Things to see and do - Châteaux of the Loire
Gallo-Roman Era and the Early Middle Ages
52 BC — Carnutes revolt. Caesar conquers Gaul.
AD 1C–4C — Roman occupation of Gaul.
313 — Constantine grants freedom of worship to Christians (Edict of Milan).
372 — St Martin, Bishop of Tours (dies at Candes in 397).
573–594 — Episcopacy of Gregory of Tours, author of the History of the Franks.
7C — Founding of the Benedictine abbey of Fleury, later to be named St-Benoît.
late 8C — Alcuin of York’s school for copyists. Theodulf, Bishop of Orleans.
768–814 — Charlemagne.
840–877 — Charles the Bald.
9C — Vikings invade Angers, St-Benoît and Tours. Rise of Robertian dynasty.
The Capets (987–1328)
987–1040 — Fulk Nerra, Count of Anjou.
996–1031 — Robert II, the Pious.
1010 — Foundation of the Benedictine abbey at Solesmes.
1060–1108 — Philippe I.
1101 — Foundation of Fontevraud Abbey.
1104 — First Council of Beaugency.
1137–1180 — Louis VII.
1152 — Second Council of Beaugency. Eleanor of Aquitaine marries Henry Plantagenet.
1154 — Henry Plantagenet becomes King of England as Henry II.
1180–1223 — Philippe Auguste.
1189 — Death of Henry II Plantagenet at Chinon. Struggle between Capets and Plantagenets.
1199 — Richard the Lionheart dies at Châlus and is buried at Fontevraud.
1202 — John Lackland loses Anjou. The last of the Angevin kings, he dies in 1216.
1215 — Magna Carta.
1226–1270 — Louis IX (St Louis).
1285–1314 — Philippe IV, the Fair.
1307 — Philippe the Fair suppresses the Order of the Knights Templars.
The Valois (1328–1589)
1337–1453 — Hundred Years’ War: 1346 Crécy; 1356 Poitiers; 1415 Agincourt.
1380–1422 — Charles VI.
1392 — The King goes mad.
1409 — Birth of King René at Angers.
1418 — The Massacre at Azay-le-Rideau.
1422–1461 — Charles VII.
1427 — The Dauphin Charles establishes his court at Chinon.
1429 — Joan of Arc delivers Orléans, but she is tried and burnt at the stake two years later.
1453 — Battle of Castillon: final defeat of the English on French soil.
1455–1485 — Wars of the Roses: Margaret of Anjou leader of Lancastrian cause.
1461–1483 — Louis XI.
1476 — Unrest among the powerful feudal lords.
1477 — The region’s first printing press is set up in Angers.
1483 — Death of Louis XI at Plessis-lès-Tours.
1483–1498 — Charles VIII.
1491 — Marriage of Charles VIII and Anne of Brittany at Langeais.
1494–1559 — The Campaigns in Italy.
1496 — Early manifestations of Italian influence on French art.
1498 — Death of Charles VIII at Amboise.
1498–1515 — Louis XII. He divorces and marries Charles VIII’s widow.
1515–1547 — François I.
1519 — French Renaissance: work on Chambord starts. Da Vinci dies at Le Clos-Lucé.
1539 — Struggle against Emperor Charles V. He visits Amboise and Chambord.
1547–1559 — Henri II.
1552 — The sees of Metz, Toul and Verdun join France. Treaty signed at Chambord.
1559–1560 — François II.
1560 — Amboise Conspiracy. François II dies at Orléans.
1560–1574 — Charles IX.
1562–1598 — Wars of Religion.
1562 — St-Benoît Abbey is pillaged by the Protestants. Battles at Ponts-de-Cé and Beaugency.
1572 — The St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Paris.
1574–1589 — Henri III.
1576 — Founding of the Catholic League by Henri, Duke of Guise to combat Calvinism. Meeting of the States-General in Blois.
1588 — The assassination of Henri, Duke of Guise and his brother, the Cardinal of Lorraine.
The Bourbons (1589–1702)
1 589–1610 — Henri IV.
1589 — Vendôme recaptured by Henry IV.
1598 — Edict of Nantes. Betrothal of César de Vendôme.
1600 — Henri IV weds Marie de Medici.
1602 — Maximilien de Béthune buys Sully.
1610–1643 — Louis XIII.
1619 — Marie de Medici flees from Blois.
1620 — Building of the Jesuits college at La Flèche.
1626 — Gaston d’Orléans, brother of Louis XIII, is granted the County of Blois.
1643–1715 — Louis XIV.
1648–1653 — Civil war against Mazarin. The Fronde.
1651 — Anne of Austria, Mazarin and young Louis XIV take refuge in Gien.
1669 — Première of Molière’s play Monsieur de Pourceaugnac at Chambord.
1685 — Revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV at Fontainebleau.
