Located in downtown Nantes, the Castle of the Dukes of Brittany is one of the most important monuments of the city's heritage. With nearly half a mile (500 meters) of ramparts and the ducal residence in Flamboyant Gothic style inside the walls, the castle forms an impressive whole.
The Tour Neuve Castle
The Castle of the Dukes of Brittany went through several reconstructions before becoming the building we know today. It was back in the 13th century that the first building was raised on the location of the present-day castle: the Castle of the Tour Neuve (New Tower). The reason for this building's creation is still not known. The only thing known for certain is that the castle was in existence by 1248, when it was mentioned for the first time in textual sources under the name Tour Neuve. The construction work might have bee by the order of French King Philip II (Philippe Auguste) and carried out by Guy of Thouars shortly after 1206. Anothe theory is that the construction was undertaken by Peter I (Pierre de Dreux) between 1216 and 1237. Peter I, also called Peter Mauclerc, was regent of Brittany from 1213 to 1237. He ceded power to his son John I, known as John the Red (Jean Ier le Roux), who continued to improve the castle, as did his successors.
Reinforcement of the Defenses
Against a backdrop of war between France and England, the death of John III (Jean III) in 1341 not only put an end to the reign of the house of Peter I in Brittany, but also caused a war of succession among the Breton nobility. John of Montfort (Jean de Montfort), son of Arthur II, Duke of Brittany, stood against Charles of Blois, husband to Jeanne de Penthièvre (Joan of Penthièvre), through whom he laid claim to the duchy. Nantes was a key piece in this war of succession due to its strategic position. The signing of the treaty of Guérande in 1365 put an end to the war by recognizing the claim the heir to the Montforts had to Brittany. But, facing opposition from the Breton nobility, John V (Jean IV in French sources) went into exile in England until 1373 before returning to his duchy. John V and his successors strengthened the Breton principality and declared their independence from the kings of France. They reinforced the duchy's defenses by creating a core standing army, and by adapting the fortifications of the castles and cities.
Nantes. 1924. Exposition d'Art Ancien. Château des Ducs de Bretagne. Le Donjon. Les nouvelles fouilles. Au fond, la Cathédrale (1924) by A. TainonChâteau des ducs de Bretagne - Musée d'histoire de Nantes
The tower built in the style of Philip I and its first quadrilateral defensive wall were the result of this first phase of construction of the Castle of the Tour Neuve by Guy of Thouars or Peter I. After John I, the castle was extended with modifications to the design and layout of the towers. The towers were then remodeled between the 18th and 19th centuries. One of the castle towers was heavily modified in the 15th century and incorrectly named the Vieux Donjon (Old Keep). It is the only remaining visible part of this older castle.
A Fortress and Ducal Residence
Military effort intensified under Francis II of Montfort. In the face of Louis XI's desire to reaffirm his authority over the great feudal lords, Francis II decided to reinforce the duchy's defenses. Francis II and his daughter, Anne, made significant changes to the Castle of the Dukes of Brittany. Between 1472 and 1488, Francis II began by constructing the four towers on the city side—the Tour des Espagnols, the Tour du Pied de Biche, the Tour de la Boulangerie and the Tour des Jacobins—and a single tower, the Tour du Port, on the foundations of the Castle of Tour Neuve. Works were also undertaken on the pre-existing towers and the city's defensive wall.
La cour du château by ©Bernard Renoux/LVANChâteau des ducs de Bretagne - Musée d'histoire de Nantes
But the defense of the city and the principality were not Francis II's only concerns. The authority of the dukes of Brittany needed to be firmly established. To that end, there needed to be a place for them to receive the nobility with splendor and dignity. Francis II commissioned architect Mathurin Rodier to build a ducal residence suitable for his station. Rodier began work on the Grand Logis and the Grand Gouvernement. An elegant, princely residence sprang up inside the ramparts—a palace within a fortress. When the duke died in 1488, the building work was still unfinished. His daughter Anne continued the works after her second marriage.
Anne of Brittany: A Builder Queen?
Upon the death of her father in 1488, Anne tried to maintain the duchy's independence from France by marrying Maximilian, Archduke of Austria by proxy in Rennes, in 1490. She had previously refused a marriage to Alain I of Albret, a nobleman connected to an important Breton family. To avenge this insult, he opened the gates of Nantes to the royal army in March 1491. The king of France, Charles VIII, had Anne's marriage to her husband annulled in December that same year, instead marrying Anne himself to form a personal union between the duchy and the kingdom of France. The couple came to the castle of Nantes rarely, preferring the castle of Amboise. It was only after the death of Charles VIII that Anne recovered her power as duchess and resumed work on the castle.
