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Le Havre (Municipality, Seine-Maritime, France)

Last modified: 2004-12-22 by ivan sache
Keywords: seine-maritime | havre (le) | lion (yellow) | salamander (yellow) | fleur-de-lys: 2 (yellow) | crown (white) |
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[Flag of Le Havre]by Pascal Vagnat & Arnaud Leroy

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Presentation of Le Havre

Le Havre (250,000 inhabitants, including outskirts) is located on the northern shore of the estuary of the river Seine.

In the ancient times, the most important cities near the estuary were the port of Harfleur and the abbey city of Montivilliers, located on the edge of the Pays de Caux. However, the port of Harfleur progressively sanded up and had to be abandoned.

In 1478, King Louis XI (1423-1483, King in 1461), ordered the exploration of the estuary of the Seine. Louis XII (1462-1515, King in 1498), commissioned Sieur de Chaillou with the same duty. François I (1494-1547, King in 1515) wanted a protected port he would use in his struggle against England. Since he did not trust too much the people from Rouen, he asked Guillaume Gouffier de Bonnivet (c. 1488-1525), Great Admiral of France, to build a new port in the lower valley of Seine. In February 1517, Bonnivet was granted full power to build le dit havre et fortification au lieu de Grasse, au dit pays de Caux.
Bonnivet selected a desert, marshy and brackish area where the high tide lasted two hours longer than in the neighborhood.

In 1518, the vessel Hermine entered the King's Basin along with the flagship of the Royal Navy. The new port was named Le Havre-de-Grâce. The French word havre, used now to design a small protected port or a very peaceful area - not necessarily a port -, comes from Middle Dutch havene, and is probably cognate to German Hafen, Danish Havn etc.. Le Havre was for a while renamed Françoise-de-Grâce.

The port was achieved in 1523 and developed commerce with Morocco and Brazil. The city progressively thrived with the creation of a tax-free zone and a market. Its population was around 5,000 in 1540. In 1541, the Italian architect Bellarmato organized the city according to a check pattern. The borough Notre-Dame was reorganized and the borough Saint-François was created near the port. New city walls were built in 1551.
At the end of the XVIth century, Le Havre was a very busy port, involved in whaling and trade with Peru, Brazil and the West Indies. Several Protestants were active in commerce, who left after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV in 1685. In retaliation, England bombed Le Havre in 1694 and 1696.

Economic activity resumed in 1716-1717 and was mainly targeted to the West Indies. Until the French Revolution, the port of Le Havre was a main point of entrance of colonial products (cotton, coffee, tobacco, tropical hardwood), which were reshipped all over Europe. The port was also used for resupplying the American insurgents.

The Revolution and Empire wars stopped the port activity, which resumed after the lift of the Continental System in 1808. New basins were built and the city walls were destroyed to allow the growth of the city. New canals (canal du Havre and canal de Tancarville) were built to avoid the difficult navigation in the lower valley of Seine. Le Havre started its transatlantic career and received the nickname of porte océane. Technical progress made the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean ever quicker. In 1850, the sail and paddle ship Franklin linked Le Havre to New York in 15 days. In 1864, the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique</A>, one of the legendary French lines, launched the steamer Washington. The Washington was followed by the famous Normandie, Ile-de-France, Liberté and France. The golden age of the French lines suddenly ended in the 1970s.

The development of international commerce caused the emergence of a rich society of merchants and ship owners, who built big vacation houses along the beach, north of the commerce port, and in the neighbouring city of Sainte-Adresse. A bathing station with expensive hotels was built. The neighbouring villages of Sanvic and Bléville were incorporated to Le Havre, and an upper city developed above the ancient lower city. The two parts of the city were linked by a complex network of 89 stairs and a funicular. Jules Siegfried, Mayor from 1878 to 1886, developed the city and proposed in the French Parliament the law on the habitations à bon marché, which allowed the lower classes to be housed correctly.

The First World War ruined the sea resort, and most hotels and rich houses were sold and destroyed. A few houses were kept, the most famous of them being the Villa Maritime, built in 1890 by architect Toutain for Mrs. Aldecoa, who sold it in 1896 to Dufayel, the owner of the Nice havrais in Sainte-Adresse. The house has an area of 1,200 sq. m and 42 windows, and includes a glasshouse and two artificial grottos. The villa was later owned by the writer Armand Salacrou (1899-1989) and is now a restaurant.

The port and the lower city of Le Havre were completely destroyed during the Second World War. In June 1940, the German Air Force bombed the oil port and sunk the ship Niobé, killing 800 passengers and crew members. In September 1944, the battle of Normandy was over and Paris was liberated, but the Germans still kept Le Havre. A series of 146 bombings started on 2 September, killing more than 4,000, destroying 9,935 buildings and damaging 9,710 other ones. More than 80,000 were homeless. Before surrendering on 13 September, the German blew the port with dynamite. The architect Auguste Perret (1874-1954), known as 'the wizard of reinforced concrete', rebuilt Le Havre following Bellarmato's original plan. The new city was organized around the city hall, made of a long flat building flanked by a tower, and the St. Joseph's church, surmonted by a 109-m high bell-tower. The Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer (b. 1907, also the designer of Brasilia) built the Vulcano near the Commerce Basin. One of the only remains of the ancient city is the cathedral Notre-Dame (1575-1630).

