Most of France’s history was written on the banks of the Loire, within the walls of the several dozens of magnificent royal castles, Renaissance mansions, medieval fortifications, and cathedrals. No wonder the lands at the confluence of the river Maine with Sully-sur-Loire were dubbed the “Garden of France,” “Garden of Kings,” and the “Cradle of French Language.” When it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000, it was described as “an outstanding cultural landscape of great beauty, containing historic towns and villages, great architectural monuments (the châteaux), and cultivated lands formed by many centuries of interaction between their population and the physical environment, primarily the river Loire itself.”
All the way back in the Middle Ages, a defensive line of powerful castles and fortifications was built on the hills along the river Loire to protect the then flourishing towns from barbarian invasions. These remarkable fortresses offered such great security that the kings of France decided to move their entire royal court on the Loire Valley. The first to reside here was Charles VII. When the Renaissance took hold of France, the artistic and philosophical current that made its debut in Italy at the end of the Middle Age,, all medieval citadels along the Loire underwent bewildering transformations. Francis I hired Italian craftsmen to turn all fortresses into opulent, sumptuous Renaissance palaces destined, before anything else, for celebrations and pleasure, with spacious rooms and large windows, high towers, drawbridges, new wings, all characterized by an impressive architecture and elegant, extensive gardens. A completely new type of royal courtship entered the scene, the itinerant court with fairytale residences, on the backdrop of poetic competitions, love affairs, and intrigues.
From Louis IX to Henry III, not forgetting Francis I and Catherine de’ Medici, all sovereigns left their signature on their castles. It was Henry IV who brought the capital back to Paris, and with that the political role of the Loire Valley came to an end. Nevertheless, this extraordinary epoch left a permanent mark on France. Time may have left its scars on these castles, but they somehow managed to survive over the ages, even in front of the French Revolution and the World Wars, when many of them were looted, turned into military barracks, prisons, and even farms.
For us, the parade of the Chateaux of the Loire Valley begins with Blois and continues with Amboise and Chenonceaux.
At Blois, a lovely little city with 50,000 inhabitants, you can’t help but notice the towering castle dominating the right banks of the Loire. It is a gigantic structure, a unique blend of various architectural styles, ages, systems, and influences, which for centuries have been the main ingredients behind its singular and unusual aspect. Residence to seven kings and 10 queens of France, the royal castle of Blois underwent complete restorations in 1845, and is today a museum of France.
In the 12th century, the counts of Blois built a feudal castle. Two centuries later, the medieval chateau was purchased by Louis, count d’Orleans, and was then passed on to his heirs. Blois witnessed some of France’s most significant historical moments firsthand. In 1429, Joan of Arc left from Blois to Orleans, leading a detachment of 5,000 French soldiers, all provided by the Dauphin of France, future King Charles VII. Her acts of bravery echoed throughout the world, turning the French heroine into a Catholic saint.
It was at Blois that Louis XII was born, heir to the throne of France, who turned the castle into his favorite royal residence and the political capital of the kingdom. His son-in-law and successor, Francis I, spent his time between his two residences, Blois and Amboise, and turned his royal court into a veritable school of elegance, culture, and refined taste. During his reign, new courtship and gentility codes were born. The king surrounded himself in scientists, scholars, poets, artists, while the women were promoted as the queens of a new institution. The king demanded flawless elegance, their wardrobes highlighting their beauty and best angles, and he always made sure they enjoyed the respect they deserved. He believed a court without ladies was like a garden without flowers.
During Henry II, Blois remained one of the headquarters of the royal court, second only to the Louvre. After the king’s accidental death in 1599 during a tournament, it was at Blois that the exchange treaty between his widow, Catherine de’ Medici, and his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, was signed, in which the latter yielded her Chateau Chenonceaux in exchange for Chaumont Castle.
Henry III took refuge at Blois throughout the bloody wars between the Catholics and Protestants during his reign. It was then that the first etiquette code was imposed, at Blois of course, and the title of Your Majesty was introduced. The king was surrounded by approximately 15,000 persons: princes of blood, senior gentlemen, over a thousand archers, the Swiss guard, and numerous servants. The king’s travels required 1,200 horses, an overwhelming number given that in the 16th century most cities had no more than 10,000 inhabitants. With the assassination of the count of Guise in 1588, ordered by none other than Henry III, a dark shadow descended over Chateau Blois. The Amboise conspiracy, in which a group of gentlemen plotted to overthrow the Guise government in the hope of achieving recognition of the Reformed religion, and the terrible repressions in 1560, brought Blois into the spotlight once again, although it never enjoyed the same royal pomp.
Catherine de’ Medici died at Blois in 1589. She lived at the court for 55 years, during which time she struggled to maintain royal authority in the time of the bloodiest religious wars in the history of France, using diplomacy, matrimonial maneuvers, and family intrigues. It was here that Henry IV, the first Bourbon king and last king of the Middle Ages lived in 1610. After his death, his widow, Mary de’ Medici, was expelled here. She offered the castle as a wedding gift to her brother, Gaston d’Orleans, who built another wing, a masterpiece of classic French architecture, although left unfinished. After Gaston’s death, the castle was abandoned for more than 150 years.
It was also at Blois that the mild and innocent Louise de Valliere spent her teenage years, the first of the three favorite mistresses of King Louis XIV, the historical figure that inspired the namesake character in Alexandre Dumas’ The Vicomte of Bragelonne.
In 1841, the castle was classified as a historical monument. It suffered great destruction during World War 2, but it was later restored using local slate and terracotta, with respect to the architectural authenticity.
What we see today at Blois is a royal castle with four wings, four different ages leaving their distinctive mark on its walls: the Late Gothic chapel of St. Calais, Francis I Wing, Louis XII Wing, and Gaston d’Orleans Wing, unfinished.
All that remains from the medieval wing, built in the 13th century, is the Hall of the States General, the largest Gothic chamber in France, the place where the king summoned his representatives of the States General between 1576 and 1588.
Most royal apartments in the Francis I Wing still preserve their original tiles with colorful glazing, but decorations date from the 19th century. We visited the King’s Bedchamber, the queen Mother’s apartments, and Catherine de’ Medici’s chambers and her famous room with 237 small cabinets embedded in the lovely woodwork. Legend has it the cabinets concealed her stash of poisons she used to eliminate her political adversaries. King Francis II occupied the royal apartments at the second floor, which were later passed on to Henry III.
At the beginning of the 16th century, Louis XII initiated a vast restoration process, rebuilding most of the main entrance and inaugurating an Italian terraced garden. The Louis XII Wing is built from light-colored stone and red brick, covered in blue slate tiles, with round columns decorated with lilies. In his honor, a statue of the king riding his horse was placed above the main entrance. The first thing we noticed were the two spiral stone staircases at the ends of a vaulted gallery, each inside a hexagonal tower with a wide opening, accessing the Museum of Fine Arts on the first floor.
Visiting the towering and thrilling castle of Blois was an exciting journey back in time, into the depths of France’s tumultuous history, in the time of kings, queens, mistresses, and royal courtship. I’ll leave Honore de Balzac, who couldn’t have captured Chateau Blois ant better in his novel Catherine de Medicis, to take over:
Among all these chateaus, that of Blois, where the court was then staying, is one on which the magnificence of the houses of Orleans and of Valois has placed its brilliant sign-manual,–making it the most interesting of all for historians, archaeologists, and Catholics.