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History of towers of La Rochelle

Les tours de La Rochelle

Discover the history of the towers of La Rochelle, located in the heart of the city: the Tour Saint-Nicolas, the Tour de la Chaîne and the Tour de la Lanterne, emblems of the city since the Middle Ages.

Three mighty towers!

A little history

Facing the Atlantic, La Rochelle's three towers - Saint-Nicolas (14th century), la Chaîne (14th century) and la Lanterne (12th and 15th centuries) - are the remains of a large-scale program of medieval fortifications built by the city.

The Tour Saint-Nicolas and Tour de la Chaîne are the gateway to the Old Port. Their function is primarily defensive. A chain even linked the two towers at the time! Each tower was designed as a dungeon. Each tower housed a captain, appointed by the mayor of La Rochelle, with his family and soldiers under his command.

As for the Lantern Tower, it had several successive roles. Its captain controls and disarms ships entering the port. It also served as a lighthouse and landmark with its large spire. In the 16th century, the Royal Navy turned it into a prison for privateers. In the 19th century, it became a military prison. That's why you'll be surprised to discover more than 600 graffiti carved by inmates.

The towers of La Rochelle have been listed as historic monuments since 1879. From onwards, restoration campaigns have continued right up to the present day.

From the top of each tower, enjoy a unique panorama of the city and the ocean!

Tours de La Rochelle

© Centre des monuments nationaux - Sébastien Arnault

The Saint-Nicolas or leaning tower

The legend of the Tour Saint-Nicolas

Legend has it that the Saint-Nicolas Tower was built by the fairy Mélusine. As she flew over La Rochelle with the stones of a destroyed castle, her apron broke. The stones fell one on top of the other, forming the Tour Saint-Nicolas.

The construction

Although no historical documents attest to the date of construction, the latest archaeological research indicates that work began around 1340.

A bad start!

The tower was built on long oak piles driven into the mud and braced with stones. During construction, however, the tower sank into the unstable ground, leaning to the northeast. Thanks to the widening of its base and foundations, and the addition of a buttress tower, it was strengthened. From the second floor upwards, it is plumb again.

Apparently, there were even plans to build an arch between the Tour Saint-Nicolas and the Tour de la Chaîne!

The tower was completed in 1376 , and became known as the "Tour de la Chayenne" (Chain Tower) or "Tour de la Chaîne" (Chain Tower). Since then, its leaning appearance has made it as unique as that of Pisa!

In the 15th century, the tower's name was changed to Saint-Nicolas, protector of sailors and seafarers... as was the Saint-Nicolas district with its church, to which the tower belongs.

La tour Saint-Nicolas
La tour Saint-Nicolas

© Geoffroy Mathieu - Centre des monuments nationaux

The complex architecture of the Saint-Nicolas tower

It combines defensive and residential spaces, with a double circulation system.

From the outset, the tower was designed to serve both as a residence for the captain and his family, and as a military defense with the presence of soldiers. The captain took an oath never to leave the tower during the year he was in charge.

In 1651, during the fighting of the Fronde, the third floor was destroyed, bombarded by royal troops. The tower did not regain its roof until 1670.

After a brief exterior restoration, the tower was used as a prison for Protestants at the time of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685), then for Vendeans during the Revolutionary Wars (1793-95).

In 1879, the Saint-Nicolas tower was listed as a historic monument. Between 1884 and 1904, it was extensively restored.

Owned by the French Army, the tower was transferred to the Beaux-Arts administration in 1905, then to the Ministry of Culture.

During the Second World War, the Saint-Nicolas Tower was occupied by German soldiers.

The tower has 5 levels, rising to a height of 42 meters. And the number of steps? Difficult to count, as the staircases are so intertwined that you'll never take the same route! On average, there are around 150 steps up and slightly fewer down.

Chemin de ronde de la tour Saint-Nicolas
Chemin de ronde de la tour Saint-Nicolas

© Centre des monuments nationaux - Sébastien Arnault

The Chain Tower

The tower that lost its roof!

After completion of the Tour Saint-Nicolas, the town of La Rochelle had the Tour de la Chaîne built in the 14th century, between 1382 and 1390. The tower, in the shape of a cylinder 15 meters in diameter, rose to a height of 34 meters, topped by a pepperpot roof.

