History of the Tower of Hercules

The Roman lighthouse

The Tower of Hércules was built as a lighthouse by the Romans, possibly towards the end of the 1st century and the beginning of the 2nd. From its original appearance, today we conserve its interior, with an architectural lining done in the late 18th century. At its foot, there is also a Latin inscription carved on the rock that is preserved – now protected by a small building – which contains the name of the possible Roman architect and author of the tower.

The Romans...

There are still many unknowns about the origin and the primitive appearance of the Tower of Hércules, but the data so far supplied and verified by scientific research (archaeological digs, study of the architectural walls and the construction methods, the documentation preserved) allows us to state that Romans were the original builders of the lighthouse.

After the conquest by Rome of Western Europe (Spain, Gaul and Britain), the bay of A Coruña becomes highly important to the Roman shipping routes that connect the Mediterranean and North Atlantic coastal areas. Located on a dangerous coast, it became a great dock for the ships that undertook the route towards Britain or that were coming from the dangers of rounding Cape Finisterre. The Romans created a major port enclave, which they named Brigantium, and to provide support to the navigation of commercial and military ships, they constructed a large lighthouse which we now call the Tower of Hércules.

The data so far supplied and verified by scientific research allows us to state that Romans were the original builders of the lighthouse.

From the inscription preserved at the foot of the tower, we know that the builder was Gaius Sevius Lupus, architect of the city of Aeminium  (the present-day city of Coimbra in Portugal). With the current data available and without absolute certainty, its construction is attributed to the time of Roman Emperor Trajan, who ruled between A.D. 98 and 117.

We do not know with certainty what its outside appearance was like. But after the archaeological excavations at the base of the Torre, we know that had an outer perimeter wall and a ramp or flight of stone steps that led to the upper platform. We also do not know exactly what the Roman crowning of the Tower was like but  – based on the information preserved – it would have had a circular layout finishing in a dome shape with a hole in the centre for the output of the light and smoke that would guide the ships.

The inner section – now preserved – has a square base with four interior openings that are connected two with two; vertically, it was divided into three successive floors, and the openings were formed with barrel vaults. These areas may have served – among other things – to save the combustible material that would burn at the top and also to safeguard the service staff in the Torre.


The mediaeval Tower

During this period, the tower ceased functioning as a lighthouse; in some periods it would become a defensive castle and, from the 13th century on, a quarry supplying materials for the construction of the new village called Crunia.

From the 5th century...

After the demise of the Roman Empire, the Tower of Hércules, from the 5th century, the Torre suffered a progressive deterioration that would cause the disappearance of its outer perimeter wall and access ramp.In the 5th century, the invasions of the barbarians brought about the disappearance of the Western Roman Empire. The arrival of the Suevi and the Vandals, the raids by the Heruli and the collapse of Roman power entailed the Tower of Hércules losing its role as a lighthouse, now useless after the reduction of maritime traffic and the increasing dangers coming from the sea . The gradual decline and fall of the transverse arches of its wall would begin with the abandonment of the Tower. Still, it is possible that – once the barbarian kingdoms were settled in the West – the Torre had a role as a reference in the maritime relations established in the 6th and 7th centuries between the Suevi kingdom of Gallaecia and the kingdom of the Franks.

From the 9th century...

From the 9th century on, the Western coasts were subjected to continuous raids of the Normans. Written sources mention their attack in A.D. 844 on the Faro Brigantium and Galicia was attacked numerous times until the 11th century. During these centuries, the Torre serves as a reference point to delineate a territory which is named Faro Brigantio or simply Faro, a territory that the kings of Asturias, León and Galicia would leave in the hands of counts or the bishops of Santiago.

The Tower became a defensive outpost in the face of threats from the sea, and the object of dispute between the kings, the church and the nobility.
Between A.D. 991 and 1126, the Tower was – except for some brief periods – under the dominion of the bishops of Santiago de Compostela. During this period, there was a  rectangular building of stone walls and divided into two rooms on the east side of the Tower, close to its outside wall. Archaeological excavations carried out have revealed an abundance of hearths, pottery shards and remains of organic materials that indicate that it must have been used as a kitchen for the defenders of the Torre turned into a fort.

From the 13th century...

In the 13th century, beginning with the construction of the new town of Crunia in 1208, the Tower was abandoned. The transverse arches that are fallen but still preserved from the outer wall and access ramp served as a quarry from which to get good quality material with little effort for the buildings and fortifications that were being built in A Coruña at this time. The extraction of transverse arches from the Torre would be prohibited in the 16th century; at that time neither the outer perimeter wall or access ramp still existed.


The recovery of the tower as a beacon

It undergoes a major renovation inside in the 17th century, with the construction of new access stairs and the installation of two streetlights.

16th century...

