History of Cannes

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For all intents and purposes, the history of Cannes does not begin before the nineteenth century. When he arrived here in 1834, Lord Brougham and Vaux found a simple Mediterranean fishing village, completely different from the Cannes we know today. In any case, regional historical sources are scarce and imprecise; even the experts have difficulty telling the story of Cannes.

The first civilization here seems to date from the second century BC, when today's movie-star playground was a Ligurian outpost inhabited by the Oxybian tribe. Eventually the Romans found their way here, to the settlement then called Aegitna, a poor and simple fishing village that served as a stopping-off point between the Lérins Islands and the interior. Life in Aegitna was pleasantly uneventful until the bloody battle pitting Othos against Vitellius, in the year 69 AD. With this battle, the era of conquest had begun; Marseilles would soon assert its dominance of the region, as exemplified by the erection of the Castrum Marcellinum at the heart of the town. Not until the ninth century would the waves of foreign invaders cease.

In the tenth century, the village fell under the sway of Lérins Abbey (itself founded in the fifth century): to better defend themselves, the monks built the fort of La Castre, and the district now known as Le Suquet began to coalesce. The great towers of Saint-Honorat and of Cannes were constructed during this same period. Then, in 1035, the name Cannes appears for the first time on an official document. Various etymologies of Cannes's name have been proposed, the most plausible of which is perhaps the theory that the town was named for the abundant reeds ('cannae') all around the area.

Fourteenth-century Cannes, thanks in part to the abbey's benevolent protection of town and townsfolk, survived the plague and a plethora of pirates. Plague struck again in the sixteenth century, more deadly than the first time. Beginning with this period, Cannes's history blends into the history of Provence, itself in the process of annexation by France, and the influence of Lérins wanes.

The seventeenth-century village, which contained around six hundred houses, saw the construction of the Notre-Dame (Our Lady) parish church and the Spanish invasion, eventually repelled by French troops, of the island of Sainte-Marguerite. During the eighteenth century, various invaders come and go. In 1771, an exceptionally harsh winter ravages the region, and the corresponding high price of bread provokes an insurgency in Cannes. At around the same time, sea commerce begins to occupy a more important place in the little burgh's economy. France is divided into 'départements' (departments, i.e. local administrative units) at the Revolution, and Grasse is named 'chef-lieu' (governmental center, equivalent to a county seat) of the Cannes region.

Besides Napoleon's stop here, on March 1, 1815, upon his return from exile on the isle of Elba'the major event of the nineteenth century in Cannes is the legendary arrival of Lord Brougham. In December of 1834, Lord Brougham, Peer of England, Minister of Lord Gray, decided to winter at Nice. Contrary to plans, though, his trip ended near Cannes, namely, at Saint-Laurent-du-Var, where the river Var had been closed to prevent the spread of cholera. Thus the Lord Chancellor of England, for all his angry protests, had no choice but to turn back. The legend has it that his decision to stay on was clinched by a hearty bouillabaisse and a comfortable bed at the only inn in the area, the Pinchinat. Lord Brougham was taken by this lovely site, its friendly inhabitants, its good weather; he decided not to look elsewhere and, in the end, settled permanently here. Following his example and attracted by a moderate climate and natural beauty, a wave of British expatriates soon began flooding Cannes.

Very quickly, Cannes was no longer a peaceful fishing village. The town received the prestigious visits of personalities such as Prosper Mérimée, Oscar Wilde, Stephen Liegard, the Countess of Oxford, Lord Russell, Baron Haussmann, the Rothschilds, and even the King of Prussia himself! Every winter, an international élite disembarked here in search of peace and good weather; their presence encouraged the development of the Croisette, where they would stroll along the waterfront, their faces hidden behind parasols to preserve their ashy skin. By the 1930s, the parasols were gone, but Cannes's place as fashionable destination was secure. Even today, one may admire the fur coats of aristocrats on the Croisette; Cannes remains beloved among the rich and famous. Meanwhile, the International Film Festival, now more than fifty years old, has lost none of its ability to attract stars, starlets, and groupies.