After a few months of a typical Canadian winter, the weather announcers start to cringe, almost apologize, every time they have to say the ‘S’ word. The same thing was happening to the présentatrices de la météo (no matter what channel I turned to, they were all female, all young, and all very attractive). Only it was the ‘P’ word that was causing them grief.
The day I planned to visit Chenonceau, aka le Château des Dames because of the extraordinary number of women who left their mark on the castle, I woke up to a familiar sound – la pluie. Happily, as I was on my third café au lait it stopped raining.
Not knowing how long this pluie-free interlude would last, I gulped down the rest of the coffee and set out. One of the reasons I had decided to stay at l’Hôtel la Roseraie was its proximity to the castle. It was in Chenonceaux. (Italy isn’t the only country with naming issues. The castle is Chenonceau. The village nearby is Chenonceaux.) This meant that in no time at all I was standing by the Billeterie (ticket office). Like its Italian counterpart, biglietteria, this is a tricky one for English speakers. While in Italian you have to ignore the ‘g’, in French you have to ignore the ‘ll’s: bee-yeh-tair-ee. Apart from two men who were obviously employees, there was no one else around. Wonderful! I would have the gardens all to myself, at least for a while.
Then one of the fellows came over to me and v-e-r-y slowly informed me that ‘Le château s’ouvre à 9 heures.” (The chateau opens itself at 9 o’clock.) I looked at my watch. It was 8:40. I took out some of my emergency toilet paper and dried off a corner of the bench nearby. I watched them and they kept an eye on me. What did they think I was going to do? Make a run for it?
In 1547, the newly crowned Henri II wanted to give his beloved, Diane de Poitier, something that would be a fitting symbol of his affection. This created a bit of a dilemma for the besotted king. Tradition required that a number of gifts – a crown, royal jewels – be reserved for his wife, Catherine dei Medici, to whom he had been joined in holy, if not happy matrimony when he – and she – were 14 years old. So instead, he gave Diane Chenonceau. It was, then and now, the most beautiful castle in the Loire Valley. And much appreciated by Diane, whose enjoyment was undoubtedly enhanced by knowing that Catherine had wanted it.
One of the first improvements Diane made was to transform a rustic potager into a pleasure garden. In a break from the square-dominated design of the medieval hortus conclusus (which I wrote about in ‘The Abbey of the Good Harvest’), intersecting paths create a series of triangles, and arabesques of Santolina replace the traditional straight lines. Although I tried hard to like it, I have to admit it left me feeling somewhat underwhelmed. But this is where it helps to keep a historical perspective in mind. At the time, it was acclaimed as the most beautiful in the Loire and many of the features, including the fountain in the middle which I found particularly underwhelming, were hugely innovative.
It was the most unlikely of love affairs. The power imbalance. The ‘other’ woman. And then there was the age difference – she was 20 years older. But Diane was not your garden variety courtesan. She was intelligent, cultured and an astute business woman. And she was extraordinarily beautiful and young-looking. (It’s a wonder the spurned and, as most agreed at the time, unattractive Catherine didn’t grind her teeth into a pulp.)
For 25 years, Diane remained the love of his life and his most trusted and influential confidante. She signed royal documents. She sat on his lap during festivities. She even managed to persuade him to wear black and white, the royal colours of mourning she wore in memory of her late husband.
Diane’s beauty and extraordinary youthful looks may have been due to more than mere genes. When British and French scientists dug up her body in 2008 they found traces of gold in her hair. Since she hadn’t worn a crown, where had the gold come from?
The cult of youth is no 21st century invention. Instead of freezing bodies and lining up rows of pills at breakfast every morning, the courtiers of 16th century France – Diane included – would drink gold to preserve their youthful good looks and health. Unfortunately, it turned out to be poisonous. I don’t know anything about chemistry, but the idea of drinking a concoction of gold chloride and diethyl ether – sometimes with a bit of mercury – does not sound good. The scientists concluded that her premature death – she was only 66, young even in those days for such a physically strong and active woman – was caused by ‘chronic gold intoxication’.
The first of the Dames of Chenonceau led a much less tumultuous life, but her role in the history of the castle was no less significant.
In 1512 Thomas Bohier purchased a medieval fortress that came with a mill. The fortress was set back from the river and the mill was – well, mills usually are – by the water’s edge. He and his wife, Catherine Briçonnet, decided to tear down the somber fortress and replace it with something in the new Renaissance style coming out of Italy. Since Bohier was often away for extended periods on the king’s and his own business, the task of overseeing the construction of their new residence fell to Catherine.
The Marques Tower had been the donjon of the medieval fortress. Whenever I see the word ‘donjon‘, the first thing that comes to mind is ‘dungeon’. It’s one of those insidious faux amis that trick you even when you know what they really mean. Not only was a donjon not a dark, wretched prison, it was the most secure part of a medieval castle and a place of refuge whenever the castle was under attack.
The sun had come out so I decided that rather than cross the bridge to to the castle, I would have a look at the Potager des fleurs (Cutting Garden) where all the flowers for the bouquets in the castle are grown.
The interior of the castle is beautifully decorated, filled with priceless Gobelin tapestries, paintings by the likes of Rubens, Tintoretto, Van Dyck and countless others, but after seeing the bouquet in the Salle des Gardes, the first thing I would look for, as I wandered from room to room, was the bouquet.
