It could be argued that a visitor to St Malo in Brittany needs to understand the geography of St Malo’s setting in the Bay of Mont St Michel to understand why there is this medieval walled city perched on the edge of the English Channel. Its strategic location on the estuary of the Rance river is defined by the history of its conflict with the English whose major naval port, Plymouth, is just 250 kilometres away. St Malo is only 70 kms from the island of Jersey which has been administered by the English since the 13th century. It has been a heavily defended walled town for 9 centuries; its ramparts were built from the start of the 11th century, massively upgraded in the 16th century and again in the 18th century. The depredations of the neighbours across the Channel needed to be effectively resisted.
St Malo, the Ocean and the Off-Shore Islands.
We visited St Malo in 2019 and as the map below illustrates, we parked our Campervan about five kms from the coast and rode our bikes to the edge of the Grande Plage du Sillon, where we turned left to head towards the walled town. One of the first things we noted as we rode along the sea wall were the timber posts driven into the sand in front of the concrete sea wall. It seemed that St Malo’s location in the Normand-Breton Gulf meant that it needed extra defences from the savage impact of Atlantic storms. The postcard image below shows one of these storms hitting the sea walls of St Malo with the timber posts in action, presumably acting as a first line of defence to distribute the force of the waves.
The next striking feature of the shoreline in front of the walled town of St Malo were the three islands within walking distance (low tide) of the town gates and they had clearly been fortified in the distant past. The closest one was Fort National at the western end of the Grande Plage.
The fort was built on what was originally called the l’Îlette Rock and apparently was a convenient place to execute local criminals by both burning and hanging (not at the same time!). The fort was built to a design produced by Vauban, Louis XIV’s famous military architect from 1689. The fortifications of St Malo and this little island were put to the test in 1693 by their less than friendly neighbours, the English and the Dutch, when they sent a fleet of thirty ships to take over St Malo. One of the unpleasant actions taken by these dangerous neighbours is described on an info sign near one of the fortification towers in the walls.
La Tour Bidouane…It was against this tower that the Anglo-Dutch forces directed their ship filled with explosives in 1693 in an attempt to blow up St Malo’s ramparts. But this attempt failed when the ship ran aground on the rocks slightly further to the north-east in between the town and Fort National.
As you move along the walls of St Malo, the next two islands appear, Le Petit and Grand Be (‘Be’ translates as ‘tomb’). Le Grand Be is easily reached on low tide and has the remains of a fort on it. The map below, published by Wikpedia, shows this fort still standing in June 1715. Its main claim to fame for the locals is that Grand Be has the grave of the town’s most famous son, Francois Chateaubriand. (See Appendix 1.)
Petit Be is, as the name suggests, a smaller Island than its neighbours but it still has a restored fort on it that can be visited. This fort was also designed by the great military architect Vauban (we encountered his work later on in Lille) as part of a series of forts he designed on the islands around St Malo (as well as the town’s fortifications). This fort also assisted in repelling the Anglo-Dutch fleet in 1689. It was not only Vauban that saw the defensive capabilities of these islands offshore from St Malo, the German army also militarised these islands and so they were important targets for the allied forces at the time of the Normandy invasion in 1944.
The Impact of being a Breton/French town on the English Channel
It’s a bland truism that a town’s geographical location directs its development over the history of its existence. If you are a settlement on the English Channel directly across from England on the way to the rest of the world, the impact of historical forces is huge. Like your wise old grandparents, the town of St Malo has an old and battered exterior and an endless supply of stories from its traumatic past. You could even argue that St Malo still lives on due to the extended plastic surgery performed on it from 1948 to 1960, rebuilding the old girl after she was almost completely destroyed by the conflict between her distant neighbours, the USA, Britain and Germany. This restored face is exemplified by the battlements of St Malo.
