Three landmarks define the old harbour of La Rochelle, two solid, drum shaped towers guarding the harbour entrance and a third tower topped by a tapering spire. La Tour de la Lanterne, was designed to draw the eye, acting as a day mark for shipping approaching the port as well as serving a defensive function. At night a lantern was hung in the small tower to one side of the spire, making this the earliest lighthouse on the Atlantic coast of France.
The Lantern Tower was built between 1445 and 1476 on the foundations of an earlier tower, dating from 1209. In its early days the tower was the residence of the town’s official disarmer, whose job was to remove weapons from ships wishing to enter the port and to store them until the vessel was ready to depart. The tower was known as the Tour de la Garrot after the rope loop which was lowered from a winch to haul heavy canons into the tower.
The tower gained a number of other nicknames over the years. La Tour des Prêtres commemorates the thirteen catholic priests imprisoned here during the 16th century Wars of Religion who were murdered and flung into the sea from the top of the tower. Three centuries later the tower became known as the Tour des Quatres Sergents, after four young army officers charged in 1822 with conspiracy against the newly restored monarchy. The sergeants, imprisoned here before being sent to the guillotine in Paris, were later honoured as heroes of the Republic.
Every history has alternative versions, depending on the viewpoint of the observer. Another of the tower’s nicknames is the English Tower, dating from the years during the Hundred Years War when the tower was controlled by an English garrison. The English connection wasn’t a new one. In 1130 La Rochelle was granted the status of an independent port by Guillaume Duke of Aquitaine, freeing it from feudal obligations and allowing the townspeople to elect their own mayor and councillors. When Guillaume’s heir Aliénor or Eleanor married Louis VII, soon to be king of France, the dukedom of Aquitaine was briefly joined to the French throne but when in 1152 the marriage was dissolved and Eleanor married Henry Plantagenet, future king of England, the dukedom went with her.
For two centuries La Rochelle owed allegiance to the English crown. The town was besieged in 1219 by Philipe Auguste in the crusade contre les Albigeois, proclaimed by the Catholic church against heretical belief. The town was besieged again, in 1224 by Louis VIII and in 1372 by Charles V when an English fleet sent to defend La Rochelle was defeated by a combined fleet of French and Castilian Spanish ships. Conquered or liberated? That depends on your point of view.
The Lantern Tower itself is eye-catching from many different view points.
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