History of Biarritz in France

Biarritz Architecture Villa Belza Basque Country

Biarritz is a city on the Bay of Biscay, located on the Atlantic coast in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques department in the French Basque Region in southwestern France.

The earliest mention of the town appears in a cartulary, Bayonne’s Golden book, from 1186 CE, where it is named Bearids; some years later, the name adopted was Beiarrids. The first residential development was to the south, at the top, and at the inner regions. Today this is near the site of the church of San Martin, the earliest church in Biarritz.

In 1152 CE, Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry II of England, who became suzerain of the Duchy of Aquitaine. Prince Edward, the oldest son of Henry III of England, was invested with the duchy and pledged to Eleanor of Castile, who served him rights over Gascony.

Development of the château de Ferragus was determined by the English, on the grounds of a Roman work, at the summit of the land overlooking the ocean, named Atalaye, used as a whale-observation post. This château had an alleged double crenulated wall two measures thick, four towers, and a drawbridge. Mentions of this château happen as late as 1603 CE, in the letters patent of Henry IV. One tower remained as of 1739 CE, when a daymark was placed there, called de la Haille, then de la Humade. The tower ceased to exist in 1856.

Most of the records, documents, and official agreements accumulated in the archives from Biarritz mention whaling. This was the major local industry. Consequently, the city’s coat of arms highlights the image of a whale below a rowing boat crewed by five sailors donning berets, one of whom is dressing to throw a harpoon.

Biarritz has long made its existence from the sea: it was a whaling town from the 12th century CE onwards. In the 18th century CE, doctors claimed that the ocean at Biarritz had healing properties, encouraging patients to make pilgrimages to the beach for mythical cures for their ailments. After the 7th century CE, Biarritz had several confrontations with Bayonne, with the Kingdom of England – Lapurdi was under its authority and power – and with the Bishop of Bayonne. Almost all of the arguments were about whale hunting. In 1284 CE, the city’s right to hunt whales was reinstated by the jurisdictions of Lapurdi and the Duchy of Aquitaine.

19th Century

From 1784 CE onwards, after the French Revolution, taking a bath at sea was no longer a behavior of those who were clowns; sea-baths were cool. In 1808 CE, Napoleon himself broke prejudices and took a bath on the Basque Country’s beach.

In 1840 CE, the Town House or Municipality of Biarritz began organizing an initiative to promote and draw those who loved the sea.

Biarritz became more famous in 1854 CE when Empress Eugenie (the wife of Napoleon III) established a palace on the beach (present-day the Hôtel du Palais). European nobility, including British monarchs King Edward VII and Queen Victoria, and the Spanish king Alfonso XIII, were regular visitors.

At the top of World War II in Europe, American Government ordered the U.S. Army’s Information and Educational Branch to build an overseas university campus for retired American servicemen and women in the French resort city of Biarritz. Under General Samuel L. McCroskey, the casinos and hotels of Biarritz were converted into labs, quarters, and class spaces for retired U.S. service personnel. The University opened on 10 August 1945 CE, and nearly 10,000 students attended an eight-week program.

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