Portes mordelaises gates and fortifications

Portes mordelaises gates and fortifications

The fortifications of Rennes, a piece of heritage that has stood the test of time

The medieval fortifications of Rennes will soon be redeveloped into a promenade. This is one piece of heritage you must see during a guided visit, especially for one of its most remarkable elements: the Portes Mordelaises entrance gate, a symbol of the history of the Dukes of Brittany.

Once upon a time in “the red town” 

Square Hyacinte Lorette
Square Hyacinte Lorette © Destination Rennes / Julien Mignot

The Rennes fortifications have a long history dating back to Antiquity. During this era, the city of Condate was nicknamed “The Red” because of the colour of the brick walls that protected it. Some remains of a Gallo-Roman outer wall can be seen next to the Mission Cross. Built in a time of peace between 275 and 300 AD, its purpose was both defensive and decorative. It can be seen from a great distance, even although it is only 1,200 metres long. There was already an ancient gate on the site, with the Portes Mordelaises built much later. “Local history and the work of 19th-century scholars mention the presence of an ancient gate, which recent archaeological digs have been able to confirm. It was one of the four cardinal gates and one of the main entry points to the city of Condate” tells Gilles Brohan, head of the heritage department at the Tourist Office.

New fortifications in the 15th century

In the Middle Ages, it was on this ancient remnant that the rampart, which is still standing in places, was built. In the 15th century, between 1442 and 1452, the Portes Mordelaises were rebuilt to defend the entrance to the city and adapt to new threats in a military context marked by the War of Breton Succession and the Hundred Years’ War. An artillery bulwark was also added to the medieval gates. “In this time period, it became possible to defend the city by means other than advances, thanks to more powerful cannons. The artillery bulwark is an example: it is a horseshoe-shaped embrasure with slots for artillery and a protected entrance to the side. It was a sort of double-door entrance in front of the city gate” explains Gilles Brohan.

One rampart, followed by two others

The new ramparts and the gates, the name of which mentions Mordelles, which was the first parish to the west, were to be followed by other fortifications. Around 1450, an outer wall protected the north zone that stretched from the Place Rallier du Baty to the Saint-Georges quarter. From 1450 to 1470, the south part of the city, where the economic activities such as tanners and butchers were found, was fortified. A fourth rampart was even planned next to the Place Sainte-Anne, but it was never completed due to insufficient funds. In terms of materials, builders of the era worked quickest by choosing to recycle old materials and by using cladding made from rubble stone. They also used local purple schist stone extracted from the quarries of Orgères.

This fortified perimeter made it possible to defend the city until the 17th century, when it was partially dismantled by royal decree.

The portes mordelaises gates, symbol of the dukes of brittany

Les Portes Mordelaises in the snow
Les Portes Mordelaises in the snow © Destination Rennes / Julien Mignot

The Portes Mordelaises gates are interesting both in terms of military architecture and their symbolism. It was through here that the Dukes of Brittany entered the city to be crowned. “Until Brittany was unified with France, Rennes had a particular status in relation to other Breton cities because it was the city where the Dukes and Duchesses of Brittany were crowned” explains Gilles Brohan.

The crowning of dukes, a well codified ritual

According to historic archives, they entered via the gates in accordance with a very strict ceremony: the future Duke or Duchess arrived with his or her escort at the embrasure in front of a gate that was symbolically closed. What followed was an oath to defend Breton liberties that established the new ducal sovereignty. The gate then opened and the escort entered the city and headed to the cathedral, where the Duke or Duchess spent a night praying before being crowned the next day. This is what took place, in particular when Anne of Brittany was crowned in 1489. A symbol of ducal power and of Brittany, the Portes Mordelaises gates were subsequently guarded separately as a main entrance to the city. New bishops and visiting sovereigns followed the same route towards the cathedral.

How the fortifications have withstood
the test of time

Porte Mordelaise - Rennes
Porte Mordelaise © Destination Rennes / Julien Mignot

Today, there are only two sections of the ramparts left between the Place du Maréchal Foch and the Place Rallier du Baty because they were partially dismantled at the start of the 17th century. In this era, the royal powers decided to dismantle some fortifications to avoid enemy troops entrenching there as the period was marked by religious wars. “The public security concern combined with a financial problem for cities: the cost of maintaining the ramparts was considerable and lead to a number of neighbourhood conflicts” adds Gilles Brohan. “As the subsoil lacked stone for building, people began taking stones from the fortifications for other constructions, while gaining land”. Even so, there are still parts of the fortifications there, some hidden under the subsoil, and some visible, for example at Délicatessen, a nightclub established in the old Saint-Michel prison. At the Place du Champ Jacquet, behind the timber-framed houses, the rampart is still there and there is also still one full section between the Place Rallier du Baty and the Place des Lices, unseen by passers-by.

The portes mordelaises transformed into accommodation, a prison and… A nightclub

The Portes Mordelaises have been better preserved than the ramparts. This is because of their historical dimension and also because they are still occupied, maintained and even protected by other buildings. After the fire of 1720, casualties were rehomed in the towers, during the Revolution, they became a prison nicknamed the “Porte Marat” and in the 19th century, apartments were built there.

The towers were occupied until the 1980s with a nightclub in the basement of the west tower and above the offices of the former tourist office.

Portes Mordelaises - Guided tours

A new promenade

It is easy to walk alongside the Portes Mordelaises gates. They are somewhat hidden but they retain architectural features that are worth a look. “You can still see traces of the drawbridge system and the coat of arms of the Dukes of Brittany” points out Gilles Brohan. “The shape of the machicolation is also interesting, with blocks of granite and a tri-lobed arch in the signature Breton style found on other fortifications in Brittany in Vannes and Guérande.” This is a piece of heritage to be discovered through a guided visit offered by the Tourist Office, particularly the visit to the historic centre and the tour dedicated to Rennes in the Middle Ages. 

A future rampart garden

The Portes Mordelaises will soon be the focus of development with a promenade that will link the Place des Lices and the square Hyacinthe Lorette, presided over by the Tour Duchesne tower and reconnecting the old centre with the very trendy mail François Mitterrand and its lovely terraces. These rampart gardens will be planted between 2019 and 2021.

In the meantime, there are excellent addresses waiting for you around the Portes Mordelaises gates from which to enjoy this medieval gem. Especially notable is Thé aux Fourneaux, a teahouse and restaurant that has a view right onto the Portes Mordelaises gates. However, there is also the Repère des Jules bistro on the road leading to the cathedral and the Motte-Picquet creperie. If you come to Rennes, don’t forget to pass through the famous Portes Mordelaises gates, as the Dukes and Duchesses of Brittany did in days gone by.

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