The star fort was a type of military fortification that emerged in western Europe during the late Middle Ages. It was the military engineers response to a century of improvements in cannon technology during the 13th and 14th centuries that rendered the medieval castle obsolete. The star fort included lower, thicker sloping walls that limited the effectiveness of artillery. Also, the angular shape of the fort, the ravelins that surrounded it, and the deep trench-works in between made approaching the fortress, and using its walls as a shelter against defensive fire, difficult for attacking armies.
Many of the forts found in France today can trace their origins directly or indirectly from the work of Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban. During his career as an military engineer (1667-1707) Vauban was responsible for building or upgrading the defensive fortifications of nearly 300 cities and military installations. These upgrades played a crucial role in conflicts such as the Thirty Years’ War and the Franco-Spanish War, when France engaged the Spanish and Austrian Hapsburg Empire, Britain, Sweden and other smaller rivals in battle across Western Europe.
They were also a symbol of how the nature of warfare had rapidly changed between the medieval period, and the Renaissance.
Fort de Bellegarde
Bellegarde is one of several fortifications built over the centuries to control movement of people and goods through the Col du Perthus (Perthus Pass) in the Pyrennes Mountains between France and Spain. The first historical record of the region originate from the passage of the Carthaginian general Hannibal and his army through the eastern Pyrenees in 218 B.C. Since then the fortifications of Bellegarde have changed in a variety of ways, with the star fort visitors see today, commissioned in 1679 by Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, a military planner of King Louis XIV of France.
Citadel of Besançon
The strategic value, location and natural defensive features of Besancon, close to the Swiss border, and at the base of the Alps, were first noted by Julius Cesar during hist conquest of Gaul in the 1st century. Since that time, fortifications of various kinds have been built on the site. Construction of the current fort began in 1668, under the direction of the Spanish crown, and over the course of its creation passed between the French and Spanish Kingdoms several times. The primary designer of what is seen today, was Vauban, who built over the course of his life time many France’s star forts. Given its prominence high above the town of Besancon, the elaborateness of its design, and its superb condition, the citadel is considered one of the finest surviving examples of a Renaissance Bastion Fort in France. Nearly a quarter of a million people visit annually.
Fortress of Salses (Forteresse de Salses)
Like Bellegarde, the Fortress of Salses was built to control a strategic north-south passage and strategic choke point between modern France’s Mediterranean coastline and the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains. The original fort was built between 1497-1502 by the Spanish King Ferdinand II to defend against French invasions of Spain. It was the scene of three battles during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), the result of which was a triumphant French army. But the conflict to control Salses also served to blunt any further advances of France into Spanish territory in this region. By the signing of the Peace of the Pyrenees in 1659, the fort had lost much of its relevance, and the current border of Spain and France was largely settled.
Fort Carre, located on the Mediterranean coast in the south of France, dates back to as early as 1553, when a defensive tower was added to the site of an existing chapel. The building of the tower and the bastion fort that soon followed in 1565 were part of a larger project by King Francis I and his heir Henry II to improve Frances defenses in Provence, and monitor the Duchy of Savoy, its rival to east. It was after the improvements commissioned by Henry II that the fort took on the star-shape common to many forts and walled cities in the era. Future improvements were added by the military engineer Vauban, who would later build Neuf-Brisach.
The fort saw conflict twice in its long history. During 1591 it was taken briefly by the Duchy of Savoy, before the French reconquered Provence. And in 1746/47 it was attacked from the Mediterranean by British and Austrian warships, but never taken.
The fort is also notable for the temporary imprisonment of Napolean Bonparte within its walls, and as part of the James Bond movie – Never Say Never Again.
Fort de Joux
While not a star fort in the purest sense, Fort de Joux is like many other fortifications of the time, a combination of the old and the new. Its history begins in the 12th century when the lords of Joux transferred an existing wooden fortification into one of stone. From there, over the centuries improvements were added onto the central castle, including by the famed Renaissance military engineer Vauban. The changes reflected the changing role of the castle, from a stronghold of feudal lords, to a border fort to protect France from its neighbors. For a time it even served as part of the Maginot line, the protective line of fortifications the French in vainly developed after World War I (WWI) to defend against another German invasion.
Today the fort sits on the border between France and Switzerland above the town of La Cluse-et-Mijoux.
Fort des Têtes
The site upon which Fort des Tetes sits was first surveyed for its strategic value, by Vauban in 1700. It wasn’t until 1721 that construction of a permanent fort began, under the direction of two of Vauban’s successors. The fort overlooks the valley of the Durance river, and allowed the French to defend Briançon and the high valleys of Fontenil and Fontchristiane that surrounded it. The fort was part of the Fortified Sector of Dauphiné, a section of the Maginot Line that bordered Italy after WWI. The French were able to defend against a series of Italian attacks up until 1940, after which Italian forces occupied Southeastern France.
Neuf-Brisach (New Brisach) was built after the loss of “old” Brisach to the Holy Roman Empire following the Treaty of Ryswick which ended the War of the League of Augsburg in 1697. Neuf-Brisach was envisioned by Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, a famous military engineer during the period as both the ideal French city as well as a ultimate defense against future attacks from German territory, which lay just a few miles away on the other side of the Rhine River. Neuf-Brisach offers a classic example of the star fort serving both a military and civilian purposes.
Villefranche-de-Conflent was founded in 1096 by Guillaume-Raymond, Count of Cerdanya, in part for its strategic location in a narrow pass through the Pyrenees Mountains. Offering an impediment to invading Arab armies from Spain, the town was quickly fortified, and has remained that way ever since. As its position between two of Europe’s two great powers might suggest, Villefranche-de-Conflent has seen its share of conflict and upheaval. Multiple times over the centuries France and Spain traded control over the Pyrennes, with the last instance occurring during the Franco-Spanish War of 1793, in which Spain occupied the town briefly.
Google Maps: Find It
Youtube: Walking Tour
Website of Interest: http://villefranchedeconflent-tourisme.blogspot.fr/
Further Reading Suggestions:
- The Renaissance at War – Thomas Arnold
- The Medieval Fortress: Castles, Forts, And Walled Cities Of The Middle Ages – J.E. Kaufmann
- Castles: Their Construction and History – Sidney Toy
- War in European History – Michael Howard