STEVE AND CAROLE IN VENCE

The Procession of Saint Véran and Saint Lambert
The Story of How Vence was Saved in 1592

April 26, 2022

This is an in-depth article about the Procession of Saint Véran and Saint Lambert held over the Easter weekend in 2022. You can also read a full account of the Easter weekend festivities on our site.

If you live in Vence you are probably familiar with the names Saint Véran and Saint Lambert, the two patron saints of the town. Even if you don’t live here, if you’ve ever visited the Vence Cathedral, Notre-Dame de la Nativité (the smallest cathedral in France by the way), you’ll have seen several references to these two men. Saint Véran was the bishop of Vence from 451 to 481 while Saint Lambert served as bishop from 1114-1155. Each of the saints has a chapel in the Cathedral dedicated to their memory. There are small wooden paintings for the two on one of the walls and silver plated bronze busts in the apse behind the altar. Inside a lighted enclosure are two more busts, made of wood and paint.

Every year, on the Easter weekend, the two wooden busts are removed from their enclosure and bolted down on wooden platforms. Using poles that are inserted through the supports four men raise each bust into the air and carry them to a nearby field where a ceremony takes place with poetry, prose, songs and dancing. Known simply as the Procession vers le plateau Saint Michel avec Saint Véran et Saint Lambert (The Procession to the Saint Michel Plateau with Saint Véran and Saint Lambert), this small parade honors the two saints for their part in the famous 1592 Siege of Vence. So you might be wondering, how exactly did these two saints play a part in this siege seeing as how they had both been dead for centuries? Keep reading and it will all be revealed. We’ll start with a little history so that we can get a full picture of everything.

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Saint Véran

Saint Véran (also known as Saint Veranus and sometimes Saint Vrain) was the son of Saint Eucheris. He was born into a family of saints: in addition to his father, his mother, his brother and sister were all saints as well. He began his consecrated life as a monk at the island abbey of Lérins, just off the coast of Cannes. An abbey which, by the way, still exists today. He came to Vence as the fourth bishop in 451 (though some say as early as 442 – historical records from the time are obviously very sketchy). There exists today a letter between Véran and Pope Leo the Great which provides historical confirmation of his time in Vence. A trusted servant of Pope Leo, Véran is the hero of many legends throughout Provence. In fact, several other cities also claim that he was their bishop, but Vence is the only city with actual evidence of his tenure.

The story most often told of Véran is of his encounter with the bloodthirsty Germanic warlord Euric the Goth. In 476 (at the very end of the Roman Empire) Euric made camp near the mouth of the Loup River, just a few kilometers from Vence. Now Euric was an Arian Christian, a well-educated man who was versed in the history and politics of the time. Vence and Véran were Athanasian Christians and it was the goal of Euric to lay waste to every village and city which did not follow his specific religion.

Camped so close to Vence it was clear that Euric was on the verge of attacking the small Roman village. With no advance notice Saint Véran made his way to the camp. Dressed in his priestly attire he walked calmly through the hordes of soldiers until he reached Euric. Somehow he was able to convince Euric to spare the town of Vence. No one knows what was said or how Véran convinced Euric to spare the town. But it was clear that a miracle had come to pass. Within an hour Euric had given the command and his troops were on the move, looking to pillage and plunder other villages and cities. Vence was saved.

Saint Véran died in Vence sometime between 480 and 492. His remains are said to lie in a carved marble sarcophagus inside the Vence Cathedral, though this is questionable. He remains today the most revered figure in the religious history of Vence.

Saint Lambert

Like Saint Véran before him, Saint Lambert began his service to the church as a monk at Lérins. His mother died when he was born in 1084 in the small village of Bauduen and his father was unable to care for him. The monks of Lérins raised the boy and he served in the abbey there until he was appointed Bishop of Vence in 1114, a position he held until his death in 1155.

Lambert is remembered and celebrated most for his compassion, benevolence and humanity. He often stood for the serfs in their conflicts with their feudal lords. He is said to have acted many times as a peacemaker when clashes arose between the bishops and lords of the region. He founded the first hospital in Vence to care for the poor.

One story says that on a Good Friday whilst eating Lambert’s water suddenly turned to wine. He called a servant to take it away and replace it with water, but twice more the same miracle occurred. A blind woman from Nice is said to have regained her sight by simply touching his robes. He was so loved by his congregation that upon his death the crowd of mourners was so large soldiers had to be called in to manage it. His body was placed in a tomb from which water suddenly and unexplainably began to flow. Those who bathed in this water were cured of their diseases.