Adding insult to injury, in addition to giving Diane powers and privileges that rightly belonged to the Queen, Henri also plastered his mistress’ initial all over the most prominent buildings of the time. (I didn’t know it at the time, but apparently the Louvre has a few too. Something to keep an eye out for next time.) Henri’s symbol consisted of two interlacing ‘C’s, on which was superimposed an ‘H’. ‘C’ for Catherine and ‘H’ for Henri. A decent logo. But, as happens with those optical illusions, where once you see a second image you can never ‘unsee’ it, it was hard not to see two other letters.
After years of being humiliated and upstaged by Diane, and neglected by her husband, (who only slept with her on Diane’s insistence – the King needed an heir!), Catherine’s day of revenge finally arrived. On June 30, 1559 Henri was wounded in a jousting tournament – by the Captain of his own guard. Ten days later he died. Catherine refused to allow Diane into the King’s room as he lay dying, despite his repeated calls for her. She did not allow Diane to attend the funeral. And then – we can only imagine her sense of triumph in this final gesture – she evicted Diane from Chenonceau.
Next she started to make her mark on the castle – and erase as much of Diane’s as she could. In her ‘Garden of Wonders’ she had an aviary, menagerie, grotto (she was Italian after all, and all the best Italian gardens of the time had a grotto) and silkworm farm, as well as the usual flower beds and intersecting paths in the centre of which was a fountain (bigger of course than Diane’s).
Catherine may have realized that she wasn’t going to eclipse Diane on the gardening front, so she soon turned her attention and resources (eventually bankrupting herself in the process) to architectural embellishments and extravagant celebrations. She commissioned two elegant halls on top of the bridge Diane had built.
As far as castles go Chenonceau was small. Catherine’s decision to enlarge it by building on top of the bridge her rival had built, rather than a more obvious and far less costly extension on land, resulted in an undeniably beautiful and unique castle. But it must have raised some eyebrows at the time.
At one end of the hall a rather small bouquet sits on a side table. The flowers are always red, white and blue – or as close to blue as you can get with flowers.
In 1913 the Menier family, who had made their fortune in the chocolate business, purchased the castle. When World War I broke out, the Menier’s transformed Catherine’s ballroom into a military hospital.
During World War II the ballroom became an escape route for Jews and Resistance fighters. The Demarcation Line cut right through the Cher River, leaving the castle entrance in the Occupied Zone. Simone Menier, who had been Head Nurse of the military hospital in World War I, kept an eye on the German troops patrolling the river. Whenever the coast was clear, she would unlock the door at the south end of the galérie, allowing hundreds to escape to Free France.
If you were Queen of France your most important duty was to produce a king. Or, failing that, a queen. Catherine, thanks to Diane’s prodding, produced three sons, which meant she was off the hook. She also gave birth to two daughters who became queens – Margo, who married Henri IV and Elizabeth of France, wife of Philip II of Spain. Three queen daughters-in-law were a bonus: Mary Stuart, wife of François II, Elizabeth of Austria, wife of Charles IX and Louise de Lorraine, wife of Henri III. (How anyone keeps all these kings and queens straight is beyond me! It makes learning the Latin names of plants look like a picnic by comparison.)
I burst out laughing when I walked into Louise de Lorraine’s room. I know. What kind of person laughs when they come upon a scene of mourning? But it was just so bizarre.
After her husband, Henri III was assassinated, Louise, whose marriage had, exceptionally, been quite a happy one, fell into a deep depression, and withdrew from public life. She wore only white – she was sometimes called ‘la Reine Blanche‘ (White Queen – no connection to Philippa Gregory’s White Queen; different era, different country) – and spent the rest of her days wandering the halls of the castle when she wasn’t praying in her room, which would make even the gloomiest funeral parlour look positively cheery. She had the walls and ceiling covered in black. The bed coverings were black and gold, the third of the royal mourning colours. To decorate all this, she chose feathers (black) – plumes or pennes, a homonym for peines (suffering), tears made of silver, gravediggers’ shovels and a few crowns of thorns.
I couldn’t help wondering how different the rest of her life might have been if, instead of entombing herself in a living grave, she had just opened the windows and redecorated her room.
Time to return to the land of the living. I headed down to the kitchen. And I mean really down. It’s in the piers the castle stands on.
There was one more woman who had an enormous influence on the castle. In fact she saved it from destruction during the Revolution.
Born in Paris at the beginning of the 18th century into ‘considerable wealth’ as they say, Louise Dupin enjoyed a happy, carefree childhood which ended when she turned 16 and her father married her off to a lowly tax collector who had come to the aid of a family member as she was returning from the thermal baths one day. Claude Dupin was forty years old, a widower and came with a 6 year old son, but Louise made the best of it. Her father had merely followed the norms of the day – and he was extremely generous. Within a few years the lowly tax collector was a wealthy man and in 1733 he added Chenonceau to his growing collection of up-scale real estate.
They say ‘what goes around comes around’. I’m not at all convinced. I’ve seen a lot of people who definitely did not deserve what life handed them – good and bad. In any event, when the Revolutionaries came storming across the bridge to Chenonceau in 1792, intent on destroying yet another symbol of the hated aristocracy, the kindness and generosity Louise had shown the local villagers over the years stood her in good stead. And when she pointed out that the castle was in essence a bridge, in fact the only bridge across the river, which they of course were free to use, she ensured the castle’s survival.
Next – Chaumont-sur-Loire, the castle of Diane’s exile.