It took two years to clear the port, whose activity progressively resumed. Le Havre is now the first commerce port in France and the fifth in Europe.

The writer Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre (1737-1814) was born in Le Havre. His main book is the exotic idyll Paul et Virginie. Raymond Queneau (1903-1976), also born in Le Havre, founded in 1960 the Oulipo as a branch of the Collège de Pataphysique; his work is very diverse and includes novels, some of them taking place in Le Havre, mathematics, poems, linguistical analyses, etc.. President René Coty (1882-1962, president of the IVth Republic, 1954-1959) was born and passed away in Le Havre. The Swiss composer Arthur Honegger (1892-1955), member of the Groupe des Six, was born in Le Havre.
Two painters from Le Havre, Raoul Dufy (1877-1958) and Othon Friesz (1879-1949) were among the founders of the Fauvist group. The name of Fauves (wildcats) was coined by an art critic in 1905 because of the agressive modernism of their works. Eugène Boudin (1824-1898) was born in Honfleur, on the other bank of the Seine, but spent most of his life in Le Havre. Boudin is considered as a precursor of Impressionism. Most of his paintings are shown in the Museum André-Malraux in Le Havre, including a striking collection of studies of cows.

In 1874, Claude Monet showed a painting called Impression soleil levant. An art critic attempted to be amusing and derogatively called Monet and his friends Impressionnistes because he did not find Monet's impression impressive at all. The Impressionist painters, however, became famous but did not reject the name, which was later given to musicians such as Debussy, Ravel, Dukas, Roussel and Satie. Impression soleil levant was most probably painted in a small room in located in Le Havre near the Commerce Basin.


  • Guide Vert Michelin Normandie-Vallée de la Seine
  • Encyclopaedia Universalis
  • Le Havre municipal website
  • Office du Tourisme Le Havre et Pointe de Caux website

Ivan Sache, 14 October 2003

Municipal flag of Le Havre

The municipal flag of Le Havre is white with the greater municipal coat of arms placed in the middle.

The municipal flag is hoisted over or in front of municipal buildings such as the municipal police station and the tourist office. It does not seem to be hoisted over the city hall, which bears the flags of the twenty-five members of the European Union on its flat building and the French flag over its tower. Two rows of five French flags each are also found on the big square in front of the city hall.

Ivan Sache, 14 October 2003

Coat of arms of Le Havre

The arms of Le Havre blazons as follows (blazon and history from Brian Timms:

De gueules à la salamandre d'argent, couronnée d'or sur un brasier du même; au chef d'azur chargé de trois fleurs de lis d'or, et surchargé d'un franc-canton de sable au lion d'or armé et lampassé de gueules

In English

Gules a salamander argent in flames crowned or a chief azure three fleurs de lis or overall a canton sable a lion rampant or armed and langued gules

The salamander is the emblem of King François I, founder of the city of Le Havre. The Kings of France had a personal device which was supposed to reflect their personality and ambition. For instance, Charles V used a winged deer and Louis XII a porcupine. The salamander was said to be able to stay alive in flames - probably because of its thick and always wet skin - and even to be able to extinguish a fire.

On a document dated 1532, the arms of Le Havre are shown as:

Azure a salamander argent between three fleurs de lis or

In the XVIIIth century, the fleurs de lis were moved to fesswise in chief. The First Empire removed the fleurs de lis and added a chief:

D'azur à trois étoiles d'or surchargé d'un canton dextre d'un N couronné d'or

N stood for Napoléon.

At the Restauration the fleurs de lis were reinstated, this time on a chief of France. After the First World War, the present canton of Belgium was added in honour of the King of the Belgians, whose government stayed in the neighbouring city of Sainte-Adresse during the War.

The Armorial Général overrode the arms granted by François I and ascribed completely different arms to Le Havre, which were of course never used:

D'azur à un navire d'or sur des ondes d'argent et amarré par un câble d'argent à une ancre d'or qui trempe dans les ondes

The scroll below the shield bears Francois I's personal motto Nutrisco et extinguo (I stoke and extinguish), another reference to the alleged fireproofing ability of the salamander.

The decorations below the scroll are the Cross of Légion d'Honneur and the War Cross.

Ivan Sache, 14 October 2003

Logotype of Le Havre

The municipal logtype of Le Havre is a square version of the municipal arms, with the Belgian canton green instead of black, a fully yellow lion, and a white fimbriation between the three parts of the shield.

Ivan Sache, 14 October 2003

The Promenade des Ports du Monde

The Promenade des Ports du Monde (Promenade of the Ports of the World) is the name given to the sidewalk of Boulevard Georges-Clémenceau, between the entrance of the commerce port and the beach and along the marina.

The Promenade is marked out with 25 national flags hoisted on tall poles. Each pole bears a rectangular shield on which the names of the country and port(s) are written. The ports are those which have commercial relationships with the port of Le Havre.

Starting from the commerce port and walking down to the beach, the succession of the flags is the following (I have retained the names of the countries and ports as they are written on the shields):

Notes on the flags:

All the flags are of the same size and proportion (2:3).

*Spain: The yellow field is darker than the square part around the coat of arms.
**Singapore: The red field is rather orange

Ivan Sache, 18 October 2003