By Donna Wichelman
In June, we learned that France boasts its share of castles. Most sources claim some forty-five thousand exist, eleven thousand classified as historical monuments. That means if I wrote a blog a day on each one, it would take me a staggering 123 years to include them all!
But don’t worry; I won’t subject you to the next ten years of blogs on castles. Besides, many of them have been covered in this blog and are well-known. But I want to take you on a journey in the next several months, visiting some lesser-known castles.
Before we start, I’d like to clarify three things. First, the term château in French means castle, but it can also refer to a large stately home, such as you might see in the New York Hamptons or London’s Kensington neighborhood. It’s a residence where a family lives. All châteaux are houses, but not all houses are châteaux.
We must also acknowledge that many of the forty-five thousand castles listed in France were fortresses built by the royal family or wealthier aristocracy to defend their land from invading forces—notably the British during the Hundred Years War in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It’s not uncommon to see such fortifications on the hillsides as you’re biking or driving along the roads through the countryside. (Click here for more information on the Hundred Years War.)
Finally, many castles have survived, while others have fallen into ruin. Many of those left in shambles have remained that way. Others have been either restored by the State of France as historical monuments, such as the Palace of Versailles, or by wealthy entities who have turned them into tourist sites, hotels, cultural centers, or other venues.
Today we talk about Le Château De Lourmarin, considered the “Premiere Château Renaissance en Provence” or the first Renaissance-style château built in Provence. It’s one of seven privately-owned châteaux on the official route of châteaux and jardins (castles and gardens) in Provence and the Luberon (a region of hill towns north of Aix-en-Provence). It also became a historical monument in 1973.
The population in the Luberon had been decimated by the Black Death and Hundred Years War, and the Baron of Sault, Foulques d’ Agoult, a Lord of Provence and Chamberlain of King René, inherited land in Piedmont (present-day Italy and homeland of the Waldensians) and Lourmarin.
Being familiar with the agricultural skills of the Waldensians who farmed his Alpine estates, Foulques brought them to Lourmarin between 1474 – 1789. He gave each one a plot of land and an abandoned house; in return, they tilled the land.
During the last quarter of the century, the Waldensians were free to worship and practice their religion as long as outwardly they embraced the traditions of the Catholic Church. They also grew in number and occupied the nearby villages.
Prospering from the land Waldensians had cultivated, Foulques used Waldensian labor in 1480 to help him build the Château De Lourmarin. The castle’s architecture was unique with its medieval style, consisting of a lovely Italian loggia—a covered outdoor corridor similar to a covered porch. By the end of the century, Lourmarin was considered one of the wealthiest of twenty-two villages in Luberon, thanks to Waldensian farmers.
With the death of Foulques in 1492, his nephew, Louis d’Agoult, inherited Château De Lourmarin. In 1526, he continued construction, consulting with an Italian architect who completed the work with a Renaissance façade.
In the mid-sixteenth century, the tide again turned against the Waldensians. The Reformed movement gained momentum, and their leaders instructed the Waldensians in France to give up any semblance of Catholicism. Persecution increased as the Pope’s political influence in the area gained strength. Waldensians were forcibly converted or burned at the stake at the directive of King Francis.
While many Waldensians had enjoyed the relative safety in Lourmarin and the Luberon, they could no longer count on taking refuge there. The political situation culminated in an uprising in Mérindol. They fled to the forests but were soundly defeated as the few left alive watched their farms burn, their women raped and sold into slavery, and the rest of their relatives massacred. The French Parliament also made it a crime to help those suffering and dying of hunger.
The Waldensians received another reprieve a few years later and returned to the Château De Lourmarin, building the grand chimneys. Another siege against the castle by Catholic forces in 1575 led to the reinforcements of the castle’s defenses, but the Agoults left the premises in the hands of stewards. Toward the end of the seventeenth century, the château exchanged hands but was soon abandoned again and fell into disrepair.
Finally, in 1920, Robert Laurent Viber, an industrialist from Lyon and an art historian, bought the castle and refurbished it into a residence for students of the arts. As a world traveler, he also brought back collections of furniture, kitchen implements, musical instruments, and artwork, and built a library from his escapades.
Today, as a cultural center, visitors can delight in the many rooms with their collections and enjoy concerts given by students and musicians from around the world. The castle’s double stairway is considered one of the most beautiful in Southern France.
Château de Lourmarin not only provides us with a fascinating, though sometimes troubling, journey into earlier centuries but also demonstrates how the past can be redeemed for future generations.
Donna worked as a communications professional before turning to full-time writing. Her short stories, essays, and articles have appeared in various inspirational publications, and she has two indie-published Christian contemporary suspense novels in her Waldensian Series, Light Out of Darkness and Undaunted Valor.
Weaving history and faith into stories of intrigue and redemption grew out of her love of history and English literature as a young adult while attending the United World College of the Atlantic--an international college in Wales, U.K. She loves to explore peoples and cultures of the world and enjoys developing plots that show how God's love abounds even in the profoundly difficult circumstances of our lives. Her stories reflect the hunger in all of us for love, forgiveness, and redemption in a world that often withholds second chances.
You can find out more about Donna at www.donnawichelman.com.