There is no mention of Cannes before the 11th century. Historians surmise that a tiny fishing village had existed on the site of today’s city, although it was fairly insignificant thanks to the neighbouring islands of Lerina (now St Honorat) and Lero (now St Marguerite), which emerged as key trading ports in the fourth century AD.
The islands bustled with wealthy merchants and in AD410 two monks (Honorat and Caprais) arrived on Lerina, presumably to convert the visiting traders to Christianity. By the sixth century AD there were 500 monks living in Lerina’s monastery, which was one of the earliest monasteries in the west.
Fearing a Saracen invasion, in the 11th century the monks expanded beyond the island. They procured the hill of Le Suquet on the mainland and built a watchtower on top, which still stands in Cannes' Old Town.
The concerned monks also strengthened their fortifications on the island, using their vast wealth to extend and bolster the monastery. But it was on the mainland that most of the changes were taking place; following the construction of the watchtower, Le Suquet witnessed a period of expansion and the name Cannes was born (thought to derive from the word kan, meaning summit).
As predicted Saracen pirates arrived in the 12th century and, despite the monks’ efforts, ransacked the monastery. While this failed to stymie the expansion of Cannes, which was now spilling down the hillside, it did lead to a period of great insecurity. Not only was piracy a constant threat, but the King of Aragon, at war with the Count of Provence, established a permanent naval blockade along the coast.
Against the odds Cannes continued to prosper, but there were more unsettled times ahead. This time the threat came from the land; in 1520 war broke out between French King Francis I and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Cannes became a corridor for marching armies, but the worst was yet to come with the great plague of 1579, which wiped out most of the town’s inhabitants.
Spanish troops arrived in 1635 and occupied the town for nearly two years, and they returned in 1707 during the War of Spanish Succession. Between these foreign occupations, the Man in the Iron Mask was incarcerated on the island of St Marguerite. There has been much speculation as to who this mystery prisoner was (some believe it was the twin of King Louis XIV), but to this day nobody knows.
Cannes enjoyed a period of calm in the 18th century, and in the 19th century it flourished. Lord Brougham, former British Chancellor, visited the city in 1834 and became so enamoured with it he stayed. The lord introduced the British aristocracy to his new home and soon the city became one of the trendiest and wealthiest spots on the Côte d’Azur.
And not much has changed since; Cannes remains one of the Côte d’Azur’s premier destinations and the glamorous location for the iconic International Film Festival. Its allure as a playground for the rich and famous has cemented its upmarket appeal.