Chenonceau: The ladies’ chateau
by McKenna Darby
| Chateau de Chenonceau as seen from Catherine de Medici's garden. It is|
widely considered the most beautiful chateau in France and one of the most
beautiful in the world
Chenonceau is one of France’s smaller castles. What it lacks in size, however, Chenonceau more than makes up for in history – and in beauty. As Laure Menier, curator of Chenonceau writes in her introduction to one the chateau’s many guidebooks: “The very name of this site evokes music; the vision of it, pure enchantment. Here charm transcends beauty. The majesty and simplicity of Chenonceau touches the heart and the soul.” Poetic, yes, but Chenonceau is every bit of this and more.
The chateau is distinctive in part for being constructed in the middle of the Cher River. The river, placid as a lake on fair days, reflects the castle’s white stone and dainty turrets like a noble lady’s looking glass. Which is appropriate, for Chenonceau is popularly known as “the ladies’ chateau.” Through the centuries, six strong and memorable women built Chenonceau, maintained it, expanded it, loved it, fought over it, and made its place in history.
The first was Katherine Briçonnet. Katherine’s husband, Thomas Bohier, acquired the property from the debt-ridden Marques family in 1496, and proceeded to tear down both the medieval castle and mill that stood there. Only the Marques tower, which Katherine renovated in Renaissance style, still stands near the castle’s front entrance. On the foundations of the previous castle and mill, Katherine and Thomas built a new castle, almost perfectly square. With Thomas was away for long periods, tending to the king’s finances, Katherine supervised most of the construction. The castle’s ornate double doors and an Italian-style coffered-oak ceiling, the oldest surviving example in France, are widely attributed to Katherine’s influence.
Shortly after Thomas died, King Francis I seized the chateau as part of a lawsuit against his financiers; Chenonceau became a royal castle. Men were not destined to control the castle, however. Francis died soon after he gained control of the property, and control passed to his son, Henri II.
Henri had two important women in his life: his wife, Catherine de Medici, and his mistress, Diane de Poitiers. Although Catherine assumed she would control the castle, Henri awarded it to Diane instead. The decisions enraged the queen, but Catherine was 20 years younger than her rival. In keeping with her famous motto, “Hate and wait,” Catherine bided her time, expecting that Diane would soon die. Instead, the notoriously athletic and healthy Diane applied her talent for business management to develop a thriving farm at the chateau. She then used the farm’s proceeds and the estate’s rents to renovate and enlarge Chenonceau, constructing some of the most spectacular gardens of the era and adding a scenic bridge that connected the chateau to the far bank of the Cher.
When King Henri died in a tragic jousting accident, Catherine no longer had to wait. She seized Chenonceau, evicted Diane, and set about to put her own mark on the castle. On the opposite side of the chateau from Diane’s garden, Catherine built her own, complete with lemon and orange trees. She also built two galleries on top of Diane’s bridge, a project Diane had planned but never had a chance to execute.
The dowager queen also built on Diane’s other accomplishments, transforming her rival’s vineyard into one of France’s finest, importing silkworms, and launching silk production that produced a fabric so fine it was known as “the Queen’s cloth.” She then set about to stage the most elaborate parties in the history of France, including lavish entertainments, sumptuous food, and nation’s first fireworks display, given in honor of her son, the newly crowned King Francis II, and his wife Mary Stuart. For nearly 30 years, for three sons in turn (Catherine survived all but the last), she ruled France as regent from the Thomas Bonier’s Green Study at Chenonceau.
When Catherine’s third son, Henri III, was assassinated on Aug. 1, 1589, Chenonceau passed to his widow, Louise de Lorraine. She transformed Chenonceau into a tomb, painting her bedchamber black and roaming the halls in white, the color of royal mourning. With her death in 1501, Chenonceau lost its last royal resident.
The next important woman in Chenonceau’s history was Louise Dupin, who hosted the Enlightenment’s most famous thinkers, from Voltaire to Rousseau, at the chateau. When the French Revolution broke out and rioters threatened to destroy Chenonceau as a symbol of royal excess, Mme. Dupin saved the chateau by reminding the revolutionary mob of the castle’s hospitality to their Enlightenment heroes.
Early in the 20th century, Chenonceau was again touched by war. The chateau, now owned by the Menier family, a dynasty built on chocolate, became a hospital for soldiers wounded in World War I, with a 120-bed ward and a surgical facility set up in Catherine de Medici’s two galleries. The family paid all of the expenses, treating 2,254 soldiers before the war ended. Simone Menier, chief nurse, ran the hospital with her husband, George.
In World War II, Chenonceau played an important role in the French Resistance. On June 22, 1940, France lost a decisive battle that cut the country in two. The line of demarcation between Nazi-controlled France and free France ran along the Cher River. The far side of the bridge was Nazi controlled. The chateau side was free. Although German guards patrolled the river, Simone Meunier unlocked the doors to the gallery whenever the patrols were out of sight, helping hundreds of Jews and French villagers to escape.
Catherine de Medici's garden reflects her flamboyant style. To the left is
Diane's bridge, topped by Catherine's two-story gallery.
Some of the original Delft tiles at Chenonceau. Except around the edges of
the room, the tiles are worn down to the red clay underneath.
A stunning view of the Cher and a corner of Diane's garden from Catherine
de Medici's study
Intertwined H and Cs on the ceiling in Catherine de Medici's bedroom officially stand for Henri and
Catherine, but are arranged so they also form an intertwined H and two Ds, for
Henri and his mistress Diane de Poitiers.
Diane's garden is far more formal than Catherine's, reflecting her strict
upbringing and formal mannerisms. The retaining wall in the distance
protects the garden from the Cher's floods.
Catherine built this gallery, one of two, atop Diane's bridge, completing
her rival's project.
This elaborate cabinet was a wedding gift from Catherine and Henri to
their oldest son, Francis II, and his wife, Mary Queen of Scots.
Diane's farm was a money-maker, a testament to her business skills. It
still grows the flowers displayed in Chenonceau's gardens and the
vegetables served in Chenonceau's restaurant.
A romanticized portrait of Diane de Poitiers as Diana the Huntress. An
extremely athletic woman, Diane is believed to have taken swims in the Cher
on days that she was AT the castle, from a landing on one of the piers of
McKenna Darby writes romantic historical novels set during the French Renaissance and the American Civil War. Visit her at http://mckennadarby.com