Located on Pointe Saint-Mathieu in Plougonvelin, around Brest in Finistère, Saint-Mathieu lighthouse was built in 1835 among the ruins of the ancient Abbaye Saint-Mathieu de Fine-Terre.
The Abbey gives the cape its name, and It was dedicated to Saint Matthew the Evangelist, whose skull it housed. It was a Benedictine abbey, but was revived and reformed by the Maurists in the mid-17th century. According to legend the first abbey here was founded in the 6th century by Saint Tanguy, chosen for its isolated location among the lands he had inherited. This allowed the Abbey to be generally cut off from the world but still traversable via being close to the sea.
The lighthouse is a major lighthouse of the French coast, with a theoretical range of 29 nautical miles (around 55 km).
Along with the Kermorvan Lighthouse, it signals the direction of the Chenal du Four, which transient ships used to follow on a north-south axis before the creation of the Rail d’Ouessant, the maritime traffic separation scheme off the island of Ouessant, the westernmost island of Brittany and France and symbolizing entry (or the exit) from the English Channel. It is one of the busiest sea crossings in the world with an average of 148 ships per day. Saint-Mathieu’s alignment with the Portzic Lighthouse also indicates the route for entrance to the Goulet de Brest, the 3-km-long strait linking the roadstead of Brest to the Atlantic Ocean. The promontory of Saint-Mathieu hosts the abbey’s ruins, a sémaphore, and the lighthouse, that was classified as a monument historique on 23 May 2011.
There had long been a light signal for navigating ships before the Saint-Mathieu Lighthouse. At the end of the 17th century, however, there was a need for accessibility to a new naval base in Brest and the necessity of more serious methods of navigation for western Brittany.
Thus, on November 19, 1691 the construction of a light in the tower of the abbey was proposed, and it was completed in September 1692. To complete the beacon, another light was inaugurated in 1699 in the Stiff Lighthouse on the island of Ouessant (but this is another story).
However, the cost of ignition was too expensive, and the light of Saint-Mathieu was thus only lit on particularly dark nights in the autumn and winter and, in addition, the use of coal fire additionally presented a risk of setting the abbey ablaze.
In December 1695, the previous light was replaced by a glass lantern, containing five copper lanterns placed on three stacked rows. Problem solved? Absolutely not: this brought with it the problem of the light being redirected upward when oil levels fell low, and the problem of clouding the glass with vapors due to the burning of unpurified fish oil. As a result, French naval commander Anne Hilarion de Tourville complained that the lighthouse was not regularly lit. However, monks of the abbey offered their services in exchange for a droit de bris (a right to the goods from ships wrecked on one’s property), and were charged with illuminating the light from 1 January 1694.
Years later, in March 1750, a gale destroyed the lantern, and a steward of the Navy strengthened the building with a metal frame. It was Lieutenant-general Charles Henri Hector that made a series of changes, with the light of this new lighthouse that could be seen up to 29 km.
The state of the tower of the ancient abbey was deteriorating, and a new lighthouse was put in service on 15 June 1835, but It assumed its present appearance in June 1963: a white-painted tower marked “SAINT-MATHIEU” in red, with a red stripe at the top.
Author’s notes: the lighthouse is open to the public, and after a climb of 163 steps you can enjoy a magnificent panorama. The site also houses the National Memorial of Sailors who died for France, erected in 1927.