Watch as the procession moves from the Cathedral to the Saint Michel Plateau and back again to the Cathedral.

The Wars of Religion

By all accounts the end of the 16th century was a decidedly difficult time for the city of Vence. As the Protestant Reformation swept over Europe trouble appeared on almost every doorstep. What we now call the French Wars of Religion raged for almost 40 years (from 1562 to 1598) as the Reformed/Calvinist Protestants battled against the Roman Catholic Church. The little city of Vence found itself caught in the middle of these feuds time and time again. Many people were killed, many homes demolished and many fields and crops ravaged and destroyed.

During this time even two of Vence’s own bishops, Jean-Babtiste Rambaud de Simiane (bishop from 1555 to 1560) and Louis Grimaldi de Beuil (bishop from 1560 to 1576) abandoned the Catholic church and declared themselves Protestants. Nearby villages such as Saint Jeannet, Coursegoules and Gourdon converted to Protestantism, but not Vence. In Vence there still remained a large majority of Catholics, enough to relegate those of the new reformed faith to areas outside of the city walls and gates. Those who had chosen this new religion were free to meet for prayer and worship, but not inside the city.

Claude de Villeneuve, the Lord of Vence from 1556 to 1596, was only one of many nobles to adopt the new Protestant religion. His conversion only exasperated an already fragile and combative relationship between the city and their lord and after his conversion he was barred from entering the streets of Vence. Whether or not his change of faith was a true testament to his beliefs, or as is more likely, simply a political maneuver against the greater nobles who remained loyal to Rome was of little consequence. Even the Crown could be seen to be playing the odds in this chaos and confusion of politics and religion. During these wars one of the French kings (there were five between the years of 1547 and 1589) changed his religion four times!

For a short time the religious feuds were derailed by disease. From 1579 to 1582 the plague raged through Vence and surrounding areas. Shops were closed. Entire families were wiped out. Bishop Audinc Garidelli fled to Saint Paul leaving the inhabitants of the town to fend for themselves and without a moral guidepost a lawless cloud fell over the city. Crime and corruption became the norm and fear enveloped the walls of Vence. When, after three long years, the plague finally came to an end there was little comfort as the religious feuds returned in full force.

The Duke of Savoy and Doc de Lesdiguières

In the late-1580s the Baron de Vins lead an army that recaptured every town in the area but Grasse, claiming them once again as Catholic towns. Charles Emmanuel, the Duke of Savoy and a stout Catholic, marched upon Provence, in theory to sew up the recent Catholic victories. The people of Vence and her bishop welcomed him and did what they could to help. Little did they know that the Duke’s true intentions had nothing to do with religion. He was really there to wrestle Provence away from France and King Henry IV.

In 1590 the king sent the Protestant Doc de Lesdiguières to reclaim Provence and in short time Savoy was routed from most of the area. It is here that some historians disagree. Over the years many have come to see these battles and the upcoming siege on Vence as a clash between Catholics and Protestants. Others see the conflict in a more political light: King Henry IV was simply seeking to regain his territory by any means necessary. Lesdiguières was nothing more than a mercenary for the King and it’s likely that the majority of his soldiers with Catholics. At the same time there were still many Protestants in Provence, so this idea that the conflict was based solely religion is doubtful.

In 1591 a Protestant captain for Lesdiguières, De Cannaux, demanded the surrender of Vence. When the city refused he broke through the walls, looted a large amount of money and carried on to Saint Jeannet. By the following spring Vence was in the hands of Savoy, De Cannaux was ensconced at the nearby Château of Malvans and Coursegoules and Saint Paul were back in Protestant hands.

Programs from the 2022 Procession of Saint Véran and Saint Lambert
Programs from the 2022 Procession of Saint Véran and Saint Lambert

The Siege of Vence

Claude de Villeneuve, the Lord of Vence, died on May 13, 1592, drowned while trying to cross the Argens River. He was replaced by a new lord, Scipion de Villeneuve (Claude’s son), who resided in Cagnes-sur-Mer. Well aware of the hostilities between his father and Vence and looking upon the city as a rebellious step-child he demanded that the inhabitants submit to him immediately. When they did not he summoned Lesdiguières who set up an encampment on the plateau of Saint Michel (where today we find the stade).

Lesdiguières opened fire on the town and the town responded with their one cannon. Vence was clearly overpowered as the attackers far outweighed the defenders. As the people were beginning to lose hope a canon of the Cathedral, Canon Laure, had the busts of Saint Véran and Saint Lambert placed on the tower of the Cathedral. His act is enshrined in the Complainte du Siège de Vence, a small booklet from the 1920s which recounts the events of the battle.

