All about the castle of the Dukes of Brittany in Nantes

The castle of the Dukes of Brittany is a Gothic Renaissance style castle located in the heart of the medieval district of Nantes, in the department of Loire-Atlantique. Classified as a historical monument since 1840, this building, which attracts more than 300,000 visitors each year, is surrounded by moats and architectural elements dating from the 14th to the 18th century. Initially created to serve as a defensive base for the city of Nantes, the castle became, under François II, the main residence of the dukes of Brittany and then a royal fortress, under François I. Since 1924, the castle has been home to a museum and, since 2007, to the Nantes History Museum. In this article, we will look at the history of this Breton castle, its evolution over the centuries, as well as the different personalities that are attached to this famous historical monument.

The history of the castle of the Dukes of Brittany

In the 13th century, the people of Nantes built a first castle at the foot of the Gallo-Roman city walls, named “Château de la Tour Neuve”, in memory of the circular tower that was once built on this site. In 1207, work was carried out to build a moat around the castle. Like the Louvre palace, the building is built on the city’s walls and is built around a circular keep 35 meters high and a 900 square meter enclosure, surrounded by ramparts and small towers. A second court on the side of the Loire was created under John I, a duke of Brittany who wanted to show his autonomy from the king of France. In the 14th century, Jean IV de Montfort, winner of the War of Succession of Brittany, took possession of the castle of the new tower and reinforced the defensive character of the building. The monument now controls access to the region from the Loire. Having become a ducal residence, the castle also became a place of power and François II, Duke of Brittany, decided to completely rebuild the castle in 1466.

The white tufa facade of the inner courtyard of the Dukes of Brittany castle
The white tufa facade of the inner courtyard of the Dukes of Brittany castle

The castle under François II

François II called upon Mathurin Rodier, an architect who had already worked on the cathedral of Nantes, to carry out the reconstruction work. Major earthworks were carried out to level the inner courtyard of the castle in relation to the level of the Loire River, thus transforming the first floor of the large dwelling into a cellar. From now on, the building is no longer threatened by flooding in its lowest part. A residential palace of white tufa stone with refined facades was built on the courtyard side, contrasting with the massive granite walls on the city side. Little by little, Nantes and its port became the richest city in Brittany, receiving a new chancellery and a new university. This new castle, whose surface area covers only 3 hectares, now houses the court and the ducal administration, as well as the staff dedicated to the Dukes of Brittany. In 1487, King Charles VIII invaded Brittany and seized the castle of Nantes from June 19 to August 6. Francis II died the following year after a fall from a horse, leaving the crown to his daughter, Anne de Bretagne.

Residence of Anne de Bretagne

In 1491, the castle was offered to the king of France by Alain d’Albret, a powerful lord who had custody of it. Forced to marry Charles VIII, Anne of Brittany became Queen of France, which marked the beginning of the union of Brittany with France. The royal couple resides mainly in the chateaux of the Loire Valley and rarely travels to Nantes. According to the marriage contract and also to secure the Franco-Breton union, the duchess was forced to marry, in second marriage, Louis XII, who succeeded Charles VIII the day after his death. Back in Nantes, Anne of Brittany began major transformations of the castle, wishing to offer herself a residence worthy of her title. Loggias (covered balconies closed on the sides) mark the first signs of the Renaissance in the castle of Nantes and defensive towers are installed during his reign. The duchess had a library installed and used the building in Nantes to store her treasures. In the end, Anne of Brittany considered Nantes more as a “furniture storehouse” than a real residence. She died at the royal castle of Blois on January 9, 1514, leaving two daughters behind, including Claude de France, future wife of François I.

