Château d'Oléron

Article and pictures by Michel Plancon, all rights reserved.

The city of Le Château d’Oléron lies just on the south east shore of the Oléron island controlling the western bank of the Oléron channel which was very difficult to sail through. This channel links the Maumusson strait and the Aix island roadstead facing the Charente river estuary and gives access to the naval base at Rochefort. The first fortifications of the Château d’Oléron date back from the Visigoths but it was in the 12th century that Eleanor of Aquitaine ordered a castle to be built to protect Oléron island against the possible threats coming from the hostile mainland.

The seaward front of the citadel, showing the 'bastion de la breche'.

After the siege of La Rochelle in 1628, Cardinal Richelieu, prime minister of Louis XIII, ordered Pierre d’Argencourt to build a citadel'on the remains of the medieval castle in order to protect the access to Brouage which was the Cardinal's salt cellar.

Between 1630 and 1642, he had designed and built a triangular citadel consisting of two bastioned'fronts facing the island side completed by an irregular front with embrasures facing the Oléron channel. This first execution of the citadel was good enough to protect the Oléron island during the 30 years war.

As result of Colbert’s decision in 1666 to build a major naval shipyard and arsenal in Rochefort and the unsuccessful naval raid of the Dutch Admiral Tromps in 1674 intended to close the Charente river, it was decided to upgrade the citadel's fortifications.

The citadel's ditch.

This task was undertaken by the Chevalier de Clerville, the General Superintendent of Fortifications, hierarchical superior of Vauban. Clerville decided to build a second enceinte surrounding the citadel and an almost useless lavish bastioned front facing the sea with casemated'batteries in the two bastion flanks.

The main gate of the citadel, Porte Royale.

The bastioned fronts facing the island and the sea were connected by two tenaille traces with redans. The second enceinte was not very efficient and did not take into account the latest fortification theory, reflecting the obsolescence of its designer’s ideas.

Vauban took over Clerville’s position after his death in 1677 and after having visited the citadel of Château d'Oléron, he released in October 1685 his first plan for the place including both the citadel and the town. This project foresaw the destruction of the second enceinte of the citadel built by the Chevalier de Clerville and its replacement by a hornwork'covered by a demi-lune, covered way'and glacis, leading to the destruction of a large part of the town.

The town was planned to be rebuilt just north of the hornwork and was to be fortified by a bastioned enceinte from Vauban's “first system” with 5 arrow-headed bastions', 5 demi lunes, covered way and glacis, with dry and flooded ditches'(see map right from B.G.)

Original plans of Vauban to include large arrow headed bastions around the town.

The execution of this first project was handled by the architect François Ferry'with some modifications such as the addition of the Marais hornwork in 1689-1690 which ended up by being demolished and replaced by a demi-lune due to the very unstable nature of the marshy ground on which it was built.

The second plan, which is according to Vauban's 'second system', with tower bastions and counterguards.

A second project was initiated in 1690, started in 1691, finalized and approved in 1694 by Vauban. This second project was basically replacing the “first system” enceinte of the borough by new bastioned fortifications designed according to the “second system” as used in Besancon, Belfort and Landau. (see map left from A.G.)

This town wall consisted of four tower bastions'covered by two counterguards'and two half-counterguards on the ocean and marsh sides. The town was protected by the curtains connecting the four tower bastions, their counterguards and half counterguards, three demi-lunes and a covered way. Two gates; the Porte de Dolus and the Porte d’Ors gave access to the city.

The second project was started in 1691 by Ferry, interrupted, then restarted in 1699 but unfortunately was never completed due to other priorities both through the eighteenth & nineteenth centuries, everybody being seemingly satisfied by the strength of the citadel which was completed.

The defences of the town.
The final incarnation of the town's defences, as the outworks of the town were never finished.

The town was considered complete in 1703 with the completion of the four tower bastions connected with curtains and ditches without counter-scarp walls. The earth works of the counterguards were started but work on the fortifications was finally halted in 1704 and the enceinte of the town remains as of to day an unachieved project. This is the reason why the Château d'Oléron is so rarely mentioned as an example of Vauban's “second system”.

Visiting Château d'Oléron

The fortifications of Château d'Oléron are in surprisingly good condition despite the pointless destruction of some parts of the citadel in April 1945 by the French Airforces (the chapel, the barracks, the bastioned front and demi lune facing the fishing harbour).

The citadel arsenal.

The citadel was indeed intact before this unfortunate air raid and is in continued process to be restored thanks to the actions of passionate persons and association. The access to the town fortifications and the citadel are free. The visiting paths are well indicated and everybody can wander in the citadel and the town enceinte at his own taste and pace.

Among many possible interesting paths, the recommended one is to enter into the town by the most direct road coming from the bridge (there are numerous parking spots available) then to go directly to the ocean front facing the Oleron Channel. From there, follow the main path going to the citadel in order to enter by the Porte Royale after having crossed four successive ditches.

Relief map of Château d'Oléron at Les Invalides. One of the earthwork counterguards can be seen in front of the bastion to the right of the main gate.

The citadel can be visited by going to the several accessible areas (some areas are forbidden for safety reasons) with the very interesting visit of the ocean front between the bastion Royal and the bastion “de la Breche”, the arsenal and the underground chapel, the powder-magazine inside the Saint Nicolas bastion and the watch-tower at the head of the bastion du Marais towering the fishing harbour.

The visit can be continued by walking into the ditches of the citadel, demi lunes and the hornwork, to the fishermen's harbour, followed by the enceinte of the town with its curtains, bastioned towers, the Porte de Dolus and the ditches which are flooded by the sea waters at the pace of the tides, completing the circle started at the ocean front.

The citadel's powder magazine.

The complete visit of the Château d'Oléron deserves at least one day which could be combined with the visit of the nearby Fort du Chapus built in the Oléron channel beside the toll free bridge connecting the Oléron Island to the mainland. The Oléron island can be easily reached by car or motorbike by driving 53 km from the Saintes exit 35 of the motorway A10 on the road D728 and crossing the Oleron channel by the very scenic 3 km long bridge. A regular bus service from Saintes gives access to the island for those who are not travelling by car.

Article and pictures by Michel Plancon, all rights reserved.
Condition Access to fortifications Size of fortress Accessability of town Museum/Info Overall score
7 9 5 5 5 6.2
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