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Château de Chenonceau: The Ladies' Castle in the Loire Valley

A Confession: I Must Have Blinked

I have a confession to make. I must have blinked when they were covering French history in school. (Seriously. Did they even cover French history?)

Given this unfortunate fact, I was at a disadvantage when my family and I recently visited Château de Chenonceau—a luxurious French castle in the Loire valley. Certainly, I was spellbound by its Renaissance architecture and artwork by masters of the day. I was captivated by its fine furniture, rare tapestries, and ornate formal gardens.

However, the references to famous French ladies Diane de Poitiers and Catherine de' Medici (as well as others) made me see I had some catching up to do with the history books.

Join me for a tour of this extraordinary château—a regal refuge that owes not just its elegance and intrigue but its very existence to a list of powerful ladies.

Château de Chenonceau: Over 500 Years of Elegance

Over the last five centuries, Chenonceau's history has taken plot twists and turns like that of a reality tv program, with history's prominent women as leading ladies. They conspired against one another; they saved the day—all in the name of the lovely Château de Chenonceau.

Each of them protected and enhanced the castle (and sometimes undid the work of previous occupants). Together, they made the château the glorious gem that it is today.

Humble Medieval Beginnings

On the banks of the Cher River where the Château de Chenonceau now rests, there was once a medieval fortress and mill, complete with a system of protective moats. The structure dated back to the 11th century—perhaps earlier, and it remained in the Marques family until an unfortunate sequence of events.

Stern Punishment

In 1412, the property's owner was charged with sedition (inciting rebellion against lawful authority). As punishment, the building was set ablaze. He rebuilt his mill and a château in its place, although doing so placed him deeply in debt.

Chenonceau was burned in 1412 to punish its owner, Jean Marques, for an act of sedition.

Chenonceau was burned in 1412 to punish its owner, Jean Marques, for an act of sedition.

Sold Then Demolished

Troubled by the enormity of the debt, the Marques family heir subsequently sold their property to Thomas Bohier in 1513. An aristocrat, Bohier was a finance minister for Kings Charles VIII, Louis XII and Francis I.

Bohier promptly demolished the old mill and château, leaving only the original "keep," or main tower, which still remains today (pictured above).

The only remnant of the 11th century castle and mill are this main tower, or "keep."

The only remnant of the 11th century castle and mill are this main tower, or "keep."

A Lady Oversees Design and Construction

Bohier and his wife, Katherine Briçonnet, had the current Château de Chenonceau built in place of the old mill that he destroyed.

During the six years it took to construct the château, from 1515-1521, Bohier travelled frequently. Katherine thus stepped up, personally overseeing the castle's design and construction.

Katherine had Chenonceau built in grand Renaissance style. She incorporated large windows, intricate sculpting, and one of the first "straight staircases" (rather than spiral staircases typical for the era). The lady truly made her mark on this castle.

Prophetic Words

Bohier and his better half poured huge sums of money into building their dream château. Unfortunately, however, the Mister died before it was completed. After Bohier's death, Katherine and their son finished the project. Then she died two years later.

The words carved into the château's 16th-century door ring prophetic: "S'il vient à point, me souviendra." They mean, "If completed, remember me."1

Building Chenonceau took everything they had, but Chenonceau would become their legacy.

New Property of the Crown

King Francis I was twice a guest at the castle before darker days set in for the deeply indebted family. In payment of the debt, Katherine's son relinquished her beloved Chenonceau to King Francis I, who personally showed meager interest in it.

Diane de Poitiers had a 25-year affair with married King Henry II.

Diane de Poitiers had a 25-year affair with married King Henry II.

Who Was Diane de Poitiers?

Noblewoman Diane de Poitiers was named after Diana, the Roman goddess of the hunt, and she was certainly a cougar on the prowl.

Renowned for her beauty and athleticism, Diane carried on a legendary 25-year love affair with the married King Henry II, husband of Catherine de' Medici. Diane was Henry's favorite mistress, retaining both his loyalty and affection over the years.

Nearly two decades older than Henry, Diane is believed to have begun her affair with him when he was 16 and she was 32. (She was recently widowed by a powerful French nobleman 39 years older than herself.)

Diane was both intelligent and politically shrewd. As king, Henry entrusted her to write some of his official letters and to oversee the education of his children. She was known as the most powerful woman in France. In 1548, Henry gave Diane the Château de Chenonceau, significant parcels of land, and a title: Duchesse de Valentinois.

