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Château de Chenonceau

Our third and final stop on our day-trip to the Loire Valley was the Château de Chenonceau. The château is about a 3 hour drive southwest of Paris, and is located near the small village of Chenonceaux (from which it derives its name). An  estate of Chenonceau is first referred to in writing in the 11th century. In the 13th century, the fief of Chenonceau belonged to the Marques family. An earlier château belonging to Jean Marques was burned down in 1412 to punish him for an act of sedition. In the 1430s, Jean built another château and a fortified mill in its place. Unfortunately his heir, Pierre Marques, was forced to sell the estate in 1513 to resolve a series of debts.

Thomas Bohier and his wife, Katherine Briçonnette, were the ones who purchased the property from Pierre Marques. Bohier served as Chamberlain to King Charles VIII, the monarch who was born at Château d’Amboise and brought that estate to royal prominence. Chenonceau and Amboise are located a short 15 km from each other, so that is how Bohier probably became acquainted with the area. Bohier demolished the castle and the fortified mill that Jacques Marques had built, although the castle’s 15th-century keep was left standing. Bohier and Briçonette had the tower restored in the Renaissance style. They then built their new residence on the piers of the old fortified mill.

You can see the Marques tower in the photos below, located to the left of the new residence that was constructed between 1515-1521.

Amusingly, Bohier’s and Briçonnet’s motto, which they had inscribed in Latin within the château, translates as: “If I get to the end of this construction job, I will be remembered.” This should be the call to arms for all people undergoing a massive renovation.

In the picture below you can see a well, which also dates back to the time of the Marques family. It is decorated on the top with a chimera and an eagle, the emblem of the Marques family.

The main door is made of sculpted wood and dates back to the reign of François I (1515-1547). You can see his emblem, the salamander, over top the door, along with a Latin inscription that translates as “François, by the grace of God, King of France – Claude, Queen of France.” (Charles VIII passed away in 1498, before Bohier and Briçonnet took possession of Chenonceau). The left door (which is, unfortunately, open in the photo below) bears the arms of Thomas Bohier, and the right contains those of Katherine Briçonnet. They hosted François I on two occasions.

From Pixabay.

Unfortunately, attempts to butter up François I didn’t prevent him from seizing the château from Thomas Bohier’s son in 1535 for debts unpaid to the crown. When François I died in 1547, the château became the property of his heir, Henri II (1519-1559). Henri II gifted the château to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers.

From left to right: Catherine de’ Medici, Henri II, Diane de Poitiers.

This is the point at which the Château de Chenonceau became “the Ladies’ Château.” The official website for Chenonceau states that “the history of the Château de Chenonceau is defined by an almost uninterrupted succession of women who built, embellished, protected, restored, and saved it.” Chenonceau was very close to Diane’s heart. She oversaw the planting of extensive gardens and fruit trees. She commissioned Philibert de l’Orme, one of the great masters of Renaissance French architecture, to build an arched bridge over the Cher river that connected the château with the opposite bank. This bridge was the precursor to the gallery that would later be built, and for which Chenonceau is now known.

The château with de l’Orme’s bridge, before the addition of the gallery. Views from the west (top) and east (bottom), drawn by Jacques Androuet du Cerceau c. 1570. From Wikipedia.

Diane’s garden, which covers an area of 12,000 m², is set along the banks of the Cher river, but is protected from higher river levels and flooding by stone terraces. The garden features eight large, lawned triangles that are intersected by two perpendicular and two diagonal paths. The layout of the flowerbeds in strict geometric patterns remain unchanged since their creation. There are flowering shrubs, yew trees, spindle trees, box hedges, and virburnum tinus arranged around the beds. In the summer, there are more than one hundred flowering hibiscus trees. Pansies, daisies, petunia, flowering tobacco, dahlias, verbena, and begonia all come into bloom throughout the season. (Garden information obtained from the Visitor Guide).

Below is a view of Diane’s garden from the château.

