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Sisteron (Municipality, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, France)

Last modified: 2011-06-10 by ivan sache
Keywords: alpes-de-haute-provence | sisteron | fleurs-de-lis: 2 (yellow) | crown (yellow) | rings: 2 (yellow) | letter: s (yellow) |
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[Flag of Sisteron]

Flag of Sisteron - Image by Arnaud Leroy, 5 January 2006


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Presentation of Sisteron

The municipality of Sisteron (8,000 inhabitants; 485 m asl) is located in Upper Provence, 135 km of Marseilles and Grenoble. The town is built in a strategic place on a cluse (a transversal gorge, from Latin clusa, closed) of the river Durance and protected by a huge fortress, which explains its nickname of Porte de la Provence (Gate of Provence) or Clef de la Provence (Key of Provence), the latter having been coined by the Provencal poet Frédéric Mistral. Sisteron is also famous for its climate, with an average of 300 sunny days per year and a very clean atmosphere.

Because of its strategic location, the site of Sisteron was already inhabited 4,000 years ago. After having submitted the Voconces and suppressing their oppidum (fortified camp), the Romans set up there a castrum (fortress), later transformed into an important post on the Via Sinistra, the way linking the Via Domitia and the Via Aurelia. The city was known as Segustero; remains of a mausoleum and of the Gallo-Roman city (IVth century) have been found.
A Bishopric was set up in Sisteron at the end of the Vth century. All the tribes and peoples that invaded Provence at that time sacked Sisteron. The city was later the main fortified city of the County of Forcalquier, which was incorporated to Provence in 1209 after the death of Count Guillaume II. The Cathedral Notre-Dame-des-Pommiers was rebuilt by Bishop Pierre de Sabran (1145-1171) in order to show a relic of the Holy Cross he had brought back from the Holy Land. The name of Pommiers has nothing to do with apple trees (pommiers) but refer to the pomerium, a space located between the city and its wall, where any building was theoretically forbidden. The building site ended near 1200.

After the incorporation of the County of Forcalquier into Provence, Sisteron became the border city between Provence and Dauphiné, and it was said ici un pays finit, un autre commence (here ends a country and begins another one). Around 1370, a big city wall, defended by several towers and connected to the early citadel, was built in order to protect the town from the bands of rascals that scoured the region. Along with Provence, Sisteron was incorporated to the Kingdom of France in 1483 and kept its strategic importance. In the XVIth century, it was written that Sisteron was forto villo de gran passage per passa los mons, a fortified city with a big traffic heading to the mounts. During the Religious War (1560-1600), the town was disputed between the Catholics and the Protestants. At the end of the war, the town was ruined. Jehan Sarrazin fortified it and drafted the modern fortress. A revolt caused by new taxes was severely repressed in 1617. King Jean Casimir of Poland was jailed in the fortress on Richelieu's order in 1639.
In 1692, Duke of Savoy Victor Amédée invaded the upper valley of Durance and Louis XIV commissionned Vauban to increase the fortifications of Sisteron. Only the powder magazine and the well were actually built.

In March 1815, Napoléon returnied from Elba and decided to cross the Alps in order to avoid the ultra-Royalist Provence. He followed what is called today the Route Napoléon. In St. Helena, Napoléon often recalled that the first five days of his expedition had been critical, especially the arrival at Sisteron, which was a fortified city with a Royalist Mayor (François de Gombert, 1766-1852, Mayor from 1802 to 1820) and Royalist inhabitants, and therefore a possible place of resistance.
On the evening of 4 March, Napoléon stopped at Malijai and sent 100 riders commanded by Cambronne to Sisteron. The order was: Seize the town! Th next day, at 5 AM, a rider came back and announced the Emperor that the city was submitted. Napoléon entered Sisteron around 10 AM and said to his troops:
Soldats, nous voilà sauvés, nous sommes à Paris ! (Soldiers, we are now saved, we are [soon] in Paris!). Napoléon had lunch at the Golden Arms Inn but decided to leave the town quickly, three hours after having entered the town, since the population started to rally.

