Chateau d'If, Marseilles (Provence), France | CruiseBe
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Château d'If

History and museums
fortress, historic site, landmark

The Château d'If is a fortress (later a prison) located on the island of If, the smallest island in the Frioul archipelago situated in the Mediterranean Sea about one mile (1.6 kilometres) offshore in the Bay of Marseille in southeastern France. It is famous for being one of the settings of Alexandre Dumas' adventure novel The Count of Monte Cristo. "If" is the French word for the Yew tree.



Île d’If measures 3 hectares (0.03 km2) and is located 3.5 kilometres (2.2 miles) west of the Old Port of Marseille. The entire island is heavily fortified; high ramparts with gun platforms surmount the cliffs that rise steeply from the surrounding ocean. Apart from the fortress, the island is uninhabited.


The "château" is a square, three-story building 28 m (92 ft) long on each side, flanked by three towers with large gun embrasures. It was built in 1524-31 on the orders of King Francis I, who, during a visit in 1516, saw the island as a strategically important location for defending the coastline from sea-based attacks. However, its construction was extremely controversial. When Marseille was annexed to France in 1481, it retained the right to provide for its own defence. The castle was, therefore, seen by many of the local inhabitants as an unwanted imposition of central authority.

The castle's principal military value was as a deterrent; it never had to fight off an actual attack. The closest that it came to a genuine test of strength was in July 1531, when Holy Roman Emperor Charles V made preparations to attack Marseille. However, he abandoned the invasion plan.

This might have been fortunate, given the weaknesses identified by military engineer Vauban in a scathing report in 1701: "The fortifications look like the rock, they are fully rendered, but very roughly and carelessly, with many imperfections. The whole having been very badly built and with little care... All the buildings, very crudely done, are ill made."

The embalmed body of general Jean Baptiste Kléber was repatriated to France after his assassination in Cairo in 1800. Napoleon, fearing that his tomb would become a symbol to Republicanism, ordered that the body stay at the château. It remained there for 18 years until Louis XVIII granted Kléber a proper burial in his native Strasbourg.


The isolated location and dangerous offshore currents of the Château d'If made it an ideal escape-proof prison, very much like the island of Alcatraz in California in more recent times. Its use as a dumping ground for political and religious detainees soon made it one of the most feared and notorious jails in France. Over 3,500 Huguenots (French Protestants) were sent to Château d'If, as was Gaston Crémieux, a leader of the Paris Commune, who was shot there in 1871.

The island became internationally famous in the 19th century when Alexandre Dumas used it as a setting for The Count of Monte Cristo, published to widespread acclaim in 1844. In the novel, the main character Edmond Dantès (a commoner who later purchases the noble title of Count) and his mentor, Abbé Faria, were both imprisoned in it. After fourteen years, Dantès makes a daring escape from the castle, becoming the first person ever to do so and survive. In reality, no one is known to have done this. The modern Château d'If maintains a roughly hewn dungeon in honour of Dantès as a tourist attraction.

As was common practice in those days, prisoners were treated differently according to their class and wealth. The poorest were placed at the bottom, being confined perhaps twenty or more to a cell in windowless dungeons under the castle. However, the wealthiest inmates were able to pay for their own private cells (or pistoles) higher up, with windows, a garderobe and a fireplace.

The château today

The château's use as a prison ceased at the end of the 19th century. It was demilitarized and opened to the public on September 23, 1890. It can now be reached by boat from Marseille's old port. Its fame comes from the setting for Dumas' novel, The Count of Monte Cristo. This fame has made the prison a popular tourist destination.

Mark Twain visited the château in July 1867 during a months-long pleasure excursion. He recounts his visit in his book, The Innocents Abroad. He says a guide took his party into the prison, which was not yet open to the public, and inside the cells, one of which he says housed the "Iron Mask." There is a sign at the château that says "Prison dite de l'Homme au Masque de Fer" ("Said to be the prison of the Man in the Iron Mask"), but this is likely only legend since the famed Man in the Iron Mask was never held at the Château d'If.

The Château d'If is listed as a monument historique by the French Ministry of Culture.

In fictional works

The fortress was used as the location where Alain Charnier a.k.a. Frog One (Fernando Rey) meets Devereaux (Frédéric de Pasquale) to finalise the drugs shipment to the United States in the 1971 crime film The French Connection.

However, other locations have been used for Château d'If in the retelling of Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo. In the 2002 adaptation starring Jim Caviezel, the château was represented by Saint Mary's Tower on Comino, the smallest inhabited Maltese island. The cliff-top watchtower can be seen from the ferry crossing between Malta and Gozo.

In the 1956 "Tales of Old Dartmoor" episode of The Goon Show radio comedy series, Grytpype-Thynne has Dartmoor Prison put to sea to visit the Château d'If, as part of a plan to find the treasure of the Count of Monte Cristo.

Notable prisoners

  • Chevalier Anselme (1580-?)
  • Jean Serres, Huguenot
  • Élie Neau, Huguenot
  • Chevalier de Lorraine, lover of Philippe de France
  • Jean-Baptiste Chataud, accused of bringing the plague to Marseille - (c.1720 - c.1723)
  • Honoré Mirabeau, writer, popular orator and statesman - (1774–1775)
  • Abbé Faria - (1797-?) - his stay at the château is disputed
  • Michel Mathieu Lecointe-Puyraveau, politician - (1815)
  • Gaston Crémieux, a leader of the Paris Commune (1871)

Contrary to common belief, the Marquis de Sade was not a prisoner at the château.


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