Originally, "Tour de la Chaîne" referred to a group of buildings comprising the large Tour de la Chaîne and the small Tour de la Chaîne (opposite the Tour Saint Nicolas), and a main building connecting them. A large iron chain operated by a winch  to control ship access and close off the harbor. Found at the bottom of the harbor in the 19th century, it can still be seen at the foot of the tower.

As with the Saint-Nicolas tower, a captain resides in the tower. He oversees boat movements and harbor traffic. He collected duties and taxes, from which shipowners in La Rochelle were exempt.

In 1472, the tower was visited by King Louis XI. Legend has it that he engraved an inscription on a window of the tower with the diamond he wore on his finger. The tower became the residence of the city's governor.

From 1568 to 1628, La Rochelle was a Protestant town. Admiral de Coligny, who occasionally resided there with Protestant dignitaries, launched the idea of creating a Protestant funeral memorial in the tower.

In 1651, during the Fronde, soldiers left the Tour de la Chaîne, setting fire to the stock of gunpowder stored there. The explosion destroyed the floors and roof. The tower remained abandoned for three centuries.

In the 19th century, the tower was levelled to 3/4 of its height. From 1811 to 1824, to widen the entrance to the port, the small tower and adjoining building were demolished. A bastion was built in their place.

Major restoration work took place in the 20th and 21st centuries, with the reconstruction of a crenellated parapet walk, the creation of a new roof, and the restoration of two storeys inside.

The tower has 4 levels, is 20 meters high and has around 60 steps.

La tour de la Chaîne
La tour de la Chaîne

© Centre des monuments nationaux - Sébastien Arnault

The Lantern Tower

From lighthouse to prison

The origins of the Lanterne Tower date back to the end of the 12th century. Located at the corner of the Saint-Jean-du-Perrot district, a three-storey cylindrical tower was built on the site of the present-day tower. The captain who lived there was nicknamed "le Désarmeur des nefs" ("the ship disarmer"), as he was responsible for ensuring that ships entered the port unarmed. The Lantern Tower controlled access to the original port of La Rochelle.

In the 15th century, the city of La Rochelle decided to modify the tower. Work began in 1445 and was completed in 1468, thanks to funding from Mayor Jehan Mérichon. The original tower was surrounded by a new one. Fortunately, the beautiful vaulted ceiling of the lower hall was preserved! The new tower is topped by a large spire serving as a landmark for ships, with a lantern serving as a lighthouse. The fire is protected by glass. Hence the name Lantern Tower.

From the 16th century onwards, the tower was used as a prison.

In 1568, during the Wars of Religion, thirteen Catholic priests were massacred and thrown into the sea.

In 1632, due to lack of maintenance, the lantern collapsed and the tower lost its lighthouse function. In the 17th and 18th centuries, prisoners of war were imprisoned here, mainly sailors and English, Dutch and Spanish privateers, to be exchanged for French privateers imprisoned abroad. Protestants were incarcerated here at the time of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685), followed by Vendée insurgents in 1793-1795.

La tour de la Lanterne

© Centre des monuments nationaux - Sébastien Arnault

From 1820 onwards, the Lantern Tower was used as a military prison. In 1822, the "Four Sergeants", members of a plot to overthrow King Louis XVIII, were arrested in La Rochelle. Two of them were imprisoned in the tower. All were guillotined in Paris.

The prisoners left behind a wealth of graffiti (more than 600 recorded), bearing witness to the formation of the war and merchant fleets, and revealing details of the rigging, hulls and armament of the ships of the period.

There are also crosses, names, dates, texts...

Over the course of its history, the tower has had several names or nicknames: "tour du Désarmeur des nefs", "tour du Fanal", "tour du Phare", "tour du Garrot", "tour des prêtres", "tour des Quatre Sergents".

The Lantern Tower was restored between 1900 and 1914 , with a gallery recreated at mid-height and the creation of a neo-Gothic lantern in place of the medieval lighthouse.

In 1985, the French artist Jean-Pierre Pincemin (1944-2005) and the Swiss artist Gottfried Honegger (1917-2016) were commissioned by the French government to create contemporary works that can still be seen today.

From 2013 to 2015, a major restoration campaign was carried out on the tower.

The tower has 8 levels and rises to 58 meters. The public gallery is 38 meters high. You'll need to climb 162 steps to reach the top. Ready to go? We're off!

Vue sur la tour de la Lanterne
Vue sur la tour de la Lanterne

© Centre des monuments nationaux - Sébastien Arnault

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