If the Tower of Hércules served as a fort and quarry during the Middle Ages, beginning in the 16th century the process of its conservation and the recovery of its function as a lighthouse was slowly begun.

In the 16th century, because of its advanced position in the ocean, the Tower – known as Castillo Viejo or the lighthouse Tower –, remains a watchtower against possible threats and attacks from the sea. This checkpoint was under the responsibility of the City Council, who paid the people who carried out that responsibility day and night. From the excavations done and the documentation conserved, it appears that the now was now surrounding by a small moat and a defensive parapet supplemented with barbed barriers. Surveillance in the Tower was done by sailors or retired marines; found from these people were the remains of white ceramic pipes and bone plates  with round holes for buttons, evidence of their daily activities at the foot of the Tower.

17th century...

If the Tower of Hércules served as a fort and quarry during the Middle Ages, it would be the late 17th century when the Tower of Hércules would recovers its role as a lighthouse.
It would be the late 17th century when the Tower of Hércules would recovers its role as a lighthouse. In 1684, the Governor and Captain General of the Kingdom of Galicia – the Duke of Uceda – ordered the construction of a wooden staircase to allow access to the top of the Tower. To do so, the Roman barrel vaults separating the three floors of the Tower were pierced. On the northern side of the top part, a small balcony was built in order to facilitate surveillance.

Taking advantage of the new access, the Consuls of England, Holland and Flanders proposed building at the top of the Tower – at their expense –two small stone turrets, each with a light equipped with three oil lamps that would be lit every night to help navigation. The work was authorised by the Duke of Uceda and – carried out by A Coruña native architect Amaro Antúnez – the Tower regained its original function as a lighthouse. To pay for its construction and maintenance of the two lighthouse lamps, a new tax was created which was to be paid by all ships docking in to the Galician ports.

18th century...

It was soon showed that the lighthouse lamps of the Tower were insufficient. In the 18th century, there were repeated attempts to improve and repair the Tower, but they were never completed. The conditions progressively worsened: firstly, one of the lamps stopped working and then, in 1769, lightning destroyed the remaining one. As a temporary measure to replace the damaged light, three portable lights were installed; these were impossible to light when the weather was bad. The steady deterioration of the Tower and the possibility of its collapse forced major repairs, but the lack of resources prevented them from being carried out.


The restoration of the Tower

In 1788, work began the final restoration of the Tower of Hércules. Completed in 1790, it gave the Tower – except for small subsequent changes – its present appearance. Subsequently, several works were carried out to upgrade the surrounding areas.

In 1788...

In 1788, at the initiative of the Royal Consulate of A Coruña and authorised by King Charles III, work on the restoration of the Tower of Hércules began. These works – carried out by the military engineer Eustaquio Giannini – principally affected the outside and the top of the Tower. Outside, the original Roman core was overlaid with a stone covering with a Classical aesthetic. The new facade has a sober decor, and a regular symmetrical duplication of the openings that are mostly false and that only in some cases correspond to the ancient Roman entrances to the interior rooms (sometimes walled over in part to maintain the regularity on the facade). The diagonal band, which covers the walls in a spiral to the summit, recalls the old Roman ramp access.

At the top, remains of the Roman roundabout were demolished as were the additions made in the 17th century (turrets and balcony), which were replaced by a new finishing composed of two superimposed octagonal bodies; the upper initially contained the beacon or coal-fuelled bonfire that would serve as a luminaire. Inside, the old wooden staircase was replaced by a new one of stone with wooden railings. The restoration was completed in 1790.

The restoration was completed in 1790. Shortly afterwards, several studies were undertaken in preparation for upgrading the surroundings. The construction of the access road and a platform around the base of the tower were designed, but not completed until 1861. A small stone hut was built in order to protect the rock containing the Roman inscription.

From 1799 to 1806...

Between 1799 and 1806, there were new works caused by the replacement of the carbon lamp with a new parabolic rotating beacon supplied with oil lamps. This installation forced Giannini to make changes at the top of the Tower. The roof of the upper part was torn down and a glass lantern that still exists today was installed. An unusual stone pinnacle was also built, which houses staircase to the lantern, and a lightning rod was installed.

19th and 20th century...

Electricity was installed in the lighthouse in 1927. Beginning in the 19th century and until the end of the 20th, the restoration was minimal and only affected the interior of the Tower. More important were those done in the surrounding area. In 1849, the interior of the Tower was upgraded in order to install the classes of the first School of Lighthouse Keepers in Spain, which remained until 1854. From 1858 to 1906 the inside walls of the Tower were lined with patterned wallpaper. In 1909 the wooden railing of the staircase was replaced by one of stone. Electricity was installed in the lighthouse in 1927. Several buildings for the accommodation of the keepers, located at the foot of the platform at the base of the Tower, were built in 1861 and 1956.