1715–1774 — Louis XV.
1719 — Voltaire exiled at Sully.
1756 — Foundation of the Royal College of Surgeons at Tours.
1770 — The Duke of Choiseul in exile at Chanteloup.
The Revolution and First Empire (1789–1815)
1789 — Storming of the Bastille.
1792 — Proclamation of the Republic.
1793 — Execution of Louis XVI. Vendée War.
Fighting between the Republican Blues and Royalist Whites.
1803 — Talleyrand purchases Valençay.
1804–1815 — First Empire under Napoleon Bonaparte.
1808 — Internment of Ferdinand VII, King of Spain, at Valençay.
Constitutional Monarchy and the Second Republic (1815–1852)
1814–1824 — Louis XVIII.
1824–1830 — Charles X.
1830–1848 — July Monarchy: Louis-Philippe.
1832 — The first steamboat on the River Loire.
1832–1848 — Conquest of Algeria.
1848 — Internment of Abd El-Kader at Amboise.
1848–1852 — Second Republic. Louis Napoleon-Bonaparte, Prince-President.
The Second Empire (1852–1870)
1852–1870 — Napoleon III as Emperor.
1870–1871 — Franco-Prussian War.
1870 — Proclamation of the Third Republic on 4 September in Paris. Frederick-Charles of Prussia at Azay-le-Rideau. Defence of Châteaudun. Tours made headquarters of Provisional Government.
1871 — Battle of Loigny.
The Third Republic (1870–1940)
1873 — Amédée Bollée completes his first car, L’Obéissante.
1908 — Wilbur Wright’s early trials with his aeroplane.
1914–1918 — First World War.
1919 — Treaty of Versailles.
1923 — The first 24-hour sports car race at Le Mans.
1939–1945 — Second World War.
1940 — Defence of Saumur. Historic meeting at Montoire.
1945 — Reims Armistice.
1946 — Fourth Republic.
1952 — First Son et Lumière performances at Chambord.
1958 — The Fifth Republic came into being. On 8 January, Charles de Gaulle became the first President of the new era.
1963 — France’s first nuclear power station at Avoine, near Chinon.
1972 — Founding of the Centre (later called Centre-Val-de-Loire) and Pays de la Loire regions.
1989 — Inauguration of the TGV Atlantique (high-speed train).
1993 — Opening of the International Vinci Congress Centre in Tours.
1994 — The Centre region is renamed Centre-Val de Loire.
1996 — Pope John Paul II visits the city of Tours.
1999 — The euro was introduced in France to replace the franc.
2000 — The Val de Loire (between Sully-sur-Loire and Chalonnes-sur-Loire) is placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
2007 — Nicolas Sarkozy is elected President of France: he took office on 16 May; the 6th President of the French Fifth Republic, the 23rd President of the French Republic and Co-Prince of Andorra. One of his first “social” acts was to admit American singer Barbra Streisand to the Office of Légion d’Honneur.
2007 — Opening of the final section of the A 85 linking Vierzon and Angers.
2009 — France assumes full membership of NATO.
An Eventful Past
Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages
During the Iron Age the prosperous and powerful people known as the Cenomanni occupied a vast territory extending from Brittany to the Beauce and from Normandy to Aquitaine. They minted gold coins and put up a long resistance to both barbarian and Roman invaders.
The Cenomanni reacted strongly to the invasion of Gaul by the Romans and in 52 BC the Carnutes , who inhabited the country between Chartres and Orléans, gave the signal, at the instigation of the Druids, to raise a revolt against Caesar. It was savagely repressed but the following year Caesar had to put down another uprising by the Andes, under their leader Dumnacos.
Peace was established under Augustus and a period of stability and prosperity began. Existing towns such as Angers, Le Mans, Tours and Orléans adjusted to the Roman model with a forum, theatre, baths and public buildings. Many agricultural estates (villae) were created or extended as the commercial outlets developed. They reached their peak in the 2C. By the end of the 3C instability and danger were so rife that cities had been enclosed behind walls.
At the same time Christianity was introduced by St Gatien, the first bishop of Tours; by the end of the 4C it had overcome most opposition under St Martin , the greatest bishop of the Gauls, whose tomb later became a very important place of pilgrimage (St Martin’s Day: 11 November).
In the 5C the Loire country suffered several waves of invasion; in 451 Bishop Aignan held back the Huns outside Orléans while waiting for help. Franks and Visigoths fought for domination until the Frankish king Clovis was finally victorious in 507.
His successors’ endless quarrels, which were recorded by Gregory of Tours, dominated the history of the region in the 6C and 7C while St Martin’s Abbey was establishing its reputation. In 732 the Saracens, who were pushing north from Spain, reached the Loire before they were repulsed by Charles Martel. The order achieved by the Carolingians, which was marked by the activities of Alcuin and Theodulf , did not last. In the middle of the 9C the Vikings came up the river and ravaged the country on either side, particularly the monasteries (St-Benoît, St-Martin). Robert , Count of Blois and Tours, defeated them but they continued their depredations until 911 when the Treaty of St-Clair-sur-Epte created the Duchy of Normandy.
