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Brest (Municipality, Finistère, France)

Last modified: 2005-04-09 by ivan sache
Keywords: finistere | brest | ermine (black) | ermines: 4 (black) | fleur-de-lys: 3 (yellow) | cross (black) | belle cordeliere (la) | stade brestois | ermine (red) |
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[Flag of Brest]by Ivan Sache

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Presentation of Brest

Brest is a city of c. 200,000 inhabitants (including seven neighbouring municipalities included in the communauté urbaine of Brest).
Due to its location on the northern shore of the rade de Brest (Brest harbour), which is in fact a deep inland sea (150 sq. km) linked to Atlantic Ocean only by a narrow bottleneck (goulet de Brest), Brest has been and still is a very important military port.

The fortress of Brest was mentioned for the first time in the XIth century. In 1395, King of France Charles VI managed to make the King of England return Brest to the (then independent) Duchy of Brittany. However, on 10 August 1513 (St. Lawrence's Day), an English fleet sailed to attack Brest. The Breton fleet rushed out from Brest, led by the flagship La Belle Cordelière. This vessel had just been offered by Duchess Ann of Brittany, and 300 distinguished guests were dancing on board. When it appeared that La Belle Cordelière would be lost, her commander Hervé de Primauguet exhorted his crew and guests to have a bel morir and told them: "We shall celebrate St. Lawrence, who perished by fire". La Belle Cordelière and her English opponent The Regent blew up together.

The port of Brest was created for the Royal Navy in 1631 by Richelieu (1585-1642), Louis XIII's main minister. Under Colbert (1619-1683), who was appointed (inter alia) State Secretary of Navy by King Louis XIV in 1669, Brest became the most important French military port. Colbert created in Brest the Register of Sailors (Inscription maritime, still in use), and schools of naval guards, gunners, hydrographers and marine engineers. The vessels of Colbert's era could reach 5,000 tons and be armed with 120 big cannons. Bows and sterns of these vessels were decorated by local craftsmen but also by official artists such as the sculptor Coysevox (1640-1720, one of Louis XIV's official portraitists). Admiral Duquesne (1610-1688) improved the walls of the city of Brest and fortified the bottleneck. In 1683, the defence system of Brest was completed by Vauban (1633-1707), appointed in 1678 General Commissionner for Fortifications. In 1694, the last attempt of Anglo-Dutch invasion was stopped on the Camaret peninsula by Vauban. Between 1740 and 1790, Choquet de Lindu built the arsenal. From 1777 onwards, Brest was the main port from which vessels and troops were sent to Northern America and contributed to the American independence.

In June 1940, both commercial and military ports of Brest were abandoned by the Allied forces, who destroyed the bridges and other facilities which could have been used by the Germans. However, a reinforced concrete shelter for submarines was constructed in Lanilon by the Germans, who used it as main basis for attack of Allied convoys in the Atlantic Ocean. Brest was heavily bombed during the war, but the shelter could not be destroyed, and is still used by the French Navy. In September 1944, the American troops eventually seized the city after a 43 day siege. Brest was totally ruined. The city was rapidly rebuilt using a geometrical plan centered around Rue de Siam, the most important street of the ancient city. The street got its name from the embassy sent to Louis XIV by the King of Siam, which was welcomed in Brest.

Most of the French Atlantic Fleet is now stationed in Brest, including the nuclear-powered carrier Charles-de-Gaulle, achieved in 1999 in Brest shipyard. The French Naval School (Ecole Navale), located in Brest from 1830 to 1940, was rebuilt in 1961 in Lanvéoc-Poulmic, on the southern shore of the Brest harbour. Close to the Naval School, the nuclear-powered submarines have been based in Ile-Longue since 1968. The Maritime Prefecture (Admiralty) of Brest is housed in the castle, which is one of the single remains of the ancient city.

Brest organizes every four year an international meeting of old sailing ships (vieux gréements). The first meeting took place in 1996, and the next one, Brest 2000, attracted more than 1.5 millions of visitors. The marina of Brest (port du Moulin-Blanc) is the base of famous yachtmen/women such as Olivier de Kersauzon and Florence Arthaud.

A scientific campus was established in the north of the city (University of Western Brittany, 1968; Technôpole Brest-Iroise). Oceanopolis, a scientific and cultural center dedicated to sea and oceans was opened in 1990 close to the marine. However, economical activity of Brest is mostly linked to miltary activity (Navy and aeronautics industry). The attempt to develop in Brest an oil port resulted in limited success.

The shady atmosphere of the port of Brest has been highlighted in several artistic works.
Tonnerre de Brest (Brest thunder), one of the prefered Captain Haddock's swearword, refers to the cannon shot which signalled in the past the escape of a prisonner from the Brest fortress. A cannon shot is nowadays used to give the start of a regatta.
Querelle de Brest, a novel by the nefarious French writer Jean Genet (1910-1986), with film adaptation by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, takes place in Recouvrance, the seamen neighborhood of Brest.
The movie Remorques (Towropes) by Jean Grémillon, with Jean Gabin, was shot in Brest (1939).

