Brouage

Article and pictures by Michel Plancon, all rights reserved.

The fortified town of Brouage is located at 3 km from the coast between the river Charente to the north and the river Seudre to the south, facing the straights of Rochefort, alongside the bay of Brouage. The town, which today lies in the middle of the marshes, was originally built on the shore of the gulf of Saintonge (now silted up), when the sea went deep inland right up to Broue and Saint Sornin.

An ice-house in Richelieu's Bastion provided the luxury of sorbets and other cold dishes for distinguished visitors.

The salt produced by the salt-marshes has always been a source of wealth in this region and in 1555, Jacques de Pons built a new town on the shore alongside the sound where merchant vessels coming from northern Europe were loaded with salt, the “white gold” of this era.

Since its foundation, the town was a prosperous commercial center with merchants, sailors and bankers taking advantage of the salt business. Since its creation, Brouage was engaged in bitter rivalry with the protestant city of La Rochelle and a first program of bastioned fortification designed by Italian engineers was begun in 1569 and completed in 1575 by the engineer Robert de Chinon. The second major fortification project was undertaken between 1627 and 1653 by Pierre d’Argencourt and his assistant Francois Chauvin on the orders of Cardinal Richelieu and his successors after his death in 1642, in order both to protect access to the Saintonge gulf and the profitable salt business. In addition, Brouage served as a Catholic bulwark against the dangerously powerful city of La Rochelle.

When the work was completed, the Richelieu's town was heavily fortified, seen by many historians as the personal “safe” of the Cardinal, having bastioned fortifications completely out of proportion versus any siege threat which could have reasonably been foreseen in this area, especially after the fall of La Rochelle in 1629.

Map of Brouage in 1687, from A.G.

The magnitude of these bastioned fortifications can be appreciated by looking at the 1687 map (see image above from A.G.) showing the rectangular town with 2.5 km of revetted defences, 7 hollow bastions (4 regular bastions in the corners plus 3 flat bastions in the south, east and north curtail capitals) and 19 watch-towers (see picture below).

Sentry post on the River Bastion.

The southern front facing the village of Hiers included one of the town gates and was formidably fortified with two demi-lunes, a covered way and the huge hornwork of Hiers, itself protected by two demi-lunes, one lunette and a second covered way, which was palisaded and followed a tenaille trace.

The eastern front facing the salt marshes and the Boivin channel, was protected by the Camille hornwork and a single false bray on one flank of the central bastion protecting a floating dock with sluices and an underground harbour inside the bastion's flank.

The western front was fortified by a detached bastion revetted in stone with two adjacent demi-lunes, covered by a tenaille-traced palisaded covered way. The northern front alongside the harbour of Brouage was re-aligned to include the Royal Gate into one flank of the Royal Batsion, which gave direct access to the wharfs.

The entrance to the underground harbour in the flank of the Breach Bastion.

The town was indeed very well fortified with three successive enceintes in places, a wharehouse built in 1631, a powder magazine, a blacksmith, an ice-house, a cooperage and barracks.

Saint Luke's Bastion.

Colbert's decision to build a major naval arsenal and shipyard at Rochefort in 1665 and the constant silting problems of Brouage haven was the death knell for this town, which had been up until that date the prototype of modern arsenals.

The administration of the fortified town of Brouage was transferred from the Navy to the War ministry but it kept some importance relating to the salt business. In 1685 Vauban was oredered to review the fortifications in order to put them onto an adequate war footing, together with the task of fighting the endless silting.

Vauban released his first report that same year, identifying the main cause of the silting-up of the harbour as being mud from the River Charente brought into the bay of Brouage at high tide, but not drawn out by the low tide effects. He proposed and built some hydraulic works with a canal, a reservoir and sluices to flush out the muds at low tide.

Brouage in 1697, showing Vauban's improvements to the much-decayed outworks of Brouage. From A.G.

