The town of Uzès became important when the Romans who had a military camp or “castrum” there, took the water from the Eure spring in order to provide drinkable water to Nîmes, the regional capital, 55 kilometres away. They managed to do this by building an aqueduct with a sloping gradient over this distance from the spring to the town’s public buildings and homes. The Romans named the town “Utecia” and the world heritage site Pont du Gard was part of this amazing aqueduct system which is still standing after more than 2000 years and is 15 minutes from the town centre by car.
Fast forward to 419 AD, when it had its first Roman Catholic bishop and in 800 AD the town became an earldom. In 929 AD it was placed under the House of Toulouse. In the Middle Ages there were 4 groups vying for political power – the King of France, the Bishop, the Lord and the Consuls giving rise to a turbulent period.
From the 11 th century, arts and crafts and in particular the textile industry became part of a surge in economic survival and Uzès made very high quality serge (later known as “denim” from “de Nîmes”). Grapes and cereal crops as well as sheep became part of the region and the first town walls were built in 1148 as well as the Bermonde tower of the Ducal castle in 1170. All this was destroyed in 1177 by the Albigensian crusade.
In 1327, Phillip de Valois raised the domain to a viscounty and it later became a duchy in 1572 when Antoine de Crussol became 1st Count of Uzès, 1st Duke of Uzès, Peer of France. He had the duchy modified and made to look like a Renaissance building.
The Protestant Reformation in the 16th to 18th centuries played an important part with the Nantes Freedom of Worship edict in 1580 and the majority of the population were converted and the walls of the town were reinforced from 1587 in preparation for future religious struggles.
All was generally quiet until 1627 after the Duke of Rohan led a Protestant army against Louis X111’s forces, who successfully caused the surrender of Nîmes and Uzès in 1629. By royal decree the town’s consulate was to be half Catholic and half Protestant and the Catholics built a new cathedral of which only the Fenestrelle tower remains today.
After the execution of the Duke of Montmorency in 1632 for rebellion, the 3rd Duke of Uzes inherited the title and prerogatives of the First Duke and Peer of France. In 1637 the King had the cathedral and Bishop’s palace rebuilt, but in 1685 the Protestants went into hiding after the revocation of the edict of Nantes.
Many of the buildings were altered in the 17th century and remain today.
In the 18th century the town wall and ramparts were replaced by a promenade and other buildings such as the town hall were built. During the French Revolution, the castle or duchy was sold to a real estate agent who proceeded to sell it and it became a school. The 11th Duke of Uzès eventually managed to buy back the duchy once the school moved in 1835 having been forced into exile.
The duchy was in a terrible state and although repairs were begun, tough economic times saw it being let for various purposes in the 20th century and occupied by the German army during World War 2. It was finally sold to the present Duke’s grandfather – the then Marquis de Crussol in 1954. It was, however, his grandmother, the Grand Duchess who was responsible for gaining a listing for Uzès as a “protected site” and it was the first town to benefit from this new French law. The present Duke- Jacques de Crussol d’Uzès, divides his time in the ducal castle between Paris and Uzès with the royal standard flying proudly to signify when he and his young family are in residence.
The Duchy of Uzès, often called the First Duchy of France, is France’s oldest ducal peerage. The Viscounty of Uzes was elevated to Duchy in 1565, and to the Peerage in 1572 by Charles 1X.
Ever since then, the Duke of Uzes, 1st Peer of France, Count of Crussol, Prince of Soyons, takes precedence over all other noble houses of France, both in Parliament and at Coronations.
At Court, after the extinction of the Duchy of Montmorency under Louis XIII in 1632, only the Duchy of Trémoille, created in 1563 had precedence, until it became extinct at the beginning of the 20th century. Today, Jacques de Crussol d’Uzes is the 17th Duke. The duchy can be visited every day except Christmas day – open from 10am and closed between 12 and 2pm of course!
The Eure spring source is still going strong and can be visited in the tranquil park lands surrounding the town and there are also remains of the original aqueduct although it is not formally signposted.