Savoy - History

Savoy has a long and ancient history as an independent and sovereign state and we hope that the following synopsis will provide you with a flavour of it’s heritage :


Savoy has been occupied since prehistoric times and a number of prehistoric stones can still be found in Maurienne and Tarntaise. Prehistoric funeral sites belonging to early lakeside settlements have also been found.
The local population, called "allobroges" (gallic people), lived mainly in small mountain communities.

Savoy, Roman land

The Roman occupation, from the 1st century B.C., influenced the area in four main areas :
- Agricultural improvement of lowland areas;
- Building of major roads along two main corridors, : Grenoble (Cularo) - Geneva (Genabum) and Vienne (Vienna) - Milan (Mediolanum). This last corridor includes a staging post in Lemencum (Chambéry/Lemenc) and an “Ad Publicanos” (custom post) in the Conflans area;
- Creation of small towns : These acted as administrative centres (Aime, Axima, from where the 'procurator' managed the counties of Tarentaise and Valais), resort centres (Aix, Aquae) and business centres (Annecy, Boutae);
- Introduction of Roman civilisation, the Latin language and christianity. The first written reference to what we now call Savoy appeared in 380 AD, in the work of the Latin historian Ammien Marcellin. He refers to Savoy by its latin name of Sapaudia (or Sabaudia) and used the term to denote the territory occupied by the Allobroge people.

From the Roman empire to the middle-ages

During the Vth and VIth centuries the dioceses of Tarentaise, Maurienne, Saint-Maurice Abbey(Valais), Geneva, Belley and Grenoble were created. Following the breakup of the Kingdom of Charlemagne in the IXth century Savoy formed part of the central European Kingdom of Lotharingia (which took it’s name from Lothar the grandson of Charlemagne).

The Middle-Ages

During the Middle-Ages (up to the XVth century), the history of Savoy was influenced by the ability of its princes to form strategic alliances with its powerful neighbouring rulers (Dauphins of Vienne, Counts of Geneva, Dukes of Burgundy, Kings of France,...). These alliances were necessary for them to keep control and expand their territory within Lotharingia, which during this era, owed its political allegiance to the German Emperor. Savoy became a powerful mid european state with it’s power based on it’s control of the alpine passes and roads which crossed the area.
1032 : Humbert aux Blanches-Mains (White Hands), founder of the Savoy dynasty becomes the first count of Savoy and during his reign acquires the Aosta Valley.
1045 : Odon I, son of Humbert aux Blanches-Mains, marries Adelaïde of Suse and henceforth the Counts of Savoy are also Marquises of Turin.
1264 : Pierre II adopts the statutes made by an assembly of nobles and lay men, who in fact constitute the first national assembly. From the XIVth
century onwards the assembly is referred to as the "Meeting of States", grouping the representatives of the nobility, clergy and of local communities.

1286 : Thomas de Thonon (Thonon is in the county of Chablais in Northern Savoy) is the author of a treatise on hygiene written in ancient French. He is the earliest recognised Savoy author and also the first physician and author to write directly in French.
1295 : Amédée V acquires Chambéry castle and makes the town the capital of Savoy.
1329 : Count Aymon creates an Assembly of Counts, and a legislative assembly based in Chambéry.
1416 : The Count of Savoy, Amédée VIII, receives the title of Prince and Duke of the Empire from the Emperor Sigismond of Luxembourg.
1419 : The county  of Piedmont is re allied with Savoy following its earlier loss.
1427 : Amédée VIII re unites the county of Piedmont to Savoy.
1430 : Amédée VIII standardises the multitude of different laws in force all the over the duchy  under the title of Statutes of Savoy (Statuta Sabaudiae).

From this time onwards Savoy possessed the fully-fledged structure of a Nation –State with a singular national authority based on excellent legal foundations

Savoy was an important military power with allies stretching across Europe from England to the Byzantian world making it a bastion of security in the heart of Europe. The effect of “Statuta Sabaudiae” was to produce a centralised administration and enable the Duke to stabilise the nation still suffering from the aftermath of a feudal system.

The head of the judicial system was the Resident Assembly based in Chambéry. Justice at a local level was administered by a local magistrates assisted by  district attorneys

The chancellor of Savoy acted as first minister directly below the sovereign. The assemblies of the three states seek to establish a direct line of communication between themselves and the ruler. 

The Statutes of Savoy were more than a constitution since they also governed social questions as well as establishing a strong fiscal system. 

The national character was based on its language, customs, territory and history. Both rural and urban communities, nobles and clergy accepted the State’s authority in areas of law, legislation and tax. The State for its part, offers protection to all citizens, offers titles and advantages to the nobility, and political and economic autonomy to certain towns and communities. The State also created jobs, open to all within the royal administration. Savoy was a highly efficient and prosperous country. 

