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The Dauphiné

The Dauphiné is an ancient province in what is today the south-east of France. Its administrative organisation (into three French 'départements': Isère, Drôme and Hautes-Alpes) dates back to the French revolution of 1789.

Despite the passage of time the Dauphiné has nevertheless succeeded in holding an identity of its own, offering contrasting landscapes of snowy peaks and fertile plains. It stretches from the Rhône valley in the west to the Italian border in the east, and from the high Alps of Savoy in the north to the warmer fringes of Provence.

The Dauphiné's earlier history was scarred by the rivalry and invasions of early European kingdoms, its independance lost, to occupation by Allobroges, Romans and Arabs and annexation by the short-lived kingdoms of Lotharingia and Burgundy within the Holy Roman Empire. In the eleventh century however, Guigues I, one of the counts of Albon, succeeded in extending his possessions across the territories of Vienne, Briançon and the Grésivaudan (the Isère valley). This marks the beginnings of the Dauphiné as a regional entity.

As the interplay of mariage and succession brought it fortune, the region grew in size and importance. In March 1349, Humbert II (Humbert II Dauphin of the Viennois) decided, for lack of an heir, to sell his property to the King of France; under the Treaty of Romans he acquired not only the 200,000 florins from the sale but also the commitment that his lands would, from then on, be administered in all independence "by the Dauphin" -- a new title for the eldest son of the king.

In 1446 the Dauphin, the future Louis XI, arrived in the Dauphiné for a sixteen-year reign during which his province was to blossom. The young autocrat encouraged fairs and commerce and reduced taxation; he offered tax exemption to foreign tradesmen and established the university of Valence. Under the future king of France the Dauphiné had become a territory for testing new ideas and practice. Louis' authoritarian manners were not appreciated, however, by the nobles and commoners. He was finally forced to retreat to the court of Burgundy, where he awaited his accession to the throne.

On 21 August 1787 the Dauphiné was the first province to call for the re-institution of the States-General. The popular uprising that shook the Dauphiné's capital Grenoble the following June (1788), on the "Day of the Tiles", is generally considered to mark the start of the French revolution.

There are a number of legends surrounding the name of the Dauphiné. Its true origins continue to elude historians, but they are now generally attributed to the wife of Guigues III, one of the counts of Albon, who used to call her son "Dolfin" -- an affectionate nickname in the England of her birth. When the young man succeeded his father in 1140 he signed an agreement with the bishop of Grenoble which officially endowed him with the name "Guigues IV Dauphin".

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