Article and pictures by Jeroen van der Werf, all rights reserved.
Already fortified in the Roman times, Brest’s strategic role as an international harbour started during the Hundred Years War. The small town is located close to the English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean, facing an enormous, naturally sheltered bay that can only be entered through a narrow entrance; the Goulet de Brest.
In medieval times, gaining control of this town would have given the English, the enemies of France, an important bridge-head along the coast protecting their transport of trade and troops to Guyenne.
They obtained this control when, in exchange for the use of Brest, they gave military support to the adversary of the French candidate for succession of the late duke of Brittany, who died without leaving an heir.
When the war of the Breton succession, one of the wars within the Hundred Years War, was over the new duke no longer needed the support of the English and tries to get them out of Brest by besieging the town, in 1378 and 1386, but without success. Eventually after long negotiations the English were paid to leave and they did so in 1397. Until the second half of the 16th century the major part of the town was located within the walls of what we now know as the castle of Brest.
A small part of the town was located outside the walls. Today’s keep was the castle in those times. When the castle was adapted to artillery warfare during the 16th century all residential buildings were moved out of the circumference of the town walls; the old town became the castle of Brest.
At that time the Sourdéac Bastion'was added to the outside of the keep and the towers were lowered and transformed into terraces for artillery. The corner towers were given an extra outer layer of masonry to make their walls thicker and more resistant to cannonballs. The main gate kept its medieval look while the barbacane, located in front of it (dating from the late 15th century), was terraced as well.
During the Wars of Religion, Brest stayed loyal to King Henry IV, in an otherwise Catholic Brittany revolting against the king. In 1592 Brest was, unsuccessfully, besieged by the Catholics.
At that same time troops of the Spanish Empire occupied an isthmus of the Crozon peninsula controlling the Goulet de Brest. They built a fort there that was successfully besieged by an Anglo-French coalition in 1594. After this victory the fort was destroyed.
This isthmus, from then onward known as the Pointe des Espagnols (the Spanish Point), was fortified by Vauban'in the 1690s.
In the 17th century, under Louis XIII and Richelieu, France started to build a navy. For that purpose several towns in the kingdom were designated as naval ports. Brest was one of those ports but not many construction works were carried out at that time. In the 1660s Colbert (Secretary of State of the Navy) created a naval base ex-nihilo at Rochefort, which was given priority over Brest. However, the harbour of Rochefort was less successful than expected.
Due to its shallow waters ships could not be fully equipped within the shelter of the port and had to be sailed downriver and finished in the more open waters of Ile d'Aix.
Brest with its deep waters would not have this problem and could serve as a harbour where ships could be fully equipped and anchored within a well-defended shelter. For these reasons Colbert decided to focus more on Brest and ordered major construction works to be carried out from 1673 onwards.
The real expansion of the town starts in 1681 but it received a structural character when Vauban was asked to give advice on the development of the town in 1683.
One of the problems in the defence of the town on the landward side was the great differences in height in the town and the surrounding country. Because of this it was hard to overlook the whole town from the castle, which was the heart of its defence.
This problem was solved by making the circumference of the town walls smaller. In 1683 Vauban made elaborate plans for the town in which most of the existing bastioned trace, dating mostly from the previous 3 years, was to be demolished and replaced. Lack of funds prevented him from carrying out his plans.
Since an enemy attack was expected over sea by foreign troops and not over land by revolting Bretons, the defence of the Rade and Goulet were given priority. The castle and the town were to be developed within the circumference of the existing walls.
The towers in the curtain walls of the castle were demolished, and were provided with broad earth terraces to place cannon and the terraces of the towers were altered as well. The part of the castle facing the town was given a bastioned trace with a covered way'and a glacis in front of it.
A part of the town had to be demolished in order to make it. As far as budgets allowed, the town walls were modified and the town developed. During the 18th century Brest flourished as a harbour, especially during the American Wars from 1778 to 1783.
The castle slowly lost its military purpose and was transformed into a prison. During the Revolutionary period the English blockaded Brest. All activities in the harbour perished and Brest never recovered. Napoleon still thought that the harbour was of strategic interest but its military role was taken over by other harbours like Cherbourg and Antwerp.
During WWII the Nazis used Brest as one of their submarine bases and as a consequence Brest was heavily bombed and the whole town was destroyed. In the years after the war Brest was rebuilt in a rather plain way, only the castle, which sustained relatively light damage, was restored (the buildings of the Prefecture Maritime inside the castle date from the 1950s). It is a pity that nothing of old Brest remains today because it would have given a great view of Vauban's town planning.
Although not carried out in his lifetime large parts of the plans Vauban made for the city were carried out in the 18th century and remained intact until WWII.
Brest has a long and moving history that can not by fully told within the scope of this article. This is why I have chosen to focus on the period up to Vauban and on the only surviving coherent part of that time; the castle. Around the town small parts of the walls can be found but it is not much and some of them have been moved so they would fit better into the new structure of the town.
In the publications of the Association Vauban some very interesting information about the development of Brest as a city can be found, along with political background explaining this development. Easier to acquire is the small book the castle has on sale about the history of the castle and the city.
Today a large part of the castle can be visited throughout the year. It houses the Marine museum, and is very well worth a visit. Most of the castle as it was in Vauban's time is still visible today although the bastioned trace facing the city has been demolished.
An interesting 3D reconstruction of Brest and its fortifications in the early 18th century: brest3d.fr
Article and pictures by Jeroen van der Werf, all rights reserved.