Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/French castles - Part 1

No. I.


To spend the summer months in becoming thoroughly acquainted with the most celebrated French châteaux situated in Touraine and the neighbouring country, is to procure oneself as much interesting and enjoyable occupation as can possibly fall to the lot of a traveller in any country: whether we value them for their historical associations, for their picturesque and beautiful situation, or for the romantic stories connected with so many of them, they form quite a chronicle in themselves.

Touraine, especially, was the chosen residence of the French kings of the Valois line, down to Louis XIV. The vast and castellated Chambord, with its turrets and pinnacles, all surmounted with the crescent—emblem of Diane de Poitiers; the gloomy Blois—terrible scene of the assassination of the Guises; Amboise, the favourite residence of Charles VIII.; Chenonceau, the abode of Diane de Poitiers herself; Chinon, where occurred the opening scene of the wondrous career of the Maid of Orleans; Fontevrault, the last resting-place of our own chivalrous Richard Cœur-de-Lion; and others that I cannot pause to name,—all are national monuments,—portions of French history as it were, bringing before me with the utmost reality (so unaltered in most instances are these royal dwellings) the localities where took place the thrilling scenes of those stirring times.

Blois, a very ancient and highly picturesque town, is a good starting point for the tour we had in contemplation; indeed its own castle is one of the most historical and interesting of the number. The town stands on a steep ridge, with the castle at one end and the cathedral at the other. The river Loire is here crossed by a magnificent bridge of eleven arches; the ancient town standing on the right bank, and the handsome new suburb on the left. The walk to the castle leads one through very narrow lanes, past wonderfully picturesque old buildings, and into all sorts of out-of-the-way nooks and corners.

This castle is very ancient; for centuries it was the abode of the high and mighty ones of the earth, and the scene, at different times, of the most revolting crimes and the most striking events. It had been desecrated by being used for barracks, and in far more objectionable ways, but in 1843 it was in part most admirably restored. The fine Gothic portal is not in the centre of the edifice; it leads into a court, part of which has a cloister running round it; on the right is the part of the building raised by Francis I., and the western side was begun under Gaston, Duke of Orleans. The salamander emblems of Francis are everywhere seen in the richly carved roof, overhanging the gorgeous staircase leading to the suite of rooms rendered terribly famous as the scene where the tragedy of the Guises was enacted!

It is singular how tradition has preserved the minutest details connected with this edifice; and though at the French Revolution the building was not only entirely stripped of everything, but defaced and injured in the most barbarous way, yet still has this same tradition preserved in the most singular manner every particular as to the exact spot, and every terrible little incident of the barbarous deed. There is the closet where Henri III. distributed the weapons to the infamous forty-five gentlemen who were to do him the service, so horrible and so traitorous, that he required at their hands. The very spot where the victim (sent for by the king), after pushing aside the tapestry concealing the door, fell pierced with innumerable wounds, is pointed out to you. The outer room, where the body lay with nought but a rough cloak cast over it, is shown; and it requires but little imagination to bring before one the terrible scene—“the corpse of the once mighty Henri le Balafue, Duc de Guise! the royal miscreant, issuing forth from his apartment to look at his fallen enemy; the absence of all knightly honour, or even common decency of conduct to the dead, which could permit him to commit the outrage of spurning the body from him, as it were, with his foot, while he uttered the well-remembered speech—‘Je ne le croyais pas aussi grand.” All the terrible drama seems again to live before one. As if this was not enough to give a fearful renown for crime to this gloomy edifice, the king, not satisfied with one life, caused the Cardinal de Lorraine, brother to the murdered man, to be butchered in cold blood, in another part of the same castle, only the day following. They were indeed fearful times to live in!

There is yet one more memento of these awful deeds. A small pavilion, situated in a high tower of the castle, overlooking the river, known by the name of Catherine de’ Medici’s Observatory, the scene where she met her astrologer, and made all her wicked calculations, as the contriver of the infamous plot, seems to belong to the locale connected with this tragedy.

It is quite refreshing, after contemplating such fearful characters, to turn to a very different one whose memory is greatly connected with the castle of Blois, viz., Louis XII., one of the most religious kings that ever wore the French crown. A memory of a far later date still clings to the ancient edifice, seeing that from Blois was dated the last imperial decree ever issued by Napoleon; when, in 1814, the Empress Marie Louise, the young ill-fated king of Rome, and all that yet remained of the army, the court, and the government, were despatched thither by the orders of the Emperor.

From the gloomy traditions attaching to the castle of Blois it is positively refreshing to turn to the gay, festive memories belonging to the magnificent castle of Chambord. The château, though somewhat fantastic, is still a splendid mass of building, containing specimens of nearly every kind of French architecture, from the days of Francis I., its first founder, down to the time of Louis XV. It was after his long captivity in Spain, that Francis indulged his magnificent tastes by erecting this castle or palace on the spot where stood formerly a mere hunting lodge of the counts of Blois. It was begun in the year 1525; more than 1700 workmen were employed under the directions of the famous Primaticcio, and the works were not finished at the death of Francis. The château contains the almost incredible number of 180 rooms.

