Rethel (pop. 8,000) is a typical French town on the River Aisne, at the heart of the French Ardennes. There aren't many sights, apart from the natural beauty that surrounds it (try the belvédère). What is of interest here is the local history.
Rethel was settled as early as the Neolithic period. Silex tools and mammoth tusks have been found on the site. The Celts arrived there during the Bronze Age, around 200 BCE. After then, the Romans developed a villa (farm, village), where gold and bronze coins were minted.
The ancient history of Rethel is unclear. A priory might have existed since 745 C.E. What is certain is that Rethel became a Frankish county around 940, and the counts of Rethel descended from Charlemagne (=> see list of noble European families descending from Charlemagne). The House of Rethel played an important role in French history.
The name "Rethel" might come from the Latin name of the place (Registestensis) , or may be a corruption from Old French ratel ("rake"). The medieval coat of arms, showing three rakes, supports the second theory. However, it doesn't prove anything as people 1000 years ago would not have known the name in Roman times.
In 1290, the county passes by marriage to the Dampierre family, who were Counts of Nevers. It then passed to the Dukes of Burgundy in 1369, to the Albret-Rethel in 1486, to the House of Clèves in 1504, all of whom remained Counts (then Dukes) of Nevers and Counts of Rethel.
In 1581, Louis Gonzaga of Mantua marries Henriette of Clèves, heir of the duchy of Nevers and county of Rethel. Louis is made first Duke of Rethel. The two duchies are inherited by the Habsburgs in 1649, who subsequently sell then to Jules Mazarin (1602-1661), cardinal and chief minister of France from 1642 until his death. The duchies are renamed Duchy of Mazarin, and pass to Mazarin's niece upon his death. The duchy was abolished at the start of the French Revolution in 1789, and the name of the town reverted to Rethel.
Rethel has also remained in history as the site of numerous battles (1411, 1543, 1650, 1814, 1870, 1914, 1940), including the wars of Louis XIV and Napoleon I, the Franco-Prussian War, WWI and WWII.
Famous people from Rethel
Robert de Sorbon (1201-1274), who created the University of la Sorbonne in Paris, was born in the village of Sorbon, near Rethel.
How to get there
Rethel is on the E46 motorway, just halfway between Reims and Charleville-Mézières. The E46 continues until Bouillon (about 60km away) in Belgium.
Rethel is a 30min train ride away from Charleville-Mézières, and just 20min from Reims. There is no direct train connection with Belgium.
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