In the Languedoc back country, some 30 miles from Montpellier, the little hill village of Brissac shelters at the foot of the first rises of the Cévennes. No more than a modest village settlement, it is nevertheless notable for its 12th century church (listed as a monument historique), and for the castle perched on the rocky outcrop which dominates and protects the village.
The origin of the castle is earlier than that of Brissac and its church, indeed these were built under the protection of the fortress. To recount the history of the castle, dominating Brissac with its feudal silhouette, it is necessary to go back to the beginning of the Carolignian Empire.
The lack of central authority at the head of the kingdom, the division of clans led by Charlemagne's various heirs, the invasions by Norsemen coming from the sea and penetrating deep into the interior of the country, and of Hungarians into the territories on the west side of the Alps, are all reasons which led to anarchy and the proliferation of robber bands which brought a period of insecurity to rural populations.
The common people looked to the great families for protection, and in this way the Feudal System grew up from the 10th century on; this social form was to characterise the development of the West throughout the Middle Ages and lasted, in France, until the point when the descendants of those who were originally seigneurs of the Ile-de-France fief brought together, consolidated, and definitively established the Kingdom of France.
At that distant and troubled period the powerful Roquefeuil family owned important territories between the Serane and Ganges, where Brissac is located. The name of Roquefeuil is linked so closely to the history of Brissac Castle that it would not be misleading to call the latter "Castle Roquefeuil at Brissac".
In 1023, the Seigneur Pons d'Agones had the North Tower built over a cistern dug into the living rock (generally considered as of Roman origin). This military protection was erected on the site of an earlier chapel of the Benedictine monks of Aniane; through a land exchange in which the chapel was reconstructed at the foot of the outcrop on which the tower was built. The new chapel site may have coincided with that of the present-day church, which was rebuilt in the 12th century.
During the 11th century, the Pons d'Agones-Roquefeuil family allied itself with the Anduze family. In his book on "Stately homes in the Montpellier region", Albert Leenhart notes that in that century Adélaïde de Roquefeuil married Bernard d'Anduze.
In 1077 this Roquefeuil-Anduze family undertook the building of a second donjon (the present South Tower). Its construction, though larger, is quite similar to the North Tower.
This second donjon, the South Tower, contains two halls one above the other, each with a vaulted ceiling of very precise construction, and linked to one another by a small straight staircase within the thickness of the wall. The wall on the south side, covering defense against the outside, is eight feet thick and has two small openings angled to allow surveillance of the surroundings.
At this period the two towers were probably linked by a curtain wall bounding a low courtyard, and the lower parts of the east wing may be part of this. But up to this point we do not seem to be dealing with a seigneurial residence but only a strongpoint for defence and military protection.
In 1230 Brissac passed into the hands of Hugh, Count of Rodez, ancestor of the Count of Rodez-Bénavent; it came to him through his wife Elizabeth, daughter of Raymond of Roquefeuil.
Towards the end of the 13th century the lordship of Brissac appears to have been divided between separate heirs.
In 1289 parts of its domain, including the castle, was sold to the bishopric of Maguelone.
Under the initiative of the new owners, the castle evolved during the 14th century, and this is the time when the external arrangements were added, notably the fortified wall closing off the entry courtyard, and the outside wall protecting the village which had gradually huddled itself about the foot of the castle.
Probably at this time also the South Tower was given its survelation with circular look-outs in the corners.
At some time in the 15th or 16th centuries - we do not know exactly when - the Roquefeuil family regained possession of the seigneury of Brissac, and gave the castle its final shape.
The 15th century saw the chapel built by extending the lower part of the South Tower westward. It is difficult to be sure whether this was done under the bishops' ownership or after the Roquefeuils had returned.
In the second half of the 16th century, the castle was completed by the construction of two stories on the east wing and the great staircase with straight steps serving them. This staircase arrangement marks the abandonment of the gothic system of spiral staircases, which was still normal in Renaissance architecture, and allows the construction to be dated towards the end of the 16th century.
Around 1600 the castle acquired its definitive shape with the building of the important west wing which completes the castle on the valley side, leaving in the space between the North Tower, east wing, and main staircase only a small courtyard forming an atrium, within which is placed the delightful set of steps needed for the use of this new area.
Although the architecture still uses the old style of window, their shape is simple and rectangular, and the balustrades of the terraces and the small internal courtyard are formed of stone piers which rather clearly reflect the beginning of the 17th century, rather than the Renaissance.
No further appreciable changes were made to the castle over the following generations. The Roquefeuil family continued to own it until 1819 at which point followed a period of many transfers until
in May 1904 it was acquired, probably already a roofless ruin, by Count Henri de Rodez-Benavent, who thus came to own a property which had belonged to his ancestors in the 13th and the 17th century.
The new owner removed from the castle its interesting fixtures and fittings which were built into a residence that he owned nearby; and the roofless buildings were abandoned to ruin.
The wooden floors soon collapsed, but the masonry withstood time and weather, and the castle retained its proud silhouette. Nevertheless, walking through the wasteland of abandoned rooms, the visitor could appreciate what a ruin it was in reality.
But rebirth was to occur before ruin was complete. In 1963, the castle changed owner for the last time, and a decision was made to restore it completely. The work was entrusted to M Henri Lefebre, who was already in charge, under the auspices of the department of Historic Monuments, of the renovation of the ancient Romanesque church in the village of Brissac.
The restoration work began in 1965, when the owners worked closely with the architect to create a family home that remained faithful to the original architecture while accomodating modern requirements for comfort.
The above History is translated from an anonymous little leaflet apparently written by the architect in his old-fashioned French. Guests of the Rue Caterine holiday cottages may be offered a tour of the castle by the current owner when she is in residence, when a revised history is offered based on a further 50 years of historical research.
A large team of masons worked for three years to repoint and rebuild the stone walls of the castle, and to replace the roofs. Later fewer masons continued to work on the restoration of the associated outbuildings. The local carpenter made all the doors and windows of new oak, and used chestnut beams from an old barn, donated by a friend of the builder, to create the magnificent ceilings that now replace collapsed masonry vaults in some of the rooms. A swimming pool was built in an ancient quarry behind the castle, and several nearby ruins were restored to provide an income to help support the castle.
After 20 years of delighted restoration work the owners became too old to live in their creation and moved to a nearby village. The castle was left to the owls and the bats, and began a period of sleep from which it is now emerging. It remains a private residence within the same family.