We entered St Malo by the Porte St Vincent after we had visited the helpful tourist Bureau just outside the gates. It is an impressive double gate that can’t but be a ‘taster’ for the tour ahead of this rugged medieval town. Like much of the fortifications of St Malo, it is the work of Sebastien Vauban (1633-1707) who designed these walls which were completed in 1709. Above today’s restored gates can be seen the town’s coat of arms that has the curious feature of having the emblem of “a white ermine passant on the terrace”, sporting a flying scarf or cape (in the printed version, the cape is red!). If this image is enough to indicate a twinkle in the old girl’s eye, the motto on the original wooden coat of arms confirms it; “Poyius quam mori quam foedari” (“Better dead than to be sullied”)
Once through the gate, we headed along the inside of the wall past the St Malo Chateau that sits at the corner of the fortifications. Although restored, the original small castle was built in 1395, a larger keep was attached a hundred years later and eventual its walls were rebuilt in the late 17th century. St Malo’s defences needed continual upgrades! The castle today house the ‘Hotel de Ville’ of St Malo and its history museum.
The next two sections of the fortifications provide gorgeous views out over the Gulf and across the River Rance towards Dinard. The town has chosen to highlight the lives of three of its famous seafarers along these walls.
The first character we encounter along these walls is Jacques Cartier (1491-1557), whose statue is shown straining against the rudder of one of his ships that he took on his voyages to Canada. He is credited with being the first European navigator to explore the St Lawrence River and founded a settlement where Quebec now stands. He claimed this area of the new world for France. There is a plaque in St Vincent’s Cathedral that marks the spot where Cartier received a blessing for his voyage from the Bishop of St Malo.
While the feats of Jacques Cartier featured in my school history books, the name of France’s most prominent ‘Corsair’, René Dugyay-Trouin (1673-1736) was never mentioned. Given that Australia’s education system is naturally anglo-centric, it is not surprising that a “legitimated pirate” who preyed on English ships in the English Channel did not get any mention in Australian school classes. His extravagant career has some notable features…
- In 1704-5 he fought in the War of Spanish Succession and captured a number of British Ships.
- In 1707 he achieved a great victory against a large squadron of British merchant ships heading for Spain, known as the Battle at Lizard.
- In 1711, in an 11-day battle, he captured the ‘impregnable’ Rio de Janiero.
His career numbers of 16 warships and over 300 merchantmen captured make him a significant naval figure of the time. His statue on the walls of St Malo probably reflects his image as a newly promoted nobleman in 1709 rather than his career as a swashbuckling corsair!
The statue of Jacques Cartier stands upon the Bastion de la Hollande, a section of the wall built around the time of the Anglo-Dutch fleet harassing St Malo. The local Marie’s website tells a curious story about the use of an underground storehouse here that was was used as a kennel for a pack of English Mastiff guard dogs. In the 1770s they were released in the streets of St Malo at night to ensure the curfew was maintained. To encourage their viciousness, they were not fed during the day so their enthusiasm for chasing curfew breakers was increased. After one too many influential types were mauled for being out too late at night, the municipality decided to poison their guard dogs for doing their job too effectively!
The last two sections of the walls of St Malo took us past the more residential areas of the “intra Muros” old town. We saw the houses built by wealthy corsairs and the other sturdily built stone houses that lined the street just inside the fortifications.
This is probably the appropriate point to discuss the last major impact of the town’s geographical position on the English Channel and the historical consequences that this brought with it. The German army had set themselves up in St Malo after conquering France in 1940 and would have believed it would be one of the bases from which they could attack England. By 1944 it had become a defensive position to resist the expected invasion of France by the allies. During August and September of 1944, St Malo was almost completely destroyed by American and British shelling and bombing. The two photos here from that time illustrate that the ramparts we so happily walked along in 2019, were no longer military technology relevant to resisting modern weaponry. The ramparts in the photos appear to be generally standing but it is the town buildings behind them that are destroyed. Poor information about how many Germans were still defending St Malo meant that the allies continued to bomb St Malo well beyond the time of any effective defense by the German Army. Rather than being standard explosive shells, the bombs pumped into St Malo were ‘incendiary’ (perhaps one of the early uses of Napalm’ before the Vietnam War) and so much of the damage was done by the fires that these weapons generated. It was this devastation that was rebuilt after the war using Marshal Plan money and took many years to complete.
