Thursday, October 29, 2009
Like so many other castles, Chenonceau was built on the site of an earlier property - in fact two earlier properties stood here. A manor house that was burned to the ground in 1411 was followed by a fortified castle, but that too was destroyed to make way for the chateau we currently see, built between 1515 and 1521 by Thomas Bohier, overseen by his wife Katherine Briconnet.
Soon after completion the chateau was seized by King Francois I, because Bohier could not pay his debts. The king's successor Henry II presented the castle to his mistress Diane de Poitiers, who arranged significant renovations and enhancements to the gardens. Ten years later however, after the death of the king, his widow Catherine de Medici forced her to exchange the chateau for nearby Chateau Chaumont - a fine castle, but much less grand than Chenonceau. Under Catherine de Medici further extensive work was carried out on the chateau and gardens, including the Grand Gallery across the river.
The fortunes of the castle changed after the death of Catherine de Medici in 1589. Following occupancy by the widow of Henry III and the mistress of Henry IV the castle slowly became less occupied and less maintained. Bought by the Duke of Bourbon in 1720, he sold many of the contents of the castle, and then the castle itself.
The purchaser, Claude Dupin - or rather his wife - gave a new lease of life to the castle, and most importantly managed to stop it being damaged during the revolution - on the basis it provided the only bridge across the river in the region. Various changes of fortunes and ownership affected the castle in the century to come, with the purchase by the current owners - the Meniers. The castle has now been carefully restored to its former glory.
The main parts of the building are the castle itself, the gallery across the river, and a tower - the Tour des Marques. This tower is all the remains of the earlier chateau, and was itself significantly transformed.
The chateau contains many splendours and impressive salons and chambers, staircases and fireplaces, furnishings and carvings. Around every turn there is a trace of one of the queens and mistresses who lived in Chenonceau - too many to describe them all here but be assured the castle oozes history as well as any other in the land! The 16th and 17th century tapestries are a particular highlight.
A couple of interesting facts from more recent years - during the First World War the owner turned over the chateau for use as a hiospital for the injured; and during the second World War, one end of the castles gallery was in the Occupied Zone and the other in French Free Territory - and this corridor between the two zones was apparently used very efficiently!
The gardens, now recreated, of Catherine de Medici and Diane de Poitiers, form a perfect backdrop to the castle. If you can visit on a fine summer evening you can enjoy the great pleasure of a walk through the beautiful, and carefully lit, gardens as appropriate music sets the atmosphere of an era gone by - very romantic!
Chenonceau makes a great deal of the role of women in its history - including a wax museum containing their likenesses - with Katherine Briconnet, Diane de Poitiers, Catherine de Medici and Mrs Dupin being the main characters in the life of the chateau. Whether due to the feminine touch or not, the ensemble of chateau, location, gardens and interior decor make of Chenonceau one of the finest and most interesting chateaux in France.