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Besancon History, France

Because of its strategic location, Besancon, France has always been an important city.  Not only did it originate at the crossroads of two European trade routes, but the city is also surrounded by the Doubs River and the Alps mountain range.  These traits have made the city important from a military, an economic, and maybe even a cultural point of view throughout its entire life.

The first historical mention of Besancon pertains to a note in one of Julius Caesar’s journals which states that the town was one of the largest villages belonging to a small Gaulic tribe known as the Sequani.  In his journal entry, Caesar called the town Vesontio, but it is not certain if that is the original Gaulic name.  After the Romans defeated the area, Vesontio was named the capital of Maxima Sequanorum, a Roman province.

Over the centuries, the name of the city would change several times starting with the modification of Vesontio to Besontio.  The name changes reflect the ownership of the city over the earlier centuries.  For instance, after the collapse of the Roman Empire in Western Europe, the area was given to a Germanic tribe known as the Burgundians in the 300’s A.D.  The Germanic kingdom of Burgundy called the city Bisanz.  In the 500’s A.D., the kingdom of Burgundy was won over by the Franks and the city finally received its French name: Besancon.

In 1035 A.D., the Frankish kingdom of Burgundy became part of the Holy Roman Empire which was a union of Central European territories.  Besancon became an Archbishopric in 1184 and was also made an Imperial Free City in that same year.  This meant that it was an autonomous city-state without a province to rule it, but still ruled by the Holy Roman Emperor.  The city was very important and prospered during this time period.

After the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I married Mary of Burgundy in the 1400’s, the city came under the influence of the Spanish dukes of Burgundy.  One of the major marks of the Spanish influence on the city is La Citadelle, a defensive complex which was built beginning in 1668.  At the end of the Franco-Dutch war in 1678, during which French troops took Besancon, a section of the former kingdom of Burgundy was awarded to France via the Treaty of Nijmegen.  This segment of land became a French province known even today as the Franche-Comte.  Soon after the treaty, Besancon became its permanent provincial capital.

During World War II, the Nazi’s used La Citadelle as a fort but for the most part, Besancon did not see as much action as many other French cities.  There was a railway bombing in 1943 and a four-day battle between German and U.S. forces in 1944.

Today many of the city’s historical monuments still exist along with a variety of events and museums.  This activity has brought the city its nickname: Ville d’Art & d’Histoire (or “City of Art and History”).

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