Places to visit


King Louis XIV's military engineer

Map of forts  Vauban
1. Map of Forts in present-day Nord/ Pas-de-Calais, showing the outer defences given up in 1713 when the Treaty of Utrecht re-drwe the border.
2. Portrait: Sébastien le Prestre de Vauban (1633-1707)

Fortifying northern France
As the area of French rule expanded towards its present borders, defences were built to secure the gains. At the beginning of the 17th century, Henri IV employed Jean Errard (1554-1610), the "father of French fortification", to build a number of citadels in the north - following Italian ideas.

When King
Louis XIV's army had successfully advanced into the lowlands of Spanish Flanders in the second half of the 17th century, he commissioned his military engineer Sébastien le Prestre de Vauban (1633-1707) to design and supervise the building of a chain of forts. These were designed to ensure that France's north-east border lands could never be recaptured.

Le Quesnoy
Le Quesnoy - fortified by Vauban to help strengthen a weak area on France's new borders.

Arras fortified town 1716
Model of Arras made in 1716, showing the walled town captured by Louis XIV from the Spanish in 1667 - with modern fortifications added by Vauban: a citadelle, earthworks, bastions and ditches to strengthen the medieval town walls. (in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Arras)
Gravelines defences
Gravelines on the banks of the river Aa held the coastal end of the inner chain of forts...
Gravelines - from the air
...from the air, you can see the classic star shape of Vauban's designs.

Artillery train
By the 17th century, weapons and tactics had developed to make old medieval fortifications generally useless against attack by an organised army. Thick stone walls and towers simply crumbled into ruins when attacked by modern cannons; defenders needed a strong base from which they could safely use the increasingly accurate firepower of guns.

Vauban joined Louis XIV's army in 1658. Over the next few decades, he directed 53 sieges, with a keen eye for any weak spot in a town's defences.

Vauban's genius was as a "poacher turned gamekeeper". Knowing how he would attack a stronghold, his solution was to build "star-shaped" forts with straight-sided moats, lined with walls built of local materials (mainly brick in the north). He left no “blind spots” where an attacker could hide. His defenders could fire on the enemy with cannon mounted behind thick walls on the ramparts; and rake the moats with handguns fired through slits in the walls.

He carefully took advantage of natural features, such as rivers and hill-slopes, in siting his forts - using detailed models to help the design, and often adapting earlier fortifications.

Lines of forts
With royal command to give him all the men and materials needed, Vauban built a long double line of forts called the "Pré carré" - each sited and designed so that a small garrison could hold up any invading army, giving time for reinforcements to be organised. Some of the forward line was lost
(see map) in 1713, when the Treaty of Utrecht re-drew the frontier, forcing Louis XIV to give back some of his conquests.

Meteoric rise, prodigious workload

Lille citadelle
At Lille, Vauban was made Governor and built a new Citadelle 1667-70 to make the regional capital an impregnable stronghold. The gateway bears the sun-symbol of Louis XIV, and a fresco representing the arts that flourished under his reign.

Louis XIV met Vauban during his campaigns, was impressed with his ability, and promoted him swiftly. In 1668 he was made Governor of newly-captured Lille.

During his military career, Vauban built 33 forts and fortified walled towns, and strengthened 300 others - not just in Nord- Pas de Calais, but all round the coasts and borders of France.

He reached the dizzy heights of "Maréchal of France" in 1703, but fell from favour with Louis XIV in 1706 - a year before he died.

Ideas for tax reform
His "crime"? - Vauban published books with ideas for social reforms. The king objected to a book that dared to suggest solving the kingdom's chronic budget deficit by levying a new proportionate income tax even on the aristocracy (who unfairly paid little or no tax). Vauban was banished from the Versailles court, and died in disgrace a year later. A century later,
Napoleon recognised Vauban's military genius and had him reburied with honour in the Panthéon.

Despite the gaps left by the 1713 frontier change
(see map), Vauban's lines of fortified towns helped France to successfully defend its northern border until the invasions at the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1814-5). In the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1) the Prussians avoided the north by attacking further east. By the First World War, military technology had made the forts obsolete. Germany invaded the north through Belgium in 1914, proving this low-lying frontier was again vulnerable - and prompting the French to build the infamous "Maginot Line" in later years.

Today most of the models that were made to help Vauban in planning his effective and innovative fortifications can be seen in a museum in Lille, the
Musée des Beaux-Arts.

Errard fortifications to visit:
Montreuil-sur-mer - he added works to the medieval walled town
Calais - Citadelle and fortifications
Boulogne - based on the early Roman and medieval walled town
{Vauban also did later work at most sites]
Vauban fortifications to visit:
Ambleteuse - coastal fort on the beach
Bergues - complete walled town
Gravelines - complete defence works on coastal plain, with elaborate water channels
Le Quesnoy - his first fort
Lille: the Citadelle, Vauban's "masterpiece" ; Vauban's models in the Musée des Beaux-Arts.
Maubeuge - recently restored, with a zoo in the moat.

Related background information
King Louis XIV - the "Sun King" whose military adventures kept Vauban busy
History of Flanders
Prince William of Orange - coordinated opposition to France's expansion into the Spanish Netherlands




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