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FRANCE – Corbie (Somme): Plan de Corbie.



An extremely rare separately-issued plan of the Siege of Corbie (1636), a key event of the early period of the Franco-Spanish War (1635-59), issued by the French royal cartographer Melchior Tavernier the Younger.

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This fine map, exquisitely engraved by the French royal cartographer Melchior Tavernier the Younger, showcases the Siege of Corbie (1636), in the Somme region of Northern France.  During this operation, a massive French army retook the town and its expansive fortifications from Spanish forces during the early period of the Franco-Spanish War (1635-59), an epic context between the Bourbon and Habsburg royal families for domination of Western Europe. 


As shown, Corbie was a heavily fortified position, part of a line of defences along the Somme River that protected France’s northern flank from invasion from Spanish-controlled Flanders.  In the summer of 1636, a massive Spanish force swept into Northern France taking virtually all of the Northern defensive fortresses, including Corbie, which fell on August 7.  However, the French regrouped and they mustered a large army of 52,000 troops under Gaston d’Orléans, the king’s brother, to retake Corbie.  After an intense siege, the Spanish forces of 35,000 defenders surrendered on November 9, 1636, so ending any hopes Spain harboured of marching on Paris.  


The Franco-Spanish War (1635-59) was a conflict that grew out of the larger Thirty Years War (1618-48), in which France’s House of Bourbon squared off against the mighty Spanish Habsburg Empire which controlled all of Iberia (plus Spain and Portugal’s immense overseas holdings), parts of Italy and what is today Belgium, forcing France to fight a multi-theatre defensive war.  However, Cardinal Richelieu, who ruled France as an absolute dictator in the name of the weak and inexperienced king, proved to be daring and clever diplomat and military strategist who ensured that his country would punch well above its weight. 


The war began well for France with a quick victory at Les Avins (1635); however, the following year initially proved to be a disaster for the Gallic side.  Spanish armies from Flanders overran the French defensive lines in the north, leaving Paris open to attack.  While this situation was clearly not comfortable for him, Richelieu knew that the Spanish forces were spread way too thin.  He worked to foment rebellious activities in places within the Spanish Empire, such as Portugal and Catalonia, and cleverly moved his armies around French territory in an effort to delay and harass the Spanish forces.  His plan worked, as by the latter moths of 1636, and as epitomised by the Siege of Corbie, the Spanish had simply run out of steam and were not able to hold their positions in Northern France.  They soon found themselves on the defensive, having to contain internal unrest while running out of money to finance their several massive armies all across Europe.  While Spanish armies invaded Languedoc, their efforts fell flat, as the Catalan Revolt (backed by France) sapped their resources.  In the northern theatre, the Spanish were stunned upon losing the Battle of Rocroi (1643).  The war was stalemated when a truce was declared in 1648, although the peace was not to last long, with the conflict resuming in short order.  At the Treaty of the Pyrenees (1659) which finally ended the war, France had the better of Spain, as she gained control of Roussillon, Perpignan and French Flanders, although Spain retained most of Catalonia. 


The present map of Corbie is one of a number of fine separately-issued maps showcasing different aspects of the Franco-Spanish War issued by Melchior Tavernier the Younger (1594-1665), royal cartographer to Louis XIII and a member of a great family of engravers and travel writers.  While the map bears no imprint or date, due to its unique style it is unmistakably by Tavernier, whose imprint appears on some of the other like maps. 


Tavernier’s official position gave him privileged access to French military manuscripts, and the present map is based on a manuscript drafted by a royal official who participated in the Siege of Corbie, “Plan de la ville et du siège de Corbie par René Barry, conseiller du Roy et historiographe de Sa Majesté, tiré des Triomphes de Louis XIII ; ouvrage entrepris et finis par Jean Valdar, Liégeois, calcographe du Roy”, 1636 (Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Cartes et plans, GE D-16047).  The present example of the printed map appears to be the first state (of 2), with a second state erasing the title, but in its place adding an inset featuring a close-up of the battle near the centre of Corbie (Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Cartes et plans, GE D-16048).  Curiously, Tavernier also published another, quite different, map of the Siege of Corbie based on an alternative source, Plan au vray de la ville et siège de Corbie / Designé par le Sr. le Rasle Ingénieur de sa Majesté, bearing the publisher’s imprint and date : ‘Par M. Tavernier, Graveur et Imprimeur du Roy… 1637’ (Bibliothèque nationale de France, GE BB-246).


The present map is extremely rare – we are aware of only a single institutional example (Bibliothèque nationale de France) and we have not been able to locate any sales records.


References: Bibliothèque nationale de France, GED-4540.


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