The crescent-shaped Île d'Aix is three kilometres long and six hundred metres wide at its broadest, with a surface area of 130 hectares; the average height is 4 metres above sea level. It seems that in Roman times it was possible to cross to the coast of France at low tide, as the island only settled into its final, current shape around 1500. The first chroniclers in the early 11th century mention the existence of a priory founded by the renowned Abbey of Cluny, and dedicated to Saint Martin. During the Hundred Years War, the Île d'Aix belonged to the English for around fifteen years, becoming in turn Protestant or Catholic during the wars of religion. At that point the monks were chased out and the monastery burnt, with only the underground crypt escaping the fury of the Reformers.
In 1665, Colbert’s construction of the port at Rochefort required major fortifications to be built at the mouth of the Charente, which also benefited the Île d'Aix. Directed by the famous engineer Vauban, extensive defensive buildings were constructed, and the current town was laid out, with all the works completed in 1704. However, this did not prevent the English from taking the island over for several days in 1757, which pushed the royal government into constructing further fortifications. Louis XVI sent the Marquis de Montalembert to the island, one of the precursors of modern fortification, along with the famous Choderlos de Laclos, captain in the French Royal Engineering Corps, but more famous for having written Dangerous Liaisons, a book he finished while staying on the island.
The Revolution brought notoriety to Aix when, in 1794, hundreds of priests and monks were piled into boats moored out in the harbour, where the sanitary conditions were appalling. More than two thirds perished, and many of them were interred in the crypt of the church.
Napoleon Bonaparte's interest in the Ile d'Aix
Conscious of the ongoing threat from the English to France’s Atlantic coast, Bonaparte took a keen interest in the fortifications of the Île d'Aix in 1801. Once he became Emperor, he decided to see for himself the state of the defences. He arrived in Rochefort on 4 April 1808, and went across to the island the following day where he visited the barracks, ordered a house to be built for the commander of the stronghold (today the Napoleon Museum), along with a powder magazine and a fort that was named Liédot after 1812, after the Colonel of the Engineering Corps, killed during the Russian campaign. Between 1802 and 1803, Napoleon also ordered work to start on the famous Fort Boyard, visiting the site himself and going down on to the stone bank that formed the foundations. With work suspended on several occasions, the project would not be finished until 1859, when advances in artillery meant that this monster was unnecessary, even though it had taken five times as much stone as the Arc de Triomphe to build! But all these defences did not prevent the English from occupying the harbour of the Île d'Aix once again in April 1809, or from destroying part of the French fleet by attacking their boats with fire ships (ships abandoned by their crew and filled with inflammable materials, aimed at setting fire to enemy vessels).
But the Île d'Aix’s great claim to fame is that it was here, between 12 and 15 July 1815, that Napoleon spent his last days on French soil. Defeated at Waterloo (18 June 1815), he took refuge for a few days at Malmaison before arriving in Rochefort on 3 July, convinced that he would be given a safe passage to sail for America. As the English were blocking the harbours of the Charente, Napoleon, after much hesitation, decided to leave for the Île d'Aix where he went to the commander’s house that he had ordered to be built seven years previously. In the course of the four nights that he spent there, indecisive and prey to contradictory feelings, he refused offers to get through the blockade of the English ships. Finally, convinced that he would be offered a dignified retirement in England, he took the decision to surrender to his enemies, and wrote his famous letter to the Prince Regent: “Exposed to the factions which divide my country and to the enmity of the greatest powers of Europe, I have terminated my political career, and I come, like Themistocles, to throw myself on the hospitality of the British people. I claim from your Royal Highness the protection of the laws, and throw myself upon the most powerful, the most constant, and the most generous of my enemies. Île d'Aix, 13 July 1815. Napoleon". On the morning of 15 July, he boarded the Bellerophon, never imagining for one moment that the English would regard him as a prisoner of war, or that he would be exiled to Saint Helena, a small island lost in the middle of the South Atlantic.
Since 1815, the history of the Île d'Aix has been less eventful. It served as a prison for Russian prisoners of war during the Crimean War of 1854, for Prussians during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and for "communard" insurgents in 1871. Lastly, more recently, from March 1959 to May 1961, Ahmed Ben Bella, future President of the Republic of Algeria and his companions were imprisoned in Fort Liédot.