Cordouan, the lighthouse of Kings

A unique lighthouse

The Cordouan lighthouse is not a lighthouse like the others.
A few kilometers out to sea, in the middle of the Gironde Estuary, it embodies the creative genius of men and the great phases in the history of lighthouses.

While the Cordouan lighthouse was built for the primary purpose of keeping guard over the mouth of the Gironde estuary, it has far exceeded this utilitarian function. Its architecture proves irresistible to visitors to this unique building.

The Cordouan lighthouse has long been referred to as the “lighthouse of kings” and has just been named “2019 Lighthouse of the Year” by the International Association of Marine Aids to Navigation and Lighthouse Authorities to mark World Marine Aids to Navigation Day. In 2020, France has nominated the Cordouan lighthouse for inclusion on the World Heritage. In 2021, it was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

This remarkable building deserves such recognition. The care taken over its construction is impressive considering it’s found in the middle of the sea and can’t be seen from the coast. Built in stone and sculpted on all sides, the lighthouse was commissioned in 1584 by Henri III, who entrusted the project to Louis de Foix. Its construction was finished in 1611, but work resumed from 1786 to 1789 to add a further 20 metres in height. This took it to 67.5 metres tall. Another interesting fact is that it is the last remaining lighthouse to be continuously inhabited by its keepers and visitors.

Using limestone dressed blocks, De Foix first built a round base 41 metres in diameter and 2 metres high to take the onslaught of the waves. Within it was a 2-square-metre cavity for storing water and other supplies. Above it were constructed four storeys of diminishing size. The ground floor consisted of a circular tower 15 metres in diameter, with apartments for four keepers around its inner wall. In the centre was a richly decorated entrance hall of 2.0 square metres and 6.1 metres high. The second storey was the King’s Apartment, consisting of a drawing room, anteroom and a number of closets. The third storey was a chapel with a domed roof notable for the beauty of its mosaic. Above this was secondary lantern, and above that the Lantern itself. This was 60 metres above the sea and visible 8–10 km away, the original light being provided by burning oak chips in a metal container.

Throughout the building, de Foix took as much trouble with the decor as with the durability of the building, and on every floor was a profusion of gilt, carved work, elegantly arched doorways and statuary.