La Rochelle: a Fortified City

The terrible siege of La Rochelle in 1627-1628 was won by Louis XIII and his Prime Minister Richelieu. The port city is nearly razed to the ground but is ultimately saved.

Vue du sommet de la Porte Royale de la Rochelle (1706/1723)Fondation du patrimoine

The terrible siege of La Rochelle

It took place between 1627 and 1628 and was finally won by Louis XIII and his prime minister, Richelieu. The port city was almost destroyed but eventually came to be saved. Its position as a stronghold was then made even stronger. Let's take a look at the defense system of La Rochelle.

Tours Saint-Nicolas, de la Chaîne et de la Lanterne (XIVth century)Fondation du patrimoine

Medieval fortifications facing the sea

Since the Middle Ages, the seafront of La Rochelle has been guarded by three towers, which are today emblems of the city. The Saint-Nicolas Tower and the Chain Tower controlled access to the Old Port, while the Lantern Tower was used to guide sailors at night or in the fog. A captain was appointed by the mayor of the city to be in charge of each one.

Vue de l'entrée de La Rochelle (XIIIth century)Fondation du patrimoine

Since the 12th century, the port of La Rochelle has been the most important port on the European Atlantic coast.
In the 12th and 13th centuries, it was the port through which the Templars and their wealth passed.
With the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine to Henry II of England, the city came under the English flag and hence benefited from privileged trade with the countries of Northern Europe.

Tour de la Lanterne de la Rochelle (1445/1468)Fondation du patrimoine

The first Lantern Tower was built during the reign of Jean Sans Terre, between 1199 and 1209.
His captain had to disarm the ships before they entered the port.
This primitive tower was encircled with a new tower in the 15th century and topped with a Gothic spire. A curtain wall connects it to the Chain Tower.
The Lantern Tower was also used as a prison over the centuries and is now famous for over 600 works of graffiti that cover its walls.

Entrée du port de La Rochelle avec les Tours Saint-Nicolas et de la Chaîne (XIVth century)Fondation du patrimoine

The Saint-Nicolas Tower and the Chain Tower were built in the 14th century to serve as watchtowers and to block the port.
As the name Chain Tower indicates, a chain stretched between the two towers. This prevented ships from entering the port while their goods were being checked and the octroi was being collected.

Vieux Port de La Rochelle (XIIIth century)Fondation du patrimoine

Because of the tide, the Old Port of La Rochelle cannot accommodate large commercial ships. These ships anchored offshore while their goods were unloaded by vessels with shallower drafts.

Porte de l'Horloge de La Rochelle (XIIIth century)Fondation du patrimoine

Directly overlooking the Old Port, the Clock Tower, known as the Grosse Horloge, forms part of the earliest fortifications of the city, built in the 13th century.
Over the centuries, it has been embellished with various bell towers. The latest dates from 1746 and can still be admired today.

Maquette des fortifications de La Rochelle avant le siège de 1627Fondation du patrimoine

The Protestants' enclosure

In the 16th century, France was shaken by the Wars of Religion. La Rochelle, a city that was still under English influence, had a Protestant majority. In 1573, it was besieged by King Charles IX. When that happened, the medieval fortifications were strengthened and unified.

Under the reign of Henri IV, this new enclosure became a place of Protestant security—i.e. a stronghold—that was recognized by the Kingdom and which guaranteed the safety of the Protestant community. It had seven large bastions with orillons and watchtowers. Water trenches, controlled by locks, existed all along this defensive system, except in the north.

Porte Maubec de La Rochelle (1610)Fondation du patrimoine

It was within the framework of this defense system that the Maubec Gate was created in 1611.
It used to form part of the Saint-Louis Hospital and had disappeared in the 19th century.

Between 2010 and 2013 it was completely restored, privately, by Jean-Pierre Guémas, co-founder of the Friends of the Royal Gate Association with Lucien Boulineau.
It now hosts cultural events.

Fragments restants de la Porte de Cougnes à La RochelleFondation du patrimoine

The old Porte de Cougnes is another remaining part of the Protestant enclosure.
This door faced north. Although it was considered one of the most beautiful monuments ever built in La Rochelle, it was demolished in 1689 to provide materials for the last wall.

