La Rochelle

La Rochelle first grew up in the 10th century, it was given a charter by Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1199 which made it a free town. The town grew into a significant port, exporting wine and salt.

Fortifications of La Rochelle in the early 17th century, before the siege.

Protecting La Rochelle in the middle ages was a strong, high stone wall with many towers, including the Tour de la Chaine and Tour St-Nicholas that guarded the entrance to the inner harbour. In the 16th century 3 bastions were built in the north.

In front of the medieval walls a trace of earthwork arrow-headed bastions was constructed to enable the fortifications to resist artillery. The medieval wall and ditch were retained behind these new defences. In the east the new trace was enlarged to allow the town to grow (see map above). There was a flooded ditch and covered way in front of the earthwork bastions.

In the 16th century La Rochelle became home to a large number of Huguenots (French protestants). This prosperous protestant base became a concern to Cardinal Richelieu, leading to the siege of 1627-28. When the town succumbed after a bitter struggle, 22,000 of its inhabitants had starved to death.

Map of La Rochelle with Vauban's fortifications.
Right: Tour St-Nicholas, Left: Tour de la Chaine (note gun embrasure on this tower and the bastion in front of it, examples of modifications to the medieval defences.

The town's fortifications were demolished by Richelieu after the siege, but Vauban came to La Rochelle to refortify it sometime in the late 17th century, so it is probable that not all of the town's fortifications were destroyed after the siege.

Some of the seaward defences survived from medieval times, such as the three towers, Tour de la Lanterne, Tour de la Chaine and Tour St-Nicholas which protected the inner harbour. The Tour de la Chaine was modified by the addition of an embrasure, and a bastion mounting cannon that could fire at ships entering the bay was added in front of the tower.

The remains of the fortifications at La Rochelle, the wall was to the right and the covered way to the left.

On the landward side, Vauban constructed a bastioned trace with a ditch but no demi-lunes, similar in many ways to the pre-siege fortifications. To the west, the fortification relied more on inundations and was less regular. A tenaille trace was used here rather than bastions. There was a hornwork at the waters' edge protecting the south-eastern corner of the town.

Visiting La Rochelle

The gate in the end of the western wall. The sluices for flooding the ditch are under the bridge.

Sadly, little remains of the fortifications at La Rochelle but the three towers and the waterfront defences remain. It is possible to visit each tower (about €3), the Tour de la Lanterne is particularly interesting for the graffiti inscribed on the walls by captured English privateers who were held there.

The western defences were turned into a park, with all the stonework (apart from some of the gates) removed. This means the shape of the walls, ditch and covered way can still be seen but they have eroded over the years through not being supported by the stone.

La Rochelle is on a main TGV line from Paris, and is easily accessible. It also serves as a good base for exploring some of the Vauban fortifications on the nearby islands; Fort de la Prée, Saint-Martin de Ré, le Château d'Oléron and the Ile d'Aix.

View along the harbour defences, showing the Tour de la Lanterne in the foreground and the other two towers in the background.
Condition Access to fortifications Size of fortress Accessability of town Museum/Info Overall score
2 8 3 8 4 4.6
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