A History of Vence – Part 2 – The Middle Ages (1000 to 1450)

February 12, 2024

This article is the second in a series about the history of Vence. You can find links to the other articles at the bottom of the page.

Sometimes when I wander through the streets of Vence’s old town I wonder what it was like 1000 years ago. Have any of the buildings or structures from the very early days of the Middle Ages survived? Are the winding streets still laid out basically the same? Are the small sunny squares full of restaurant tables and chairs still in the same location as they were so long ago? Did the same ramparts we see today protect and defend the inhabitants of Vence when invaders approached?

The Middle Ages (sometimes referred to as the “High Middle Ages”) are generally considered to have begun sometime around 1000AD. In truth there is very little about our city that remains from these early years, though some remnants can still be seen. Portions of the current Cathedral are certainly from as early as the 11th century. In Place Godeau, just to the east of the Cathedral, there is a house with an authentic 13th century “twinned arched” window that still survives. A very small courtyard along the Rue de l’Évêché was directly linked to Cathedral in the 13th and 14th centuries. As we will see shortly, two of the existing gates into the old town date from these early years.

Vence was still undergoing a considerable amount of turmoil and unrest during this time. It would be many centuries before life here reached any semblance of stability and security. Many wars, plagues, transitions and shifts in power were on the horizon. Vence was still growing, changing, adapting and adjusting to the world around it.

Portail du Levis, the oldest exiting entrance into Vence’s old town, dating from the 13th century.

The Saracens are Defeated

When we last left Vence (see A History of Vence – Part 1 – Prehistory Through The Dark Ages) near the end of the 900s the city had been ravaged by the Saracens. In terms of actual historical accounts, very little has survived from this period in time. Some historians believe the inhabitants of Vence deserted the city and fled to fortifications in Saint-Laurent while others are convinced that the city was never completely abandoned.

After the defeat of the Saracens in 972 the lands of eastern Provence were divided between Guillaume and Roubaud. Somewhere around this time it is likely that Vence gained a new life and the city once again became fully inhabited. The people who now called this village home were a mix for Frank, Burgundian, Lombard, Visigoth and Ostrogoth. Virtually nothing was left of the Gallo-Roman culture that was so dominant for hundreds of years except for some stone ruins. Records from the dark ages are far and few between. We see mention of several bishops from this time (Lieutaud (835), Waldène (877), Witrede (878), Elie (879) and others) but there are also huge gaps in the lineage. There are no records whatsoever of bishops from 879 to 1000.

What we now think of today as Provençal culture was born around this time and Vence was a part of it. From Spain to Italy new customs, new clothing, new architecture and new literature took root in the Mediterranean sun and Provence was born. While it is true that much of south eastern France bears the heavy influence of Italy, in truth Vence itself never saw much influence from its Italian neighbors. Italian was never spoken in Vence and a close examination of the various local dialects show virtually no influence of the Italian language.

A Life of Feudalism

Count William of Provence was soon the new lord of this land from which the Saracens had finally been driven. He shared the spoils of victory with his nobles. He did not actually give them land with no strings attached, instead he allowed them to enjoy the benefits of it so long as they pledged their loyalty and military support to him. This was a fundamental aspect of medieval feudal society and its hierarchical structure. The “noble” (also sometimes referred to as a vassal or seigneur) swore an oath of loyalty to the “lord” in exchange for a “fief” (a piece of land).

It was not just military service that nobles were obligated to offer to their lord, but often other services such as advice and counsel. This system of feudalism was prevalent not just in France, but throughout Europe for over 600 years, roughly from the 9th to the 15th centuries. In essence, local lords held power over their territories and nobles, but they themselves often owed their allegiance to even higher-ranking lords or a king. As such, a complex web of feudal relationships dominated the area.

The ordinary townsfolk had very little, if any, rights. While the lord (or noble) was tasked with protecting the city and the inhabitants, it was only in the roll of a commander. It was the local inhabitants who most often did the actual fighting and dying. It was they who usually bore the expenses and provided the money necessary for any battles or wars.

Men were born into professions from which they could not escape without the expressed permission of the lord. No one could leave the area without permission from the lord. This feudal system was not quite slavery but it was close in many ways. The lords and nobles would claim taxes from the townsfolk. Not just money, but all kinds of goods such as wine, meat, oil, fruit, wood and much more. He also demanded the service of workmen for all kinds of labor and activities, as well as women and children who were placed into service as domestics.

On top of all this the townsfolk were not allowed to hunt, fish, pick fruit or cut wood in most of the best lands that surrounded them. It was truly a life of poverty and sometimes even starvation. Life was notably worse for women who lived at the mercy of the men.

One advantage that Vence had over other small villages was that it was a cathedral city and as such a bishop was stationed there. The church was in many ways just as powerful as the lords and nobles. These bishops also owned land which included orchards, trout streams, oil and grain mills and more, most of which were left to the church by repentant sinners when they died. Hoping to settle their debts with God at the end of their life, it was many a rich and prosperous transgressor who bequeathed all (or most or some) of their worldly goods to the church upon their death.

In Vence the power was shared between the bishops and the secular lords in a fragile alliance that often found them at odds with one another. In much the same way as a mother and a father might attempt to win the favor of a child by playing against one another, the bishops and the lords would grant privileges and rights to the townsfolk that other villages in the feudal system did not enjoy. The inhabitants would naturally swing back and forth, at one time favoring the lord, at another favoring the bishop based on who had done the most for them lately. But in general it was the bishops who had the true interests of the people at heart and it was generally with them that the people stood.

Vence is once again mentioned in the history books around this time (1000) in relation to the marriage of Odille, the daughter of Count William, to one Laugier Ruffi. The city is part of the dowry which Odille brings to her new husband. It is also around this time that the name of a new bishop, Bishop Arnoul, appears in relation to Vence.

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The Smallest Cathedral in France

Vence has a long and historic religious heritage and the Cathédrale Notre Dame de la Nativité (Cathedral of Our Lady of the Nativity) at the center of the old town was probably constructed sometime in the 11th century. But a Merovingian church existed on the same site sometime during the 5th and 6th centuries, to be followed by a Carolingian church during the 9th and 10th centuries. Said to be built on the site of an ancient Roman temple dedicated to Mars and Cybele, this cathedral served for over thirteen centuries as the headquarters of the Bishopric of Vence. The Concordat of 1801, an agreement between Napoleon and Pope Pius VII passed the Diocese of Vence to the Diocese of Nice and no bishop has served in Vence since.

In fact, this is the smallest cathedral in all of France, probably because the diocese here was the smallest and poorest in the country. It sits in the center of the village with Place Godeau (once the parish cemetery) on one side and the larger Place Clemenceau on the other. Declared a National Monument in 1944 it is one of the most visited landmarks in Vence. Its diverse architecture blends Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque characteristics together in a manner that would seem a bit chaotic, but in fact works surprisingly well. This variety of styles is our first clue that while parts of the Cathedral most likely date back to the beginning of the Middle Ages, the church that existed at that time was quite different from what we see today.

The bell tower of the Cathedral, with its crenellations at the top, dates to the 12th century, although much of it was rebuilt in 1887 after an earthquake struck the area. Not just a bell tower, it also served as a vantage point for surveying the surrounding countryside and most likely a guardhouse existed on top that was manned day and night for many centuries. The apse, chevet and nave of the Cathedral are most likely the oldest parts, while the chapels that run along both sides of the nave were most likely added later.

An old postcard depicting the Vence Cathedral. The chevet and bell tower are two of the oldest parts of the cathedral dating back to at least the 13th century.

Saint Lambert – One of the Two Patron Saints of Vence

In 1084 a boy was born in the village of Bauduen, a small village located near what we today call the Gorges du Verdon. His mother died giving birth to him and when he was twelve years old he was sent to the Abbey in Lerins and from there he was called into service as the Bishop of Vence at the age of 30 in 1114. Born Pelloquin Lambert, he is known today as Saint Lambert, one of the four saints who would come from Vence and now one of the two patron saints of the city (along with Saint Véran).

Lambert is remembered and celebrated most for his compassion, benevolence and humanity. He often stood for the serfs in their conflicts with their feudal lords. He is said to have acted many times as a peacemaker when clashes arose between the bishops and lords of the region. He founded the first hospital in Vence to care for the poor.

Legend says that on one particular Good Friday Lambert was with his canons for the evening meal. They were eating but he was fasting, drinking only water. As was his custom Lambert made the sign of the cross over his water before drinking and suddenly the water turned to wine. Thinking a mistake had been made and he had been served wine instead of water he asked a servant to take it away and bring him a fresh glass of water. Again the water turned to wine. Again it was taken away and a third glass of water was brought to the bishop. And once again it turned to wine.

There is no shortage of reports of the miracles of Lambert. A blind woman from Nice is said to have regained her sight simply by touching his robes. When he died at the age of 70 in 1154 the crowd of mourners was so large that soldiers were called in to manage the situation. He was placed in a tomb from which water suddenly began to flow. Those who bathed in this stream of water found their diseases to be healed.

Paintings of both Saint Véran and Saint Lambert hang in the Cathedral. Silver plated copper busts carved in 1825 and 1826 sit behind the altar. In a small box beneath each bust rest the relics and remains of each saint. Inside a lighted enclosure are two more busts, made of wood and paint. Each year these two busts are removed from the Cathedral and carried to the nearby Place Michel as part of a special celebration of the two Saints.

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More Invasions and the Templar Knights

Even though the Saracens were driven from Provence in the late 10th century, invasions from Africa continued for many, many centuries. Cannes, Antibes and La Napoule were attacked, plundered and burned over and over again during these years. To provide a sense of security the Count of Provence established the Knights of the Temple, otherwise known as the Templars, all along the Mediterranean coast.

The Templars were an ever-present force in and around Vence. They accumulated massive wealth and power in the region with which they were able to acquire farms, mills, vineyards and other lands. At one point the Templars had over 54 castles and/or command centers in eastern Provence. Many of the knights built large houses around the city akin to fortified castles. Their main command in the area was situated on the road up to the Col de Vence, just under the shadow of the Baou des Blancs. Today you would be hard pressed to find these ruins unless you knew what you were looking for because the site is now occupied by a five star hotel and spa called the Château Saint-Martin & Spa. If you look closely when you pass by you can see the remains of the ancient Templar castle. A bit farther out of town is another old Templar castle that sat between Saint-Jeannet and La Gaude, built in 1125.

Provençal life in Vence remained mostly unchanged for over three hundred years, from the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries. Wars would occasionally break out between various lords fighting over pieces of land. Occasionally a boat from the Barbary coast might slip into the bay at Villefranche-sur-Mer or Nice or Antibes under cover of darkness to make a daring raid on a small coastal village, carrying off women and children to be sold into slavery.

Romée de Villeneuve

In 1230 the Seigneur of Vence, Guillame d’Esparon, and the Seigneur of Malvans, Aymonet, joined together to rebel against the Count of Provence, Raymond Bérenger. However, the rebellion was laid to rest with the assistance of Romée de Villeneuve (also known as Roumiou de Villa Nova), the Grand Seneschal (an administrative officer, often in charge of financial affairs) and bailiff of Provence. The rebels had their fiefs stripped from them and as a reward for his loyalty and service, on February 7, 1231, Romée was granted the fiefdom of the city of Vence, as well as the rights that the Count of Provence, Raymond Bérenger, possessed in Nice and Grasse. These included Malvans, Cagnes, St. Jeannet, La Gaude, Loubet, Antibes, Grasse, Le Puget du Var, Saint Laurent du Var, Cousegoules, Cipières and Thorenc.

Romée de Villenueve thus became the first lord of Vence and began the reign of the Villeneuve family who were to rule over Vence from 1231 until the French Revolution. The newly acquired land was quickly partitioned between Romée’s various sons and daughters and soon Grasse, Antibes, Cagnes and Loubet had their own lords.

Romée de Villeneuve was the first lord from this family in a line that would eventually reach twenty-six. His exact birthplace is not known, but it is believed to have been at Trans or Arcs-en-Provence in the Var and probably in 1190. He was a cadet of the house of Villeneuve de Trans et d’Arcs, son of Giraud the seigneur of those two territories and the bailiff of Antibes. He is also the most well known of all the lords of Vence. Because of his association as Grand Seneschal to Raymond Bérenger he appears in the well-known Larousse encyclopedic dictionary. He was even memorialized for posterity by Dante, who put him in his famous allegory Paradise.

According to the legends which Dante drew from, Romée was a poor pilgrim who journeyed to the Holy Land. Upon his return he was wandering in the streets of Grasse when he met Count Raymond Bérenger who took to him instantly. Before long Romée was the Grand seneschal and bailiff of Provence. To keep the various nobles under Bérenger in line Romée granted various rights to merchants, villages, cities and ports that would help to balance the power which the nobles held. It’s from Romée that Vence probably received some of its first real civil liberties.

Legend says that the various lords became enraged with Romée’s behavior and convinced Bérenger that he was up to no good. Romée kept a large box that was never opened. “What,” said the lords, “was he hiding in there?” Slowly but surely they convinced Bérenger that Romée was stealing from him and eventually Bérenger demanded that Romée open the box and show him the contents. The box was opened and all that it contained was the pilgrim’s habit and staff that he wore when he first met his master. The Count cried in shame and begged Romée to forgive him. “I forgive you willingly,” said Romée, “but my heart is broken.” He put on the pilgrim’s habit, picked up the staff and left the court, spending his final days wandering the land and begging.

In truth, there is probably little of this legend that is true. Romée died in 1251 and was buried in the Church of the Dominicans at Nice. Some say he died in the old Villeneuve château in Vence, but there is no direct evidence of this. He was succeeded by his son Paul I.

The Early Line of the Villeneuve Family

In his will, dated 1250, Romée stated that upon his death his daughter Béatrix should enter a convent, that his youngest son Pierre should become a monk and that his estates should be sold to pay his debts. He also asked that one-fourth of his wealth be donated to the church. His children had little intention of following these wishes. Béatrix married one of the most powerful men in Provence, Hugh de Baux. Pierre did, for a short time, become a Dominican friar, but it didn’t last long. He would eventually go on to become the fourth seigneur of Vence.

After his father died and Paul took over as seigneur he simply refused to to donate one-fourth of what was now his estate to the church. A lawsuit followed and he was excommunicated by Bishop Guillaume de Sisteron. Regardless, he remained popular with the people he ruled over and was still regarded highly by the Count of Provence. His young wife, Aicarde de Castellane, bore him a son named Romée II. It was he who finally fulfilled the wishes of his grand-father and donated one-fourth of the family estate to the church in 1300, and we still have today the letter he wrote to confirm this.

When the Crusades came to an end in 1291 the Knights of the Templars where one of the most powerful organizations in all of Europe. They had castles and fortresses as far north as Denmark, as far west as Ireland, as far south as Cyprus and as far east as Armenia. France was heavily in debt and King Philip the Fair decided that the Templars were simply too rich and too powerful. Along with Charles the Miserly, one of the most powerful lords in Provence, and with the consent of the Pope (who feared the power of the only other organization that could compete with the church), Philip proclaimed that the Templars must be disbanded and all their properties, money and treasures seized for France. This led to the famous slaughter of a huge number of the knights on October 13, 1307.

Hugolin de Capitou was the commander of the Templar castle at Saint-Martin in the hills just above Vence. He fled the area in light of the decree but was captured and sent to prison. Other knights from Vence fled into Piedmont and were also captured. It’s said that some made their way successfully to Portugal. When the last of the Templars had been killed or driven from the country, their houses and forts were given to another order of knights, the Johannite Knights (later to become the Knights of Malta).

They took up residence in the large castle at La Gaude but it is thought that they never occupied the castle at Saint-Martin. Legend says that this castle was cursed. Supposedly the skeletons of two young girls, aged about thirteen or fourteen, were found inside the walls of the castle in the 1800s. An old medieval superstition held that if a virgin was sealed alive inside of the walls of a fortress it would be impregnable. Hence we have the saying, “a maiden fortress.”

Porte du Signadour, one of the oldest entrances into the Vence old town.

Early Entrances Into the Old Town of Vence

Vence was always a fortified city. As early as Roman times ramparts encircled the city to protect it from hostile invaders. These ramparts have certainly undergone extensive renovations and repairs over the centuries. If you have a wall you must have openings for the population to pass through. Two of the current five “portes” or “gates” into the old town date from the middle ages.

Porte du Signadour (also known over the years as Portail du Signadour and Porte de Saint-Paul), on the east side of the city next to Place Anthony Mars and Portail du Levis, on the west side of the city along Boulevard Paul André are believed to have both been built in the 13th century. There is no real information in any of the archives on either of these two gates, but due to their similarity it is believed that they were both built around the same time. They undoubtedly replaced earlier gates in the same locations.

King Robert The Good

In 1309 Robert the Good, from the house of Anjou, became Count of Provence. During his reign, which lasted over thirty years, Vence was in perpetual state of chaos and turmoil. There were constant struggles with the church over payments of tithes and ownership of various lands and properties. There were similar clashes between the the city and the seigneurs. In 1323 there were riots in the Place du Peyra when the townspeople rebelled against the Villeneuves. The city appealed to Robert the Good in their complaints and he sent a bishop, Arnaud de Barcillon, to help quell the dissent.

What exactly the residents of Vence were upset over has been lost in the distances of time but it is fairly easy to surmise that civic liberties were constantly being suppressed in these years. We do know that in 1333 the citizens of Vence asked for permission to open windows on the walls of the ramparts. The request was granted, so long as the windows were covered with protective grates, and for the first time sunlight pierced the dark rooms of many medieval houses.

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Queen Jeanne

Robert the Good died in 1343 without a male heir. He left his kingdom to his grand-daughter, a young woman who would later become the subject of countless stories, legends and myths, Joanna 1 of Naples. Known today as Queen Jeanne, she was born in Florence in 1327. Raised by a crude washerwoman, she was married at the age of sixteen to Andrew, the brother of King Louis of Hungary. She is said to have been pregnant with her first child when Andrew was kidnapped and hung from a castle window.

No one knows for certain who killed Andrew but it has always been suspected that Jeanne played a part in his death. That she disliked her husband was common knowledge at the time. Andrew had demanded to be made King alongside Jeanne and this did not sit well with many in the court. Jeanne was put on trial in Rome but when Andrew’s brother, King Louis, appeared on the horizon seeking revenge she fled to Provence (where she held much land and property), a new husband in tow.

Jeanne landed in Nice in January of 1348. She spoke to her subjects saying, “I ask you only for your hearts.” She travelled from Nice to Grasse and then to Aix-en-Provence by which time she had indeed won the hearts of the people of Provence. She sold the city of Avignon to the current Pope who then, not surprisingly, quickly absolved her of the murder of Andrew. Queen Jeanne is remembered fondly in the stories of old Provence, but in fact much of her time as ruler was marked with pain and trouble. Thieves and bandits (known as armagnacs, écorcheurs and tard-venus) pillaged the land with very little consequences. Jews were persecuted. Natural disasters came one right after the other including floods and plagues.

Jeanne returned to Naples in August of 1348. Her second husband died in 1362 and as her finances faltered she began to sell pieces of her kingdom in Provence through her seneschal. The fief of Vence was bought by the Villeneuves and the current bishop of the city, making them co-seigneurs. However, Jeanne was apparently unaware of this sale and she in turn sold the city to the Grimaldi family of Monaco. Turmoil ensued but in the end the people of Vence stood by the Villeneuves and Jeanne was forced to revoke the sale to the Grimaldis.

Jeanne returned to Provence in 1368 and it is possible that she visited Vence at this time, though there is no conclusive evidence that she did. There is a small ruined tower just outside of Vence near the old settlement of Malvans known today as the Castle of Queen Jeanne. It most certainly was built before her time and there is no real indication that she ever even visited the place. Still the “Legend of the Hawthorn Bush” tells the story of her time there and a fateful encounter with a young page.

A few years later the Catholic church went through what is now known as the Western Schism, a period when two Popes existed, one in Rome and one in Avignon. Queen Jeanne sided with the “Anti-Pope” Clément in Avignon and her subjects in Vence and the neighboring villages sided with her out of loyalty. However, the bishop of Vence, who happened to be Italian, sided with Pope Urban in Rome. He was forced to flee to Gattières and lost his see.

The city of Nice also sided with Pope Urban and in 1379 the Governor of Nice sent his army into the mountains behind Nice to attack the villages that sided with Pope Clément. Under the command of the notoriously cruel Captain Spinola, the army attacked Gattières, where they were repulsed, and then Tourrettes. The Villeneuves deployed troops throughout their fiefdom and Tourrettes was defended by Guichard, son of Paul, the current Seigneur of Vence. Spinola was again forced to retreat. For his bravery Jeanne rewarded Guichard and made him the Seigneur of Tourrettes and the Governor of the Var frontier.

