Saint Malo was named after Welsh monk Mac Low, who, around the sixth century, established his bishopric in Alet, a stone's throw away from the rocks on which the walled city now stands.
The current city is the product of the 1967 merger of St Malo with its immediate neighbours Saint Servan and Parame.
As early as the 13th century, the Malouins were already quite successful at catching enemy ships. In 1308 they created a sworn city and from 1395 to 1415, they swore allegiance to King Charles VI of France, who granted their port free practice.
It was to keep them under control that the Duchy of Brittany had the main castle built, which the Malouins overtook in 1590; later, they declared themselves an independent republic, which lasted four years until King Henry IV of France agreed to become a catholic.
From the late 16th century and mainly during the two subsequent centuries, stone was increasingly used, that of Iles Chausey in particular, which significantly changed the city’s aspect. St Malo properties are characterised by the sobriety and solidity of architectural design.
Then known as Saint-Malo de l’Isle, the city, clustered around its cathedral within its very tight 16 hectares, burnt down for the first time in 1661. In the following years, architects Vauban and Garangeau rehabilited it and extended it to 24 hectares, in four stages. During the reconstruction process, streets were widened or straightened to improve circulation and views.
Saint-Vincent Cathedral, whose construction began in the 12th century, included an Anjou-style nave and a cloister, whose restored remnants constitute the oldest part of the Cathedral. The magnificent gothic-style choir with Anglo-Norman style flat chevet was erected in the middle of the 12th century.
Saint Malo has been a coastal fortress since the Middle Ages. The oldest witnesses of that are the Petit Donjon of the walled city and the Solidor tower in Saint Servan. Duke John V’s 15th century Grand Donjon, laid out as a horseshoe, the four huge angle towers, begun by Francois II and Anne De Bretagne, with their 2 to 3-metre thick walls, were harbingers of the bastion-oriented design prescribed by Vauban in the late 17th century.
Grangeau erected the offshore islet forts (Fort National, Fort du Petit Be and Fort de la Conchee) according to his drawings, and this made the port's roads impregnable. Three quarters of the ramparts were rebuilt by reclaiming new land on the harbour. The magnificent shipowners’ masions near Porte de Dinan and Porte Saint Vincent were built in the 17th century. The Solidor castle includes the entrance bastion and the three towers erected at the end of the 14th century by Duke Jean V of Brittany, making up a fortified complex.
St Malo's port has long been home to seafarers who have ventured long distances across the globe. Jacques Cartier, in his 1534 to 1542 travels, started the trade between St Malo and Newfoundland, and thanks to successive seafers and merchant ship owners, who commissioned vessels to Eastern Indies, China, Africa and the Americas, St Malo enjoyed considerable prosperity in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Gouin de Beauchene rounded Cape Horn in 1701; Mahe de la Bourdonnais colonised Moskar and took over Madras; Maupertuis in 1736 set off to Lapland to measure the shape of the earth. As did Jersey, St Malo profited from privateering, but when commissions were abolished in 1815, the St Malo ship owners diverted their ships to Newfoundland and kept developing their port.
World War 2
St Malo survived relatively unscathed through the Second World War, but the battle to liberate it in 1944, which involved non-stop shelling and bombing of the city and its port caused total devastation, destroying 80 per cent of the walled city. Further damaged was caused when the retreating Germans destroyed port installations so that they would be of no use to the advancing allied troops.
After the war ended it was decided to rebuild the city as closely as possible to how it had been before and it has subsequently acquired all the facilities and equipment necessary to be one of Brittany’s tourist highlights and the number one port on its northern shores.
The walls near the ramparts were built exactly as they were under the auspices of the French Directorate of Historical Monuments. The granite city was rebuilt with its original style and skyline. Because of fires, St Malo had kept only a handful of properties of half-timbered construction - the inner courtyard of Chateaubriand’s birth place, timber-panelled houses in rue du Pelicot or the archway over rue des Vieux Ramparts.
Carefully restored after its partial destruction, the Cathedral was adorned with outstanding stained glass windows and a high and sharp spire in replacement of that built in the 19th century.
It is impossible for visitors to visualise what remained of the old city after 1944, so perfectly was it in the reconstruction. Registered monuments or edifices were sometimes reassembled stone by stone. The main castle, now the town hall, also shelters the museum, where collections of illustrious Malouin memorabilia are preserved, together with testimonies of the past activities of a seafaring city.
- The story of the recapture of St Malo by American troops in August 1944
- The story of the rebuilding of St Malo: A collection of pictures on a site which is extremely difficult to navigate
A potted history from www.st-malo.info
St Malo was founded in the 1st century BC a short distance south of its current location. The fort at Aleth, in what is now St Servan, was built by Celtic tribesmen to guard the entrance to the Rance River. The Romans further fortified this site and it was here in the 6th century that the Irish monks, Brendan and Aaron, established a monastery. At around the same time, the rocky island to the north was named after the sainted celtic bishop Maclou (or MacLow).
The rock of St-Malo was only connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway of sand and it was this natural defence that induced the population to move away from Aleth during the period of Viking raids. The solid ramparts seen today were added by Bishop Jean de Chatillon in the 12th century.
The citizens of St Malo have traditionally displayed a fiercely independent spirit which over the centuries has found them in and out of conflict with the rulers of Brittany, France and England. Nobody typified this more than the city's sailor merchants who grew wealthy from pillaging foreign ships out in the channel. In 1403, during the Hundred Years War, they even ventured as far as raiding Plymouth and Yarmouth on the English coast. The corsairs of the 17th/18th centuries acted as official pirates. The King of France granted them licence to go "coursing" after enemy vessels in return for a percentage of the profit from captured ships, hence the name corsairs.
Jacques Cartier, one of St Malo's most famous sailors, is credited with the discovery of Canada. Backed by Francois I of France, he made three voyages to North America in the 16th century and was the first European to travel down the St Lawrence Seaway, in addition to landing at what are now Montreal and Quebec. He named the new lands Canada after the Native Indian word for "Little Village".
The 20th century saw disaster overtake St-Malo, when the city was almost completely destroyed during the Second World War. In late 1944 General Patton's US 3rd Army, advancing into western France, laid siege to the town and it was only through a large-scale bombardment that the last stubborn German defenders were dislodged.
Nearly 30 years of painstaking reconstruction returned St Malo to its former glory and transformed it into one of the most popular places to visit in Brittany.
World War 2 gallery
A Jersey party on an outing to St Malo in 1929 - an Albert Smith photograph