One matchless beauty of this erection is a tower enclosed within the building, but rising high into the air above it. It is called the Tour de la Fleur-de-Lis de France, on account of the exquisite imitation of that flower, carved in stone, which surmounts it. It contains a most curious double spiral staircase, so contrived, that two parties may ascend and descend at the same time without meeting each other. The salamander occurs in some parts, and in others H. & D. with the crescent, mementoes of Henry II. and Diane de Poitiers, are repeated. How different were the imaginations that filled the mind at Chambord, to those called forth by the gloomy walls at Blois! The brilliancy and beauty of the courts of Francis I. and Henry II.; Charles V. right royally entertained here on his way through France, in 1539, by his generous rival; and the courtly pageants, the splendid banquets, the gay revels, where Mademoiselle de Montpensier lost her heart to the all-fascinating Duc de Lauzun. All in succession seem to rise before one, like the scenes in dissolving views, and then fade away only to be succeeded by a fresh series.

A short distance from Blois the conspicuous Château de Chaumont attracts the attention. It is a mass of those queer-shaped towers so peculiar to French castles, and in its associations it is intimately connected with Blois, as it was for many years the residence of Catherine de’ Medicis. Her room is pointed out as the scene of many a treacherous scheme, and plot for wholesale murder, and many another enormity. Here she resided till the death of her husband, Henry II. After that event she forced his mistress, Diana of Poitiers, to exchange that exquisite gem of a castle Chenonceau, for Chaumont—not that she ever resided there, although her arms carved in stone are everywhere visible,—a blazing hill, Chaud Mont.

And now again the scene is changed, and we pass on to Amboise, a very ancient château, long the residence of the French kings. The earlier part of the edifice dates from Charles VIII., who was born here in 1470, and died here in 1498. There are two wonderful towers of 90 feet in height and 42 feet in circumference; they rise straight from the base of the rock on which the castle stands, and yet they rise to a level with the highest parts of it. Instead of stairs they enclose sloping planes of an ascent so gradual, that horses and carriages even may mount to the summit.

The walls of the castle are of immense thickness. In the cachots or oubliettes (to give these dungeons their more appalling name), beneath the dwelling rooms, were slaughtered 1200 miserable Huguenot prisoners, concerned in the famous “Conjuration d’Amboise,” the object of which was to extricate Francis II., the husband of the young Queen of Scots, from the Guises, in 1560. The secret was betrayed to the Duc de Guise by the infamous treachery of one of those engaged in the plot; the leader, La Rènaüdie, was immediately seized and put to death, while the remainder of the wretched conspirators were everywhere taken; many of them were hung from the castle walls, many perished miserably in the cachots, and it is recorded that the wearied headsman at last gave up his axe to other executioners, who drowned their prisoners, numbers at a time, in the Loire. Such was the awful extent of this infamous butchery, that we further read that the Court were fairly driven away from the castle by the effluvia arising from the number of dead bodies; and this appalling tragedy was but a precursor to the still more appalling massacre of St. Bartholomew! Truly, they are bloody records that appertain to these gloomy old castles; and while one shudders at all the awful details of the murder of the Duc de Guise and his brother in the Castle of Blois, one cannot help reflecting on the deeds of bloodshed of which they were the promoters and abettors, though not themselves the real agents in them.

It was in this castle that Queen Margaret of Anjou was reconciled to the Earl of Warwick, her former foe, through the mediation of the crafty Louis XI. There is the most perfect gem to be seen here; such a specimen of florid Gothic architecture as can hardly be surpassed—I speak of a little chapel in the castle gardens built by Anne of Brittany: it is dedicated to St. Hubert, the patron saint of hunters. The delicately sculptured foliage, everywhere adorning the edifice, is of matchless beauty; the leaves with their fibres; the crisp curling of their edges; are all more like carving in ivory than in stone. And now we pass away from the blood-stained walls of Amboise, and the scene is occupied by the Château of Chenonceau; but though the souvenirs connected with this castle are numerous, they are widely different in character from those we have just alluded to. Here, again, Francis I. (as at Chambord) was the founder; but, unlike the former castle, this was built during the most joyous days of his prosperity; it is actually built on the river Cher, as part of it is raised on the bridge that crosses the stream. It is almost unaltered since the days of its erection, a fact which makes it most delightfully interesting to the explorer. All the curious old furniture, the matchless china, enamel and glass, are there in all their pristine freshness and beauty. Magnificent old armour hangs all round the hall, and the walls of the apartments are covered with that curious old stamped leather well known to antiquaries; the gorgeous ceilings are blue studded with gold stars. The very drinking-cup used by Francis and the lovely Mary Queen of Scots’ mirror are also shown; but perhaps its greatest attraction consists in the celebrated people who have resided within its walls.

