A pays in southern Gascony in southwestern France, in the western Pyrenees, lying between Bigorre (to the east) and the Basque districts of Basse-Navarre and Soule (to the west):
- A medieval Vicomté;
- With Navarre, a gouvernement in the Ancien Régime.
Béarn appeared early in the 10th century; its original capital was Lescar, northwest of the eventual capital, Pau. In the 11th century the district around Oloron was acquired by marriage, and by the mid-12th century Béarn had reached Orthez in the northwest and Mortaner in the east. It was drained by rivers flowing in a generally northwesterly direction from the Pyrenees towards the River Adour.
Béarn’s ruler was never more than a Vicomte, but he was usually more powerful than many a Count. The extinction of the Dukes of Gascony in 1032 led to a power struggle which ended with the Dukes of Aquitaine, then centred upon Poitiers, getting control of Gascony. The consequence was a great deal of independence for the Vicomtes, though the Kings of Aragon interfered in the affairs of Béarn from the mid 12th century until their defeat at Muret in 1213 severely weakened their influence north of the Pyrenees. The Vicomté passed by marriage to the families of Gavaret (in 1134) and Moncade (in 1170) and eventually in 1290 to the Counts of Foix, a county that lay in the west of the eastern Pyrenees. In the Hundred Years’ War the Counts tended to favour the King of France, but the Béarnese their old English overlords in the Duchy of Aquitaine.
In 1479 the Count of Foix inherited the Kingdom of Navarre, which was reduced by Aragonese aggression to Basse-Navarre on the French side of the Pyrenees in 1512. The eventual heir of the Kingdom became King Henry IV of France in 1589. In 1607 he decreed the union of the lands which he had inherited as King of Navarre in 1572 with the royal domain of France, but the Estates of the rump of the Kingdom and of the province of Béarn objected. It was not until 1620 that the union was achieved by military force. Béarn then became part of the immense gouvernement of Guyenne & Gascony until becoming separate during the reign of Louis XIV.
Béarn had its own Parlement from 1620, but the financial administration was never really settled. In 1631 it belonged to its own généralité seated at Pau, then in 1648 was joined with that of Bordeaux, separating again in 1682. In 1716 it joined with much of Gascony in the new généralité of Auch, separating out, together with the Pays Basque, in 1767, only to reunite with Auch in 1774, but not for long, as it separated again from Auch and reunited with the Pays Basque in the généralité of Pau & Bayonne in 1784.
Both Lescar and Oloron were Bishoprics until 1790, when Lescar was suppressed but Oloron became the diocese for the Department of Basses-Pyrénée until it too was suppressed in 1802.
Béarn proper is today the eastern part of the Department of Pyrénées-Atlantiques.