From 1450 to 1480, the Duchy of Savoy is one of the most advanced European countries lacking only sovereignty.

From renaissance to the French Revolution

During this period, the history of Savoy was shaped by the conflicting ambitions of its powerful neighbours, the Kingdoms of France and Austria. The former wishing to acquire the Alpine passes and the latter Lombardy. During the same period, the Savoisian state was in deep crisis : the successors of Amédée VIII had not managed to impose themselves inside or  outside the state which had led to a succession of invasions.
1536-1559 : The majority of Savoy is occupied by the French troops of François I, Bernese troops  occupy Geneva and the Pays de Gex and Valaisan troops  occupy Chablais. The Savoisian state collapses and it is not until the  defeat of the King of France at Saint-Quentin by the armies of the Emperor Charles-Quint, led by Emmanuel-Philibert of Savoy, that Savoy is revived.
1600-1601 : French troops of Henri IV, invade and occupy Savoy. 
1630-1631 : French troops of Louis XIII, invade and occupy Savoy.
1690-1696 : French troops of Louis XIV, invade and occupy Savoy.
1703-1713 : French troops of Louis XIV, invade and occupy Savoy.
1742-1749 : Savoy is occupied by Spain.

Despite these setbacks, from  the XVI century, and in particular from the XVIII century onwards,  Savoy formed part of a well organised state , with strong finances controlled by a frugal ruler in stark contrast with his extravagant neighbour the King of France.

1560 : The Senate of Savoy, successor of the Assembly of Counts  founded in  1329, becomes a true constitutional  and legislative assembly with expertise on all ducal domains on both sides of the Alps. The Senate of Savoy is sovereign: the first president (chosen by the Prince from amongst the  senators) governed the duchy in the absence of the Prince's representative.
1563 : Emmanuel-Philibert transfers the capital of Savoy to Turin, as Chambéry is judged to be too close to the French Border and  exposed to French troops. The Senate of Savoy remains in Chambéry (two other Senates exist in Piedmont and in Nice). It is from the time of Emmanuel-Philibert that it is possible to speak of a centralized State, constructed in a similar fashion as the other major European monarchies.
1713 - 1720 : The Treaty of Utrecht (1713), assigns the island  of Sicily, (previously an old Spanish possession)to Savoy. However Victor-Amédée II is obliged by France and England to accept Sardinia in exchange for Sicily. The treaty of London ratified the exchange in 1720. In fact the Duke of Savoy was not particularly concerned whether he acquired Sicily or Sardinia, the crests of both islands were embellished with crowns indicating that they were kingdoms in their own right and henceforth the Duke was entitled to take the title of King. Without  these crowns the status of Savoy could never have been changed to that of a kingdom, as similarly to the cantons of Switzerland, they formed part of an empire.
At this time  the house of Savoy, “exiled” in Turin, had been dreaming of  another route to  obtaining a royal crown by unifying the Italian Peninsular. The peninsular at that time comprised a mosaic of small states and protectorates weakened by their continuing rivalry.
1680 - 1773 : Two far-sighted rulers, Victor-Amédée IInd (1680 - 1730) and Charles-Emmanuel IIIrd (1730 - 1773) design and implement a program of innovations whose reformist nature draws admiration from the rest of Europe. These reforms came half a century earlier than those carried by the Parisian revolutionaries in July 1789. The development of a land register in 1730 -the first one in Europe - established tax equality. Feudalism, privileges of the clergy, etc were abolished  in Savoy. The state was structured and  modernized, with rights of privilege on the verge of extinction.

The French Revolution and Napoleon 1st

1792 : In September, French troops invade Savoy to " bring freedom " to the people of Savoy. For the first time the French Republic annexes, Savoy by a national decree, which makes reference to the "sovereign people of Savoy".
1793 : The situation deteriorates further: The French republic   attempts to raise an army of 300 000 men, however only 33 young men of Savoy  volunteer at the recruiting office in Chambéry. A counter offensive  launched by  Savoisian armies frees the alpine valleys and Annecy. Riots hostile to the French occupation take place in Chambéry and Rumilly. 
This French occupation lasts twenty-three years, during which Savoy suffers greatly. The perpetual state of war rapidly tires the population leaving them longing for peace. Deaths caused by the never ending conflicts into which the young men of the region are conscripted after the 1792 invasion, and emigration of the social elite  amount to  approximately 80,000. This is out of total population of  441 000 inhabitants, in other words 18% of the population. Napoleon was certainly not considered as a hero in Savoy.
1814 : Representatives of Geneva (then an independent state but soon to join the Swiss confederation) coerced by the  Austrians, propose to divide up Savoy. Under the secret terms of the first treaty of Paris, they proposed detaching part of Northern Savoy (Counties of Chablais and Faucigny) from  the Sardinian monarchy and bringing them inside the Swiss Confederation, "with the same conditions  of other sovereign states". The central part of Savoy (Counties of Genevois and Savoy Ducale) would remain French, whilst the southern counties of Tarentaise and Maurienne would remain part of the kingdom of Sardinia. In exchange for losing the northern and central parts of Savoy the kingdom of Sardinia would gain the city and territory of the state of Genova. 
Victor-Emmanuel I, King of Sardinia and Duke of Savoy, opposed these terms and stated publicly: "we are neither the House of Piedmont, nor the House of Sardinia, but the House  of Savoy". The population as a whole was also opposed to the dismantling of Savoy and continued to show its opposition to the French state wherever possible.

