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St Malo Background information

Saint-Malo was named after Welsh monk Mac Low, who, around the VIth century, established his bishopric in Alet, a stone-throw away from the rock was the walled city now stands. The current city, initially founded in the XIIth century, is the product of its 1967 merger with its two immediate neighbours Saint-Servan and Parame. As early as the XIIIth century, the “Malouins” were already quite successful at catching enemy ships. In 1308, they instated a sworn city and from 1395 to 1415, they swore allegiance to King Charles VI of France, who granted their port free practice.

It was to keep them under control that the Duchy of Brittany had the main castle built, which the Malouins overtook in 1590; later, they declared themselves an independent republic, which lasted four years until King Henry IV of France agreed to become a catholic. Jacques Cartier, in his 1534 to 1542 travels, had already opened the Newfoundland route and discovered Canada.

Formerly called “Saint-Malo de l’Isle”, the City, clustered around its cathedral within its very tight 16 hectares, burnt down for the first time in 1661. In the following years, architects Vauban and Garangeau rehabilited it and extended it to 24 hectares, in 4 steps.

Thanks to its seafers and merchant ship owners, who commissioned vessels to Eastern Indies, China, Africa and the Americas, the City enjoyed prodigious prosperity in the XVII and XVIIIth centuries; Gouin de Beauchene tackled Cape Horn in 1701, Mahe de la Bourdonnais colonized Moskar and took over Madras, Maupertuis in 1736 set off to Lapland to measure the shape of the earth, then there were Chateaubriand and Lamenais, but above all the famous seafarers and privateers: When in 1815 Privateer’s Commissions were abolished, the Saint-Malo ship owners commissioned their ships to Newfoundland and kept developing their port.

Unfortunately, the 1944 liberation battles devastated the town and destroyed the walled city by 80%. It is from those preserved and restored ruins that Saint Malo has since acquired all the facilities and equipment necessary to be one of Brittany’s tourist highlights and the number one port on its Northern shores.

A city of granite rebuilt with its original style and skyline: because of fires, Saint-Malo has kept only 2 or 3 specimens of half-timbered construction, e.g., the inner courtyard of Chateaubriand’s birth place, timber-panelled houses in rue du pelicot or the recollets archway over Rue des Vieux Ramparts. Although the walls near the ramparts were built exactly as they were under the auspices of the French Directorate of Historical Monuments.

From the late XVIth century and mainly during the two subsequent centuries, stone was increasingly used, that of Chausey islands in particular, which significantly changed the city’s aspect. The house around St-Malo is characterized by the sobriety and solidity of architectural design. During the reconstruction process, streets were widened or straightened to improve circulation and views.

The Bishopric: Saint-Vincent Cathedral, whose construction began in the XIIth century, included an Anjou-style nave and a cloister, whose restored remnants constitute the oldest part of the Cathedral. The magnificent gothic-style choir with Anglo-Norman style flat chevet was erected in the middle of the XIIth century. Carefully restored after its partial destruction, it was adorned with outstanding stained glass windows and a high and sharp spire in replacement of that built in the XIXth century.

Towers and ramparts: Saint-Malo has been a seaward fortress since the Middle Ages. The oldest witnesses of that are the Petit Donjon of the walled city and the Solidor tower in Saint Servan. Duke John V’s XVth century Grand Donjon (main Tower), laid out as a horseshoe, the 4 huge angle towers, begun by Francois II and Anne De Bretagne, with their 2 to 3-metre thick walls, were harbingers to the bastion-oriented design prescribed by Vauban in the late XVIIth century. Grangeau erected the seaward islet forts (Fort National, Fort du Petit Be, Fort de la Conchee…) according to his drawings, and this made the ports roads impregnable. Three quarters of the ramparts were rebuilt by reclaiming new land on the harbour. The magnificent shipowners’ masions near Porte de Dinan and Porte Saint-Vincent were built in the XVIIth century. The Solidor castle includes the entrance bastion and the 3 towers erected at the end of the XIVth century by Duke Jean V of Brittany, making up a fortified complex.

A historic reconstruction: between the ship owner’s mansions and the Cathedral, visitors will have a task trying to visualise what remained of the old Saint-Malo after 1944, so perfectly blended it was in the reconstruction. Registered monuments or edifices were sometimes reassembled stone by stone. The main castle, now the town hall, also shelters the History Museum where collections of illustrious Malouin’s memorabilia are preserved, together with genuine testimonies of the past activities of a seafaring city.


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