History and description

A port town of medieval origin founded in the 6th century, Saint-Malo had its first urban wall built in the 12th century, on the orders of Bishop Jean de Chatillon. The château du Grand Donjon was constructed at the same time. This whole fortified development was redeveloped in the 14th century during the war of Succession of Brittany. In the course of the three following centuries, the town became the first port of the kingdom of France: city of Corsairs but also of commerce and negotiation.
The outbreak of the war of the League of Augsbourg in 1689 and the declaration of war of England and the United Provinces against France gave Saint-Malo a first line role in the defence of Brittany. Vauban was sent there in spring 1689. Within a week, he had established a vast defensive plan : the urban medieval wall was to be preserved but reinforced with earthworks and internal embankments, a crossing would have to be constructed to connect Saint-Malo to the town of Saint-Sernan situated on the other bank of the Rance, Saint-Sernan would have to be expanded according to a plan which was semi-orthogonal and semi radially concentric and equipped with bastioned fortifications on the landward side and forts which had to be constructed on the rocky islets of the bay to comprise a advanced form of naval defence. These forts were: the fort Royal, the fort du Grand Bé and the fort du Petit Bé and the fort de la Conchée. The ancient medieval tour de Solidor would have to be rehoused and equipped with an artillery parapet. The engineer Garangeau applied the construction on-site, while ensuring it was also continually adapted to the land.
However, the project aroused intense opposition from the Saint-Malo residents. They refused to see the popular town of Saint-Sernan get bigger, an expansion which would threaten and place a shadow over Saint-Malo. They were also opposed to the port project, fearing rivalry between the war fleet and that of commerce. Following these protests, the town-planning project was abandoned. Only the forts could be built. The Anglo-Dutch attacks of the 1690s had shown their need. The most famous attack was that of November 1693, where the English launched a fire ship, namely a booby-trapped ship packed with explosives and scrap metal in shrapnel, against the defensive walls of Saint-Malo. Despite that, Vauban continued to defend his great project, of which he concluded the final version in 1700.
Apart from the fort de la Conchée, four forts were constructed by Garangeau under the orders of Vauban: the fort Royal (current fort National), the fort du Grand Bé, the fort du Petit Bé and the fort de la Varde. The fort National was built in 1691-1692. It is a square construction comprising a high battery with sixteen emplacements, a bastioned front to the south, a gate preceded by a drawbridge and a dry moat and a gorge protected by a wall with battlements for musketry. The powder keg, the artillery hangar and the guardroom were included in a central building also equipped with attic space in which to house reinforcements. Its urban wall was expanded in the 19th-20th centuries. The fort du Petit Bé was constructed in 1693 during the English siege mentioned above. It was a horseshoe-shaped battery with nineteen cannon emplacements on the side facing the sea and a bastioned front with two demi-bastions and battlements for musketry on the landward side. An echauguette completed the protection out to sea. The fort de la Varde is along similar lines. Built in 1694, in front of the mooring point of the Fosse aux Normands by Garangeau, it comprises a low battery radiating eight cannons and two mortars on the side facing the sea, and closed off at the back by a crenelated wall for the muskets. The work included a guardroom for officers and soldiers, as well as a vaulted powder keg. This fort was transformed into an anti-tank facility during the Second World War by the German occupant. As for the fort du Grand Bé, the only one to be constructed on an island and not on rocks, its construction dates back to the 16th century. In 1697, Garangeau expanded it as advised by Vauban. He added a new guardroom and a storage magazine in the former chapel.
During the 18th century, two additional forts were added to complete the defences, during the War of American Independence. In 1783-1784, the fort des Rimains was constructed on the isle of the same name, based on a project of 1704 of Garangeau. This is a bastioned fort with an oblique battery and artillery tower. The fort Saint-Père was constructed in Saint-Père-Marc-en-Poulet between 1777 and 1785. It was a bastioned square fort. The latest defensive upgrading work dates from the Second World War when the German army re-used multiple fortified installations to incorporate them into the Atlantic Wall. The port desired by Vauban was finally constructed from 1948 to 1970.

Current state

The whole of the forts and ramparts of Saint-Malo still exists but were significantly restored after 1945 following the ravages of the allied siege of August 1944. The restorers did however, take care to restore it to its pristine pre-war state. All the buildings are open to visitors, except the fort de la Conchée, which remains in ruins.


48° 38' 46.6584" N, -2° 2' 29.9548" E

enceinte urbaine, forts détachés et arsenal maritime
  • FAUCHERRE (N.) et LECUILLIER (G.), La route des fortifications en Bretagne Normandie, Paris, 2006, éd. Huitième Jour, coll. Les étoiles de Vauban.
  • Vauban et ses successeurs sur les côtes de la Manche, Paris, 2003.
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