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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.