One of my favourite places in Poitiers is Place de la Liberté, a tree-lined square just off Rue René Descartes. Although it is only a few hundred metres from the site of the main market in Place Charles de Gaulle, it’s a peaceful little place in which to sit and while away a few minutes. If you are lucky you can watch a game of boules being played. There used to be an attractive-looking bar, L’Auberge du Pilori, in one corner of the square, but this closed just months before we got here and at present shows no sign of reopening. While the closing of a bar is nearly always a cause for regret, I suspect that my guardian angel might have had something to do with this, as a few minutes might too often have turned into a few hours sitting on its terrace.
The rest of the square consists mainly of private housing. The Poitiers conservatoire is nearby, which probably accounts for the one or two places offering music lessons. At no. 3 there is the workshop of Laurent Gayraud, a luthier (a stringed instrument maker).
Despite its tranquil air, Place de la Liberté has had its share of excitement over the centuries. Designated as the city marketplace by Eleanor of Aquitaine in the mid-twelfth century, it was given the name Place du Pilori in 1307 to mark the spot where common criminals were paraded for public humiliation and, quite often, physical abuse. During the Hundred Years War, the whole area was razed to the ground by the English in 1346.
In the accounts I’ve come across so far, there is some disagreement about the date of the next significant event in the Place’s history – that of the exploding mule. In either 1733 or 1775, depending which report you read, a mule driver who was transporting sacks of gunpowder had stopped for a drink in L’Auberge du Pilori. The animal, waiting outside, had grown impatient and started pounding its feet on the cobbles. Unfortunately, a spark from one of its hooves ignited the gunpowder, sending the poor beast sky-high. All the reports agree that, almost miraculously, the mule was the only casualty of the disaster. They also record that one of the animal’s legs went through a window and landed in the bedroom of the Provost Marshal – a police superintendent in today’s terms. It presumably made a good story down at the nick. ‘There I was, lying in bed minding my own business when …’
A horseshoe was embedded into the wall of the house as a memorial to the incident and it is still there to this day. I have to say that this this seems a little uninspired to me. You would think the least they could have done would be to change the name of the Auberge to The Flying Horse.
With the coming of the Revolution in 1789, the Place du Pilori became the site of the local guillotine, and some thirty people met their death there over the next five years. However, the most famous execution, the one that was to give the Place its current name, happened some time later, in 1822.
Jean-Baptiste Breton was one of Napoleon’s most respected generals, serving throughout all his major campaigns from 1805, up to and including Waterloo in 1815. After Napoleon’s defeat and exile, Breton was a leading member of a group of ex-officers plotting first for the return of the emperor and then, after his death, for the enthronement of his son, the Duke of Reichstadt, as Napoleon II. In February 1822, Breton was tricked by agents provocateurs into leading an abortive coup attempt at Saumur. He was then tried and condemned to death by a royal court in Poitiers, and guillotined on October 22nd.
Breton’s dying words were Vive la liberté! Vive la France! and in 1900 the municipal council put up a commemorative plaque and renamed the square Place de la Liberté in his honour. A fund was started by republicans and the local masonic lodge in order to erect a monument, and on Bastille Day 1903 a scale replica of the original Statue of Liberty was erected in the centre of Place de la Liberté. This is generally seen as a riposte to the Catholic Church’s building of Notre Dame des Dunes in 1876, itself a political act of expiation for the republican ‘sins’ of 1870 (see last week’s blog). One thing that can be said for conducting politics by statuary is that it does tend to slow things down to a leisurely pace.
I think the statue, which stands 2.9 metres high, is very handsome in this setting. On the front of its pedestal is a dedication: Aux défenseurs de la liberté and on its side a quote from Montesquieu: Quand l’innocence des citoyens n’est pas assurée, la liberté ne l’est pas non plus (‘When the innocence of the citizens is not guaranteed, neither is their freedom’). While this is obviously of relevance to Breton, the words will have a greater resonance to a France still coming to terms with the consequences of the Dreyfus affair.
It’s seen some changes in its 117 years of existence, as the following pictures (mostly supplied by my friend Véronique) will show. Its original globe disappeared for many years, and this was replaced for a while by a strange suppository-like device. In 2014 the local council funded a replacement globe, which is a definite improvement, though I think it’s just a little too large. Sadly, it doesn’t light up at night, and I have pledged that if ever I win the Lottery jackpot I will personally fund its illumination.