Like its name, which is both plural and singular, the Dombes has an unusual history. An independent principality for two centuries, the Dombes only became part of the kingdom of France in 1762.
Monks started to develop the Dombes in the 12th century, managing the wetlands to create fish pools. Today, they are still maintained and farmed using centuries-old techniques.
Text: the heritage of the Pays de l’Ain
A “thou” used in the lakes of the Dombes
© Gilles Brevet Aintourisme
The origins of the name Dombes is disputed. Some historians attribute it to the region’s landscape of trees and mounds whilst others point to a Latin or Germanic origin. In French, the region is known as La Dombes with a singular definite article like La Bresse and La Savoie.
A vast plateau stretching between four rivers: the Saône to the west, the Rhône to the south, the Ain to the east and the Veyle to the north, the Dombes became part of the Holy Roman Empire following the division of the Carolingian Empire in 843. It was known as “Beaujolais apart from the Empire”.
The 137 communes of the Dombes
© Académie de la Dombes
A succession of quarrels, conflicts and alliances between several feudal lords resulted in the existence of four seigneuries around 1300:
Edward I of Beaujeu (after Louis de Bourbon) paid homage to the King.
The seal of Guichard VI of Beaujeu
The historic Battle of Varey in 1325 resulted in the weakening of the Empire. Alliances and territorial acquisitions meant that by the start of the 15th century there were two major political forces who, between them, held the entire region of the Dombes: the Dukes of Bourbon and the Counts of Savoy.
The borders of the ancient Principality of the Dombes in around 1500
The Bourbons established themselves in the Dombes from 1402. Initially recognised as the Lords of Trévoux, they became the Dukes and then Princes of the Dombes in 1560. They established an independent sovereign state: the Principality of the Dombes. It was composed of 2 entities: Grande Dombes (the western part close to the Saône) and Petite Dombes (near the Ain).
Louis-Charles de Bourbon, the last sovereign prince of the Dombes, 1755-1762
Château de Trévoux’s octogonal tower
Established in La Bresse since 1272, the Counts and Dukes of Savoy installed themselves in the Dombes around 1402. Bourg-en-Bresse was the capital of Bresse Savoyarde, a northern extension of the States of Savoy, and the Château de Chatillon in the Dombes, the region’s most significant site. The Duchy of Savoy possessed a territorial corridor separating the two portions of the Principality. The Savoy period was a time of boom and prosperity for the inhabitants of the Dombes.
The citadel of Bourg, built in 1569 and destroyed in 1611
The fortified castle of Chatillon-lès-Dombes
The 1601 Treaty of Lyon ended the Franco-Savoyard war between Charles-Emmanuel I, Duke of Savoy and Henry IV of France. The States of Savoy lost La Bresse, Bugey, Gex and Valromey but were granted the Marquisate of Saluzzo in exchange.
Charles-Emmanuel I, Duke of Savoy (1562-1630)
The Principality of the Dombes was a remarkable and unusual entity. It was an independent State with its own justice system, army and currency.
Currency from the Principality of the Dombes Louis II de Bourbon, Duke of Montpensier
The Principality of the Dombes in the 17th century
The Governor of the Dombes resided in the Chateau du Breuil: currently home to Le Gouverneur Golf Club in Monthieux. The principality survived from the beginning of the 15th century until1781 when the Dombes was finally annexed by the Kingdom of France. Taxation was very low here, significantly below the rates in neighbouring France.
François Damas d’Antigny, governor of Dombes (1785-1862)
Château du Breuil at Le Gouverneur Golf Club
The princes were the Bourbons, then from 1560, the Bourbon-Montpensiers. And finally, by alliance, the Orleans from 1627 to 1762.
Anne Marie Louise d’Orléans, known as La Grande Mademoiselle was a notable figure. She was the richest heiress in the Kingdom of France, and initiated the development of the Dombes.
Anne Marie Louise d’Orléans, known as La Grande Mademoiselle (1627-1693)
The Duke of Maine (the illegitimate and favourite son of Louis XIV) elevated the Principality to a real Kingdom between 1693 and 1736. At this time, the town of Trévoux was known throughout the royal and princely courts in Europe for its prestigious printworks (the Trévoux dictionary), its learned societies (the Jesuit journal), its gold and diamond technology, the parliament of the Dombes as well as its hotels and mansions. These sites can still be visited today in Trévoux.
Louis-Auguste de Bourbon, Duke of Maine (1670-1736)
Audience Hall at Trévoux parliament
© Département de l'Ain
Lakes have sculpted the landscape of the Dombes. Created by monks in the 13th century, the fish farms, which mainly raised carp, brought prosperity to the region. In the 19th century, unfounded controversy over their a supposed link with disease, together with the development of the rail network led to widespread draining of the wetlands.
The lakes of the Dombes
© Thierry Moiroux Aintourisme
Today, there are over a thousand lakes covering 12,000 hectares.
A rotation system is used in which the lakes are drained and used for growing cereals before being filled for fish farming.
Farmed fish in the Dombes
The “thou” is a bung designed to drain the lakes.
Compressed, dried clay soil called “pisé” was traditionally used as a construction material in the Dombes. Châteaux, ramparts and churches were built from “carrons”: thick, solid bricks of baked earth. A beautifully conserved brickworks is still in existence in Saint-Paul-de-Varax.
The fortified house of Villon in Villeneuve is built from “carrons”
© Patrimoine de l’Ain
The brickworks at Saint-Paul-de-Varax
Dr. Yves Vercellis
Vice-Chanceller of the Académie de la Dombes (*)
(*) The Académie de la Dombes exists to protect and provide information about the Dombes.