“Sorrowful brothers, all behold.
The big news,
Tonight, you will be free,
And Vence the beautiful!
Let us carry our Saints on the tower:
They will fight in their turn!
Soldiers, on the ramparts, under the Signadour!
Let us fight and pray: I attest,
God will do the rest! …”

This brought hope back to the people of the village and they gathered to fight with renewed energy and determination. A volley of cannonballs was launched at the city walls. A terrible battle ensued. The Vençois responded valiantly, manning the ramparts and redoubling their efforts. The presence of the Saints stirred courage and heroics in the townspeople. Battering rams and ladders were sent forward but the citizens of Vence responded by dropping rocks and boiling lead on the attackers.

Over 500 invading soldiers are said to have died during the attack and on June 2 Lesdiguières backed down. In a move to save face he declared the town not worth the trouble and moved his army on towards the Estérels. Vence had survived. The saints had saved the city. As word spread throughout France of this new “David and Goliath” story credit for the victory was always given to Véran and Lambert. Over time the legend has grown and continues to be honored and celebrated to this day.

To the left of the Porte d’Orient (one of the main entrances into the old town of Vence), under the sill of a window, you can still see today a stone larger than the others which bears the date of 1592. It continues to mark the place where the cannons of Lesdiguières made a small breach in the walls of the city.

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Procession vers le plateau Saint Michel avec Saint Véran et Saint Lambert

The Procession vers le plateau Saint Michel avec Saint Véran et Saint Lambert (The Procession to the Saint Michel Plateau with Saint Véran and Saint Lambert) takes place every year on the Monday after Easter (it was cancelled in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID). It celebrates the victory of the Vençois over the troops of Doc de Lesdiguières in what is now known as the Siege of Vence in 1592.

This year the procession was due to begin at 10h00 on the Monday after Easter so I made sure to arrive at the Cathedral about fifteen minutes early. A special mass was in session when I arrived so I quietly entered the church and made my way to the side. Some of the speakers, musicians and dancers who would be involved in the procession stood behind the priest as he performed the mass. The wooden busts of Saint Véran and Saint Lambert had already been removed from their enclosure and were sitting on two wooden platforms. When the mass ended a group of men lifted the platforms and began the trek from the church to the Plateau Saint Michel about 1/2 a kilometer away.

Call it a parade or a procession, the celebration involves a group of musicians, dancers, singers and more dressed in traditional Provençal clothing who slowly march from the Vence Cathedral to the small plateau where the oppressors were camped during the Siege of Vence. Leading the group is the marching band La Brissaudo who provide the music and tempo for the procession. The group moves from the Cathedral in Place Clemenceau out through the Alsace Lorraine gate (also known as Le Pontis), a large arched passageway that opens up from the old town onto Avenue Marcellin Maurel. Slowly the procession made its way up Rue Saint-Michel and then Avenue Joseph Bougearel. Just across the street from the Mirimar Hotel, on the edge of the Plateau Saint Michel, a small area was set up with tables and chairs.

Once arriving at the plateau the busts were placed on tables and a ceremony began. There were songs, history lessons, readings, speeches, etc. from a variety of people and dignitaries. The mayor of Vence spoke. Three young girls took turns reading a story. A woman led the crowd in several songs. Once the ceremony was over the marching band lead everyone back to the Cathedral, this time via Rue de Lahnstein and Avenue Alphonse Toreille before reentering the old town via the Porte d’Orient.

Once back at the Cathedral the busts were returned to their enclosure. I’m not religious (in the least) but I admire, respect and even treasure the tradition, history and heritage involved in ceremonies like this. I look forward to attending this procession and celebration again in future years.

Song being sung at the ceremony on the Saint Michel Plateau.

Access

Vence can easily be reached from just about anywhere in France by taking the A8 until you get to Cagnes-sur-Mer. If you are coming from the east get off on Exit 48 and if you are coming from the west you’ll want Exit 47. Take the M336, then the M36 and finally the M236 north into Vence. The most accessible parking is in the Parking du Grand Jardin, right next to the old town. Parking Toreille and Marie Antoinette Parking are both close by as well. The Vence Office de Tourisme is just across the street from the Grand Jardin. The Cathedral is found in Place Clemenceau in the center of the old town.

Juste les Faits:
What: The Procession of Saint Véran and Saint Lambert
Where: Vence (Alpes-Maritimes) (Google Maps)
When: Easter Weekend
Phone: Vence Office de Tourisme: +33 04 93 58 06 38
Website: vence-tourisme.com
Facebook: vencetourisme

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The Story of How Vence was Saved in 1592

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