Chateau Chenonceau, with its iconic five arches spanning over the Cher River, exhales elegance, refinement and, above all, aristocracy. I couldn’t help but feel a bit melancholic upon entering Chateau des Dames, as it is often called in memory of the famous queens and mistresses who resided within its walls over the centuries. Diane de Poitiers, King Henry II’s favorite, Catherine de’ Medici, his wife, Mary Stuart Queen of Scots, Louise de Lorraine, widow of King Henry III, are only a few of the resonant names that shared the castle’s bedrooms. These women did not just mark the history and fate of the castle, but of France itself.
The chateau was built over a fortified medieval mill, whose earliest recorded documents date from the 11th century. In 1513, Thomas Bohier, collector of royal taxes, bought the fortification and began renovating it in an exemplary Italian Renaissance style. The well and the Marques Tower are all that remain from the old mill. His wife, Catherine Briconnet, played an important role in its design and flair, adding a feminine touch, which is why she is remembered as the first lady of Chenonceau.
Diane de Poitiers
Later, the castle entered the possession of the kings of France, Francis I and his son Henry II, becoming a royal residence and the setting for one of history’s most scandalous love triangles.
Diane de Poitiers, Louis de Breze’s widow, is better known as Henry II’s infamous royal mistress, 19 years older than the king himself. In 1547, she was offered Chenonceau as a gift from her lover. Of an outstanding beauty, intellect and charm, she was a modern woman, way ahead of her time, who did workouts and took daily baths, followed diets, did not use any makeup, and managed to preserve her beauty and figure even in her old age. She dealt with matters of the state, negotiated with protestants, and personally carried for the education of the royal children, much to Catherine de’ Medici’s humiliation and desperation. Diane built the bridge over the Cher River from “taxes on number of bells of churches,” and personally attended to the beautiful gardens that bear her name. She had a great influence over the king, who loved her deeply until his accidental death during a knightly tournament. Upon Henry II’s death in 1559, Catherine de’ Medici took over the power and exiled Diane de Poitiers, taking away her beloved Chenonceau. Diane moved to Chateau Anet, where she died in 1566.
Catherine de’ Medici
It was Catherine de’ Medici who re-sketched the castle’s park to its current charm and built the two-storey gallery over Diane’s five-arched bridge, inaugurated in 1577 during the celebrations Catherine threw in honor of her son, Henry II. As one of the Medici dynasty, Catherine loved to build and leave great accomplishments behind. Biographer Leonie Frieda suggested that “Catherine, more than anyone else, inaugurated the fantastic festivities for which French monarchs would become famous for.”
Louise de Lorraine
Before her death in 1589, Catherine de’ Medici offered Chenonceau to her daughter-in-law, Louise de Lorraine-Vandemont, King Henry III’s wife. After the king’s assassination in 1589, Louise isolated herself within the castle’s walls. History remembers her as the White Queen for her respect for the white royal mourning she wore until her death in 1601.
Francoise de Lorraine
Upon Louise de Lorraine’s death, the castle was passed on to her niece, daughter-in-law of Henry IV of France, and then to her son, Louis de Vendome.
In the 18th century, the castle was abandoned for a while, only to pass into the possession of royal collector Claude Dupin in 1733. His wife, Madame Dupin, George Sand’s grandmother and a great literature devourer, entertained a saloon frequented by the time’s greatest personalities: Georges de Buffon, Jean-Jaques Rousseau, Montesqieu and Voltaire, just to name a few. Jean-Jaques Rousseau wrote one of his novels, Emile, while residing at the castle. The popularity the castle enjoyed among the era’s greatest intellects, as well as Madame Dupin’s charity work in the Loire Valley saved it from destruction during the French Revolution.
In 1864, the castle was passed on to Eugene Pelouze, who bought the castle for his wife, who simply fell in love with its unique charm. They began restoring it and spent a fortune bringing its former glory back to life. In 1913, it was redeemed by Henry Menier and has since remained in the hands of his descendants. Today, the castle remains a private property and only certain areas are open to visitors.
Incredibly well preserved considering its age, the present owners did a magnificent job highlighting its best angles and recreating its authentic charm. With its elegant proportions and feminine charm, Chenonceau is France’s most visited castle after the Versailles.
On our way to the chalet we crossed a long alley of trees, passed by Diane de Poitiers’ park to the left, and Catherine de’ Medici’s to the right. At the end of the alley, the magnificent castle, although not as large as others on the Loire Valley, rises proudly. What it lacks in size, the robust, rectangular edifice makes up for in spirit.
The four chambers on the ground floor are served by a spacious vestibule with ogival vaults. To the left, we entered the Guards Room, decorated with 16th century Flemish tapestries depicting life at court and hunting scenes. The next chamber was Diane de Poitiers’ Bedroom where, above an excellently crafted fireplace, lay suspended Catherine de’ Medici’s portrait by Sauvage. Mysterious shivers came down my spine, as if the place still holds traces of Diane’s beauty and power. She had a great impact on the fate of the entire royal family, court, and French politics.
From Diane de Poitiers’ Bedroom we entered the Green Cabinet, Catherine de’ Medici’s working cabinet, decorated with paintings and tapestries, from where we moved forward toward the library with a stunning view of Diane’s gardens. Then, we entered Catherine de’ Medici’s Gallery, a 60-meter long hall, six meters wide, lit by 18 large windows, paved with slate tiles and with an exposed beams ceiling.
We walked down a spiral staircase to the royal kitchen, built on the gigantic pilings rising from the foundation on the riverbed. It felt as if we entered the castle’s most intimate part, and everything seemed to be perfectly prepared for the animated activity of the castle, ready at any time to start cooking dinner for the chateau’s guests and opulent festivities. The furniture, shiny bronze and brass dishes, tools, giant fireplace, bread oven, grilling appliances for cooking farm animals, rabbits, and venison, seemed ready to be assaulted by busy cooks and servants. Supply was made via boat, as there was a pontoon between two pilings where various provisions would be unloaded.
We went back upstairs and into Francisc I’s Room, where I had the opportunity to gaze upon one of the most remarkable fireplaces I’ve ever seen, above which lies Van Loo’s Three Graces. Further along the corridor, Ludwig XIV’s Saloon is dedicated to his visit to Chenonceau in 1650.Here, we stopped for a while in front of his well executed portrait by Netscher. In Cesare de Vendome’s Room, Henry IV’s son, we encountered the same epoque atmosphere, with Renaissance furnishings, tapestries, and giant fireplace.
We took some time to reflect on what we’ve just seen in the castle’s gardens, a remarkable testimony to Diane de Poitiers and Catherine de’ Medici’s exquisite taste and refinement. When Diane received Chennonceau as a gift, there was nothing but a vegetable garden outside its walls. Five years later, it became the enchanting décor we see today.
With deep regret, we left this lovely castle behind, perhaps the most stunning on the Loire Valley next to Amboise, and definitely the most feminine castle in France. How wonderfully did Gustave Flaubert captured its influence over its visitors: “a something of infinite suavity and aristocratic serenity pervades the Chateau de Chenonceau.”