The area around the forts is believed to have been inhabited since antiquity but it was not until the 13th Century that the Hospitallers of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem (later to become the Knights of Malta) settled here and gave its name to the quarter. Some remains of their presence may still be seen. King René had the huge square tower erected following the attack by the armies of Aragon in 1423. It was built where the Maubert tower had stood and was used to protect the entrance to the port. The navigation light-tower was built in 1644 and the Chevalier de Clerville built the fort as part of Louis XIV's instructions that formed the large-scale plans for Marseille. He had a flood-proof pit dug to isolate the fort from the city. The fort was used as a garrison and later as a prison during the Revolution. During the Second World War the German army used the fort as an ammunition store. In 1944 the store exploded causing major damage to the fort itself and to the Pont Transbordeur. The fort became a National Heritage Site in 1964.
Saint Nicolas Forteress
From the middle of the 17th century, favoured by the Fronde insurrection, Marseille defies and and holds up to ridicule royal authority. As soon as peace with Spain leaves the king with his hands free, the city is occupied by the army. To enter the city, Louis XIV, in March 1660, does not hesitate to open a breach in the medieval walls. Some of its stones are used again – as a symbol – in the construction of the Saint Nicolas citadel. Louis XIV orders the building of a fort as well as the extension of the town and the creation of a new Arsenal. Several sites are considered for the building of the citadel and finally a hill « at the entrance of the port, behind the Saint Victor abbey whose area is reasonable enough to build a strong enough fort to maintain the King of authority forever ». The work progresses at a frenzied rhythm by Chevalier de Clerville. In 1663, the high fort (Entrecasteaux) is finished, and in 1664 the low fort (Ganteaume). Vauban, during a visit to Marseille, criticizes the construction which he judges to be « the worst of the universe » !
In May 1790, the inhabitants of Marseille, who were furious and vindictive because they had to put up with this citadel with its cannons aimed at them, took advantage of the revolution to start demolishing the fort. But a month later, they had to stop the destruction by order of the Assemblée Nationale.
The fort occupies a limestone ridge between the port, Saint Victor abbey and the Pharo. For some time, the construction surrounded the Saint Nicolas chapel built in the Middle Ages, but then it was demolished. The fort consists of two complexes on two levels. The lower part, the forecourt on the port, has been separated since 1862 by the building of the boulevard (today Boulevard Charles Livon). The high fort has two linked walls and the quadrangular plan is attached to the steep slope. The quality of the masonry, large stones of pink limestone from la Couronne, and the work (corner ties with bosses and cordons creating arabesques of countercurves in the slopes) together create an impression of serene power, typical of the style of Chevalier de Clerville.
The complex makes the Saint Nicolas citadel into an « operetta fort » designed to calm the fiery spirit of the inhabitants of Marseille and to assert the authority of a monarchwho was well aware of his lack of popularity in a city which had been attached to the crown less than two centuries ago !