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Gibraltar’s Legendary Round Tower Rises Again from the Mists of History

Chris Gomez | Photos: ©ReachExtra

Many historical texts and illustrations tell the story of a legendary “Round Tower”, some pointing to different locations within the Northern Defences of Gibraltar, where an attempt to recapture the Rock from the British at the beginning of the 18th century resulted in 200 dead.

Its remains had been lost amongst the stone walls and winding pathways of the fortifications until 2020.

An assault by Spanish and French military to recapture the Rock of Gibraltar from the Anglo-Dutch forces in 1705 resulted in one of the closest assaults of the 12th Siege of Gibraltar. Around 300 French grenadiers, said by some to have been supported by Spanish infantry, have been depicted by Spanish historian Ayala scaling up the tower using grapples.

Architect and Projects Director at the Government of Gibraltar Carl Viagas told ReachExtra that after successfully breaching the tower, “they began to push along the narrow trenches of the defences, which saw 500 infantry men deployed in response to repel this advance.

Gibraltar Northern Defences

This resulted in a total of 200 dead on both sides. For a counterattack to have needed 500 men to resist, it must have been a significant attack; lasting about an hour and probably involved hand to hand combat… a complete bloodbath”.

And it was this story that led Carl to begin the search for the famous Gibraltar Round Tower. Different historical accounts and even maps gave conflicting information as to its location, and some even claimed that “not even the foundations” remained.

Round Tower Gibraltar Northern Defences Carl Viagas 12 Siege

Modern texts theorised that the Round Tower was located at Forbes Battery, but this didn’t sit well with Carl:

“It would not make strategic sense to have the Round Tower at Forbes Battery because it overlooks where the runway is now (which was then a marsh) and is out of range of the supporting battery.”

So, it was during these times of Covid that Carl made the extra effort of going through texts by historians such as Alonso Hernández del Portillo (Historia de la Muy Noble y Más Leal Ciudad de Gibraltar 1610) and Ignacio Lopez de Ayala (Historia de Gibraltar 1782), written in the 17th and 18th Centuries:

“These are texts written from the Spanish point of view, which are less biased because, as we know, history is written by the victors”, Carl said.

And it was in these texts where Carl found the first hint of where the Round Tower could be located:

“In a Spanish account of the attack, there is mention of a ‘fosa’, which is a ditch’, leading up to the Round Tower. Many perhaps have missed this detail, because what leads up to the tower is a natural ditch. There is also a historical print which shows French grenadiers scaling up the Round Tower.”

Gibraltar Northern Defences

“Then there is the rock on either side, which means if it were at Forbes, it would not have been situated there. If you have got Willis’s battery above, why would you need this tower just below?”

Carl Viagas told us that by combining different sources, and then using his own architectural knowledge to piece together where the location of the Round Tower would be: “Coming with knowledge in architecture and perhaps being someone who once played too many strategy games, I thought… where would I build this Round Tower?”

“To me it made perfect sense to have a lookout that pushes the enemy further North… the clues slowly came together and drove us to the location of the Round Tower”

Round Tower Gibraltar Northern Defences Carl Viagas 12 Siege
Location of the Gibraltar Round Tower, Northern Defences

“It’s certainly not the tower of Isengard”, Carl joked referring to the imposingly malevolent tower of the Wizard Saruman in Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings,” “because it was completely shattered, but we’re standing in a place where people paid with their lives. And that’s what I think makes this place so special.”

As we stood on the foundations of what once was the Round Tower, the nearest to a success the French and Spanish had in recapturing the Rock during the 12th Siege of Gibraltar September 1704 and May 1705, Carl spoke of what the scene may have looked like:

“The idea of scaling the cliff, with muskets and heavy equipment, to lay siege to a heavily defended fortification is crazy – and they were actually able to take the Round Tower!”

“After this attack, the French and Spanish forces successfully occupied this location, and as they started to push through these narrow trenches, 500 infantrymen were deployed to repel this advance: This is when we lose 200 men from both sides.”

“For a counterattack to have used 500 men, it was significant. I also do not believe that the grenadiers were supported by the Spanish infantry – that’s probably a reason why it failed.”

“The battle would have lasted less than an hour. This was probably even hand to hand combat – it was a bloodbath.”

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