The incredible story of Apt, a Queen and the birth of The Sun King

Over the last few weeks, we have got a little bit further under the skin of
the local area, and it’s taken us to some very different places, most recently
on a guided tour of the Cathédrale Sainte Anne, in the heart of Apt, focusing on its medieval history.

Cathédrale Sainte Anne in the heart of Apt

Each year the weekend of the ‘Journées du Patrimoine’ sees lots of events
and tours taking place, which enable you to access some of the most historic buildings and spaces, free of charge, to learn more about the country’s heritage. This year, one of the events on offer in Apt was this guided tour,behind the scenes at the cathedral, and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to learn more about the city, hard on the heels of our visit to the Archeology Museum the week before, where we had got to know more about the Roman city of Apta Julia.Following the Roman footsteps in Apt

Roman Apta Julia

The Cathedral is a beautiful old building, and sits comfortably in the
centre of the old town, the gilded, bronze statue of Sainte Anne sitting high on the Verdigris, copper-covered dome, watching over the streets and squares.

Sainte Anne keeping a watchful eye over the town from her verdigris dome

What I hadn’t realised was just how much it had been altered over the years, nor the incredible role that it played in the Royal history of France, with a direct link to the birth of Louis XIV, the ‘Sun King’, who went on to rule for over 72 years, before his death in 1715. In fact, without the intervention that came from Apt then he may never have been born, and French history may have been very different indeed, but more of that later.

The joy of taking this tour was that it was led by a guide, who talked
passionately about the building, its origins, the way it had been changed over many centuries and the work that still needs to be done….

A side chapel that is yet to be restored

She also took us into areas that are normally closed to the public, helping
us to understand the enormity of the construction, including the 14th
century All Saints Chapel, built to house the ancient, precious relics, which brought pilgrims to the city. These were later moved to sit in the beautiful crypts below the main Altar …..

The higher crypt below the Altar

And took us behind the 17th century Saint Anne’s Chapel into the
Treasury to see its very special pieces, including some incredible vestments, which were highlighted as having been donated by Queen Anne of Austria in the 17th century….

Exquisite embroidery on vestments given by Queen Anne of Austria

This really sparked my fascination. Who was Queen Anne of Austria? And why had she donated such beautiful, elaborate and precious pieces to our local Cathedral?

It was worth finding out more, as the story is rather incredible, and deserves to be told…

First though, an important little bit of background…

The Cathedral was originally founded on the Roman city of Apta Julia, at the end of the 1st century BC, in the earliest years of Christianity, by Saint
Auspice, who became the first consecrated Bishop in the city. It remained the seat of the Bishop of Apt, until the French Revolution

The original buildings were destroyed, rebuilt and destroyed again, before
finally being reconstructed in the 11th and 12 centuries, when the work was funded by the powerful Agoult family, that ruled the area at the time, with the church growing in both size and importance over the years, which may have been reason enough for the Royal donations….

The beautiful interior of the Cathedral

But no…The fascinating history that connects the Capital of The Luberon with King Louis XIV goes far beyond that, and starts back in the 1st century BC, with the tradition that says that the relics of Sainte Anne (mother of Mary) were brought to France by her nieces, both called Marie, who landed at, what is now, Saintes Maries de La Mer in the Camargue.

It is suggested that the relics found their way to Apt, and into the safe-keeping of Saint Auspice where they were kept safe for many centuries, but there is also a second story that they were brought to the cathedral by Crusaders, returning from the East in the Middle Ages. In many ways the way the relics arrived in Apt is of little relevance to the story, but what is important is that they came to Apt.

Once it was officially recognised that the relics in Apt were those of Sainte
Anne, pilgrims came from far and wide to pray, and the importance of the city and the cathedral grew. Inevitably though, the popularity of the relics led to many requests for pieces to be donated elsewhere, and as a result, in 1621 Parliament banned them being further touched, without the authority of the King himself.

Saint Anne, is recognised as the patroness of unmarried women, housewives, women in labour, or those who want to be pregnant, and it is
this that finally brought Anne of Austria to the town in the 1600s.

Anne, a beautiful Spanish princess, and Archduchess of the Austrian Hapsburg line, was married to Louis XIII, in 1615, when they were both 14 years old, cementing recently formed French and Spanish alliances. Their early marriage was a difficult one and Anne suffered a number of stillbirths, causing the relationship between her and Louis to become more and more strained, as he had no heir. In late 1623, and now in desperation, she gained the authority of Parliament and the King, to send a letter to the clergy at Apt, requesting that she be sent a ‘parcel of relics’ in which she was placing all her hopes ‘to have a Prince’.

