After Napoleon’s Formidable Fort Was Abandoned, It Was Reborn In The ’90s With A Wild New Purpose

In the Bay of Biscay off the western coast of France lies a formidable structure. The curious, lone fort can be seen from afar, standing out among the waves of the Atlantic Ocean. And it boasts 66-foot high walls that were built to withstand attacks from the British Navy. But in 1990 it was suddenly reborn with a wild – and totally unexpected – new purpose.

The fort rests between the French islands of Ile d’Aix and Ile d’Oléron, within the Pertuis d’Antioche straits. The latter island – which since 1966 has been linked to the mainland by a large bridge – is France’s second biggest territory outside its borders, behind only Corsica. Ile d’Aix is considerably smaller, covering around 7 km in total.

Oval shaped, the fort was predominantly constructed out of stone. And it boasts imposing dimensions. From one end of the outer wall to the other it measures 223 feet. Across the middle it is approximately 101 feet wide. Furthermore, its walls themselves are something to behold.

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Yes, the walls tower close to 66 feet over the waves. To add to that, the center is marked by a yard, with storage and living quarters for French forces. And on the floor above there are casemates that were carved out for gun emplacements. Even higher up, capacity for barbette guns and mortars was crafted.

With these kinds of dimensions, it is easy to see why the French believed the fort would become an asset in battle. It was finally finished way back in 1857, and its construction was a long and arduous process. But no one would have ever believed that the construction would one day have a new life that would forever impact the way people viewed the site.

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So, where did the original idea of building Fort Boyard come from? Well, like many battle fortifications, it may not surprise you to know that it emerged during a time of conflict. And in fact, the protagonist behind the structure became the longest ruling sovereign in Europe.

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Indeed, the idea of a sea-bound fortress was apparently first dreamt up by Louis XIV. The French King – who ruled France for an astonishing 72 years from 1643 until 1715 – is believed to have come up with the concept sometime between 1661 and 1667. This was at a time when the nation’s military was being heavily mobilized.

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Yes, the absolute monarch was concerned by the growing threat of the British Empire, and in particular its fearsome Royal Navy. Therefore, Louis envisaged Fort Boyard taking a strategic position in the Bay of Biscay to give extra protection to the mainland. It would then connect and strengthen the line of French fortifications that spanned from the Île-d’Aix’s Fort Enet and Fort de la Rade.

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Effectively then, a new sea-bound fort would help the French plug a noticeable gap and weak point in the Pertuis d’Antioche straits. As a result, they could then safeguard the valuable armory in Rochefort from their enemies.

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With Louis XIV’s idea in place, it was time to start with the planning. In 1692 that would begin in earnest. An engineer by the name of Descombs was put in charge by France’s so-called “Sun King.” Yet it soon became evident that the ambitious project would be very costly indeed.

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And what’s more, the pet project would be doomed for failure. You see, close confidants felt Louis had lost his mind with the notion of putting a fort deep in the Bay of Biscay. In fact, one of them, Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, reportedly told him so in no uncertain terms.

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Yes, the important ally apparently said to the King, “Your Majesty, it would be easier to seize the moon with your teeth than to attempt such an undertaking in such a place.” And Louis must have eventually come around to Vauban’s way of thinking. Because the project would be shelved for a considerable period of time.

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In actual fact, it didn’t emerge again until over half a century later, in 1757. That year saw the British enemy successfully raid the strategically important Île-d’Aix. Nevertheless, although proposals were drafted, the idea was again aborted, due to the logistical headaches it provided.

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But close to 150 years after the idea was first mooted by Louis XIV, the project had finally found someone crazy enough to go through with it. That person was Napoleon Bonaparte. Yes, the legendary French general and statesman would be the one to turn the elaborate plan into reality.

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The then-first consul of France reignited efforts to build the fort in 1800. A year later, Bonaparte would order a group of noted engineers to get to work on it. And to assist the creation of the sea-bound fort, a new port was formed on the strategically important Île d’Oléron.

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Furthermore, a small settlement with barracks would be established on the island. It was created for the workers who were going to build Fort Boyard, and thus fittingly named Boyardville. And the workforce began the building phase in 1801, their first task being to construct a plateau, measuring 330 by 160 ft, that would serve as the foundation.

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To do this, numerous large stones were required. The commissioned workforce duly proceeded to gather them up and pile them by the bank. But they would face an uphill struggle in getting the stones to set and establish the foundations. Ultimately, the powerful and often shifting tides meant the task was hugely impractical.

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In truth, the difficulties the workers faced in establishing a man-made island for the fort continued to frustrate. The stones would not easily set, and many reportedly broke loose into the surrounding waters. It all became too difficult. And eight years after it had begun, construction was halted in 1809 under the by-now Emperor of France, Bonaparte.

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And it would ultimately remain on hold until 16 years after Bonaparte’s death in 1821. Indeed, the building of the long-planned fort would recommence in 1837, during Louis-Philippe I’s reign. Now, he’d become the King of France seven years prior, and like his predecessors was concerned about the frictions with Great Britain.

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So the building of Fort Boyard recommenced again, but this time advances in construction techniques meant it was finally possible to complete it. Not that Louis Philippe would live to see it, as he died in 1848 and the fort wasn’t completed until 1857. By this time, France was under the rule of Napoleon III; the nation’s very last monarch.

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Therefore almost 200 years after it was first dreamt up by Louis XIV, Fort Boyard was finally finished. And the sea-bound fort had enough space for a garrison totaling 250 soldiers. But although it may have looked formidable upon completion, in reality there was a considerable problem with it.

