Located in the area of Gaul settled by the powerful Celtic (Gaule Celtique) tribe, the Bituriges, or the "Kings of the World", and after their defeat at Bourges (Avaricum), part of Roman Aquitania. Some evidence points to the existence of an early hillside Roman temple dedicated to Julius Caesar; located on the Roman road (Gordaine) from Bourges to the river town of Gordona (Castle-Gordon), now Saint Thibault and Saint Satur. Name possibly derived from "Sacred to Caesar" and later Christianized to "Saint-Cere". During the Carolingian period there was a small village on the hillside, clustered around the Saint Romble Church. An Augustinian abbey was founded in Saint Satur in 1034. A natural fortress 312 meters in height, Sancerre is a former feudal possession of the Counts of Champagne (1152) in the province of Berry. They built a chateau on the hill and ramparts to protect the city. The chateau had six towers including the Tower of the Strongholds (Tour des Fiefs) and the Tower of Saint George. In times of war, a fire was lit on the top of the Saint George tower that could be seen for 40 km around. The Customs of Lorris (1155), a charter granted by Stephen I (Étienne I ) to the merchants of Sancerre was considered one of the most progressive in the Capetian kingdom. In 1184, the Count of Sancerre led a band of rebels called the Brabançons against the king. They were defeated by the Confrères de la Paix, the Fellow-members of Peace, a group charged with keeping order in the kingdom. In (1190) Stephen I was among the first feudal lords to abolish serfdom. The fortified city repelled the English forces twice during the Hundred Years' War but much of the surrounding area, including the Augustine Abbey in Saint Satur and Saint Romble, were destroyed by the forces of Edward, the Black Prince. Sancerre was the seat of Joan of Arc's great comrade-in-arms, Jean V de Bueil.
Sancerre was also the site of the infamous Siege of Sancerre (1572-1573) during the Wars of Religion where the Huguenot population held out for nearly eight months against the Catholic forces of the king. The siege was one of the last times in European history where slings (trebuchet), the "Arquebuses of Sancerre", were used in warfare. The siege was documented by a Protestant minister who survived the battle, Jean de Léry, in The Memorable History of the Siege of Sancerre. In 1621 much of the feudal chateau and city walls were destroyed by orders of the king to prevent further resistance. In 1640 the county became the possession of the Prince of Condé, Henry II of Bourbon, the governor of Berry. The area suffered economically from the mass exodus of Protestant merchants, tradesmen and others during the 17th century, especially after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685).
During the French Revolution, Sancerre was the site of a royalist rebellion led by Phelippeaux – small "Vendee Sancerroise". Sancerre was designated the seat of government for the district during the First Republic, but in 1926 the sous-préfecture and other administrative services were transferred to Bourges. Count Jean-Pierre de Montalivet, of Chateau de Thauvenay, Minister of the Interior under Napoleon, was a large landowner in Sancerre during the 19th century.
Area transportation was improved by the construction of a suspension bridge at Saint Thibault (1834), the Lateral Canal of the Loire (1838) and later, the Bourges-Sancerre railroad line (1885). A mansion was built on the ruins of the original Chateau de Sancerre in 1874 by Mlle de Crussol d'Uzès in the style of Louis XII. In 1919, the mansion and part of the vineyards were purchased by Louis Alexandre Marnier-Lapostolle, the liqueur manufacturer. From 1914-1918, Sancerre was the site of a military hospital.
During World War II, Sancerre was a regional command center for the French Resistance. "Operation Spencer” in 1944 was to prevent the Germans from crossing the Loire River between Gien and Nevers and reinforcing troops in Brittany. The French Resistance and Free French Forces blew up the bridge at Sancerre and sabotaged communication, road and railway lines. On June 25, 1944, German troops based in Cosne-sur-Loire set fire to the village of Thauvenay in reprisal for an ambush of the French Resistance, burning fifty houses, executing six men and taking eleven people hostage.
Known principally for the production of red wine from the Pinot Noir grape until the 20th century, the Sancerre area was devastated by phylloxera in the late 19th century. The vineyards were replanted in Sauvignon Blanc (also see Sancerre (wine)). In 1936 Sancerre white was given AOC (INAO) status; reds were classified in 1959. The area now produces white, red and rose wine. The following communes fall inside the "Sancerre" and "Sancerre-Loire Valley" controlled label of origin area: Bannay, Bué, Crésancy, Menetou-Râtel, Ménétréol, Montigny, Saint Satur, Sainte-Gemme, Sancerre, Sury-en-Vaux, Thauvenay, Veaugues, Verdigny et Vinon.
Of architectural significance: Belfry of St. Jean, a 16th century bell tower built by the prosperous merchants of Sancerre; Tour des Fiefs (1390), the lone remaining tower of the feudal chateau; and the ruins of Saint Romble, a medieval church destroyed by the English.
Maison des Sancerre: Wine exposition located in 14th-16th century house with tower.
The city is a cobweb of twisted streets with many buildings surviving from the Middle Ages.
Famous people associated with Sancerre: