Today we visited the imposing Blaye fortress. Situated as it is on the heights overlooking the Gironde estuary, there would have been a military installation here from the very earliest times. In fact the remains of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s castle nestle inside the walls. Remember her? King Richard’s and King John’s mum?
Louis XIV’s military engineer, the Marquis de Vauband, modified the fortress into what it is today. He used the star shape (first introduced in Italy) so that there were no blind spots along the perimeter walls. He also used earth banks clad with stone instead of high, thick stone walls which could be broken down with cannon fire.
The more I learn about Louis XIV, the long-reigning Sun King, the more obvious it is that he set the stage for the destruction of the French monarchy in the revolution of 1788, just seventy-three years after his death. Everybody knows he was into self-aggrandisement, most evident at the Palace of Versailles. But I think this fortress is a better example of how little he cared for anyone but himself. The feudal system was alive and well throughout Europe at the time. Peasants worked on their lord’s lands in exchange for protection. It had worked well for centuries. But Louis made the peasants in this area work for him, constructing his citadel. What’s more, our local guide told us the building materials used came from the destruction of the local village. The resentment would have been palpable and entirely understandable. It simmered for decades, combined with the increasing burden of taxation on the peasants and the absence of the land owners, who were at court in Versailles, until at last the revolutionary bomb exploded. Years later, the remains of Eleanor’s castle were used to rebuild the town. And yes, I know that’s an over-simplification of the origins of the French Revolution.
A few small factoids: The fortress is a UNESCO building. For a long time that meant the villagers in the town within the walls could not even repair their houses and shops. Fortunately, somebody has grabbed a brain and realised the people who live there have the greatest interest in maintaining the buildings.
There’s a fortress on the island in the Gironne. The island is for sale but nobody wants to buy it because it is a UNESCO site so the owners can’t do anything with it. Whatever is over there is slowly mouldering away. Yet another wonderful UN initiative.
Life goes on inside the fortress. These two fellows led their goats to a new pasture. And we met the Citadel Cat.
While we were visiting the French fire brigade conducted a training exercise, retrieving an injured person at the base of the wall. You know what they say about firemen. I did my best, ladies, but this is as good as I could manage.
After our visit to Blaye, we went down into the town outside the fortress and enjoyed the wonderful markets. Food, fashion, wine… I’ll leave you with the pictures.
No wonder the peasants revolted – Greta van der Rol
[…] Louis XIV separated the gentry from their properties, making them absentee landlords and alienating them from their workers. Louis himself became an absentee king, removed from Paris and his own people. He had no qualms about destroying the houses of villagers to use the material for his own purposes, which he did to build the fortress at Blaye.  […]