In the XIXth century, the city wall and its gates were suppressed; Prosper Mérimée saved five towers of the medieval wall, today considered as the highest in France. These towers are Tour du Fort (Fort's Tower, located close to the citadel), Tour des Gents d'Arme (Soldier's Tower, the only tower permanently watched and therefore roofed), Tour de la Médisance (Gossip's Tower, so called because the inhabitants of the city enjoyed go there in order to gossip), Tour Notre-Dame (Notre-Dame Tower, located close to the cathedral) and Tour de la Porte Sauve (Safe Gate's Tower, located near the gate used by thousands of Protestants to flee the town in 1591).
On 15 August 1944, the allied Air Force shelled the town, killing 100 and damaging several buildings and houses. The citadel was later rebuilt exactly as it was.

Most of the past of Sisteron is known via the works of the local historian Jean Aimé Edouard de Laplane (1774-1870), also author of Etat et progrès de la société au XVème siècle (The State and the social progress in the XVth century) and Origine et révolution des noms de famille en Provence (Origin and revolution of family names in Provence). Laplane was ennobled by King of Louis XVIII in 1816.
Sisteron is the birth city of the Provencal poet Paul Arène (1843-1896). His main works are the novels and short stories Jean des Figues, La gueuse parfumée, La veine d'argile and La chèvre d'or. Arène settled in Antibes, where he was found dead at his work table. The distich he dedicated to Mistral has been written on his tombstone:
Ieu m'en vau l'amo ravido d'agué pantaïa ma vida (I leave with my soul delighted to have dreamed my life.)
Other celebrities from Sisteron are the botanist Joseph Philippe François Deleuze (1755-1835), librarian at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris and translator of Thompson and Darwin; the heraldist and photographer Saint Marcel Eysseric (1831-1914); the geologist and botanist Gustave Tardieu (1851-1932), who published in 1912 his Guide des Alpes de Provence; and the dermatologist Achille Civatte (1877-1956), elected at the Academy of Medicine in 1950.

Source: Municipal website

Ivan Sache, 5 January 2006


Flag of Sisteron

The flag of Sisteron, as photographied by Dominique Cureau, is white with the greater municipal arms.
The municipal arms of Sisteron are (GASO):
De gueules à la lettre capitale S couronnée, accostée de deux fleurs de lys, soutenue de deux annelets rangés en fasce, le tout d'or.
Timms gives De gueules, à une grande S d'or, couronnée de même, accompagnée de deux fleurs de lys posé:es une de chaque flanc, et en pointe de deux annelets de même.
That is: Gules a capital letter S between in chief a crown in each of the flanks a fleur de lis and in base two annulets in fess or.
Timms' French blazon is nearly identic to the blazon found in Armorial Général (Arm. I, 307; bl. II, 1333; registration fee 100 l.) as reported by Bresc [bjs94], ...de deux fleurs de lys d'or...

Louis de Bresc says more on the history of the coat of arms of Sisteron. An earlier version of these arms, reported by Robert de Brianson, is De gueules à un S couronné d'or (the fleur-de-lis and the annelets are omitted). The crown seems to be a Ducal coronet. Chevillard gives the same arms but with an antique crown over the S. Achard (Géographie de Provence) shows a bezant instead of the annelets.
The aforementioned local historian Laplane shows on the front page of his Histoire de Sisteron the blazon reported by Achard, but with the charges argent; this was a mistake, corrected by the author on p. 727 of the first volume of the book. The crown is there a Marquis' crown, said to have been in common use at that time.

On the flag, the shield is surmonted by a golden crown itself surmonted by a scroll bearing the Latin motto of the city, tuta montibus et fluviis (all by the mountains and the rivers), surrounded by two branches tied below the shield by a red ribbon. A third nickname of the city, Perle de la Haute Provence (Pearl of Upper-Provence) is added below the branches.

Ivan Sache, 13 May 2005