1815 : The second treaty of Paris corrects the  mistakes of the first treaty and Savoy is dismantled. However to enable Geneva to unify its territory and to join the Swiss confederation, some villages are transferred to Geneva in return for a free trade zone and neutrality.

Buon Governo and Statuto

1815-1831 : Victor-Emmanuel I (to 1821) and Charles-Félix reverse many earlier advances and the period of the Buon Governo (as the Turin based government becomes known) is marked by a period of stagnation and a period where absolute power still rests with the king. Although the  Senate is re-established in Conflans (Albertville), it progressively  loses it’s function. However it is a period of good fiscal management where taxes are reduced and major public works undertaken.
1848 : In order to avoid the fate of other European states where  revolutions are taking place to win constitutions, Charles-Albert re-establishes the Statuto based the charter of 1815. A new parliament implements elections with universal suffrage and the feudal rents paid in Savoy are reduced. An invasion attempt by French troops is stopped by the Chambéry population.
1848-1860 : This period is an apprenticeship for modern political life. Representative institutions allow the population to express themselves, whereas during this period France is under the arbitrary and anti democratic system of Napoleon III. Elected city councillors choose the city mayors (syndics), Parliament is changed every five years, the press is free, all citizens are equal before the law. The prime minister Cavour, undertakes major transalpine transport projects which enable the country to re-establish itself at the crossroads of Europe. The Savoisian Members of Parliament obtain from the Turin government recognition of citizenship, which will be subsequently denied from 1860.

The 1860 annexation

1859 : The fate of Savoy is decided during the secret meeting at Plombières, where the King of Savoy through his prime minister Cavour, exchange the birthplace of his kingdom for military assistance. This assistance consisting  of 200 000 troops  enables him to defeat the Austrians and allows him to conquer and unify Italy.  All this was agreed  in the treaty, signed on the 23 January 1859.
The treaty itself  remained  secret for a long period, only becoming public in 1928, as did the cessation treaty which followed it in 1860 which was motivated purely  by the self interest of the two rulers Victor-Emmanuel II and Napoleon III.
Since the end of the Lombardy war in 1859, French troops have been stationed in Savoy, along the corridor from Chambéry to the Mont-Cenis pass.
1860 : The Throne Speech of 1st March: Napoleon III asks France for the “French side" of the Alps.  Treaty of March 24th : "Art 1: this union will be undertaken  without taking into consideration the will of the people". The "sovereign population of  Savoy" as they were referred to by the French Republic in 1792, have become simply “the population” by 1860. 
Through this 1860 annexation treaty, the French emperor Napoleon III finally manages to annexe Savoy, something previous French rulers whether royalist, republican or imperial had failed to do using arms. This annexation took place without even the pretext of conquest, natural borders, or nationalities. 
The same day the  French flag is hoisted in Chambéry.
A dubious referendum takes place on April 22 : 99.8% say YES to France - (96.5% of the electorate voted) with two conditions : free trade zone and Neutral Zone. In fact the people were voting "yes and zone": these conditions were essentially the reasons that persuaded the people of Northern Savoy to vote for unity with France; without the free trade zone, the annexation by France is invalid.

Union with France or Italy were the only options given to the people of Savoy, in fact major petitions were submitted for alternative options such as joining the Swiss confederation, but these were contrary to the aims of the Italian and French governments  so were never considered.

The annexation treaty (as required by  its article 7) was submitted for ratification by the Turin parliament on May 29, 1860 : Victor-Emmanuel II expressed a wish that the eighteen Savoisian deputies would go to Turin to approve the annexation giving him the stamp of public approval, in the event only three deputies turned up.