Le Siège de La Rochelle (1881) by Henri-Paul MotteFondation du patrimoine

1627 saw the start of the most famous and devastating siege of La Rochelle.
A bastion of Protestantism, the city wanted independence from the royal power. It even declared itself a new republic in 1621, with significant support from England.
Louis XIII could not tolerate such an affront to his territory and he sent his prime minister, Richelieu, to retake the city.
He cut off access to the sea by building a nearly 1-mile long (1,500 m) dam that rested on sunken ships. This prevented any attempts at help from the English.
After a year under siege, massacred and starving, the Rochelais finally surrendered.

Porte Royale de La Rochelle côté extérieur de la ville (1706/1723)Fondation du patrimoine

A new royal enclosure

Following this devastating episode in the city's history, nearly four-fifths of the population perished, and all the fortifications were destroyed apart from the port towers. Without its defenses, the city was an easy target for the English, who were threatening to invade it. Louis XIV considered demolishing it and filling in the harbor before finally deciding to build a new line of fortifications.

Entrée de la demi-lune menant à la Porte Royale de La Rochelle (1706/1723)Fondation du patrimoine

The Sun King entrusted his dear Vauban with the design of these new works in 1689.
The director of the fortifications, François Ferry, conceived, under his orders, an enclosure with seven bastions and five gates. The two main ones were intended to represent triumphal arches reflecting the glory of the monarchy.

For the King's Gate, which opened onto the Chemin de Paris road, an entrance worthy of the most powerful monarch in Europe was needed.
But finances were lacking and, in 1706, only the foregate was erected, opening onto the half-moon. It was a work designed in advance to protect the future inner door.

Porte Royale de La Rochelle côté extérieur de la ville (1706/1723)Fondation du patrimoine

After the death of Louis XIV in 1715, the wars ceased for a while, which meant there was more funding for military works.
The Royal Gate was finally built between 1716 and 1724, under the direction of the engineer René-Jacob de Tigné.

Graffiti de la Porte Royale de La Rochelle (1746) by William CarpenterFondation du patrimoine

During the reign of Louis XV, wars resumed in Europe and many enemy sailors were taken prisoner and brought back to the port of La Rochelle. As the Lantern Tower was at full capacity, the prisoners were incarcerated in the Royal Gate.
They engraved their testaments on the walls, like this one from 1746 by the English sailor William Carpenter.

Graffiti de bateau de la Porte Royale (18th Century)Fondation du patrimoine

Some also etched images of their ships onto the prison walls.

Porte Royale de La Rochelle côté extérieur de la ville (1706/1723)Fondation du patrimoine

The city's fortifications were decommissioned around 1900. The Royal Gate has been classified as a historical monument since 1909.

With the advent of cars, crossing the drawbridge became difficult and, in 1920, a bypass was created by two openings in the curtain walls, on each side of the gate.

Porte Royale de La Rochelle côté intérieur de la ville (1706/1723)Fondation du patrimoine

It became the property of the city of La Rochelle in 1953, but its maintenance became too arduous and the building was left uncared for.

It was on the verge of collapse when it began to be restored in 2015 by the Association of Friends of La Rochelle, with support from the Fondation du Patrimoine (Cultural Heritage Foundation).

Salle de concert ou d'exposition de la Porte Royale de La Rochelle (1706/1723)Fondation du patrimoine

The space, a German telephone center during World War II and later a scout center, has now been completely restored. It now hosts cultural events: plays, concerts and exhibitions.

Intérieur de la Porte Royale de La Rochelle (1706/1723)Fondation du patrimoine

But there is still a lot of work to be done, especially on the central passage of the Royal Gate.

Vue du sommet de la Porte Royale de la Rochelle (1706/1723)Fondation du patrimoine

And also at its summit, which is overgrown with weeds.

Jean-Claude Bonnin et Lucien Boulineau - Les fortifications de La Rochelle (1412)Fondation du patrimoine

Video meeting with Jean-Claude Bonnin and Lucien Boulineau from the Association of Friends of the Royal Gate, showcasing its history and its restoration.

Credits: Story

Many thanks to the Association of Friends of the Royal Gate of La Rochelle, and especially to Jean-Pierre Guémas, Jean Claude Bonnin and Lucien Boulineau for their time and help.

Thanks also to the Tourist Office of La Rochelle and to Charentes Tourism for their welcome.

To support the restoration project of the Royal Gate of La Rochelle, please click on this link

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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