King Henry II died at age 40 after an opponent lanced him in the eye during a jousting tournament. During the 11 miserable days it took him to die, Queen Catherine de' Medici plotted her vengeance. Catherine banished Diane from his deathbed and funeral. Later, she permitted only her own initials inscribed on Henry's tomb, and she reclaimed Diane's beloved Chenonceau as her own.

Diane lived out the rest of her 66 years in relative obscurity. During the French Revolution, rioters dug up her body and tossed it into a mass grave, where she rested for more than 200 years.

When Diane's body was exhumed in 2008, scientists found toxic levels of gold in her hair (250 times higher than normal). They concluded that she probably died of gold poisoning. Drinkable gold was consumed as a youth potion and healing agent. Diane, the king's beautiful cougar mistress, thus died as a result of her quest for eternal youth.

A Royal Mistress Enhances Chenonceau's Grandeur

King Francis I's successor, his son Henry II, subsequently "donated" the property to his favorite royal mistress, Diane de Poitiers. However, Henry had no legal right to do so, and it took years of crafty maneuvering for Diane to finally achieve legitimate ownership of the castle she so coveted.

For 25 years—the entirety of her relationship with the married king—Diane was the most influential woman in France. Diane was a legendary beauty, known for her robust health, athletic tone, and hunting prowess. She also became known for her devotion to Chenonceau, the elegant castle by the river.

Diane enlarged the castle and commissioned a number of enhancements: formal flower gardens, vegetable gardens, a variety of fruit trees, and the now-famous five-arched bridge that joins the château to its opposite bank. (The bridge allowed her to hunt on both sides of the river.) A highly competent businesswoman, Diane oversaw the large estate, and her impact on the property remains visible today.

Diane de Poitiers' French gardens consist of eight triangular lawns and a water fountain in the middle. The raised terraces protect the garden when the Cher River overflows its banks.

Diane de Poitiers' French gardens consist of eight triangular lawns and a water fountain in the middle. The raised terraces protect the garden when the Cher River overflows its banks.

A Vengeful Queen Stakes Her Claim

Mistress Diane de Poitiers' power—and her home at Chenonceau—ended when Henry was accidentally killed in a jousting accident in 1559. Henry III was too young to rule, so his mother took the helm.

Henry's death provided the queen, an embittered and long-suffering Catherine de' Medici, an opportunity to reclaim her power.

Power Play: Diane Is Evicted

Catherine evicted Diane by requiring Henry's grieving mistress to exchange her beloved Chenonceau for another château, Chaumont. Diane subsequently retreated to relative obscurity as Chenonceau became Catherine's own favorite residence.

Making A Good Castle Better

Catherine jubilantly embarked on a campaign of improvements, including erasing and one-upping Diane's influences.

Above doorways, the queen added Italian marble medallions in the likeness of Roman emperors. She also embellished the chateau with her and Henry's initials ("H" & "C"), which intertwined resemble a "D" for Diane. Unintentional, surely.

Notably, Catherine added a botanical maze and an Italian garden to rival Diane's French formal garden. Thus, today when facing the Cher River, you can look left in the direction of Diane's garden and right to Catherine's. (Oddly, Diane's are much larger.)

In addition, the Queen constructed stables, acquired luxurious Flemish tapestries and had a grand two-story gallery built upon Diane's bridge. The gallery served as a ballroom for numerous official galas.

On her deathbed in 1589, Catherine bequested her treasured Chenonceau to her daughter-in-law, Queen Louise of Lorraine, the wife of Henry III.

Portrait of Catherine de' Medici (1519-1589) by François Clouet

Portrait of Catherine de' Medici (1519-1589) by François Clouet

Who Was Catherine de' Medici?

Catherine de' Medici was a woman hardened by the life she led. Born to the powerful Italian Medici family, Catherine was orphaned when she was several weeks old with no close relatives to care for her.3

She was thus the sole inheritor of the Medici fortune, the quintessential "poor little rich girl."

At age 8, she was taken hostage by an angry mob and lived for years in Italian convents. When Catherine was 14, her uncle, Pope Clement VII, arranged for her marriage to the man who would become King Henry II.

Catherine was not an attractive woman, being described as: "small and slender, with fair hair, thin and not pretty in face, but with the eyes peculiar to all the Medici." In addition, the French people did not welcome an Italian—a foreigner—as their queen.

Adding to her troubles was that she loved her husband to the point of obsession. However, Henry was instead committed to his tall, beautiful and much older mistress, Diane de Poitiers. Henry spent considerable time with the mistress and excluded his wife from influence.

