Château d’If

Château d’If is a famous castle in southern France. It stands atop a small limestone island opposite the harbor of Marseille. The “château” is a square, three-story building 28m (92ft) long on each side, flanked by three towers with large gunembrasures on 3 hectars of land.

Built by Francis I in 1524-31, the castle was used for 400 years as a state prison. Located on the smallest island in the Frioul archipelago situated in the Mediterranean Sea, and it is famous for being one of the settings of Alexandre Dumas’ adventure novel, The Count of Monte Cristo.

Originally built as a naval fortress, the island was chosen for its strategic position as a defense for the city of Marseille. On every hill was built a military fort, batteries, trenches, and observation posts scattered throughout the archipelago. The Château d’If was converted to a prison in 1516, and became infamous for the exclusivity of its guest list. Common criminals were imprisoned on the mainland. But in the Chateau d’If, only important persons were incarcerated, including the celebrated Marquises, Chevaliers and Comptes, as well as a many Protestants (Huegenots).

The cells are small, drafty and dismal. The only view looks inward toward fellow unfortunates and a tiny cobbled courtyard, with its well and stone staircase. The cells are far from uniform, save for being uniformly grim. Each of the cells in the two-tiered prison is of an oddly-angled configuration, some with recesses for sleeping, or a fireplace and accouterments, including wall rings for fastening shackles.

Notable detainees are identified by small fading signboards affixed above the windowless doors of their former cells. 

However the hero of the novel, The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas: Edmond Dantes and Abbe Faria were never imprisoned in the chateau (the latter being a real person). In actuality, the Count of Monte Cristo is a parable inspired by Dumas’ father, Général Thomas Alexandre Dumas.

In the eighteenth century, the Château d’If was used to house the 3,500 Huguenots convicts where they were chained to galleys until their death, having been arrested by order of the king subsequent to the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685).

Jean-Baptiste Chataud, commander of the Grand-Saint-Antoine, the ship responsible for the plague that struck Marseille in 1720 was released after it was discovered that his boat had been quarantined.

123 people were detained after the riots of 1848. Following the coup of December 2, 1851, the castle received 304 detainees awaiting deportation to the prison at Maison Carree (Algeria) or the Cayenne Guyana, and other political prisoners at the fall of the Second Empire (1870). The last prisoners were civilians from Alsace and Lorraine released in September 1914.

Until 1950 the island was inhabited by lighthouse keeper, Marius Morel and his family. Since then it has become a major place for tourism, with water shuttles from the Vieux Port departing daily.


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