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You see, Fort Boyard was essentially useless. Indeed, the construction was built with very few alterations made from the original plan. Quite frankly, warfare and weaponry had moved on considerably during that time. Yes, technological advances in artillery meant cannons could now fire from far longer distances, and the once strategic positioning of the sea-bound stronghold was rendered irrelevant.

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In that case, the French had to find another use for it. The fort had, after all, cost close to eight million francs, which was an excessive amount for its era. After several years of neglect, then, it was belatedly turned into a military prison in 1870.

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But this incarnation of Fort Boyard wouldn’t last particularly long. And without any worthwhile uses left, the expensive mistake was effectively abandoned in 1913. In the subsequent years when it was left at the mercy of the ocean, pieces of the fort gradually began to weaken and drop into the water.

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Then, five years after the end of World War II, the infamous fortress was elevated to listed building status. Well, it certainly was a striking and historic construction, if nothing else at that point. Roughly 11 years on from that, in 1961, it was purchased by Charente Maritime Regional Council.

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Mind you, the abandoned fort would enjoy a brief moment in the limelight in the 1960s. That’s because it would feature in the French movie Les Aventuriers, known as The Last Adventure in the English speaking world. Yes, the 1967 film starred French idol Alain Delon and ends with a visit to Fort Boyard.

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After enduring a couple more decades in limbo, the fort acquired a surprise role in 1990. Yes, Fort Boyard became the venue for a new TV game show in France. That program would be called Les Clés de Fort Boyard, then merely Fort Boyard from its second season onwards. So, how exactly did this strange occurrence come to pass?

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Well, the show’s creator Jacques Antoine was inspired by a near-tragedy in 1980 that occurred close to the fort. That year, French TV presenter Philippe de Dieuleveult almost drowned whilst he was aiming to reach it. Somehow, he managed to survive in the volatile waters for around three hours, prior to a helicopter rescue team arriving.

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Anyway, de Dieuleveult was a co-host of a show called La Chasse aux Trésors, which translates into English as “Treasure Hunt.” That program was created by Antoine, and the near-death experience its presenter endured would provide Antoine with another concept. By 1986 the French game show producer was ready to present his idea.

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And Antoine’s notion was in essence a team-based game show, with elements of role-playing like Dungeons & Dragons. He envisaged it happening in a stupefying stronghold, where there would be a clear objective of uncovering treasure. The search for a venue got underway, and in April 1987, producers travelled to Fort Boyard to scope it out.

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As a result, Fort Boyard was purchased by the production company for 1.5 million francs, before being sold back to the Department of Charente-Maritime for a single franc. This effectively meant the local authority would be tasked with all the necessary restoration work.
And the refurbishment began in July 1989 and was completed in just under a year later.

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Shooting for the game show began on June 30, 1990, and it debuted on French TV’s Antenne 2 network a week later. The program would be hosted by the enthusiastic, silver-haired entertainer Patrice Laffont, who had previously helmed Des Chiffres et des Lettres for 17 years.

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Now, Fort Boyard centers around the attempts of contesting teams to survive numerous missions of a varying difficulty. And the aim is to essentially acquire as much time as possible for the concluding segment, the Treasure Room, where prize money can be claimed. The show contains more than a few elements that are comparable to the U.K. game show The Crystal Maze, a program also invented by Antoine.

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But unlike The Crystal Maze – which featured more mind boggling tasks – Fort Boyard predominantly veered towards endurance-sapping challenges. From the beginning, these were split into phases before the climax in the Treasure Room. After the sounding of the opening gong, teams had a certain amount of time to earn keys throughout the show to access this gold-laden chamber.

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And challenges have been regularly changed and updated over the many years of the game show’s existence. They have included everything from arm wrestling with Fort Boyard’s resident strongman whilst attempting to snatch a key, to finding codes in a pitch black cell. One thing is near certain, the teams will be made to work hard to gain the keys.

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So Fort Boyard proved a hit with its French audience, and soon plans to sell the show abroad emerged. And one such nation to initiate a successful version of its own was the United Kingdom. The series was hosted by ex-model Melinda Messenger for its first four seasons, and also featured EastEnders actor Leslie Grantham as “the Evil Boyard.”

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In fact, the show would run for five seasons on U.K. television, from 1998 until 2003. Then a documentary series about the show appeared a year later, before it made a comeback in 2012. By this time it was billed as Fort Boyard: Ultimate Challenge, and was broadcast on kids’ network CITV. And the United Kingdom wasn’t the only country to take the show.

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No, to date there have been an astonishing 34 overseas versions of the program since the 1990s. This has included Sweden, Russia, South Korea, Morocco, and yes, the United States. You see, American network ABC produced a pilot in 1993, and Disney was involved in the production of the aforementioned Fort Boyard: Ultimate Challenge.

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Unsurprisingly then, Fort Boyard is France’s biggest TV export ever. Furthermore, it currently sits in fourth place in the world standings of the most successful adventure game shows ever exported. Only Wipeout, Fear Factor and Survivor have been exported more.

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What’s more, Fort Boyard continues to fascinate history buffs and wow those who catch a glimpse of it from the neighbouring islands. In April 22, 2016 a new offshore platform was unveiled, costing a cool €2 million euros. And the adventure game show it inspired is still running today. In fact, if you really want to get a closer look at the fort, then you had better apply to be a contestant.

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