Château du Taureau

Article and pictures by Jeroen van der Werf, all rights reserved.

The town of Morlaix, on the north coast of Brittany, was once an important trading centre for the whole region. In fact in the 16th century it was the third harbour of Brittany, second only to Nantes and St Malo. This prosperity was due mainly to Morlaix’s linen, which was of very high quality and was sold all over Europe. Agricultural products from the surrounding countryside sold and processed in Morlaix also contributed to its prosperity.

This made Morlaix and its surrounding lands a tempting target for hostile neighbours like the English. In 1522 the English attacked and pillaged the town in revenge for an attack on Bristol by pirates from Morlaix.

After this attack the local authorities decided that the town needed to be protected against attacks from the sea. Because the Morlaix bay is crowded with big and small rocks, one strategically-placed fort in the bay, combined with batteries on the surrounding cliffs, was sufficient to control all marine access to Morlaix by sealing off the only waterway deep enough for large ships. The Taureau rock was the perfect place for such a fort.

It took twenty years for construction work to begin. There was only enough money to build a tower with a low battery around it. Due to a lack of maintenance work the tower collapsed in 1609 and was rebuilt in 1614 (look for the stone with this year on it at the foot of the tower).

In the early 1690s Brittany’s coasts were attacked several times by the English navy, making the coastal defence of this area a very urgent matter. Work on improving the fort began in 1699, after Vauban'approved of plans drawn up by Garangeau, the Director of Fortifications for the region, based in Saint Malo.

The tower of the old fort was retained but the rest was demolished. The tower was integrated into the new fort which is almost as high as the tower and occupies almost the entire island. The new fort had two layers of firepower.

There were guns in casemates'on the lower level and more guns mounted on the roof of the fort. Almost all the firepower was concentrated on one side of the fort because big ships could only enter the bay along this side.

As a result of this, most of the supporting buildings are situated on the other long side of the fort, which only has cannon on the roof. The living quarters and powder magazine'were situated on the first floor around the inner courtyard.

The fort could be entered at one of the ends by a drawbridge operated with a counterweight. The building of the fort took about 50 years and it hasn’t been modified much since it was finished in 1745.

One would expect the casemates to be a very strong and useful part of a fort, but they have one big disadvantage; the powder fumes have to be ventilated away after the cannon have been fired. In this fort the casemates are open on at the rear so the smoke could escape easily.

Unfortunately, this turned out less successfully than was hoped, so that after a cannon was fired it was impossible to breathe inside the casemate for quite some time, making them less useful. Over the years several other solutions have been thought of which can be seen in other forts (e.g. chimneys through the roof above the cannon in Fort de la Conchée). Because the fort only took a secondary position in the defence system, from 1745 onward the fort had a new use: first of all it was occupied by a garrison of invalid soldiers.

Due to lack of space in the Palais des Invalides in Paris invalid soldiers were placed in forts that didn’t play a major role in the defence system anymore. Fort Medoc for example was occupied by a similar garrison in those days.

Secondly, at the same time, the fort was used as a prison. Local noblemen were imprisoned here at the request of their family (wishing to avoid disgrace in most cases), who paid for their imprisonment. They stayed there as long as their family paid.

During the day they were free to walk around in the fort and during the night they were put in their cells again. After the French Revolution the fort was used for political prisoners. After the fort lost its military importance in 1880 it has had several new functions; a party island for a rich local family, a military base for the Nazis and a sailing school. In 1914 the fort was recognised as an important historical monument.

Visiting the Château du Taureau

Over the past years the fort has been restored and it has been open to the public since 2006. The fort can be reached by boat from Carantec and Le Diben, depending on the tide. Reservation is compulsory (some dates are open for reservation on the website: I would recommend the trip from Le Diben; it is much longer and gives beautiful views of the bay and the surrounding landscape.

It also gives more insight in the strategic position of the fort for the trip is quite similar to the trip boats had to make in the past in order to reach Morlaix.

Article and pictures by Jeroen van der Werf, all rights reserved.

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