As tourists visiting this famous walled town, we agreed it was one of a must-see places for anyone visiting the west coast of France. After our walk around the walls we were ready for some great food and coffee and the town certainly provided that. One day is certainly not enough to inspect St Malo in detail and so those with plenty of time should consider staying for a few days.
Here is a list of the top things to see in St Malo if you have more time than we did to explore the town.
THINGS TO SEE IN ST MALO
- The Ramparts
- Old St Malo…the inside! Intra Murales
- Plage du Sillon
- Chaeau de Saint-Malo
- Grand Aquarium
- Fort National
- Grand and Petite Be
- Parc de la Briantais
- Cathedral St Vincent
- The Solidor Tower in Saint-Servan
- The Privateer’s House (“La Demeure de Corsaire”)
- GR-34…Coastal Walk
- The Emerald Coast!
APPENDIX 1: Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand
It is said that the grave of Chateaubriand is the second most visited grave in France with Napoleon’s, in Paris, being the most visited. He is buried on Le Grand Be just a few hundred metres from the walls of St Malo after being born within the walls in 1768. A grave with a great view and a whimsical inscription is presumably why it is so regularly visited. His inscription reads… ” A great French Writer wishes to repose here and listen only to the sea and the wind. Passing by, respect his last wishes.”
Chateaubriand’s life covered some of the most tumultuous times in French history. It included…
- Straddling two worlds, the Ancien regime and post-revolutionary Europe;
- Joining the royal French army;
- He lived through the Revolution, the execution of the king, the arrival and fall of Bonaparte;
- Restoration of the Bourbon dynasty;
- The 1830 and 1848 revolutions;
- Living in the United States wilderness and in London.
It could be claimed he lived a tumultuous life in a tumultuous time. He is remembered as a great writer promoting Romanticism in Europe as well as eventually becoming a great supporter of the Catholic church and his writings are considered to have assisted in the re-emergence of the Church after the Revolution.
If you have an interest in Chateaubriand’s work, here a re some ‘bon mots’ to get you started.
“One is not, my dear sir, a superior man merely because one sees the world in an odious light. One only hates mankind and life itself through failing to look deeply enough.”
“Justice is the bread of the Nation, it is always hungry for it.” “Alexander created cities everywhere he passed: I have left dreams everywhere I have trailed my life.”
APPENDIX 2: St Vincent’s Cathedral
Cathédrale Saint-Vincent-de-Saragosse, in Place de Chatillon St Malo, was built in the 12th century on the site of the previous 7th century church. This original church was destroyed by a Norman army from over the other side of the Normand-Breton Gulf in the 900s. These descendants of the Vikings liked invading. It is nominated as a ‘National Monument of France.
The ancient cathedral was not spared in WW2. Rather than being a victim of the Allies’ shelling, it was the Germans who destroyed the Church’s spire.
“The Germans did, however, cause considerable damage in other respects. On 6 August, a minesweeper in the harbor shelled the cathedral spire which fell, causing extensive damage to the fabric. The excuse was that the spire was being used as an observation post by “terrorists.” Von Aulock was furious and told Commander Breithaup, of the 12th minesweeper flotilla that the act “hardly covered the German navy with glory.” (Philip Beck)
One small positive for the locals was that the tomb of Jacques Cartier who had settled on his estate outside St Malo after all his Canadian travels and was buried in this cathedral, his tomb was rediscovered in 1949 during excavations of the ruined church.
APPENDIX 3: An Old and Very Slow Transistor Radio!
One of the decorations in our café in the old town of St Malo.