Château de Chaumont (OAW).png
Château de Chaumont.
Henri II. bestowed this charming residence on his mistress Diana, and here her royal lover always resorted after a day’s hunting in the Forest of Loches. Her initial D. is seen everywhere; sometimes alone, sometimes united with Henri’s in a monogram, thus HD; but after Henri’s death she was no longer allowed to retain possession, as we have shown in our account of Chaumont. The next illustrious inmate, after the detested Catherine de’ Medici, was Louise de Lorraine, the widow of Henri III.; the black hangings—tokens of her grief—still remain in her room; and to pass from royalty to those ennobled by learning or talent who have been its inmates, we may mention Voltaire, Bolingbroke during his exile, Rousseau, and many others, drawn together by the then owner of the château, the beautiful and highly accomplished Madame Dupin, who lived as late as the year 1799, through many of the horrors of the Revolution.

Many an hour may be most agreeably spent by the curious visitor in examining the interesting portraits preserved here, including those of all the dwellers at Chenonceau Diana’s own picture in the costume of her goddess namesake, the skirt all sprigged with gold fleurs-de-lis, is there; but, as is so often the case with likenesses of celebrated beauties in old times, it does not, to our eyes, give any idea of her matchless charms. Henri Quatre, Sully, Rabelais,—all call for marked attention; but what most attracted me was a cast taken from the lovely face of Agnes Sorrel. We shall speak of the origin of this cast when we come to the Castle of Loches. It is a very remarkable fact, that all through the troubled times of the Revolution, when nearly every place or thing connected in any way with royalty was desecrated and destroyed in the most ruthless manner, the Castle of Chenonceau should wholly have escaped, owing to the respect felt for Madame Dupin in all that neighbourhood; and a stronger tribute to the unassuming virtues of a private individual was surely never paid!

But we must leave these bright and riante scenes, and pass along the dreary road leading us partly through the Forest of Loches to a castle which teems with gloomy and terrible recollections, having been a prison of State especially during the reign of Louis XI.

The town is one of the most picturesque in France; one cannot fail to be struck by it the moment it appears in sight, at the end of the drive from Chenonceau, with its historic, but most ill-omened castle, domineering over the landscape, and forming the one prominent feature in every view of the place. The castle is now partly in ruins, but in former days it was the scene of royal revels when James V. of Scotland came to wed the French princess Magdalen, then in the prime of life and the bloom of beauty; but these memories are swallowed up and lost in the fearful traditions belonging to it, as one of the State prisons in the days of that cruel, crafty tyrant Louis XI. All the more secret acts of cruelty with which even he did not choose to pollute his own palace, are known to have taken place here, in the awful dungeons, deep down in the bowels of the earth, some not even known to the keepers, till some unfortunate victim was to be consigned to this living death, when some one in Louis’s confidence revealed to the keeper (who was to be entrusted with the prisoner) this fresh place of torment. It was here that those cages were kept, so constructed that the wretched creature placed therein could neither stand nor stretch himself at full length in them; these were invented by one high in the good graces of the monarch, the Cardinal Balne. That this fearful place might have a fitting head gaoler placed over it, the appointment was given to the celebrated Olivier le Daim, the king’s barber and chief-counsellor, and his equal in every sort of wickedness. The castle was erected as early as the eleventh century by one of the Counts of Anjou. The walls are over eight feet in thickness; and the château forms an immense mass of buildings of many different ages.

The lofty White Tower, as it is called, measuring 120 feet in height, and rising over the verge of a steep precipice, is very striking. Close to it is the tower containing the fearful cachots I have spoken of, deep down, one below the other. Here Ludovico Sforzo il Moro, Duke of Milan, was imprisoned for ten wretched years, in 1500, till he was mercifully released from his suffering by his death, in 1510. The famous historian, Philip de Commines, was imprisoned here in 1486; the Duc d’Alençon, in 1456. Charles de Melun, in 1468, was shut up in one of these donjons, and finally beheaded; but were I to continue the list of the miserable victims who have languished out a fearful existence, longing for death to release them, and to put an end to their long martyrdom, I should never have done. These awful cages still existed as late as 1789.

How awful it is to think of the long catalogue of crimes committed within those doomed walls, many of them at the command of one man! It would be almost too painfully exciting to visit the actual scenes of such deep and revolting tragedies, were it not that even here there is a softening side to the picture, in the recollections of the beautiful, tender-hearted Agnes Sorel, the much-loved mistress of Charles VIII. She was born in the neighbourhood, and in the days of her influence with Charles, she was known as the active, untiring protectress and friend of all those in distress. Humble-minded, gentle, and generous, she was never wearied of seeking out fresh cases where her aid might be effectual. Her monument is placed in the chapel at Loches. It is carved in limestone, white as snow, and placed on a base of black marble. The effigy of “La Belle des Belles,” as she was called, is most rarely beautiful; her hands are clasped and raised as if in prayer, while two angels bend over her. Long, flowing drapery clothes her figure, while a simple circlet is her only ornament. The exquisite sweetness, gentleness, and refinement that were the characteristics of her beauty, are rendered with rare fidelity in this statue. The cast I mentioned some pages back, was taken from it. Certainly, poor Agnes Sorel was a singular case of a king’s favourite never, in any known instance, exercising her influence over him but for good.