The fortifications of Marshal Sébastien le Prestre de Vauban are Unesco listed and some of France’s most impressive edifices. Deborah Nash explores the life and times of the great military engineer.
The royal engineer’s edifices celebrate 10 years of Unesco listing. Find out why.
You can sometimes see Vauban here, welcoming visitors,” says our guide on the grassy slope leading to Besançon Citadel, his eyes trained on a youthful gentleman in nutbrown frock coat, breeches and curly periwig who is leaping into a white hatchback and roaring up the hill to perform in some reconstructed historical event. “It must be very warm in that wig,” he adds.
We have driven through the lashings of a tropical storm to reach the capital of Franche-comté, a city dedicated to time in all its permutations - clocks, watches and portable sundials in the Musée du Temps - but we are here to visit one of Sébastien le Prestre de Vauban’s masterpieces: Besançon Citadel. When I tell people back home I’m following in the footsteps of the Marshal (1633-1707) they almost always have never heard of him.
An industrious polymath, Vauban excelled as a military engineer in the 17th century, yet he was also a “great man of war who wished only to serve the peace” (Marthe de Fels). Seemingly contradictory impulses shaped his life: he was born into a family of impoverished nobles (a consequence of his grandfather marrying the illegitimate daughter of a Count who had died intestate) and defined himself in those terms. “I am the poorest of gentlemen,” he said. His childhood was spent in the remote wooded region of Morvan and, as the son of a gifted grafter of trees, he developed an enduring interest in forests. This background also instilled in him an empathy for rural communities.
At 17, Vauban enlisted in Condé’s army to fight against the king in the civil war known as the Fronde; when captured by the enemy, he switched sides and for more than 50 years was in service instead to Louis XIV as royal engineer and later as Director of Fortifications.
The Sun King believed in his divine right to rule but Vauban was never a fawning servant. “Each time Your Majesty creates a new office, God creates an imbecile to buy it,” he once remarked on the king’s selling of titles.
Wealth and warmongering
I’d always associated Louis XIV with the Palace of Versailles (a construction so fantastically expensive that he destroyed the bills to keep the cost from his ministers) and general frivolity, but the king was also a committed warmonger and this taste for conquest as well as luxury met in the unlikeliest of places: his high heeled shoes, which were painted with miniature battle scenes. During the 72 years of his reign, Louis undertook wars against Spain, the Dutch Republic and the League of Augsburg and for this he needed a military machine that would overwhelm any other, so he gathered about him a group of experts: one of whom was Vauban.
The region of Franche-comté lies on today’s Swiss border but back in the 17th century it was Spanish. The fortification we are visiting at Besançon is a hybrid; parts of it date from the period of Spanish rule, but when Louis XIV finally brought it into the French fold in 1674 he commissioned Vauban to strengthen the existing structure. This is considered one of the Marshal’s key works, demonstrating his flexibility of mind and vision by considering the town’s unusual topography.
We approach the citadel (‘little city’ in Italian) from the limestone hill of Mont Saint-étienne overlooking the urban settlement. It is a particularly sultry day and the hill is steep, the stones are hot and parties of school children are clumped around enclosures containing gorillas, wallabies and other exotic creatures as the site is now a ‘living museum’ with a zoo. Our guide tells us no rock was taken up the hill, instead the summit was turned into a quarry that flattened its top and enabled buildings to be built directly onto it.
A geometry of defence
Vauban thought in terms of geometry and angles, but it is difficult to get a sense of this during our trajectory. It is only when we reach the ramparts and look down on the river that lies directly beneath us that we realise its proximity (even when we can’t see the river, we’re able to chart its course from the bursts of trees that line its banks). The escarpment drops to the water and the squashed shape of the citadel on the hill with the city centre below are locked within its meandering oxbow loop so that it is almost an island. Today, a tunnel runs beneath the narrow neck of land before us where boats and road traffic flow.
Along the river we can just about make out one of the several weathered stone bastion towers built to protect the city.
“Vauban came up with the idea of a bastion tower with two firing levels where cannons could also be stored to take up less space and as he developed this specifically for Besançon, it’s a milestone in his career,” says our guide.
As we gaze across the battlements, he points out the district lying beyond the river.
“Most of the city lies within the loop of the Doubs but this outer district needed protection too. Vauban built a bastion belt that included the existing round towers from the 13th and 14th centuries. You can see a round tower here, and because it’s round you can feel it’s older than Vauban. This was not the way of Vauban, he uses angles.”
For all these innovations, Besançon Citadel was particularly memorable to Louis XIV for the time it took to build and the rocketing expense; on one occasion he asked Vauban if he was building the walls out of gold.
We continue onwards to the multimedia show in the old chapel, featuring paintings and engravings from the time, animated to bring Louis XIV’S campaigns to life. During this period France’s borders were as protean as an amoeba (to the extent that it was sometimes unclear where the border actually was). As a soldier, Vauban realised that land captured from the enemy was often traded in the peace treaty for a strategically weaker territory. Ever efficient and abhorring any loss of life, Vauban argued for a more rational and logical approach to fortification; to act counter-intuitively by disposing of those fortresses that contributed little to the defences of the country.
In a letter dated 1673 addressed to the Marquis de Louvois, Secretary of State for War, Vauban proposed the concept of “Pré Carré” (literally
ABOVE: Besançon and its imposing citadel viewed from the River Doubs; RIGHT: Sculpture of Vauban by local sculptor Pierre Duc at the citadel in Besançon