The Château from yesterday to today
The earliest known written texts referring to ‘Balcium Castrum’ (or Château Balcio) and Lord Pons le Jeune (Pons the Younger) appeared in the tenth century. The latter’s descendants adopted the name ‘des Baux’. According to legend, the House of Baux descends from the Magi Balthazar. It is for this reason that the coat of arms of the Lords of Baux includes a comet with sixteen silver spokes—the star followed by the Three Wise Men—and their motto ‘A l’asard Bautezar’, meaning ‘By the grace of Balthazar’. Since that time we know that the site of the Château has been inhabited almost continuously from prehistoric times to the present day.
In the Middle Ages, the House of Baux was one of the most powerful families in regional France. Originally, the land belonging to the Baux family was concentrated around the cities of Arles and Marignane. In the twelfth century, the sole heiress of the county of Provence married the Count of Barcelona. Provence therefore passed under the authority of the Catalan dynasty. Initially, this authority was strongly contested by the Lords of Baux, including Raymond of Baux, husband of Etiennette of Provence, who demanded a part of his inheritance. This disagreement resulted in three short conflicts commonly referred to as ‘The Baussenque Wars’, occurring between 1144 and 1162. Over the generations, the lands under the ownership of the Baux family extended through Provence, the Comtat Venaissin, Dauphiné and Italy.
The Lords Hugues and Barral of Baux initiated an extensive campaign of restoration work. The Château was rebuilt into a more effective and impressive fortress. The fortifications were replaced by a tower or keep, which benefitted from the natural contours of the rock and served as a supporting structure for the other buildings of the Château. At this time, the House of Baux held 79 fortified towns or strongholds known as ‘Baussenque lands’, a clear symbol of the family’s power. The Baux dynasty has left its mark on the history of Provence both through the influence and personality of its rebels and warlords.
The fourteenth century was dominated by Raymond of Turenne, the Lord of Baux. During the early years of his reign, he was known to have supported the monarchy: he fought in Flanders for the King of France and in Italy for the Pope. However, he then rebelled, defying the court of France and the pontifical power. A cynical and bloody lord, he was condemned to death and excommunicated. However, he defied these sentences, and between 1386 and 1398, he surrounded himself with a group of pillagers who would attack and burn villages and towns. Raymond of Turenne would become known as ‘the scourge of Provence’, an infamous title that is still known today.
Alix of Baux was the last heiress of Baux lands. Upon her death in 1426, she bequeathed her land by will to a distant relative, the Duke of Andria. An inventory of the Château was conducted on 14 October of that year. This rare document provides us with a good insight into the furnishings of the Château and a glimpse of what life there was like at that time.
Following a succession of sieges and wars, the Lordship of Baux was ultimately passed on through inheritance to René of Anjou, known as ‘good King René’. When the latter died, the Baux family were united with the Kingdom of France and the domain reverted to the crown. However, the King of France, wary of a powerful fortress so far removed from his court, ordered its demolition lest it fall into the hands of his enemies and those against his authority in Provence.
The Lordship of Baux was transformed into a Barony and attributed, by way of recognition, to the faithful servants of the kings of France. The most famous of these was the Constable Montmorency, a childhood friend of François I. During this prosperous period, the Château’s residential buildings were partly rebuilt. Montmorency restored the ruined castle and introduced Italian Renaissance architecture to Provence. But the religious wars soon threatened this short-lived peace and Les Baux became a centre of Protestantism under the Manville family. Les Baux would be regarded with suspicion by the King's representatives.
In 1631, the fortress once again fell into rebel hands. The royal decision to abolish the Parliament of Provence brought about a revolt in Aix-en-Provence, led by Gaston of Orléans against his brother Louis XIII. When the Prince of Condé put an end to the uprising, some of the rebels fled to Les Baux where they sought refuge. Richelieu therefore decided to destroy Les Baux, a site that had been consistently associated with rebellion over the years, and he gave orders to lay siege to the city. Despite a heroic defence lasting 27 days, the gates of Les Baux were finally breached. Weary of wars and plundering, the inhabitants of Les Baux themselves called for the destruction of the ramparts, and for this, paid 100,000 pounds, the price of their tranquillity. The high walls were destroyed by gunpowder and pickaxes, and the citadel of Les Baux passed definitively into royal hands.
The fief of Les Baux was designated a marquisate and offered to Ercole Grimaldi by Louis XIII to thank him for having expelled the Spanish from Monaco. Grimaldi would pass the title of Marquis of Baux onto his descendants, who include Prince Albert of Monaco, the current holder.
Weakened by the loss of its political and military role, the village of Les Baux saw its population decline from 3,000 inhabitants in the thirteenth century to 400 by the late nineteenth century. The deserted citadel was now little more than a dead city. Only illustrious Provencal poets, such as Frédéric Mistral or Alphonse Daudet, would refer to the glory of the site and its colourful past in their work.
It wasn’t until 1821 that the citadel of Les Baux returned to centre stage. A scientific discovery drew attention to this small village when a chemist called Berthier discovered a red rock enabling the production of aluminium, in the surrounding area. He named it ‘bauxite’.
The opening of the famous restaurant ‘L'Oustau de Baumanière’ by Raymond Thuillier, who would become the mayor of Les Baux from 1971 to 1993, attracted heads of state, artists and celebrities. Their arrival marked the rediscovery of Les Baux by a wider public, appreciative of the unique character of this wonderful site.
The Municipal Council of the City of Les Baux de Provence entrusted Culturespaces with the development, business management, cultural activities and promotion of the Château des Baux. Culturespaces and the Cité des Baux collaborate closely on the cultural programme of events at the village and Château.
Modern reconstructions of three siege engines based on medieval designs were installed at the site in 2007: the trebuchet, bricole and couillard. Visitors can attend daily catapult demonstrations. The trebuchet at the Château des Baux, measuring 16 metres in height, is a unique model with a wheel arming system, unlike more basic trebuchets that make use of a winch system.