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History of the d'If Castle

This small island in the Gulf of Lion, which today is clearly visible from the Corniche roadway running along the seaside, had already been well-known in ancient times. In one of the historical chronicles describing an Emperor’s voyage, there is a mention about the If island which made a bad impression on him. This rocky island was often a hiding place for pirates, criminals and other individuals like that. For them, it was a shelter to escape justice. Who would have believed that after many centuries this island would have been crammed full of criminals again. However, this time they were cuffed and deprived of any hope to escape.

To tell the truth, at the beginning the Château d'If, named after the island where it is located, did not look like a prison at all. It was a regular fortress built to protect Marseille against sea attacks. The idea of erecting such a huge defence building was first mentioned by Francis I of the House of Valois, King of France, who decided to visit Marseille in 1516, after a stunning victory in the battle of Marignano. The fact that the city had no defence structures protecting against enemies caught his attention. The most suitable place to erect that kind of building was, both in terms of strategy and geography, the If island, where Francis ordered to construct the mentioned fortress.

It is not known why the construction works did not start at once, however, in 1524, after a gruelling defence of Marseille people against the armies of Charles V of the House of Habsburg, there was no doubt that such defence building is necessary. The first foundation stone was put that year. The construction of the future Château d'If took about 7 years. This ominous and raising fear fortress, as it turned out later, was built in haste, not keeping to the basic rules of fortification works. However, enemies did not learn about that since nobody tried to take Marseille by storm. It is worth noticing that freedom-loving Marseille people were not happy about the castle, where the garrison consisting of 200 soldiers and more than 20 cannons were. They perceived it not only as a building providing security but mainly as a symbol of royal power over them. They were opposed to erecting the fortress from the beginning of construction works, and later they called it "a troublesome neighbour".

The cannons located in the castle fired only once. Warfare was not the cause. It was done in honour of young Catherine de' Medici who arrived in Marseille a day before marrying a son of Francis I, future King Henry II. The grandson of Francis I, King Henry III, signed a decree in 1580, under which the Château d'If became a state prison, where opponents of monarchy, conspirators and revolutionaries were usually imprisoned. Its isolated location, inaccessible rocks, sharp stones on the island shore as well as strong currents made that the castle was a real dungeon from which there was no escape.

Anzelm, a nobleman, was the first prisoner of the Château d'If. He was accused of plotting against his ruler and was imprisoned behind its walls in 1582. The dungeons of that prison were most crowded at the end of the 17th century, when mass arrests of Protestants began in France after renouncing the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV. They were treated almost as main state enemies. The prisoners were kept in inhumane conditions, they did not see the sunlight for months and died of exhaustion in hundreds. In that period the fortress of If became infamous for being the darkest and depriving hope prison of the Old World. There were rumours about it even outside France. After the French Revolution in 1830, the prison, located behind the walls of that castle, was closed down but the turbulent events of the 19th century sometimes improved the further history of this fortress. Thus, when Napoleon III staged a coup in 1852, more than 300 people were imprisoned in the Château d'If, then they were deported to Guyana and Algeria. When the Paris Commune collapsed in 1871, Gaston Crémieux, a lawyer, was executed in the castle. He was head of the commune in Marseille. That was the last bloody victim sacrificed behind the walls of the ancient castle, which became available for tourists in 1890. In July 1926 the Château d'If became a listed French building of great historical value.