The 1940-1944 tragedy in Brest was magnified by the French writer Jacques Prévert (1900-1977) in his poem Barbara, which starts with:

Rappelle-toi Barbara
Il pleuvait sans cesse sur Brest ce jour-là
(Remember Barbara
It hadn't stop raining over Brest on that day)

and ends with:

Au loin très loin de Brest
Dont il ne reste rien
(Far, very far away from Brest,
Of which nothing remains.)

[After the war, the poet remembers a woman he cought a glimpse of under the rain in Rue de Siam before the war. The only thing he knows about her is her name and he wonders, under the rain in the ruins of Brest, what might have happened to her.]

Brest is the birth city of the writer Henri Queffélec (1910-1992), considered as one of the best Breton novelists and poets. However, his style and the depth of his writings make of him much more than a regional writer, even if he wrote mostly on regional thematics, basically the life of Bretons on the coasts or on the islands (Sein, Molène and Ushant). His son Yann is also a novelist and her daughter Anne is a pianist of international renown.

The crown-shaped cake called paris-brest, a classic of French pastry, got its name from a cyclist race between Paris and Brest. In 1891, a pastrycook created this cake whose shape reminds a bicycle tyre. The name and the place of residence of the pastrycook remain controversial. However, the cake became so famous that a patent application for the name and recipe of paris-brest was rejected in 1930.


  • Guide Vert Michelin Bretagne (2001)
  • Encyclopaedia Universalis - Thésaurus A-C (1996)
  • Petit Larousse Illustré (1989)
  • J. Prévert - Paroles (Gallimard, 1949)
  • Inventaire du patrimoine culinaire de la France - Ile-de-France (Albin Michel, 1993)

Ivan Sache, 13 January 2002

Municipal flag of Brest

The flag currently in use in Brest is a banner of the municipal arms, parti de France et de Bretagne (per pale France and Brittany). The arms are dated 1696 and were "stolen" by Brest to the neighbouring city of Lesneven.

Source: P. Rault. Les drapeaux bretons de 1188 à nos jours [rau98]

Ivan Sache, 13 January 2002

Historical flags of Brest

[First flag of Brest!]by Ivan Sache

The first reported flag "of" Brest is a 3:4 white flag with a black cross. Gustave Desjardins noticed it on an old portolano, associated with Brest and believed it was an ancient city flag. However, this flag is more probably the Breton Kroazh-Du (Black Cross), which was placed on the portolano to represent Brittany.

[Flag of Brest, XVth century]by Ivan Sache

In the XVth century, the flag of Brest was the black cross flag with a red vertical stripe placed along the fly. This flag was reported by G. Pasch to P. Rault (letter dated 1 July 1978). The meaning of the red stripe is unknown.

[Flag of Brest, XVIth century]by Ivan Sache

In the XVIth century, an ermine spot was added in each quarter of the flag. This flag is shown on an anonymous portolano kept in the French National Library.

[Flag of Brest, XVIIIth century]by Ivan Sache

In the XVIIIth century, the red stripe was suppressed and the black cross was voided througout (i.e., a white cross was placed over the black one).

Source: P. Rault. Les drapeaux bretons de 1188 à nos jours [rau98]

Ivan Sache, 13 January 2002

Pennant of La Belle Cordelière

[Pennant of La Belle Cordeliere]by Ivan Sache

The masthead pennant flown by La Belle Cordelière was a narrow, forked white pennant with the Breton black cross.

Source: P. Rault. Les drapeaux bretons de 1188 à nos jours [rau98]

Ivan Sache, 13 January 2002

Flag of Stade Brestois (football club)

[Flag of Stade Brestois]by Ivan Sache

In 2004, FC Nantes-Atlantique played in the French Cup (last 32) against Stade Brestois, the main team from Brest. The colours of Stade Brestois are red and white, and the supporters of the club use white-and-red Gwen-ha-Du flags (that is with red stripes and ermine spots).

Source: TV images.

Ivan Sache, 28 February 2004

Burgee of Club de Voile de l'Ecole Navale - Ailée (yacht club)

Club de la Voile de l'Ecole Navale - Ailée is the yacht club of the Naval School in Brest. Ailée means winged and might indicate that members of the Aéronavale (Navy Air Force) can also be members of the yacht club.

The burgee of the Club de la Voile de l'Ecole Navale - Ailée is vertically divided blue-red with a white oval in the middle charged with a blue sailing ship from the Marine Royale; the ship seems to have prominent, exagerated yards, which might be kinds of "wings". The burgee is also divided by a white horizontal stripe with ECOLE and NAVALE in blue flanking the oval.

Source: Yacht Club de France website (affiliated clubs)

Ivan Sache, 25 December 2004