400 years of History

Cordouan was built more than four centuries ago on a rocky islet at sea at the entry of Gironde estuary. Sometimes called the “lighthouse of kings” or “king of lighthouses” it is unique from other lighthouses thanks to its grandiose architecture and an extraordinary history.

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chapelle Cordouan

For 400 years Cordouan has stood watch over the Gironde estuary

The origins: Cordouan island - 14th century

Gironde estuary is a veritable graveyard of ships. In order to allow ships to reach or leave the port of Bordeaux, an important trading city, the safety of sea routes became a priority. The Prince of Aquitaine, Edward of Woodstock, built a fire tower on Cordouan island called the “Tower of the Black Prince”. Each night, a hermit lit a large fire on the top of the tower to guide sailors.

A royal lighthouse - 16th century

The tower of the Black Prince fell into ruin and shipwrecks in Gironde estuary became more and more frequent. Henry III decided to build a lighthouse in the place of the fire tower and confided this crazy project to the architect Louis de Foix. His objective? Make the lighthouse a royal project that is worthy of the ancient Wonders of the World. However, undertaking such a construction project at sea is not easy! The construction was slowed by the wars of religion and the titanic cost of the works.

On the death of Henry III, Henri IV restarted the Cordouan construction project and made it a symbol of royal power. The lighthouse was decorated with sculptures and woodwork and it even had a royal chapel.

Construction finished in 1611, 27 years after it was started. At that time, it was a round, three floor tower 37m in height. The architect Louis de Foix, after having devoted his life and fortune to the project, died before seeing it finished.

More info at Cordouan.culture.fr

The Renaissance lighthouse - 18th century

In the 1780’s, the upper part of the tower was in very bad condition and sailors again complained of the insufficient visibility of Cordouan lighthouse. The architect Joseph Teulere won the call to bids launched by the Secretary of the Navy in 1786 and was confided the crazy project of raising the lighthouse more than 20 meters in order to improve visibility.

Joseph Teulere succeeded in preserving the Renaissance building (except the beacon) and its symbolic character. Typical of the end of the 18th century, the architectural style of the upper part (more austere and utilitarian) is not as evocative as the lower part.

Cordouan takes its present form.

More info at Cordouan.culture.fr

The engineering laboratory - 19th century

In France, scientific research attempted to modernize lighthouse lighting systems. As the center of this effort, Cordouan became the dream laboratory of the engineers.

In 1823, Augustin Fresnel experimented at the lighthouse with a scaled lens prototype and this new system revolutionized modern lighthouse lighting. The “Fresnel lens” is used in the majority of lighthouses worldwide.

More info at Cordouan.culture.fr


Even today, Cordouan has not relinquished its useful role and continues to serve as a waypoint for sailors who are navigating the Gironde estuary.

Five power generators supply two groups of ten batteries which serve all the electric installations in the lighthouse. A 250 W lightbulb and a new rotating screen complete the new lighting system of the lighthouse. A control device allows 24/7 monitoring of the status of the lighthouse.

Cordouan lighthouse can now be seen up to 40 km out to sea and sailors can see its constant flickering at 12 second intervals.

These now somewhat autonomous technical installations still require continuous human surveillance. The Lighthouse and Beacon Service (DIRM South Atlantic) monitors the good functioning of the lighthouse from Verdon-sur-Mer.