Even after 24 years, there are still places in our département I haven’t visited. The small town of Nègrepelisse is one. I was able to rectify this omission this week when I visited for my first Covid jab. It was one of the only places within a 50 km radius that offered plenty of appointments. I wouldn’t normally get so excited about a vaccination, but this was a jaunt outside the lockdown regulation 10 km. We had a lovely drive there and back. The spring green of the trees and fields stood out against the cobalt skies.
Nègrepelisse is situated on a hillock above the River Aveyron. The riverbanks are a pleasant spot, where you can hear the rushing mill race from above. I may be mistaken, but because of its elevated position, the town didn’t seem to suffer as much as some of the riverside towns along the Aveyron – or Montauban itself on the Tarn – during the devastating floods of March 1930.
The area around the town and towards Montauban is flat agricultural plain. It’s only to the East that the rugged Gorges de l’Aveyron begin, presided over by the hilltop villages of Bruniquel and Penne.
Like many such places, Nègrepelisse offers more of interest and a stormier history than one might at first imagine.
First, the name. Why on Earth would you call a place “Black Coat”? In fact, the town was originally named Sieurac and then La Mothe Saint-Pierre dit Nègrepelisse. The latter mouthful was condensed to its current name in 1097.
This odd soubriquet stems from the fact that the plain was once heavily forested. The town’s woodcutters made charcoal, which they sold throughout the area. Since they wore black coats and were covered in charcoal dust, their nickname stuck to the place itself. Of the original Forêt de Tulmont, only strips of woodland remain today.
Nègrepelisse was originally founded around 1070. The land belonged to the Vicomtes de Bruniquel, but they ceded it to the Abbey of Moissac, which established a thriving settlement and benefited from the revenues this brought.
Having witnessed its prosperity, Adhémar of Bruniquel decided he wanted it back. Nègrepelisse appears to have changed hands several times during this period. The Pope intervened on at least one occasion in favour of the monks.
The town later became one of a string of bastide towns created by the Kings of France in the Southwest. This was partly to consolidate their authority in unruly border lands by concentrating the population and partly to encourage economic development. The bastide of Nègrepelisse was created in 1273 under the patronage of the Vicomtes de Bruniquel. It was finally ceded to the Crown in 1285.
Nègrepelisse followed the typical grid pattern, with a large, arcaded market square in the centre.
Many of the buildings you see today were built from the 17th century onwards, since Louis XIII’s troops sacked and burned much of the town in 1622. The architecture is the typical red brick and stucco of the Montauban plain; quite different from our local stone.
Around the time of its establishment as a bastide, a château was built on the original fortifications dominating a bend in the River Aveyron. By the mid-19th century, the château was in ruins, but the commune finally restored it a decade ago. The painter Fragonard (‘The Swing’) stayed there in 1773 and drew a sketch of the château.
Nègrepelisse wasn’t always loyal to the Crown. In common with a number of towns in the area, including Montauban, it was a Calvinist stronghold during the Huguenot rebellions against royal authority in the 1620s.
Royal troops stormed and took Nègrepelisse in August 1621. The Huguenots re-took it four months later and massacred the 400-strong garrison. Not surprisingly, Louis XIII was infuriated. His troops attacked and set fire to the bastide and forced the rebels to surrender.
The survivors asked for mercy, but Louis’ orders were to give no quarter. By their request, the insurgents were hanged from the trees in their own gardens.
The church (already a second construction) was destroyed, although the spire of 1460 remained and is still there today. Apparently, the Archbishop of Paris rapped Louis over the knuckles for his lack of Christian charity towards his subjects.
By the early 19th century, Protestants were tolerated. In 1806, Napoleon decreed that the Protestants of Nègrepelisse could build a Temple of worship. The first two efforts were disasters of shoddy workmanship. Finally, the architect Jules Bourdais was commissioned to built a third Temple, which was inaugurated in 1870. It’s now a Monument Historique.
Unusually, Nègrepelisse is one of the few places whose population has grown since World War II. At its lowest point in 1921, the town had 2, 051 inhabitants. By 2018, this had risen to 5,642.
Nègrepelisse is a dormitory town for Montauban, and a lot of housing development has taken place on its outskirts. It loses out tourist-wise from its proximity to Montauban and to the more picturesque villages of the Gorges de l’Aveyron. I wouldn’t make a special detour to see it, but if you happen to be passing nearby, it’s worth a look.
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