Below is a view of the château from Diane’s garden.

From Pixabay.

After Henri II died in 1559, his wife Catherine de’ Medici forced Diane to exchange Chenonceau for the Château Chaumont. Catherine then set about making Chenonceau her own. She added a garden that covered 5,500 m²; it features five lawns grouped around a circular pond. It contains roses, box hedges, and lavender, amidst other flowers.

In 1576, Catherine had architect and sculptor Jean Bullant build a two-storey gallery over top of Diane’s arched bridge spanning the Cher river. It measures 60 metres in length, 6 metres in width, has 18 windows, and features a tufa and slate-tile floor. It functioned as an impressive ballroom for many events hosted by the Regent Queen. It was officially opened in 1577 for festivities celebrating Catherine’s third successive reigning son, King Henry III.

The ground floor of the Grand Gallery, shown below.

From Pixabay.

Sculptures of Catherine de’ Medici gaze at you serenely from the walls of the gallery.

Our visit to Chenonceau came at the end of an already long day and so, unfortunately, I didn’t take many pictures inside. I was feeling a little fried by that point, and there were a lot of other people around. (I think I was also running out of room on my memory card—no surprise, there). Here are a few below, though!

Diane de Poitiers’ Bedroom is shown below. The four-poster bed is not original, but does date to the Renaissance.

There is a painting of Catherine de’ Medici (by Sauvage) in Diane’s bedroom, which is kind of amusing.

Catherine de’ Medici’s Bedroom is shown below. The four-poster bed is also not original, but dates to the Renaissance.

The Five Queens’ Bedroom is named in honour of two of Catherine de’ Medici’s daughters and three daughters-in-law: Margaret of Valois (wife of Henry IV); Elisabeth of Valois (wife of King Philip II of Spain); Mary, Queen of Scots (wife of Francis II); Elisabeth of Austria (wife of Charles IX); and Louise of Lorraine (wife of Henri III). The four poster bed is not original, but also dates to the Renaissance. The walls are covered with 16th century Flemish tapestries.

I did take quite a few pictures in the kitchen, because it was my first time seeing the kitchen of a big estate house and I really liked all of the copper cookware.

The pantry is shown below, which also doubled as a dining-room for château employees.

You could see the river from the kitchen windows.

You could also sneak a peek at a stairwell leading into the water, where kitchen staff could meet boats laden with produce and other supplies.

The grounds of the Château de Chenonceau also contain a group of 16th-century farm buildings. I was super-charmed by them!

The stables now contain a carriage gallery (sadly, we didn’t have the time or energy to go in).

In addition to what I’ve photographed, the grounds also contain a green garden (an English-style park), a vegetable and flower garden (with two greenhouses), an Italian maze for an Italian Queen, and the Orangery (once used to house orange and lemon trees during the winter, it is now a tea room and gastronomic restaurant).

When Catherine de’ Medici died in 1589, the château went to her daughter-in-law, Louise of Lorraine, wife of Henri III. That same year, Henri III was assassinated. Louise was given the news while she was staying at Chenonceau, and she fell into a deep depression. She grieved heavily for Henri for the rest of her life. She dressed in white (as was the protocol for royal mourning at the time) and was referred to as “the White Queen” or “The Lady in White.” She had the ceiling of her bedroom at Chenonceau painted black with white objects that symbolized her grief such as feathers (a play on the word penne which in modern French meant quill but in old French meant sorrow), tear drops, grave-diggers’ shovels, and crowns of thorns. (“It’s called mourning, look it up.”) This motif was repeated on the curtains of her bed and windows. She remained at Chenonceau for the next eleven years, spending her time in mediation and prayer, and had a few Capuchin nuns stay at the estate with her until her passing in 1601.

Picture from the Château de Chenonceau website.