Unfortunately, these works turned out not to be as efficient as expected and at the end of the eighteenth century the haven of Brouage was just the very narrow channel which can been seen today, with the shores far way from the town. Vauban also released a damning report criticising Richelieu’s decision to build a strong fortified place suiting his own interest, but not that of the kingdom. He recommended that all the outworks that were not in a good repair at the time be pulled down, especially the two hornworks, and that the ramparts be thickened with earth to his own fortification standards.

Richelieu's Bastion, seen from the Bastion d'Hiers.

He also proposed the building of an additional powder magazine and barracks. This program was completed in 1689, transforming Brouage into a modern place of war, as it can be seen on the 1697 map (see map above, from A.G.).

Visiting Brouage

The fortified town of Brouage has passed through the centuries and has changed little since Vauban’s work. 13 of the watch towers were rebuilt between 1932-1939 and at the beginning of the 1990s, a long term restoration program was initiated and has been implemented throughout the last decade.

Richelieu's Bastion.

This town is very interesting from the point of view of fortification history, as it clearly shows the transformation of bastioned fortification through the seventeenth century starting from the early works of the Italian engineers, characterised by bastion faces flanked not only by the adjacent bastion flank fires but also by enfilading fire from the curtains called “secondary flanking”, followed by bastions like Richelieu's Bastion, designed according to Errard's rules (flanks perpendicular to the bastion faces), followed by bastions like the SaintLuke's Bastion, according to the rules of De Ville (flanks perpendicular to the curtains), ending with the techniques of Vauban and his contemporaries.

Powder magazine in the Breach Bastion.

Brouage can be easily reached by car or motorbike by driving 46km from the Saintes exit 35 of the motorway A10 on the D728 and D3 from Marennes. A half day visit could be combined with the visit of the nearby Chateau d’Oleron and Fort du Chapus.

The fortifications and town of Brouage are in pretty good condition with a very scenic arrival from Hiers' hill by the D3 meandering through the marshes and the entrance through the Hiers Bastion flank through what was the pulled down Hiers Gate. There is a car park and a first tourist information office just located in this hollow bastion. The road D3 going towards Rochefort, crosses the town and leaves by a cutting in the Royal bastion flank just on the other side of the Royal Gate which is intact and well restored.

The town and its surrounding fortifications can be visited for free with wonderful views over the marshes and oyster farms that have replaced the salt-marshes. My usual path is to start from the right flank of the Bastion d'Hiers and walk along the ramparts towards Richelieu's Bastion (where the ice-house is located).

The granary.

Then continue along the east front in the direction of the Breach Bastion. This hollow bastion is interesting with the powder magazine de la Breche built by Vauban and one of the undeground harbours to be used in case of a siege. The visit continues by going to the River Bastion by looking on the right side toward the marshes where the remains of Camille hornwork lie and on the left side into the walled park where the well restored Wharehouse and the cooperage are located.

The Royal Gate.

The granary is now the home for the European Center for Military Architecture where you can see a permanent exhibition of the fortification history and its specific appliction in Saintonge. After having reached the Royal Bastion, go down and visit this bastion with the jail on one side and the Royal blacksmith on the other side (now occupied by the main Tourist Information office) and of course go and see the beautiful Royal Gate (see right).

The visit continues by going along the top of the Government wall by the Mancini stairway used by Marie Mancini when she wandered the ramparts (Marie Mancini was a young lover of the king Louis XIV and was exiled in Brouage by her uncle Cardinal Mazarin to prevent the interference of the relationship in his political schemes).

The circuit around the town fortifications is completed by walking along the rampart between the Ocean Bastion and Saint Luke's Bastion with a very scenic view over the marshes lying between the town and the shore and finishing at the very well restored powder magazine of Saint Luke (see picture above).

The Ocean Front.
Powder magazine of Saint Luke.

The town which was the home town of the explorer Samuel Champlain, founder of la Nouvelle France (French colonies in North America, including Quebec and New Orleans), is very interesting to visit by following the clear indication panels leading to all the places of interest.

Article and pictures by Michel Plancon, all rights reserved.
Condition Access to fortifications Size of fortress Accessability of town Museum/Info Overall score
8 9 7 6 8 7.6
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