Saint-Martin-de-Ré

Article and pictures by Michel Plancon, all rights reserved.

The town of Saint Martin de Ré is located just on the north shore of the 32 km long Ré island lying between the Breton strait on the north and the Antioche strait on the south, closing the roadstead of the Basques. The Ré island has always been of strategic import, both for its safe anchorage and its supply capacities, so it has always been one of the favorite targets of English naval power in its past rivalry with France.

Map of Vauban's fortifications at Saint Martin.

From 1621 to 1625, the Ré Island was caught up in the wars of reliegion and Cardinal Richelieu, prime minister of Louis XIII, decided to fortify it in order to guard against the growing problem of the thriving protestant city of La Rochelle. These fortifications consisted of a fort located at La Prée and a square a citadel with four bastions at Saint Martin.

Just after their completion, the Marshal Toiras was forced to retreat into the citadel of Saint Martin and successfully withstood the four months siege and blockade of the English land and naval forces of the Duke of Buckingham until the arrival of Richelieu's army in November 1627, one year before the fall of La Rochelle. After these events, Richelieu ordered that the citadel be demolished in 1629, but the fort de la Prée was kept intact.

After the creation of the naval shipyard and arsenal of Rochefort by Colbert in 1666, Louis XIV was made fully aware of the strategical importance of the Ré island and the threat in 1674 of a possible Dutch landing and Vauban was sent in order to overhaul the defences of the island.

Outer entrance to the citadel.

The fort de la Prée was restructured and three redoubts were built at Sablanceaux, les Portes and Martray, but this was just the first phase. Vauban came back in 1681 and decided to rebuild the citadel at Saint Martin and a brand new enceinte around the town, large enough to shelter the entire island population with their cattle and enough supplies to withstand a long siege with 16000 people inside.

La Porte Royale, entrance to the citadel.

The first step of Vauban's project was started in 1681 and carried out by the engineers François Ferry'and Augier under the close supervision of the Intendent of Navy Fortifications, Pierre Arnoul, until its completion in 1685.

The second step consisted of refinements defined by Vauban after his inspection visit in 1685 - mainly additional defence elements (three demi-lunes, three cavaliers and two half counterguards located on the ocean side at the two corners between the land and ocean fronts). The fortifications have been considered as completed by 1702 although there was some modifications through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries mainly to the seaward front.

The fortifications of Saint Martin de Ré have successfully withstood a naval attack and shelling from combined English and Dutch forces in 1696 and have passed through the centuries to reach us perfectly intact. They represent the largest and the best preserved example of bastioned enceinte and citadel from Vauban's “first system”.

The citadel's enclosed harbour.

They consist of a semi-circular bastioned land front including the citadel connected to the ocean front and the harbor. The citadel which is nowadays a penitentiary has a square design with four arrow headed bastions, three demi lunes, dry ditches, covered way and glacis on the island and town sides.

The citadel's ditch on the townward side.

The entrance of the citadel located on the seaward side consists of the beautiful “Porte Royale” which is the only one remaining in France with the “orgues” system closure. This door is covered by a kind of hollow demi-lune acting as a dedicated quay for the citadel.

The enceinte of the town consists of five bastioned fronts with five arrow headed bastions & curtails, five demi lunes, three “cavaliers”, dry ditches, covered way and glacis.

The entrance to the city is acheived by two gates and their fore-gates in the demi lunes: the “Porte de Toiras” toward the village of La Flotte and the “Porte des Campani” toward the village of La Couarde. The seaward front consists of an irregular stone covered wall with gun embrasures and watch-towers protecting the city harbor. The protection of the connection between island and ocean fronts is re-enforced by two half counterguards (The design of the complete fortifications is shown in the map above from A.G. and right from Bellin Atlas).

Map of Saint Martin's defences.

Visiting Saint-Martin-de-Ré

The seaward front, with the citadel in the background.

Saint Martin de Ré is 24 km from La Rochelle and can be easily reached by car through the NR 237 followed by the road D735 crossing the very scenic curved 3 km long toll bridge (9 Euros by car – free for pedestrians and bikes).

It can also be accessed by bus from La Rochelle. The fortifications of Saint Martin de Ré are in outstandingly good conditions with the two modern roads entrances into the town having been intelligently made through the bastion faces leaving the “Porte de Toiras” and the “Porte des Campani” and their fore-gates in their respective demi-lunes intact. Although the citadel cannot be visited (it is a prison today), all the other parts of the fortifications can be visited for free.

As the traffic is somewhat bad in the town, it is highly recommended to enter into the city by the first entrance beside the “Porte de Toiras” and park into the toll free large car park in front of the citadel. From there, one can go directly to the citadel to see the “Porte Royale” and all the citadel's surrounding pieces of fortification.

The seaward front and harbour entrance.
The Porte des Champani and demi-lune.

The visit can be continued by going outside of the enceinte by crossing the half counterguard “Dauphine” gate and following the glacis and the covered way leading to the “Porte de Toiras”. The next step is to re-enter into the town through this “Porte de Toiras” & its demi lune fore-gate.

From here you go to the guard-house, which is just beside the powder-magazine of Saint Louis and protected by the bastion and cavalier of Saint Louis. Then one can go back to ocean front beside the citadel and walk along it past the fortified harbour until reaching the bastion & cavalier and its half counterguard of “l’Ormeau”.

The Porte des Champani.

The visit can be continued by going to the bastioned front where is located the “Porte des Campani” and concluded by completing the semi-circle toward the “Porte de Toiras” on the glacis or on top of the fortifications.

The bourbon bastion.

From there one can visit the interesting Museum Ernest Cognacq (under re-structuration for opening in 2006) located in the Hotel de Clergeotte and the very lively town of Saint Martin with its old harbour district and its numerous shops and restaurants.

The nearby Fort de la Prée, built in the early 17th century and refined by Vauban, is also worth a visit.

Article and pictures by Michel Plancon, all rights reserved.
Condition Access to fortifications Size of fortress Accessability of town Museum/Info Overall score
9 9 9 5 5 7.4
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