During its time as a property of Catherine de’ Medici, the Château de Chenonceau had been saddled with a lot of debt. Louise was unable to settle it, so she made a deal with Henri IV. If Henri IV paid off the amount owing on the estate, Louise would bequeath it to her six-year old niece, Françoise of Lorraine. Françoise was betrothed to the four-year-old César, Duke of Vendôme. The young duke was the illegitimate child of Henri IV and his mistress, Gabrielle d’Estrées. Everyone wins! The château then remained in the hands of the Duke and his descendants for more than 100 years. In 1720, it was purchased by the Duke of Bourbon, who sold off all of its contents.

Portrait of Louise of Lorraine. Artist unknown, but in the manner of François Clouet. Circa 1575.

In 1733, the Château was sold to a wealthy squire named Claude Dupin. His wife, Louise, returned Chenonceau to prominence. She hosted a literary salon at the château that attracted many of the greatest writers, scientists, philosophers, poets, and academics of the Enlightenment including Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Fontenelle. Louise was renowned for her kindness, beauty and intelligence. She was the first to draft a Code of Women’s Rights, assisted by her secretary Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Her quick-thinking managed to save the château during the Revolution. She pointed out to the Revolutionary Guard, who wanted to destroy it, that it was “the only bridge across the river for many miles” and so was “essential for travel and commerce.” She saved the chapel by turning it in a place for wood storage, thus concealing its religious character.

Portrait of Louise Dupin. Attributed to J.M. Nattier, circa 1733.

In 1864, Marguerite Pelouze purchased the estate and began to restore it to its 16th century condition. Notably, she removed many of the modifications that Catherine de’ Medici had made to the château (guess she was a Diane fan?). Pelouze was born into a wealthy family that had made its fortune in the industrial revolution. She held lavish parties during her time at Chenonceau and hosted artists such as Claude Debussy and Gustave Flaubert. A financial scandal in 1888 forced Pelouze into bankruptcy, and she had to sell the château to Crédit Foncier, a French mortgage bank. The estate was acquired by Cuban millionaire José-Emilio Terry in 1891, who then sold it to his brother Francisco Terry in 1896. In 1913, the château was purchased by Henri Menier, a member of the wealthy Menier chocolate family. The Château de Chenonceau is owned by the Menier family to this day.

Upon Henri’s death in 1913, Chenonceau went to his brother, Gaston Menier. 1913 was also the year the château was first opened to public visitors. During World War I, Gaston transformed Chenonceau into a military hospital. He paid all of the operating costs; his son Georges and daughter-in-law Simone administered it. 120 beds were installed on the two floors of the Grand Gallery. On the ground floor, an operating room was equipped with one of the first X-ray machines. Over 2,250 people were treated at Chenonceau over the course of the Great War.

Chenonceau during World War I. From the Château de Chenonceau website.

The inscription on the wall translates as: “Here were healed 2,254 wounded during the War 1914-1918.”

For the first two years of World War II, the Cher river was part of the demarcation line that divided France between the “German Occuation Zone” of the north and the west and the “Free French Zone” of the south and the east. Since the gallery of the Château de Chenonceau spanned the river, one side of the château (the entrance to the residence) was in the occupied German zone and the other side (the door on the far end of the gallery) exited into the free zone. The French Resistance used this as a passage to secret large numbers of people into the free zone. Of course, this ended when the free zone was abolished in November 1942. A German artillery unit remained on standby throughout the course of the war, prepared to destroy Chenonceau if necessary. (Thankfully, it was not).

Today, the Château de Chenonceau is the second-most visited château in France, after Versailles. It was classified as a Historical Monument by the French Ministry of Culture in 1840.

I really enjoyed our day-trip to the Loire Valley. There is a lot to see, and I would love to go back one day soon to see the rest. It’s a beautiful and interesting part of the world! It’s probably my favourite part of France, so far.

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2 Responses

  1. A delight to read, Leah. I have been a bit behind in my reading, so a great way to spend part of Sunday afternoon after all the chores are done. Thanks for a great read and superb photos.

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