For the first decade of marriage, the royal couple failed to have children. Realizing the importance of achieving an heir, Diane allegedly sent Henry to sleep with his wife every night in order to rectify the situation. The royal couple eventually had 10 children together. Three died in infancy, and another three grew up to be kings: Francis II, Charles IX, and Henry III.

Reigning as Queen after Henry's death, Catherine was known for her ruthlessness. She sought vengeance against rival Diane by taking possession of the mistress' beloved Château de Chenonceau and banishing her to obscurity. She also sent her own daughter-in-law, Mary Stuart (who had a close relationship with Diane), back to Scotland as punishment.

The queen was also famously blamed for the massacre of several thousand Protestants in 1572 at the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre. The mass killings had the effect of convincing Protestants throughout Europe that Catholicism was a bloody and dangerous religion.

If Catherine had redeeming qualities, they would include her love of art, reputation for entertainment, and her alleged introduction of fireworks, high heels, artichokes, ice cream, broccoli, and spinach to French society.

But alas, even these contributions are unconfirmed and often disputed. Poor Catherine, cruel and miserable wretch that she was. She gets as much respect in death as she did in life.

Portrait of Louise Dupin (1730), who as a much older lady saved Chenonceau from demise

Portrait of Louise Dupin (1730), who as a much older lady saved Chenonceau from demise

The End of the Royals at Chenonceau

Within an eight-month period following Diane de Poitiers' death, Louise of Lorraine had lost both her mother-in-law and her husband, Henry III. She entered a period of mourning that lasted the rest of her life.

A Woman Who Stood by Her Man

A quiet, devout woman, Louise loved her husband dearly in spite of his being the Black Sheep of the royal family.

He was known for his cross-dressing, effeminate behavior, and alleged infidelities with male favorites.2 In Henry III's memory, sad Louise wore white, the French color of mourning.

A Lifetime Hobby of Grieving

Louise gave away much of her personal fortune to charity. She changed little about Chenonceau, except for her own room (which she had painted black and decorated in dark feathers, bones, and the tools of gravediggers). How macabre!

Her death in 1601 marked the end of the royals at Chenonceau. For the next hundred years, the castle fell into relative neglect.

Heroine of the Castle

After a period of decline, the château was purchased by a French financier, Claude Dupin in 1733.4

He was also a true connoisseur of the arts. Dupin ran a prominent salon in Paris where many of the luminary novelists, thinkers, dramatists, and poets of the day gathered—men of the French Enlightenment such as Voltaire, Jacques-Rousseau, Montesquieu, and Diderot.

This is the chapel that Louise Dupin protected from revolutionaries by having it stockpiled with wood. Nice job, Louise!

This is the chapel that Louise Dupin protected from revolutionaries by having it stockpiled with wood. Nice job, Louise!

Breathing Life Back Into Chenonceau

The new owner and his wife, Louise, needed a retreat away from Paris to entertain. However, some of the château's furniture, statues, paintings, and books had been stripped away. Many had ended up in the Palace of Versailles.

Louise thus took a special interest in breathing life back into the grand property and even reestablished court life. The French Revolution, however, threatened to destroy the strides that she had made.

Saving the Château

To protect her château and its contents from the revolutionaries who would destroy it, Louise had to think quickly. She had the castle archives hidden. She also had wood stockpiled in the chapel to conceal its ongoing use as a sanctuary.

Then, as the rowdy crowd was poised to ruin her château, our herione advised them that the bridge—yes, Diane de Poitier's bridge—was the only means across the river for many miles.

The crafty heroine offered free trespass to all, and the castle was spared.5

To commemorate his visit to Chenonceau in 1650, Louis XIV gave his uncle this portrait of himself in an exquisite wooden frame.

To commemorate his visit to Chenonceau in 1650, Louis XIV gave his uncle this portrait of himself in an exquisite wooden frame.

Did You Know?

  • Henry II implemented a tax on anyone who rang the church bells in town, and all proceeds went directly to Diane de Poitiers.
  • Catherine de' Medici's son, Francis II, married Mary, Queen of Scots at Chenonceau in 1560. To celebrate, Queen Catherine arranged for the first fireworks seen in France.
  • Guards for Mary, Queen of Scots left the following inscriptions on the walls of the château's chapel: "Man's anger does not accomplish God's Justice" (dated 1543) and "Do not let yourself be won over by Evil" (dated 1546).
  • Nostradamus foresaw Henry II's jousting death. Many of his predictions revolved around the royal family.6