Chapel in the Citadel

For each of his citadels, Vauban designed a simple chapel so the soldiers could attend Sunday mass. The one in Besançon is dedicated to Saint Étienne (Saint Stephen), in memory of a church by that name that was demolished to make room for the citadel.

Vauban himself was a practicing Catholic, but was not interested in converting those with different beliefs. His insistence on building chapels in his citadels seems to have been motivated mainly by his desire to uphold the morale of the troops — an unusual concern for a 17th century military officer.

Alain Monod, Vauban or the guilty conscience of the king

Whenever he discovered a corrupt or incompetent priest on duty in one of his fortifications, Vauban complained to his immediate superior, the war minister Louvois. “I plead with you, sir, to give us a chaplain for the citadel who is a good man and capable of preaching.”

Louvois was impatient with these complaints, and on at least one occasion told Vauban to find an honest chaplain himself, “so you will have no one but yourself to blame in case he turns out not to be so honest after all. Just send me his name and I will send you a royal certificate of appointment for him.” (Quoted by Monod, pages 49-50.)

As an engineer, Vauban had numerous Protestant colleagues whom he greatly respected. And as a constant traveler around the border regions of France, he was well aware of the strength of the Huguenot (Protestant) religion and the widespread dissatisfaction, even among Catholics like himself, with the corruption of the established Catholic church.

Consequently, Vauban was the only high French official who opposed Louis XIV’s Edict of Fontainebleau in 1685. (The normally haughty Louvois went into a panic when Vauban submitted his objections in writing.) In this edict, the King revoked his grandfather’s tolerant Edict of Nantes from 87 years before and effectively outlawed Protestantism or any other non-Catholic religion.

Vauban feared that the Edict of Fontainebleau would lead to a civil war (which it didn’t) and to a mass exodus of some of the most skilled and productive people in France (which it did). He was especially appalled to find some of his best engineers and tunnel-makers suddenly fighting on the other side, against France.

Multi-media show in the chapel

During my visit in 2014, the chapel was being used for a wrap-around multi-media show on the history of Besançon and the Franche-Comté region. This was no doubt a well-intentioned project, but as with most multi-media shows it was long on technology and short on substance. Its most annoying feature was the narrator, an overly handsome young man of the type the Germans would call a Schönling, which I suppose would be ‘pretty boy’ in English, the type of person who ought to be hosting a quiz show on daytime television rather than trying to explain the history of an entire region. This narrator would pop up at odd moments at different places on the walls, recite a sentence or two and then disappear.

Vauban’s well near the chapel

To withstand a siege, it was essential to have a secure supply of water, so one of Vauban’s priorities was always to dig a deep well that would not go dry and could not be sabotaged from the outside.

In 1681 he had this well dug in the center of the citadel, near the chapel. At a depth of 132 meters it reached the water table. Water was lifted out of the well in buckets that were raised by means of a large wooden wheel, visible in the photo to the left of the well. The wheel was four meters in diameter and was operated by a man who walked inside. Unfortunately, the water from the well soon turned out to be brackish and undrinkable, so he also built four cisterns to collect rain water.

Location, aerial view and photos of the citadel on monumentum.fr.

My photos in this post are from 2014. I revised the text in 2019.

See also: A new home for the Huguenots, about one of the many places
where the Huguenots settled to escape religious persecution in France.

2 thoughts on “Chapel in the Citadel”

  1. Interesting history in relation to the Huguenots in particular. I know what you mean about multi-media shows, but they can also be excellent, as our recent visit to Bletchley Park showed

    1. Yes, I do find the Huguenots fascinating, though by now their descendants are completely assimilated here in Germany. I remember an opera production about fifteen years ago where the German conductor and the German stage director, who hadn’t known each other before, discovered they were both descended from Huguenots and both had grandfathers who had been watchmakers.

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