According to Wikipedia, Fort St Jean at the entrance to the Vieux Port in Marseille was built with cannons facing the city (instead of out towards the sea as would be typical) on the orders of Louis XIV who was displeased that the Marseillais had toppled the local governor.

Does this make any sense? Clearly cannons pointing out to sea are useful to repel attacks by (slow-moving) ships. But would cannons facing a city be useful for the purpose of subduing a restive citizenry?

  • 17
    I don't understand the question. If the goal is to intimidate the city and prevent internal rebellion, then yes, it makes sense. As a general rule, it makes sense to point the cannon at those one wants to intimidate. Why is this confusing?
    – MCW
    Oct 28, 2023 at 14:13
  • It makes sense because in most of the developed world we aren't used to the idea of armies used to control population by the use of artillery, and don't see military facilities in or by our cities as a menace to us. People from places like Gaza may think otherwise.
    – Pere
    Oct 29, 2023 at 10:21
  • @Pere - I thought the road called Birdcage Walk in London was laid out (on the advice of the Duke of Wellington) with places for cannon to fire on any rebellious mob? Oct 29, 2023 at 14:02
  • @MichaelHarvey - I meant in most of the developed world nowadays. One or two centuries ago things were quite different. In times of Louis XIV or Wellington people understood what were those castles or roads for - and they were understandable on purpose, so people keep quiet.
    – Pere
    Oct 29, 2023 at 16:54
  • Oh, I didn't know that the Fort St Jean was built for this reason. I thought this was the case for the Fort St Nicolas (on the other side of the Vieux Port).
    – Plop
    Oct 30, 2023 at 14:10

2 Answers 2


You answered your own question yourself:

on the orders of Louis XIV who was displeased that the Marseillais had toppled the local governor

It depends very much what you find more important:

  • to defend against naval incursions: aim your guns seaward.
  • to defend against unruly citizens: aim your guns to the city.

Louis XIV wanted more defense against unruly citizens. This was very common just about everywhere in Europe. Many cities had fortresses not to keep the enemy out, but to control the population. They are called coercion castles.

added, based on comments:

A cannon can be loaded with grapeshot. Napoleon used his famous whiff of grapeshot to squelch an uprising. This video about the Decembrist uprising shows how horribly effective grapeshot can be. It turns a cannon into a giant shotgun.

If you have to use artillery to stop a riot, you have much bigger problems than just that riot you're blasting into a bloody pulp. Those rioters can blow up a cathedral, more likely they torch it. Hang your governor plus anyone they don't like and do all kind of nasty things, like proclaiming a republic. There is a huge difference between people being discontent and people who are so far out of control artillery becomes necessary.

Modern riot control tactics didn't exist as yet, but that doesn't mean using artillery was normal. If a government had to resort to artillery, the situation was way out of hand already. Police as such didn't exist. Citizens, usually volunteers from the middle class, acted as civic guard or in Dutch schutterij. The famous Night Watch by Rembrandt is a civic guard unit. They would be patrolling the streets, and called for to control riots. Only when the civic guard couldn't handle the situation, the army was called in.

Having cannons facing landward does make sense. Attacking a fortress by sea was the height of folly, according (or ascribed) to Horatio Nelson. A fortress is better armored, has bigger guns, doesn't move and has a propositioned fire plan. Attacking with a landing party from the landward side wasn't as suicidal as trying to bombard it into submission.

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    Even if the main purpose of the fortress is to defend against naval attack, it makes sense to have at least some cannon on the land-facing side to defend against enemy raiding parties coming through the town.
    – Steve Bird
    Oct 28, 2023 at 6:59
  • 1
    Consider what good the guns at Singapore did defending the city from the Japanese.
    – Jon Custer
    Oct 28, 2023 at 17:46
  • 1
    I've addressed that for you.
    – Jos
    Oct 29, 2023 at 4:55
  • 1
    The balance of power between fortress and warship of course changed with technology... for whatever advantages "doesn't move" may have, it also comes with some huge disadvantages which became particularly apparent when "beyond the horizon" bombardment started to be feasible
    – Ben Voigt
    Oct 30, 2023 at 19:31
  • 1
    Also: if the invader doesn't attack your city (whose harbour is guarded by the fortress) by sea, rather the invader takes the city via an overland invasion; then you are still in possession of the fortress. Thus denying the invader the use of the newly captured harbour. And the landward-facing guns of the fortress prevent the fortress from being taken from land. Hence, even with a loyal population within the city, it is only prudent to defend your fortress towards all sides.
    – Dohn Joe
    Nov 2, 2023 at 12:06

Just to add an example of such kind of castle being used: in the XVIII and XIX centuries Barcelona had two of such castles, the Citadel and Montjuïc Castle, one at each side of the city.

They were used in 1842 to bombard the city to end a revolt and again in 1843.

1842 bombardment of Barcelona from Montjuïc Castle 1842 bombardment of Barcelona from Montjuïc Castle (source)

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