The Château de Brest is one of the largest roadsteads (sheltered area outside a harbor) in the world. From the Roman castellum to Vauban's citadel, the site has over 1700 years of history, holding right up to the present day its original role as a military fortress and a strategic location of the highest importance. It is thus the oldest castle in the world still in use. The structure's heterogeneous architecture has been the result of continual adaptations to developments in siege warfare and armament on land and sea. The château stands on the opposite bank to the Tour Tanguy combining to defend the entrance to the Penfeld.
From Roman coinage found on the site, it appears that the Romans were present there at least by the reign of the emperor Septimus Severus (193-211). The Roman province of Armorica thus had to face Saxon raids. To face the barbarian invasion threat and the disintegration of the Roman empire, it became necessary to create forts at Brest and several other sites along these coasts. The Romans erected a defensive work at the end of the 3rd century. This camp or castellum housed 1000 men of a troop, headed by a prefect, as well as a fleet designed to intercept pirate ships. Only one of its walls now survives - these foundations were encased in the ramparts of the present castle, extending for 120-140m in length, on an average height of 3-4m.
From the Romans' departure (410-420) until the 11th century, little is known as to the history of the castellum at Brest. It remained a stronghold and thus belonged to the counts of Léon, whilst a town developed at the foot of the Roman enclosure. Around 1064 or 1065, duke Conan II (or possibly Léon Morvan II, one of the vicomtes de Léon) ordered the renovation of the castle, cutting a moat around it and building a chapel within the enclosure, dedicated to 'Notre Dame de Pitié' (destroyed in 1819), and a keep (perhaps in the northern corner of the fortifications).
In 1240, the castle passed to the duke of Brittany, John I, and became an essential part of the duchy's defence system. The castle remained unbeaten by the Normans. During this period was built the tour César, possibly on the ruins of a Gallo-Roman tower. It blocked all access to the rocky outcrop. The tour Azenor and the curtain wall onto which it is built also date to this time.
In 1341 John, count of Montfort, conquered Brest castle from Charles de Blois after a long siege. This was the last time the castle would be taken by force. John of Montfort restored the buildings he had damaged in the siege and added to the defences, putting in place a garrison under Tanguy du Chastel, who built Brest's first enclosure. The castle was later besieged in French-Breton Wars. The war between English and French re-erupted in 1403 and this era truly gave birth to the town and port of Brest, to the detriment of the castle.
The 15th century was one of great works to adapt to new weapons and developments in defensive works. The castle's commanders restored the castle and made it proof against siege engines. As in other fortified towns of the era, the duke built a fortified residence with the aim of making his stays in Brest more pleasant and more secure. He thus added the tour Duchesse Anne, the tour Nord and the tour Azenor (which became a cellar), a kitchen, rooms, lodgings and a chapel. The collection of towers was linked by curtain walls and formed a true 'closed-town' lordly castle.
During the Wars of Religion, in 1592, the royal seat of justice was transferred to Saint-Renan. In June 6,000 League troops invested Recouvrance, to try to make the citadel fall. Supported by the Spanish, they besieged the castle in vain for 5 months. The garrison repulsed the assaults and cut the besiegers to pieces.
In the 16th century Minister for the Navy gave Brest a real boost to its growth by his development of its arsenal from 1669 onwards. The intendant Pierre Chertemps de Seuil was responsible for the initial construction projects on the arsenal between 1670 and 1680. Reinforced and modernised, the castle still defended the premier port of the royal fleet. In 1680, a new battery completed the castle to the south-west to guarantee the defence of the harbour entrance. To the north-east an imposing bastioned fort 'à la Vauban' protected the harbour approaches. The town's population thus began to expand substantially, especially when it was merged with Recouvrance in 1681. Pierre Massiac de Sainte-Colombe's project for modernising the defences of the town, arsenal and their surroundings was initiated that year and taken over and transformed by Vauban in May 1683 to 1695. He destroyed the last Roman towers and the pepper-pot roofs of the keep. In this era the defences protected the castle effectively against attack from the sea, but the fortress had to defend above all against a landborne attack should an English fleet succeed in disembarking troops on the coast. The castle became a citadel, overlooking the town, the countryside and their surroundings all at once.
In 1785, Louis XVI launched a major construction project at the castle to mark his recognition of the town. Leadership of this project of was put under the direction of M. Jallier de Savault. Notably he oversaw the erection at the town's highest point of a monumental statue of Louis. It would have to be built on the site of the tour César.
During the World War II, Brest fell into German hands on 19 June 1940 and the citadel was occupied by their troops, with the tours Paradis once again serving as a prison (this time for those condemned to deportation). After the Germans' retreat following D-Day, 'Fortress Brest' became one of the pockets of German resistance. The siege of the town lasted 43 days and it finally fell to the Allied force under general Middleton on 18 September.
The last buildings were ceded to the French Navy in 1945 and restoration of the whole castle began. A new central building was built to designs by the architects Niermans and Gutb, and completed and occupied in 1953. Its great gallery leading to the Directors' Council Room houses the portrait of the prefect's 150 predecessors since 1636.References:
The Abbey of Saint-Etienne, also known as Abbaye aux Hommes ('Men"s Abbey'), is a former monastery dedicated to Saint Stephen (Saint Étienne). It is considered, along with the neighbouring Abbaye aux Dames ('Ladies" Abbey'), to be one of the most notable Romanesque buildings in Normandy. Like all the major abbeys in Normandy, it was Benedictine.
Lanfranc, before being an Archbishop of Canterbury, was abbot of Saint-Etienne. Built in Caen stone during the 11th century, the two semi-completed churches stood for many decades in competition. An important feature added to both churches in about 1120 was the ribbed vault, used for the first time in France. The two abbey churches are considered forerunners of the Gothic architecture. The original Romanesque apse was replaced in 1166 by an early Gothic chevet, complete with rosette windows and flying buttresses. Nine towers and spires were added in the 13th century. The interior vaulting shows a similar progression, beginning with early sexpartite vaulting (using circular ribs) in the nave and progressing to quadipartite vaults (using pointed ribs) in the sanctuary.
The two monasteries were finally donated by William the Conqueror and his wife, Matilda of Flanders, as penalty for their marriage against the Pope"s ruling. William was buried here; Matilda was buried in the Abbaye aux Dames. Unfortunately William"s original tombstone of black marble, the same kind as Matilda"s in the Abbaye aux Dames, was destroyed by the Calvinist iconoclasts in the 16th century and his bones scattered.
As a consequence of the Wars of Religion, the high lantern tower in the middle of the church collapsed and was never rebuilt. The Benedictine abbey was suppressed during the French Revolution and the abbey church became a parish church. From 1804 to 1961, the abbey buildings accommodated a prestigious high school, the Lycée Malherbe. During the Normandy Landings in 1944, inhabitants of Caen found refuge in the church; on the rooftop there was a red cross, made with blood on a sheet, to show that it was a hospital (to avoid bombings).