La tour de la Couronne d'Or by © Régis ROUTIERChâteau des ducs de Bretagne - Musée d'histoire de Nantes
Anne of Brittany married the new king of France, Louis XII, in the chapel of the Castle of the Dukes of Brittany in January 1499. She also resumed work on the Grand Logis, which continued until the 1500s. She bestowed the building and upper section with monumental dormers in the Flamboyant style, marked with her coat of arms as well as her husband's. She also added loggias (galleries), which would later become typical of the Renaissance style. At the same time, she completed the Tour de la Couronne d'Or (Golden Horn Tower), crowned with a golden arrow and standing high over the city. Anne also decided to enlarge the western moat between 1500 and 1501 and improve the east side of the defensive wall. The well, decorated in wrought iron and located in the courtyard, was also completed in this period.
Anne's Death and the Castle's Future
Anne of Brittany died in the city of Blois in 1514. Her body was interred with the other queens of France in the Basilica of Saint-Denis, but her heart was taken to the convent of Carmes, in Nantes, where it was placed in a gold reliquary. Before she died, she tried to marry her daughter Claude, heir to the duchy, to Charles of Gand, the future Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire, and thus preserve the duchy's independence from the kingdom of France. But Louis XII ultimately decided on a union between Claude and Francis of Angoulême, the future Francis I of France, in 1505. When Anne died, Francis of Angoulême (who would become Francis I the following year) took charge of governing Brittany on behalf of his wife, Claude of France. He continued the works on the castle. First, he reinforced the ramparts, then he had the Logis du Roy (the Petit Gouvernement) built near the Tour de la Rivière. The castle became a true royal residence for the once-again travelling court.
Philipes Emanuel de Lorrayne, Duc de Mercueur by Balthazar MontcornetChâteau des ducs de Bretagne - Musée d'histoire de Nantes
Several years later, Philip Emmanuel of Lorraine, Duke of Mercœur, and brother-in-law to King Henry III, came to occupy the castle. His marriage to Marie of Luxembourg gave him a significant claim to power in Brittany. Having become governor of Brittany at the end of 1582, he put himself at the head of the League in Brittany, in opposition to the religious policy of King Henry III.
Le Château de Nantes (vue prise des douves), Bretagne (1845) by CAMBON (Dessinateur), Adrien DAUZATS (lithographe), THIERRY FRERES (Imprimeur)Château des ducs de Bretagne - Musée d'histoire de Nantes
The duke of Mercœur improved the castle's defenses by building several bastions and a large artillery battery. But even in these troubled times, the castle remained a prestigious place. The governor and his wife continued to receive guests with splendor.
Vérification de l'édit de Nantes par le parlement de Paris, le 25 février 1599 (1696) by Jan LUYKENChâteau des ducs de Bretagne - Musée d'histoire de Nantes
Henry IV put an end to the religious wars by signing the Edict of Nantes in 1598. This document granted Protestants the right to practice their beliefs in a profoundly Catholic kingdom.
Moulage du projet de sculpture du blason du Grand Gouvernement (2000) by M. GUIBAULTChâteau des ducs de Bretagne - Musée d'histoire de Nantes
The castle retained its military importance. Louis XIII appointed his minister, Cardinal Richelieu, governor of the castle at the beginning of the 17th century. During the fight against the Huguenots in Poitou, Richelieu reinforced the castle by turning the four entrance towers into artillery emplacements.
Louis XIV continued the works on the castle following a fire that ravaged the Grand Gouvernement. He rebuilt that part of the building in the Classical style and added a bell tower between the Tour de la Boulangerie and the Tour du Pied-de-Biche. The Sun King was the last sovereign to stay at the castle.
Portrait du cardinal de Retz (1775/1799)Château des ducs de Bretagne - Musée d'histoire de Nantes
It was then occupied by soldiers and was used as a prison to hold Huguenots, Spaniards, and troublesome individuals such as the Cardinal de Retz, who made a spectacular escape.
In the 18th century, the Harnachement building was constructed near the river wall to store weapons and gunpowder.
Les noyades de Nantes (1775/1799)Château des ducs de Bretagne - Musée d'histoire de Nantes
During the Revolution, some wanted to destroy the castle, seeing it as a symbol of the Ancien Régime (old order), but others called for its preservation. In the end, it was once more used as a prison, holding defiant priests and those suspected of trying to emigrate.
Explosion du château de Nantes (1800)Château des ducs de Bretagne - Musée d'histoire de Nantes
The castle lost a part of its structure in a powder explosion in the Tour des Espagnols (Spanish Tower) on May 25, 1800. The blast took with it the Lieutenant du Roi wing, in which the chapel and the ducal archives could be found, as well at the tower storing one of the gunpowder magazines.
The recognition of the castle as a historic monument in 1862 led to campaigns for the restoration of the building. After World War I, the military left the castle for good, and it became the property of the city of Nantes. A bunker in the courtyard stands as evidence of the German occupation during World War II. Various museum projects went on to succeed one another in the castle, before making way for the current museum about the city's history. Today, the museum covers the biggest historical events connected to the city of Nantes and the Castle of the Dukes of Brittany.
This exhibition was created by the teams of the Castle of the Dukes of Brittany – Nantes History Museum.