisions to the city.
The King’s fleet arrived in the port of La Rochelle in May 1627. The navy consisted of 84 ships, led by the Duke of Buckingham, and had been acquired with help from the Venetian Ambassador. The ships were loaded with 10,000 men, battering rams, landing trains, lodging materials, scaling ladders, guns, and cannons, among other weapons and materials of war. As for supplies, the English ships brought along cows, sheep, chickens, musical instruments, bedding, and an outfit for the Duke of Buckingham to wear once he freed the city.
Unfortunately for La Rochelle, that wasn’t meant to be. Buckingham’s army was deterred by King Louis XIII’s and Cardinal Richelieu’s dike (See Further Reading, Pat Glossop, 1990, p. 55). Aided by 800 Rochelais, the fleet landed at the Ile de Ré. The English tried to take the fortification in order to bypass the dike that isolated La Rochelle’s harbor. Yet, the Duke of Buckingham never succeeded.
By October 1627, after 15 days of battle, Buckingham failed to take Fort St-Martin-de-Ré as the winter weather started to set in. He took his men and left La Rochelle for the last time. The naval fleet returned home, its cargo intact, and La Rochelle continued its efforts to the point of exhaustion.
Life during the Siege of La Rochelle
Inside the medieval walls of La Rochelle, two sides ideologically battled each other. One side, led by the mayor Jean Guiton, wanted to never surrender against Louis XIII’s and Richelieu’s army. The other side, led by a few politicians, preferred to capitulate. Strong in numbers, Mayor Jean Guiton’s faction won out for the longest time.
The Siege of La Rochelle lasted for 14 months, from 1627 to 1628. Although the Rochelais were well-prepared to keep the fort, supplies and food eventually started to run out. Deemed as too many mouths to feed, women, children, and elderly people were evicted from the city. They were shot by the French army upon leaving. Survivors wandered the countryside in search of sanctuary but found none among the villages and towns turned military camps.
The Rochelais died outside and inside their city walls. Starvation soon took over La Rochelle. Those who had stayed to fight ate every animal available for survival, from horses to cats and dogs. By July 1628, famine reigned in the city. Tens of thousands of Rochelais died as casualties from starvation and disease (See Further Reading, Emily Huber, 2014, p. 47). Bodies were strewn across the streets. The city population declined from 27,000 to a mere 5,000 following the Siege. It was a veritable massacre.
The Capitulation of La Rochelle
Eventually, La Rochelle had to surrender. On October 26th, 1628, a little over a year after the beginning of the siege, Mayor Jean Guiton and his corps de ville capitulated. On All Saints’ Day 1628, Louis XIII, accompanied by Cardinal Richelieu, his council members, and his marshals, passed through the city walls, triumphant on his horse as the King of France took back La Rochelle (See Further Reading, David Parker, 1980, pp. 6 & 121). Cannons, on land and sea, were fired in celebration.
Following the end of the siege, the Rochelais were ordered to convert to Catholicism. The Protestant temple was transformed into a cathedral, and the Huguenots were no longer allowed within the city walls. La Rochelle itself was stripped of its military status as awarded by the Edict of Nantes, and the weakened Huguenot community, so intrinsically linked with the economic prosperity of La Rochelle, was now dependent upon the French crown. Thus, the times of La Rochelle as a bastion of French Protestantism were over, and its citizens were now majority Catholic, as demanded by the King of France and Richelieu themselves.
What Happened to the Huguenots After the Siege of La Rochelle?
Following the end of the Siege of La Rochelle, the Huguenots of France again started to flee their home country, just like they had done previously before the establishment of the Edict of Nantes. Many fled to the Netherlands, England, and the English colonies in North America. As Louis XIII was succeeded by his son, Louis XIV, this wave of emigration reached its peak with the signing of the Edict of Fontainebleau, which revoked the Edict of Nantes entirely.
The situation in France would only turn in favor of the Huguenots during the French Revolution. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen took effect on August 26th, 1789, giving the Protestants of France freedom of conscience. In 1790, the exiled Huguenots were granted French nationality wherever they had settled down, and in 1791, the new Constitution finally allowed the Protestants of France freedom of worship.
What Was the Battle of Kings & Frenchmen during the Siege of La Rochelle?
The Siege of La Rochelle was heavily fictionalized in Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers as a lover’s quarrel between the Duke of Buckingham and Cardinal Richelieu for Queen Anne of Austria’s affections. In reality, this tragic military blockade was part of a long history of religious wars that shook France to its foundations.
La Rochelle’s history of rebellion followed a tumultuous rivalry between French and English Kings, as the city was caught between the two. The Rochelais fought for their freedom, even without the help of the English, though the Duke of Buckingham and his men tried to come to their aid. Even if the Rochelais had to capitulate after 14 months of resistance, La Rochelle still has a reputation as a city of rebels. Its medieval walls stand to this day to tell the tale of the besieged city that was the last bastion of Calvinist Protestantism in Catholic France.
Huber, E., 2014, “Beyond the Walls: Walled Cities of Medieval France: The Preservation of Heritage and Cultural Memory at Carcassonne, Aigues-Mortes, and La Rochelle,” Honors Theses, College of Saint Benedict/Saint John’s University, St. Joseph. Accessible online:
Glossop, Pat. Cardinal Richelieu, New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1990. Accessible online:
Parker, David. La Rochelle and the French monarchy: conflict and order in seventeenth-century France, London: Royal Historical Society, 1980. Accessible online: