Eight centuries of history

Over the years, Gruyères Castle has been successively occupied by the counts who built it, the bailiffs of Fribourg and then the Bovy and Balland families from Geneva, before being bought back by the Canton of Fribourg in 1938 and opened to the public. Discover a fascinating history that spans eight centuries.

Medieval Castle

Mentioned in the archives for the first time in 1244, the castle is the principal home of one of the leading noble families in western Switzerland during the Middle Ages: the counts of Gruyère. Built in the 13th century, it is constructed in the form of a “carré savoyard”, a military design developed by the House of Savoy, of whom the counts are vassals. It is protected by an almost square enclosure flanked by a keep, a tower and small overhanging turrets at the corners.

Extensive reconstruction initiated in the 15th century by Count Louis transforms the fortified castle into a stately residence. Elegant stone galleries punctuated by wide windows replace part of the wooden galleries, a staircase tower is built abutting the main block, and a chapel is installed in a former defensive tower.

For almost five centuries, from their base at Gruyères, the counts rule over large tracts of land consisting of governorships on either side of the Sarine river as well as the lordships of Palézieux, Oron and Aubonne. Some counts also distinguish themselves on the field of battle during the Hundred Years War or fighting alongside the Confederates during the Burgundian Wars. The dynasty dies out when Count Michel, beset by financial problems, goes bankrupt and has his properties confiscated in 1554 by his principal creditors, Bern and Fribourg.

Seat of the Bailiffs

After Count Michel goes bankrupt in 1554, Bern and Fribourg share out his former lands between themselves. Fribourg takes possession of what is now Gruyère and installs the bailiffs, its representatives, in the castle. Charged with administering the region, they dispense justice, manage the finances, run the estates and collect taxes.

Between 1554 and 1798, more than fifty bailiffs drawn from leading Fribourg families take their turn at Gruyères. During their administration, Their Excellencies of Fribourg continue expanding the mountain pastures, intensify cheese production and increase cheese exports to foreign markets. Wheels of Gruyère cheese that are capable of being transported over long distances are brought to Vevey, where they are loaded onto boats to take them to Lyon in France.

The bailiffs, and their successors the prefects, occupy the castle until 1848, when the prefecture of the new district of Gruyère is established in Bulle. Now seen as symbolising the former bailiwick and too costly to maintain, the castle is put up for sale and acquired by a family from Geneva.

Artists’ Residence

In 1849, the castle is auctioned off when the seat of the prefecture is moved from Gruyère to Bulle. The Bovy brothers, John, Antoine and Daniel, place the winning bid and the family moves into Gruyères as soon as the first signs of spring appear, spending the winter at Boissière Castle near Geneva.

The new owners undertake extensive renovations. Overseeing the construction work is Daniel Bovy, who redefines the organisation and theme of every room in the building. He invites his artist friends from France and Geneva to the summer residence, and everyone takes part in creating new décors.

At Daniel’s instigation, Gruyères Castle plays host to an artists’ colony and becomes home to an artistic utopia. Encounters and exchanges between painters, sculptors, writers and musicians are all part of the artists’ communal existence. Following days devoted to drawing and painting, the evenings are given over to singing, performances and hearty meals. The painters are particularly skilled in the art of landscape, and the paintings by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot and Barthélemy Menn that adorn the walls of the castle attest to this artistic collaboration.