Until the French Revolution (1789)
Firmly and proudly dominating the town, the duchy is one of the very few examples of how manor houses evolved architecturally from the early Middle Ages to the eighteenth century. Unlike so many other buildings, those of Uzès have remained largely untouched. Alterations were made, floors added, window openings pierced, new façades stuck onto already existing ones, but the main buildings attached to the Bermonde tower have been left as they were.
Furthermore, the castle, originally intended as a defence unit, was never attacked or destroyed during the Wars of Religion or the Revolution, nor was it seriously damaged in any other way. At the beginning of the century it was divided up into school dormitories, workshops and classrooms, but the building itself was not interfered with. On entering the inner yard, the visitor is met by a remarkable group of buildings reflecting the various epochs of the duchy's history as well as its glorious past.
The site, first occupied by a Roman "castrum", was one of the "pagi", or military districts, of the city of Nîmes. It is mentioned in the fourth century in the Noticia Galliorum under the name of "Castrum Ucedense". We know from the remains found that this "castrum" did exist, but the fact that it lies in the very midst of the town makes digging impossible and so very little is known about its early history.
The three towers and the early Middle-Age castle, whose superb medieval rooms can be visited, were therefore built in the twelfth century. They are thought to have been originally surrounded by the same wall, but in the thirteenth century one of them is acquired by the bishop and a second is sold to King Charles VIII in 1493. The three towers (tour du Roi, tour de l’Evêque and tour des Seigneurs) soon come to symbolize the city's three ruling powers.
The early transformations, the watch-tower (tour de la Vigie) and the adjoining building, now in ruins, are thought to be the work of Raymond Rascas, 4th lord of Uzès.
In 1328 Robert, eighth lord of Uzès, is made viscount by Philippe de Valois as a reward for his faithfulness and the courage shown during the wars of Flanders. He improves his castle, has apartments fitted, and adds ramparts. The Gothic chapel was built in the fifteenth century (and repeatedly modified later).
A hundred years later, the Renaissance comes to the South of France, along with the Reformation. Queen Catherine of Médicis tries to temporize and turns to the Crussol d'Uzès family for support, faced as she is with a coalition of lords from the South of France converted to the Reformation and opposed to the growing power of the kings of France.
Influenced by what they see at the King's court, the viscounts of Uzès alter their castle, whose medieval appearance no longer suits modem tastes. In 1515 (or thereabouts) Charles de Crussol has the grand staircase built; it is the first "banister over banister" staircase to go up in Uzès. Its vault is ornamented with diamond-point coffers. Charles's son Antoine has the old castle renovated in the Renaissance manner. The castle is the most attractive feature in the main courtyard. Antoine is appointed duke and first peer of France.
The Family of Uzès have always divided their time up between the Court and Uzès. Some of the dukes spend very little time in Uzès, but in the 1750s a “lettre de cachet” forces one of them to exile himself in his lands.
This exile is to last for eleven years, during which time the duke carries out a number of modifications to the duchy buildings. He has the wing with the plaster of Paris ornamentation added, as well as a ground-floor conservatory to embellish his garden. He has a small apartment built for the duchess. He designs the apartments' rounded Windows, has the entrance door rebuilt in 1743, and looks into the possibilities of building a platform.
During his years of exile, the duke corresponds regularly with Voltaire and also lavishly entertains and plays host to a number of distinguished guests. Nobody in Uzès is likely to forget the sumptuous feasts given by the duke, in honor of the Ambassador of the Sublime Porte in 1743.
Texts by Anne Vié (The Duchy of Uzès, Ajax Monaco Editions). Some pics by MVF.