St Malo Walls

The town of St Malo grew up on an island at the mouth of the River Rance in the 12th century. As the town grew walls were built to protect it, and the island eventually became linked to the mainland to the east by a tidal isthmus. A castle was built on the north side of the island at the end of the 14th century, but this was eventually replaced by a new château built on the east end of the island, a better position to guard the isthmus. A large stone tower was built there in 1424, and over the next hundred years this tower became the central keep of the château. By the mid 16th century the château had the form of a square with round towers at the corners and buildings arranged around a central courtyard.

The town's best defence was the water that surrounded it, so artillery defences were only added gradually during the 16th and 17th centuries. The most significant of the early additions was the Bastion de Galère, an angled work built on the east end of the castle. It was named after a Galley because it made the east end of the castle look like the prow of a ship. This was the only part of St Malo's walls that could face a serious attack, so it was vital that it was defended against artillery. In the 17th century there were plans to build a hornwork in front of it, but these were never carried out.

The château's other towers were modified to mount artillery. All four were given splayed embrasures for guns on the roof and some had guns on the lower floors as well. The Tour Quic-en-Griogne had three levels of guns. This tower faced the town itself, indicating that the role of the château was not only to guard against external threats, but to watch over the townspeople. In 1590 this role was justified when the inhabitants attacked the château and captured it, leading to a four-year period when St Malo was a micronation, independant from France.

The were also modifications made elsewhere in the town's fortifications to adapt them to artillery. In 1652 the horseshoe-shaped Tour Bidouane was built at the tip of a promontory on the north side of the town, replacing a medieval tower in the same location. Behind it is a cavalier built in the 16th century, which enabled more artillery to cover this section of the defences against a seabourne attack. The Tour Bidouane, which was used as a powder magazine, was the target of an Anlgo-Dutch attack on St Malo in 1693. The Allies launched an exploding fireship against the city, hoping that it would ignite the powder and damage the fortifications and the town. However, the ship ran aground before it could reach the tower, and little damage was done.

Most of the reinforcements carried out in the 17th century were on the north and west sides of the town, facing the sea. This represents a growing awareness that the prosperous town of St Malo, which was also a haven for privateers, was a likely target for a naval attack. In 1674, when France was at war with the Dutch, the aptly named Bastion Hollande was built on the west side of the town. Ships had to sail to the west of the town in order to come round it and into the sheltered port, so the guns on this new bastion covered the entrance to the port.

In the 1690s Vauban designed significant changes for the defences of St Malo, mainly by the construction of the island forts to defend against naval bombardments. Three forts were built on the rocks just to the north of the town; the Petit Bé, the Grand Bé and Fort National. These forts provided protection for St Malo, but Vauban also gave some attention to the fortifications of the town itself. He had barracks built to house the garrison and modified the medieval walls and towers of the town and castle to be better suited to artillery. On the north side of the town Vauban had the Bastion de la Reine built to flank the north side of the château. However, the most dramatic change made by Vauban to the town was to create an expansion to the south. This expansion took in part of the tidal, rocky area to the south and allowed more houses to be built inside the town. This involved demolishing the old fortifications and extending the walls further south to take in the extra area. Here Vauban used a regular trace, with two bastions and a new gate between them. Although planned by Vauban, the southern expansion was not carried out until 1714, after his death. Elsewhere the walls retained their irregular plan inherited from medieval times and dictated by the shape of the ground. This appears not to have worried Vauban, probably because the sea prevented a land attack and the outlying forts guarded against an amphibious attack.

The threat of attack receded with the end of Louis XIV's wars in the early 18th century, although St Malo was threatened again in 1758. A British force landed near the town, with the intention of capturing it. However, on seeing the strength of St Malo's fortifications, the British did not attack but instead contented themselves with destroying the shipping they could find nearby.

Visiting the walls of St Malo

The town of St Malo was pratically destroyed in 1944 during the Second World War. However for the most part the fortifications have survived and the damage they sustained was repaired. The walls still serve to protect St Malo from exceptionally high tides. The castle is also intact and in good condition. It contains a museum of the history of St Malo which can be visited for a small fee. The walls themselves are easily accessible and they can be visited for free at any time.

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