When the finishing touches were put on Rochefort arsenal in 1666, a major problem arose:
although the fort was strong enough to protect itself, the shallow depth of the Charente river gave the military architects some real headaches.
The lack of depth forced the men building boats here to complete any vessels down at the mouth of the river, sheltered behind the islands of Aix and Oléron. However, the range of the cannon positioned on the two islands did not allow them to cross fire, which meant a corridor of about 3,000m was left undefended, allowing enemy ships to sail through unimpeded.
In order to overcome this problem, the idea of building a fort on the 'Longe de Boyard' (a sandbank between the two islands) began to form in the minds of the architects. However, it soon proved clear that it would be impossible to implement, as this document from Vauban to the king illustrates: "Sire, it would be easier to bite the moon than to attempt such a task here".
The idea was therefore dropped at the advice of this eminent engineer... at least for a while, until a new project for a similar fort was suggested to Napoleon at the start of the 19th century. Therefore, in 1804, work began to eventually create a riprap on the sandbank. It was hard, tedious work that was only possible when the tide was out and the weather fine!
Even working with such precautions, the riprap sunk into the sand, causing work to stop in 1809. It was restarted again shortly afterwards, only to be stopped a second time when the Rochefort squadron was destroyed by English fire ships.
The site remained untouched for years, but on resumption of hostilities with the English during the reign of Louis Philippe, between 1837 and 1848, work resumed on the project.
However, this time a different technique was used, with lime box beams being made on site before being submerged. In 1848, the foundation was finally completed and construction of the fort could begin.
After 10 years of work (the first level was finished in 1854, the upper platform and watchtower in 1857) and an increase in the shooting range of the cannon, the fort became... obsolete! France was no longer at war with England, and in any case the new batteries on the islands of Aix and Oléron could easily protect the harbour.
Fort Boyard was therefore to endure a sorry fate. It became a prison at the end of the Second French Empire before being abandoned for good by the army in 1913, and ended up being looted.
Luckily, its ordeal - and its ruined condition - drew to an end in 1950, when it was entered as a historical monument on the 'Inventaire Supplémentaire des Monuments Historiques'. At least, that is when things should have started improving for the building. However, as a final humiliation, the owner who took over the property in 1961 neglected it until the Charente-Maritime General Council took over.
This military colossus, 68m long, 31m wide, and 20m tall, which (briefly) held 74 cannon, a garrison of 260 men, and had a tank holding 300,000 litres of water, as well as ammunition and powder stores, continues to live out its curse to this day, or so it appears.
Indeed, visits are not allowed, and it is not the easiest place to get to for an outside look. These days it simply serves as the backdrop for a famous summer TV show...