Cognac lies on the banks of the river Charente, from which it draws its prosperity and, no doubt, its origin. The river Charente was known for its navigability from the Neolithic period and was one of the main supply routes for food. Later, during the development of the Gallo-Roman civilisation, the future town of Cognac lay between the routes leading from Saintes to Limoges and Périgueux. Cognac, more exactly Condate, was then in the Civitas Santonensis, the region of Saintes. Little remains in the town from this period, apart from the enigmatic site of Haute-Sarazinne which appears to be one of the first vineyards, as viticulture was introduced during this period.
The history of the town is better known from the Middle Ages onwards : a port involved in the salt trade was constructed on the Charente. , granted common rights by Jean sans Terre on 4th July 1215, and also the founding of the Saint-Léger Priory in the 11th century. Houses were built around the priory and around the château; the districts of the Priory and the Château were joined by fortifications as well as the economic district at that time : the Quartier Saunier. Cognac was granted tax privileges which favoured the development of the town. The prosperity which came from the salt and wine trades was fought over during the Medieval period by the English and the French.
In the 12th century, the castellany of Cognac had become part of the earldom of Angoulême, and as a result became the favourite residence for a small provincial court which was a genuine centre of art and literature. Thus it was on the eve of 12th September 1494 that François de Valois-Angoulême was born, who was to succeed the throne as King François l in 1515. Throughout his reign, there were numerous occasions of conflict. Namely the Wars of Religion (1561-1598) left a bloody mark on his reign. In Cognac, Catholics and Protestants fought against each other and in 1570, Cognac was designated one of the four places of safety granted to the Protestants by the peace of Saint Germain en Laye.
The Valois kings confirmed the privileges for the town, but this was not the case for the Bourbons. As a result the salt trade declined in importance, but the people of Cognac were able to react and the wine trade developed. They were aided by relations, which were often family ties, with England and Holland as many Huguenots from the area had taken refuge there. Wine travelled badly by sea, and so the European merchants decided to “burn” it, in other words to distil it, giving birth to the “elixir of the gods”. In 1651, during the uprising of the Fronde, Cognac had to hold out against a siege which has become famous in French history. Louis XIV thanked the town for its support by granting several privileges. The 18th century in Cognac saw the development of its new trade and the arrival of British and Irish families.
FROM THE REVOLUTION TO THE 20th CENTURY
The Revolution and the Empire put a temporary halt to exports of eau-de-vie which only began again in the 19th century. These exports were increasing steadily and creating prosperity which can still be see / could be seen in the townhouses of the merchants at the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century. The number of inhabitants increased fivefold in the course of the 19th century, the face of the town changed to take account of the growing population. All this happened despite the phylloxera which ruined many wine growers
In 1888, in one of the merchant families, a certain Jean Monnet was born, one of the founding fathers of Europe. He is not the town’s only celebrity, since the car constructor Louis Delage was born there in 1874, and mechanical glass-blowing was invented in Cognac by Claude Boucher. In addition it was there in 1875 that gallium was discovered by the scientist François Lecoq de Boisbaudran, a native of the town.
As in the rest of the country, following the First World War, the population of Cognac declined. However despite the successive economic crises during the inter-war years, cognac was still drunk throughout the world, the train had replaced the sailing barges and the wheels of commerce were turning. In the 1930s the Air Force base was opened and Cognac turned towards Europe.
The town of Cognac has always been able to change to keep up with the rhythm of national, and indeed, international events, even if it has only played a small role.