During this period of insecurity the Robertian dynasty (the forerunner of the Capet dynasty) gained in power to the detriment of the last Carolingian kings. A new social order emerged which gave rise to feudalism.
The weakness of the last Carolingian kings encouraged the independence of turbulent and ambitious feudal lords. Although Orléans was one of the favourite royal residences and the Orléans region was always Capet territory, Touraine, the county of Blois, Anjou and Maine became independent and rival principalities. This was the age of powerful barons, who raised armies and minted money. From Orléans to Angers every high point was crowned by an imposing castle, the stronghold of the local lord who was continually at war with his neighbours.
The counts of Blois faced a formidable enemy in the counts of Anjou, of whom the most famous was Fulk Nerra . He was a first-class tactician; little by little he encircled Eudes II, Count of Blois, and seized part of his territory. His son, Geoffrey Martel, continued the same policy; from his stronghold in Vendôme he wrested from the house of Blois the whole county of Tours. In the 12C the county of Blois was dependent on Champagne, which was then at its peak.
At the same period the counts of Anjou reached the height of their power under the Plantagenets , a dynasty founded in Le Mans; when Henri, Count of Anjou, became King Henry II of England in 1154 his kingdom stretched from the north of England to the Pyrenées. This formidable new power confronted the modest forces of the kings of France but they did not quail under the threat of their powerful neighbours and skilfully took advantage of the quarrels which divided the Plantagenets.
In 1202 when King John of England, known as John Lackland , lost all his continental possessions to Philippe Auguste , the Loire country returned to the French sphere of interest.
In accordance with the wishes of his father Louis VIII, when Louis IX came to the throne he granted Maine and Anjou as an appanage to his brother Charles, who abandoned his French provinces, including Provence, and tried to establish an Angevin kingdom in Naples, Sicily and the Near East, as did his successors. Nonetheless, Good King René , the last Duke of Anjou, earned himself a lasting place in popular tradition.
Cradle of Feudalism
Feudalism flourished in France in the 11C and 12C in the region between the Seine and the Loire under the Capet monarchy. The system was based on two elements: the fief and the lord. The fief was a beneficium (benefice), usually a grant of land made by a lord to a knight or other man who became his vassal.
The numerous conflicts of interest which arose from the system in practice produced a detailed code of behaviour embodying the rights of the parties. During the 12C the services due were defined, such as the maximum number of days to be spent each year in military service or castle watch. Gradually the fiefs became hereditary and the lord retained only overall ownership. In the case of multiple vassalage, liege homage was paid to one lord and this was more binding than homage to any other.
An almost perfect hierarchical pyramid was created descending from the king to the mass of simple knights. The more important vassals had the right of appeal to the king in the event of a serious dispute with their suzerain; it was by this means that King John (John Lackland) was deprived of his French fiefs by Philippe Auguste early in the 13C.
All the inhabitants of an estate were involved in the economic exploitation of the land; the estate had evolved from the Carolingian method of administration and was divided into two parts: the domain, which was kept by the lord for himself, and the holdings, which were let to the tenants in return for rent.
The authority exercised by the lord over the people who lived on his estate derived from the royal prerogative of the monarch to command his subjects which passed into the hands of powerful lords who owned castles.
This unlimited power enabled them to impose military service, various duties (road mending, transport, etc.) and taxes on their tenants.
The 16C saw in the Renaissance an explosion of new ideas in the fields of art and architecture, resulting in one of the liveliest periods in the history of the Loire region.
The University of Orléans, with its long-established reputation, attracted a number of humanists : Nicolas Béraud, Étienne Dolet, Pierre de l’Estoile, Anne du Bourg. The world of ideas was greatly extended by the invention of printing – the first printing press in the Loire Valley was set up in Angers in 1477 – which made learning and culture more accessible. By the middle of the century the Pléiade was formed in the Loire Valley and attracted the best local talent.
By choosing Touraine as their favourite place of residence the kings made a significant contribution to the artistic revival of the region. The chief instigators of the great French Renaissance were Charles VIII and even more so Louis XII and François I , who had all travelled in Italy. These monarchs transformed the Loire Valley into a vast building site where the new aesthetic ideals flourished at Amboise, Blois and especially Chambord. The great lords and financiers followed suit and commissioned the building of elegant houses (Azay-le-Rideau, Chenonceau) while graceful mansions were erected in the towns.
The Renaissance was the expression of a new way of thinking which redefined man’s place in the world and presented a radically different view from that which had been held in the past; this gave rise to the desire for harmony and the cult of beauty in all fields: poetry, music, architecture as an expression of nature shaped by man.