The castle of Nantes, royal residence

In 1515, Claude de France and François I, the new king of France, inherited the building in Nantes. In 1524, Claude de France died and their son François became Duke of Brittany. In 1532, when the famous Edict of Union of Brittany to France was signed, the castle became the royal residence of Brittany, making Nantes one of the largest provincial cities. Until the 17th century, most of the kings of France will sit in Nantes during the royal ceremony of their first visit in Brittany. Traditionally, the sovereigns arrived at the castle of Nantes by the Loire before spending the night there and leaving the next day. However, Nantes lost most of its administrative function to Rennes, which gradually became the capital of the province of Brittany. During his reign, François I carried out some transformations on the building, in particular by completing the Loire curtain wall and the construction of the king’s dwelling, a new building leaning against the curtain wall. In 1551, the castle of the dukes welcomed Henri II and Catherine de Medici. A new campaign of works directed by Philippe-Emmanuel de Lorraine, duke of Mercœur and governor of Brittany, is carried out during the wars of religion, in order to transform the building into a modern fortress. He built two bastions, a large artillery terrace and inscribed his emblem, the cross of Lorraine, on a wall of the castle. He also titles his son Philippe-Louis “Duke of Brittany”. In the 17th century, Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu improved the defense of the castle through fortification work.

The castle of the Dukes of Brittany and its moat seen from the sky
The castle of the Dukes of Brittany and its moat seen from the sky

Royal Prison and Barracks

During the 17th century, the kings abandoned the Breton castle and the governors of Brittany no longer resided in Nantes. The building was then used as a prison and was occupied by the military. Between 1643 and 1644, it housed military prisoners captured during various battles. The mayor of Nantes, as well as other lords will be imprisoned by the Duke of Mercœur in the building. Louis XIV, who sits at the Palace of Versailles, will be the last king of France to come to the castle of the Dukes of Brittany. In 1670, following a fire, he had the grand spiral staircase (similar to that of Chambord) replaced by a grand staircase of honor and had a campanile built at the top of the main entrance of the castle. In 1784, during the American War of Independence, the Nantes building was transformed into an arsenal and artillery depot, in order to protect the country in case of a maritime attack from the Atlantic.

The castle of the Dukes of Brittany during the French Revolution

In 1789, the Nantes castle escaped destruction, even though it had been taken over by the people the day after the storming of the Bastille. Its demolition requested, it is finally the city of Nantes which makes the acquisition in 1791 for the sum of 12 million livres. During this period, the castle experienced its greatest catastrophe: on May 25, 1800, a ceiling in the Spanish tower collapsed on the stored powder reserves. The tower and the neighboring buildings were destroyed, fortunately, the archives of the Dukes of Brittany having been transferred to the departmental archives escaped the explosion. The Spanish tower will never be rebuilt. In 1808, Napoleon I ordered that a quay be added along the monument, thus isolating it from the Loire. In 1853, the architecture and history of the Nantes building was enhanced by restoration work: the harbor tower was restored and in 1855, the historical monuments began to work on its reconstruction. Monograms of Anne de Bretagne, as well as gargoyles are added on the facades of the castle. At the beginning of the 20th century, Henri Deverin, architect in charge of historical monuments, planned to rebuild the part destroyed during the explosion of 1800, in a neo-gothic style. The castle of the Dukes of Brittany remained in the hands of the army until the First World War.

The birth of museums within the castle

In 1915, the city of Nantes took possession of the monument, but it retained its military function during the First World War. In 1920, Paul Bellamy, mayor of the city, decided to install a museum dedicated to decorative arts within the walls of the castle. The latter opened to the public in 1924 and in 1939, almost all its rooms dedicated to popular art participates in the influence of Breton culture. During the Second World War, the museum was closed and its collections were crated. In 1943, during the occupation, the building in Nantes was requisitioned by the Germans to become their telephone exchange. The museum reopened its doors after the liberation and its management took the opportunity to reorganize the presentation of the collections. Two distinct museums were then created: the Museum of Regional Folk Art, located in the large government building, and the Museum of Decorative Art, located in the large dwelling. The Musée des Salorges, the museum dedicated to the port industries of Nantes, whose premises were destroyed during the war, joined the harnessing building in 1956. The Museum of Decorative Art closed its doors in 1972 due to the dilapidation of the building that housed it. In the 1980s, the municipality of Nantes decided to regroup the collections of the municipal museums in the same place. The Musée des Salorges closed its doors in 1994 for three years of work and became a space dedicated to temporary exhibitions in 1997. The Museum of Regional Folk Art will be modernized over the next ten years.

Access, rates, exhibitions, opening hours of the museum … we invite you to visit the site www.chateaunantes.fr to organize your visit to the castle of the Dukes of Brittany.

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