A French law of November 21, 1860 confirms the continuation of vested rights: "… the annexation will not result in the reversal of the rights that were previously passed by the law of that state[Savoy]”

When annexed to France in 1860, Savoy was a nation. To treat Savoy as a "simple province" is therefore  totally wrong, and a great historical myth .

Savoy since the annexation

After 1860, the people became disillusioned. The previous administration always tried to take into account the kingdoms component diversity, as distinct from the very centralised and uniform French approach. The French authorities target was to replace everything with French rules and customs. The ministers, appointed in 1860, were foreigners to Savoy. Relations between the Savoisian people and French State bureaucrats, who thought themselves in a conquered country, was awful.
: The French defeat in 1870 awakens a democratic opposition. The Savoisian people denounce the rigged referendum of 1860 and try to free their country. A strong break away movement appears in North Savoy against the annexation. The Republican Committee of the town of Bonneville considers that "the 1860 vote, was the result of  imperial pressure, and  not the free demonstration of the will of our country" and calls for a new referendum . France sends 10 000 troops to Savoy to restore order.
1914-1918 : Savoy neutrality is not respected by France. Savoy has to take part in the First World War and more than 43 000 Savoisian people are killed, which represents some 8.5 % of the total population  of 500,000.
1919 : The neutrality of Savoy as well as the large free trade zone are suppressed by the Article 435 of the Versailles treaty.
1932 : The International Court of Justice in the Hague
recommends that France restores the free trade zone, in accordance with the previous treaties of 1815, 1816 and 1829, but only 640 km2 is restored against 4000 km2 in the original annexation treaty.
1939-1945 : At the beginning of the  World War II , the area is relatively calm. On 10th June 1940, when France is almost totally occupied by  German blitzkrieg troops, Mussolini declares war. Savoy troops fight in Tarentaise, Maurienne and in the Rhône Valley against the German advance. At the time of the 1940 armistice just a small part of the territory was invaded, unfortunately, this was not the case for France. Savoy is originally occupied by the Italians then the Germans. The resistance movement is progressively organised to fight against the occupation. After some initial doubts, opposition to "collaboration" really begins from the autumn of 1940. Many "Maquis" groups are formed and a large group is located on the Glières plateau. Their fight against the French militia and the German troops came to a sad end but nevertheless became a symbol of the resistance to nazism. In August and September 1944 Savoy is liberated by resistance groups. The Alpine passes are finally liberated during the spring of 1945.
1965 : Several regionalist movements appear in Savoy (Club des Savoyards de Savoie, Savoisian Center of Regional studies, Cercle de l'Annonciade). Their wish for a Savoy Region within France led to the birth of the "Movement for a Savoy Region " (MRS).
1973 : The General Councils of the Departments of Savoie (Southern Savoy) and Haute Savoie (Northern Savoy) reject the creation of a Savoy Region. There were a number of reasons for this rejection: disagreements between the policies of the two departments, no clear picture of what a Savoy Region would represent, nature of the project, the absence of any consultation with elected local representatives , hostility to the scheme by most parliamentarians, passivity of the population. This last reason is due to the absence of a “right of petition”  that was available in Savoy until 1860 (it was recognised in the article 57 of "Albertian statute" [" all adults have the right to address petitions to Chambers"]), whereas the French Constitution of 1958 doesn't even recognise it.
1986 : In regional elections, regionalists of the MRS get 4.3% of votes in Northern Savoy and 6.3% of votes in Southern Savoy (however this is insufficient for any representation).
1992 : The regionalist movement was faltering, the MRS withdrew into itself due to lack of support , money and elected representatives. The ardour of regionalists is dulled and the regionalist ideas are adopted by other movements, most notably the environmentalists. Results are catastrophic: 4.8% of votes in Northern Savoy, but only 2.6% in Southern Savoy.
1994 : The Savoy League is created: The league is not founded on the Savoy region theme like the MRS . It sees the only possible way forward for Savoy is  outright independence. The League criticises the role of France towards Savoy, in particular it’s violations of the treaties of 1815 and 1860. These violations make the annexation treaty null and void and  Savoy is thus free of all allegiance to France.
1998 : In the regional elections, The Savoy League received 6.1% of votes in Northern Savoy and 4,8% in Southern Savoy, to which can be added a further 3.7% for the regionalist movement " Movement Savoy ".

To know more (in French) :

Savoy History

Text of the 1860 annexation treaty

A la découverte de THOMAS DE THONON (XIIIe siècle), le premier auteur d’origine savoisienne connu à ce jour

Historical References in the English language :
 The Early House of Savoy , CW PREVITE ORTON, Cambridge University Press, 1912. (Out of print but available from good lending libraries).
 War, Diplomacy and the Rise of Savoy 1690-1720, C STORRS, Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Last update : 09/03/02