Saint-Jean-de-Luz's Short History
Saint Jean de Luz - called in the local Basque language Donibane Lohitzun - is an old fisher's town situated on the Atlantic coast, near the Frenco-Spanish border.
The town belongs to what was in olden times the Labourd region, the most western part of the "Pays Basque" of France.
The first written evidence of the town's existance dates from the 11th century when a parish named "Santus Johannes de Luis" is mentioned as belonging to the Viscount of Labourd. From the middle of the 12th century until the middle of the 15th century Saint Jean de Luz together with the whole region and indeed the whole Aquitaine belonged to the English crown. The English domination terminated here towards the end of the Hundred Years Wars in 1451 when the French armies captured Bordeaux and Bayonne regions.
During the late middle ages of the town of Saint Jean de Luz was living from fishing related activities and the 14th century marked the beginning of a prosperous period owing to the whale hunt and later the commerce with the New World over the Atlantic Ocean.
It is the opinion of the association “Lapurdi 1609-2009” that it is due to the fur commerce with the natives of Newfoundland that terrible events took place in Saint Jean de Luz and its region in the summer and fall of 1609.
The facts are well documented and part of the French history. At the end of June 1609 two plenipotentiary emissaries of King Henri IV, Jean d’Espagnet –the investigation supervisor - and Pierre de Lancre – the investigator - arrived in Bayonne to judge mutual witchcraft accusation between two clans of Labourd region.
Pierre de Lancre will write later a book about his activity in Labourd.
Arriving in this faraway from the capital province, at the time only since one and a half century under the French crown, Pierre de Lancre found not only that many locals were speaking a different language (Basque) but had also different customs. People were named after the houses they live in, there was the custom of “trial marriage” that was giving women unusual freedom, the custom of the youngsters to swim together in the ocean summarily dressed. All these strange habits and even the beauty of women were all interpreted as evil inspired practices or witchcraft associated practices and features.
De Lancre started a process of speedy interrogations and witchcraft accusations that sent in only few months between 80, according to the most optimistic estimation, and 600 to 700 people to death by burning at stake.
The investigator left Labourd region only in late fall 1609 when the sailors trading with the New World returned home and chased him out!
In their book “Proces de sorcellerie en Labourd” the association “Lapurdi 1609-2009” expresses its opinion that the terror brought on by Pierre de Lancre was King’s Henri IV way not only to enforce his authority in the region, but also to punish the sailors for their Canadian fur trade, trade that Henri wanted to make the monopoly of his North American envoy Pierre Du Gua de Monts.
17th century in Saint-Jean-de-Luz was marked also by the happy event of the marriage on June 9, 1660 of King Louis XIV to Infanta Marie-Therese of Austria, the oldest daughter of King Philip IV of Spain (the Habsburg and Spanish crowns being united since Charles V inherited from his parents both thrones!). Saint-Jean-de-Luz, a flourishing town, was chosen for the religious marriage celebration because of its Franco-Spanish border location and because of its proximity to the Pheasant Island (now belonging to Hendaye town) where the peace treaty called "Treaty of the Pyrenees" was signed between France and Spain on the 7th of November 1559. The marriage was celebrated in the Saint Jean the Baptist church that still stands in the center of the town (the door the royal couple entered the church was afterwards blocked so nobody else could ever use it!).
To thank for its hospitality, Louis XIV, granted the town some tax exemptions for a period of 30 years.
During 17th and 18th centuries Saint Jean de Muz becomes famous or rather infamous because of the activity of its corsairs. So bad was their reputation that the town became known as the"vipers' nest". The most famous among them was Johannès de Suhigaraychipi aka Coursic. His fame and adventures reached even the ears of the king: in a letter addressed to King Louis XIV, Duke de Grammont states that "Your Majesty can go from Saint-Jean-de-Luz to Ciboure (separted by Nivelle River) without wetting your feet, by taking the bridge formed by the ships captured by Coursic".
In 1686 Marshal Vauban visited Saint Jean de Luz and decided to partially close the bay with two sea walls. He also took the decision to reinforce Fort Socoa. Due to limited finances only the project of the reinforcement of Socoa was undertaken.
The sea wall project was retaken in 1854 when Emperor Napoleon III visited the city and was besieged by the complaints from the local population who had to endure the sea entering the city during each storm. The works started 1864 and finished 12 years later in 1876.
Flooding or not, staring from the end of the 18th century the fashion of sea bathing makes its appearance in Saint Jean de Luz.
In 1843 the Municipal Council establishes a “Sea Bathing Society” that proposes 60 cabins, and music and reading spaces.
At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th Saint Jean de Luz becomes, along with Biarritz, the sea resort of choice for the European aristocracy.