Cordouan

Published on 15 February 2008
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(Association for the Protection of Cordouan)

It stands at the mouth of the Gironde, on an islet very close to the Pointe de Grave. The oldest working lighthouse in France, it is notable for the scale of its facilities and the richness of its decoration.

The first lighthouse was built in the fourteenth Century at the instigation of the Black Prince, son of the King of England and Head of the English Army, which was occupying the Guyenne. The building culminated in a platform, on which a wood fire was kept burning. A hermit, whose name is still known, Geoffroy de Lesparre, was responsible for the upkeep of the fire and received a toll for each vessel which crossed the channels of the Gironde.

In 1580, the lighthouse was in a state of neglect and the fire was no longer lit, which was the cause of many shipwrecks. On 2nd March 1584, Henry III assigned the task of reconstruction to the architect Louis de Foix.

By 1583, the site had not evolved very much due to the disruptions caused by internal battles and financial problems. Louis de Foix was ruined and the personal intervention of Henry IV was required, who allocated «86,000 ecus» to our architect, enabling him to re-open the site. The project was started up again in a much more imposing fashion than before with a 123 metre circular base and a lantern situated 37 metres above sea level. The building was of an architectural richness worthy of that of Pharos. On Louis de Foix’s death in 1603, his son succeeded him in the supervision of the works, which were not completed until 1610.

In 1645, a storm destroyed the dome of the lantern. The building began to show signs of age. It was not until 1663 however, that upon Colbert’s request, complete restoration of the building was undertaken and the fire re-established.

In the end, the flaming oil which kept the fire burning was the cause of its destruction and led to the explosion of the limestone shaft.
In 1727, an iron lantern replaced the masonry lantern although the height of the fire remained at 37 metres above the level of the highest seas.

Fifty years later, the upper parts of the building were facing ruin. They were held up by makeshift metal “patches”. It seemed that Louis de Foix’s project did not hold up well to the marine environment. Neither did its 37 metre tower have sufficient “range”, according to sailors.

In the 1780s, the Knight of Borda assigned the task of renovating the lighthouse to Teulère, the Chief Engineer of the “Généralité de Bordeaux" (old Treasury sub-division of Bordeaux). The lighthouse was razed down to the balcony of the second level and supported a new tower which raised the fire to 60.3 metres above sea level, in a much more sober style than that of Louis de Foix. It was opened in 1790 and has not changed since.

The Lighthouse and Beacons Service decided to abandon it in 1981 due to lack of means. However, after protests from various groups who wanted to protect the building, it was decided that the lighthouse would continue to function and would be restored with the help of local taxes. In 1982, the Cordouan Museum was created at the Grave lighthouse. It receives many visitors and there are shuttles going to and fro, giving access to Cordouan and visits to the lighthouse.

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