Queen Jeanne was assassinated on July 27, 1382 at the age of 56. The official statement said that she died of natural causes, but numerous other sources claim she was murdered. She is known to this day as “Good Queen Jeanne” throughout Provence and remembered fondly and affectionately as kind ruler, even though she actually spent very little time there. After her death she was replaced by Durazzo and for several years the land languished in uncertainty. Durazzo sent Spinola to ravage and sack the Provençial cities and villages. Finally, in 1386 Vence, Saint-Paul and Le Broc received letters from the Regent of Provence confirming their municipal privileges.

After the death of Queen Jeanne the citizens of Vence were no longer bound by an allegiance to her. They changed sides in the Great Schism and embraced the Pope in Rome. In hindsight it was probably not the best political move for the city to make, seeing as how Vence was much closer to Avignon than Rome. The then current “Anti-Pope,” Benoît XIII sent mercenaries and assassins to attack the coastal villages and cities which did not side with him. In 1400 Vence joined together with Grasse to repel these invaders and in turn was excommunicated from the palace at Avignon.

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Good King René (Le Bon Roi René)

It wasn’t until 1434 that Provence was to be blessed by another compassionate and intelligent ruler. Good King René favored the small towns and cities over the seigneurs, almost always siding with the common people. In 1437 Vence was struggling to put into place something that was almost unheard of at the time in southern France: a municipal city council. The council would have the right to pass laws and to elect two executives, known as “consuls,” who would have equal authority to both the bishop and the seigneur, in essence making the city itself one of three seats of power. Bishop Luis de Blandèves supported this plan but François de Villeneuve, the current seigneur, did not. The seigneurs were especially reluctant to give up any of their power and hold over the population. Their only source of income was that which was paid to them by their subjects. Any change in the status quo was considered an attack on their authority.

What exactly were the citizens of Vence asking for with this new council? Things that today are taken for granted in any free society. The right to man their ramparts and defend their city with their own military. The power to set the time, place and fees for markets and fairs. The right to spend their own tax money however they saw fit. The right to maintain a police force.

When ensued seems somewhat contradictory. Eventually the courts became involved and King Réne, despite his earlier indications, decided that granting more freedom to the city against the wishes of the seigneur was not in his best interest. The city was told to apologize to the seigneur, that the consuls must go before him on bended knees and ask for a pardon. But a short time later Réne did indeed grant the city the requested privileges, at the same time appeasing the seigneur by reasserting some old hunting laws which favored him. Politics at work in the middle ages.

René was responsible for developing agriculture throughout his territories in Provence. He is said to have loved poetry, theater and art. He commissioned translations of classical French works into prose. Old stories tell of him disguising himself as a minstrel wearing a tattered black hat and joining with his subjects for country celebrations and dances. He wrote a book on chivalry and another on faith and devotion. Today a statue of him stands on the famous Mirabeau Avenue in Aix-en-Provence. According to legend the well known Calisson, a sweet confectionery from the region, was created for his wedding.

The castle of the Villeneuve lords, built in 1430. The tower predates the castle.

Châteaus, Streets and Fountains – Vence Evolves and Grows

In 1430 the château that still stands on the western ramparts of Vence was built by François II, the then seigneur of Vence. Today it houses the Vence Museum. Next to it stands the last remaining tower from what was once a series of defensive towers connected to the ramparts. It’s important to note that this tower existed long before the castle was built. In fact, the Villeneuve family was formally accused of usurping the tower from the community in an official document from the time. It most likely dates back to the mid 1200s. Unfortunately, all the other towers were torn down and demolished over the centuries. The Peyra Tower, as it is known today, is the only one that remains.

In 1440 the first streets outside of the city walls were established. Ten years later the first fountain was constructed in Place du Peyra, supplied by water from the nearby Lubiane River.

Good King René would die in 1480 as Provence was undergoing significant changes. Shortly after his death Provence became a part of France. The Renaissance was on the doorstep and the Reformation was not far behind. It was to be a tumultuous period in the history of both Provence and Vence.

Coming next, Part 3: The Renaissance and The Reformation.

Also see Part 1: Prehistory Through The Middle Ages

Juste les Faits:
What: The History of Vence
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When: All year
Phone: Vence Office de Tourisme: 04 93 58 06 38
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