Unsurprisingly, the request was agreed, and crypt opened by the Bishop of Apt, who removed a finger-bone, which was taken to the Queen, in the hope that Sainte Anne would answer her prayers for a successful pregnancy that would see her deliver a healthy son and heir.

It has to be said that it took a while for the prayers to be answered, and
she suffered a further two stillbirths, but finally in 1638, when she was 37
years old, she gave birth to the future King Louis XIV, and although it didn’t fully restore confidence between her and her husband, 3 years later, she gave birth to a second son, Philippe.

In 1643 her husband died, and as her eldest son, and heir to the throne, was still only 4 years old, she was named as his Regent, until he came of age to take on the responsibilities himself, a few years later, at the grand age of 13.

Through all this time though, she never forgot the service she had received from Apt, and the role that the relic of Sainte Anne, which had been sent to her in her darkest hours, had played in enabling her to have children.

So, in 1660, as her eldest son, King Louis XIV set off to be married, she started her own pilgrimage, travelling to Apt to give thanks for the role the Church had played in supporting her efforts to have children, that had led to the successful marriage of the new King.

As you can probably imagine, the people of Apt were in a frenzy of
excitement, welcoming the Queen and her entourage into the city through a ‘Triumphal Arch’ at the Porte de La Bouquerie, taking her to stay in the grand home of Monsieur Des Beaumettes, on one side of the Place Septiers, which had been especially upgraded and refurbished for the occasion. The house is now privately owned, its ground floor occasionally open as a Brocante shop, but it is a listed monument, and I understand it still has exquisite plasterwork and reliefs, which were part of this special redecoration for the Queen’s visit.

The house where Anne stayed is just behind where I stood to take this photo

The following day, she was escorted the short distance to the Cathedral,
where after offering prayers, and visiting the crypts below the Altar, she made a gift of incredible treasures, which included a solid gold statue of Sainte Anne. There was also a golden eagle, decorated with emeralds, wearing a ruby and pearl crown, as well as the beautifully embroidered silk vestments that are still on display in the Treasury today.

She also promised a donation of 8000 pounds, to support the construction of the Chapelle Sainte Anne, as part of ongoing work to extend and improve the Cathedral that was taking place at the time. It was a generous gift to the community, which allowed the chapel to be built, above which now sits the gilded statue of Sainte Anne, watching carefully over the people of Apt.

Even holding the umbrella for times of need

Whilst the Queen left incredible treasures in the city, she didn’t leave
empty-handed, with the Aptesians sending her away with very locally produced souvenirs.

Apt was already renowned for its sugared fruits and conserves, and she was presented with 6 pounds of ‘confitures sèches’, which I imagine to be similar to the ‘paté des fruits’, which we see in the shops and on the market stalls today. She also received 4 pounds of sugared almonds and 3 ½ pounds of sugar-coated aniseed. A local gift for a Queen who felt she owed so much to the town.

Apt to as known for its ‘fruits confits’ even in the 16th century

It’s such a wonderful story, and I would love to be able to step back in
time to be able to see what happened on that day, when Apt put on its glad-rags and welcomed the Queen within its walls, celebrating the role it had played in the birth of the King.

Beautiful detail in the Chapelle de Sainte Anne

Over 350 years have passed now, and so much has changed, with few momentoes of that direct link between Apt and the famous ‘Sun King’ of the French monarchy remaining. We can though, still see the robes that Anne donated to the Cathedral, exquisitely embroidered with flowers, butterflies and the two flaming hearts, the Sacred Heart and the
Immaculate Heart, linked together by devotions, prayers and feasts…

Another of the incredible vestments donated by Anne

There is also the beautiful Chapelle of Sainte Anne, with its fine paintwork
and detailed ceiling…

Stunning domed ceiling in the chapel

The vibrant stained glass windows, sending shafts of coloured light into the heart of the calm, peaceful place of worship…..

I love the subtle light playing on the distressed ancient paintwork

The donation made by Queen Anne, all those years ago, ensured this space was created, and it is an elegant and tranquil addition to the main building, which now also holds the memorial wall for the local young men, who lost their lives in the First World War.

The Memorial Wall in the Chapel

It’s sad to think that so many mothers must have wept at seeing their sons’ names on this wall, placed in a Chapel dedicated to the patron saint of motherhood…

The ceiling and top of the chapel’s altar

Our foray behind the scenes over the last few weeks, has really opened our
eyes to so much unseen, and unknown history of our local town. It is a wonderful little place, and what we have learned now, just adds so much more colour to its streets and squares, making us want to explore even further and find out even more.

Tours that cast light and colour on local history

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