A rich history
There is evidence that man has been present on the island since at least 30,000 B.C. and without interruption since the Palaeolithic Age. The Bronze Age was marked by the construction of tumuli and barrow mounds, which are found in abundance in some areas of Belle-Île.. Traces of the Iron Age can still be seen in the coastal landscape in the form of promontory forts.
The island, then known as Vindilis, was populated by the Veneti, a Gallic tribe from the south of modern-day Brittany, who were defeated by Caesar’s armies. However the Roman occupation of Armorica left little trace on Belle-Île. The arrival of Bretons from the other side of the English Channel, beginning in the 5th century B.C., left a lasting imprint on the island’s place names, and in particular the new name they gave to the island: Guedel.
Belle Île, the target of numerous attacks
Bangor takes its name from a monastery in Wales and several villages are named after Celtic saints. The monks from Redon began settling on Belle-Île in 1000 and organised its colonisation. The island’s landscape of villages and open fields dates back to this period and is still largely visible today. Belle-Île was frequently ravaged by pirates in the Middle Ages, who found a population without defence, and during many wars, Belle-Île was a favourite spot for foreign navies. To protect their property, the successive owners of the island were forced to install a system of defence against attacks and landings.
In the 14th century, the Benedictine Abbey in Quimperlé, which had owned Belle-Île since 1029, built the first fort to guard against invasions by pirates. It had little effect, though, because incursions continued through the 15th and 16th centuries.
In 1572, King Henry II decided to reinforce its defences. He compelled the monks to exchange the island for other land on the mainland, held by Albert de Gondi, who he charged to build a new fort. The island was made a marquisate and, for nearly a century, the Gondi family developed farming, fishing and trade on the island.
In 1658, at Louis XIV’s invitation, the superintendent of finance, Nicolas Fouquet, bought the marquisate. Less than three years later, the king had him imprisoned and, after an exchange of land with the superintendent’s family, in turn became owner of the island. Louis XIV commissioned Vauban to fortify the island and entrusted its management to the States of Brittany. After a short occupation of the island by the English (1761-1763), the island’s land was divided up among all of its inhabitants, joined in 1765 by a few hundred Acadians on their release from English prisons.
Tourism, the island’s primary resource today
From the Revolution to the end of the 19th century, the island prospered with the development of agriculture (following the example of the Trochu family), fishing (with a growing number of canneries) and ship building (thanks to the workshops built at the end of Le Palais harbour). All of these industries declined in the course of the 20th century, though, and tourism is now the island’s main resource, drawing on its outstanding natural settings and a remarkable, mainly military, architectural heritage.