Besançon lies in the Doubs valley in the Franche-Comté region. The town nestles in a large loop formed by the river and backed by a steep hill, Mont Saint-Etienne. The site has been inhabited since prehistoric times and the town grew up during Roman times.
The Romans built a stone bridge, the Pont Battant across the river Doubs, which made the town an important crossing place. From this time onwards, the defence of Besançon revolved around two key points; the Pont Battant and the Mont Saint-Etienne. In medieval times the town was fortified with high stone walls and towers, which ran along the riverbank, up the hillside and across the Mont Saint-Etienne.
The district the other side of the Pont Battant (on the right bank of the river) called the Quartier Battant was also fortified. In the 13th century the defences of Battant were reinforced by the construction of a second wall a short distance in front of the original wall. Another wall was built along the townward side of the Mont Saint-Etienne, adding another layer to the defences. Throughout the medieval era, the fortifications of Besançon were constantly improved and expanded.
From the year 1034 the town was part of the Holy Roman Empire, although it was made a Free Imperial City with the right to appoint its own mayor in 1184. In 1555 Besançon was passed to the crown of Spain along with the rest of the Franche-Comté, but the town retained its rights as a free city until 1648. In the 15th century, cannon began to be mounted on the defences and some adaptions were made to the walls. The Tour de la Pelote dates from this period.
The 16th century saw the first modern fortifications constructed at Besançon under Emperor Charles V. Several of the medieval towers were modified to take cannon and 3 bastions'added to the walls around the Quartier Battant.
These were not the carefully-planned geometric bastions of Italianate fortification, but more tower-like constructions - a way of adapting the medieval walls to face artillery. A fourth bastion (the Bastion de Griffon, see image above) was added to the Quartier Battant in 1595 when the town was threatened by Henry IV of France. An interesting point to note is that in 1582 the captain of the guard, François de Vergy, suggested the construction of a citadel'atop the Mont Saint-Etienne. At the time, his suggestion was not acted upon, but it was an idea that would resurface almost a hundred years later. By the mid-17th century the fortification had decayed considerably and the town was by no means ready to face an attack, which explains what happened when Louis XIV'declared war against Spain.
In 1668 during the War of Devolution'Prince Condé'captured the entire Franche-Comté in under a month. Besançon surrendered with hardly a shot being fired. The Franche-Comté and Besançon were returned to Spain later that year by the Treaty of Aix-La-Chapelle.
Although Besançon was only in French hands for 3 months, in that short time Vauban, under the express orders of the king, had inspected the Mont Saint Etienne and drawn up plans for a citadel. Construction of the southern front of the citadel (the front facing away from the town) had already begun when the town was returned to Spain.
The French left Besançon in June 1668 and the Spanish began to work on building the citadel that had been started by the French in September of the same year. This shows how urgent was the need to protect the town against possible future attacks.
The citadel consisted of two demi-bastioned'fronts on the north (the Front Royal) and south (the Front du Secours) sides, where the approaches were less steep. The two fronts were linked by walls running along the top of the cliff-like sides of the Mont Saint Etienne.
A short distance north of the Front Royal, the ground dropped away more steeply towards the town, so here alongside the Eglise Saint Etienne the Spanish constructed a series of lesser works commanding the steeper slope. These formed an advanced covered way'toward the town.
However, the French could not be kept out of the Franche-Comté indefinately and Louis XIV invaded again in 1674, laying siege to Besançon on April 25th. Vauban directed the siege, in which the town surrendered after 21 days of resistance. The citadel, which had to be bombarded from the adjacent hills, held out until May 22nd.
Besançon was confirmed as a French possession by the Treaty of Nijmegen'in 1678. Vauban was charged with improving the fortifications. At the citadel, he added a new north front 250 metres in front of the old Spanish north front.
The reason for doing this was that the old Spanish north front was built some way back from the end of the hill (to avoid having to demolish the church), leaving a gently sloping space in front of it where an enemy could place batteries. Vauban's new front was built at the top of the steep northern slope of the hill (after the church had been removed), denying the enemy an easy approach. The original Spanish front was left in place to serve as a second line of defence.
These improvements to the citadel were carried out between 1675 and 1683. When they were completed the citadel was, as Vauban remarked, one of the strongest in Europe. This was mainly due to its natural position high above the town and difficult to approach.
It was however, at risk from bombardment from the adjacent hills, a disadvantage that Vauban himself had put to good use in 1674 when he was attacking the Spanish-held citadel. He recommended that these hills be fortified, but this was not done until much later.
Vauban did not limit his improvements to the citadel, but he also updated the fortifications of both the old town within the loop of the river and the Quartier Battant on the north bank. These fortifications had remained essentially unchanged since medieval times.
The riverbanks of the old town posed an unusual fortification problem. There was no room for a conventional bastioned trace, nor was there any need for such a defence since there was no possibility of an infantry attack across the deep, wide stretch of water, yet to leave the riverbanks defenceless would be inviting an enemy to attack by boat.
Vauban's solution was a wall along the riverbank periodically punctuated by small pentagonal tower-bastions'with vaulted inner rooms to protect against plunging fire. Additional flanking fire was provided by casemates'inside indented flanks (see image right).
This method of defence, also employed by Vauban at Bouillon (which has similar geography), was ideal for the situation. The tower bastions formed strong points that were safe from plunging fire from the surrounding high ground and the curtain walls were sufficiently high to deter an amphibious assault.
There were 6 tower-bastions of varying sizes, the largest having up to 30 guns on 3 levels and the smaller ones mounting 10 guns on two levels. They were all given pointed tiled rooves at some point, but not all were originally roofed.
The riverside walls were pierced by small gates at a number of points to allow them to function as quaysides to serve the significant amount of river trade carried on at Besançon.
Vauban's design for the fortifications around the Quartier Battant were more conventional, since this front faces a landward approach. The defences consisted of a trace of arrow-headed bastions'and demi-lunes, with a deep dry ditch'and a covered way.
Since these fortifications were dominated by higher ground to the north, the bastions were given earthen cavaliers'to provide the defenders with a higher platform for their guns.
The old Bastion de Griffon was replaced with a small fort, Fort Griffon. The outer edge of Fort Griffon formed a bastion and was integrated into the rest of the defences, but it was not open at the rear; instead it had two smaller bastions to cover its flanks.
This made the fort, which contained its own barracks, into a second citadel, able to keep watch over the inhabitants of the Quartier Battant. Vauban built a similar fort, Fort Saint-Sauveur, into the defences of Lille. The fortifications of Battant were constructed from 1677 to 1692.
In the early 19th century a number of forts were built on the heights surrounding Besançon, notably the Fort Brégille and the Fort de Chaudanne (which had been suggested by Vauban). These two forts protected the hills either side of the citadel, the obvious locations from which to bombard the town and the citadel.
Today the citadel is in good condition and is open to be visited. It houses a zoo and numerous other exhibitions. In the summer there can be quite a long queue so it is wise to arrive early. The entrance fee is around 5€, which is well worth it for the view and the fortifications alone.
A relief map of Besançon's fortifications can be found in the gift shop. The defences around the town are for most part intact apart from sections on the eastern side. Of the 6 original tower-bastions, 5 survive today.
The fortifications north of the river in the Quartier Battant have fared less well. There are roads and car parks in the ditches and on the western side sections of the walls have disappeared altogether. Fort Griffon is in good condition but is not open to the public.
Besançon is easily accessible by road or rail, and accommodation is easy to find in the town. The station is just to the north-east of Fort Griffon and the surviving fortifications of the Quartier Battant.