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History and Architecture


The mouth of the estuary has been of ill repute since ancient times: so hazardous were its waters that it gained a reputation as a sailors' graveyard. And yet, ever since ancient times, tradition has indicated the present of hermits on the islet, who would light beacon fires to guide mariners, and pray for their souls. It is said that a number of buildings stood in the sea on the Cordouan site, before any reference appeared in historical records.

Circa 1360, a beacon tower, known as the "Tour aux Anglais" (the English tower) was built on the orders of the Black Prince (Edward, Prince of Wales), commander of the English armies occupying Guyenne, to secure the mouth of the Gironde. The first primitive lighthouse took shape: a polygonal tower, 16 metres in height, topped by a platform where, every night, a hermit would keep a wood fire going.

1584: Henri III commissioned architect Louis de Foix to rebuild the old lighthouse, by now fallen into ruin. The contract, signed in the presence of Michel de Montaigne, the Mayor of Bordeaux, provided for more than a mere beacon tower: a "royal work", fit for a King, consisting of a round three-storey tower built on an enormous platform. Religious wars and a combination of technical and financial problems made for slow progress, but Louis de Foix carried on with his work, even after the death of Henry III.

1594: Under Henri IV, Louis de Foix continued with the construction of a royally luxurious lighthouse. Henri IV provided funding for new projects submitted by Louis de Foix: the lighthouse began to resemble a temple dedicated to the glory of the two kings, and to the Catholic nature of the monarchy. Cordouan would go on to become the only lighthouse ever to have its own chapel and such extravagant decoration (marble, carved wood panelling, sculptures, etc.).

1611: Construction on the Lighthouse of Kings was finally completed, after some 25 years' work. Louis de Foix died in around 1603, and so never saw his work completed. He left behind him the most beautiful lighthouse in the world, 37 metres in height and considered at the time as "the 8th Wonder of the World".

1722: Already, work to reinforce the construction was urgently needed. The incessant onslaught of the ocean and lack of maintenance work on the building had left the lighthouse in a sorry state. Mariners and ship-owners complained that the lighthouse was not consistently lit, resulting in many a shipwreck. Responsibility for the lighthouse was then transferred to the city of Bordeaux.

1786: Joseph Teulère, architect to the city of Bordeaux, was enlisted to raise the height of the lighthouse. He focused on the lighting efficiency, and raised the height of the tower by 20 metres: Cordouan took on its shape as we see it today, magnificent and invaluable. 



An architectural feat rising from the very sea, Cordouan soars towards the heavens,
impervious to the onslaughts of the turbulent waters where the Gironde meets the Atlantic.

Awarded Historic Monument status in 1862, the same year as Notre Dame de Paris, this unique piece of French heritage has shed its mysterious halo of light over the shores of the Gironde and Charente since 1611. But why build such a showpiece so far out to sea? 

Only to the visitor bold enough to brave the crossing necessary to reach the lighthouse, at low tide, will Cordouan unveil its myriad of secrets and lives.

Here are interwoven the desires of Kings of France, the genius of the architects and engineers, the commitment of the keepers and their unwavering dedication to the safety of mariners, almost palpable, imprinted in the marble floor of the King's Apartment, in the stained glass of the chapel of Notre-Dame de Cordouan and in the worn stone of the 311 steps leading to the lantern that hangs between sea and sky.

Magnificent and yet familiar, its silhouette continues to watch over and light the way of mariners, night after night, storm after storm. From its rocky islet, the loveliest of sentinels of the seas keeps guard jealously over its domain: a world of fierce beauty where humankind and nature have come together to shape a land of pleasure, a land of wonder: the Gironde estuary.