The Renaissance excited not only intellectual activity, but also the need for a moral and religious revival. Despite several local experiments (e.g. Le Mans), the Roman Church did not succeed in satisfying these aspirations. Naturally the ideas of Luther and Calvin (who stayed in Orléans between 1528 and 1533) were well received in cultivated circles. In 1540 the Church responded with repression; several reformers died at the stake but the Reform movement continued to grow; nor was support confined to the elite but extended to the mass of the people, craftsmen and tradesmen. The dispute between Protestants and Roman Catholics inevitably led to armed conflict. In 1560 the Amboise Conspiracy failed disastrously and ended in bloodshed. Catherine de’ Medici tried to promote conciliation by issuing edicts of tolerance, but in April 1562 the Huguenots rose up, committing numerous acts of vandalism: damaging places of worship and destroying statues, tombs and relics.
The Roman Catholics, under Montpensier and Guise, regained the upper hand and exacted a terrible vengeance, particularly in Angers. From 1563 to 1567 there was relative peace, but in 1568 the armed struggle broke out anew; the Catholic and Protestant armies, the latter under Condé and Coligny, indulged in regular waves of violence. The inhabitants of Orléans suffered their own massacre of St Bartholomew with nearly 1 000 deaths. During the last quarter of the century the Reformed Churches had become much weaker and Henri III ’s struggle with the Catholic League came to the fore.
In 1576 Touraine, Anjou and Berry were granted to François d’Alençon, the king’s brother and head of the League, as a conciliatory gesture but the Guises would not compromise and conspired against the king who, seeing no other solution, had them assassinated at Blois in December 1588. The population divided into Royalists and Leaguers, who were powerful in the Loire region. Henri III, who had been forced to withdraw to Tours, allied himself with Henri of Navarre and was marching on Paris when he himself was assassinated on 2 August 1589.
It took Henri IV nearly 10 years to restore peace to the region. The brilliant period in the history of the Loire valley, which coincided with the last years of the Valois dynasty, ended in tragedy.
17C–18C: Peace restored
The Loire country ceased to be at the centre of political and religious ferment. There were admittedly a few alarms during the minority of Louis XIII and the Fronde uprising, in which the indefatigable conspirator, Gaston d’Orléans, played a significant role. Order was restored under Louis XIV with centralisation under the crown stifling the slightest sign of autonomy: the districts of Orléans and Tours were administered by energetic treasury officials while the towns lost the right to self-government.
As far as religious life was concerned, the Roman Catholic Church re-established itself: a growth in the number of convents and seminaries, the reform of the old monastic foundations and the suppression of sorcery went hand in hand with an improvement in the intellectual level of the clergy. Protestantism struggled to survive, except in Saumur thanks to the Academy, and was dealt a devastating blow by the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.
A developing economy
Human enterprise benefited from the general stability. Agriculture developed slowly: cereals in the Beauce, raw materials for textiles (wool, linen, hemp), market gardening together with fruit growing and winemaking in the Loire Valley, were a considerable source of wealth whereas cattle raising remained weak. Rural crafts played an important role together with urban manufacturing: hemp cloth around Cholet, cheesecloth in the district of Le Mans, sheeting in Touraine and Anjou, bonnets in Orléanais. The silk weavers of Tours earned themselves a good reputation.
Nevertheless in the 18C, except for sheets from Laval and Cholet, the textile industry fell into decline. Orléans, the warehouse of the Loire, specialised in sugar refining and the finished product was distributed throughout the kingdom. The Loire, under the control of the community of merchants, was the main axis for trade: wine from Touraine and Anjou, wool from the Berry, iron from the Massif Central, coal from the Forez, wheat from the Beauce, cloth from the Touraine and cargoes from exotic countries – everything travelled by water. On the eve of the Revolution these activities were waning but the region featured two million inhabitants and several towns: Orléans (pop. 40 000), Angers (pop. 30 000), Tours (pop. 20 000) and Le Mans (pop. 17 000).
The Touraine and Orléanais regions accepted the Revolution, but Maine and Anjou rose in revolt.
At first it was social conflict in which the country peasants were opposed to the townspeople and the weavers from the villages. Townspeople, who had been won over by the new ideas, were enthusiastic about the new political order, while peasants became increasingly disillusioned. Religious reform upset parish life and the administrative reforms aroused criticism and discontent because they favoured the townspeople. The national guards in their blue uniforms were increasingly disliked: they were sent out from the towns to impose revolutionary decisions on the populace, if necessary by force. The decree imposing mass conscription in March 1793 was seen as an unacceptable provocation in rural areas and the peasants rose in a body. Les Mauges in particular was immediately in the forefront of the battle.
The Vendée War
The Angevin rebels appointed leaders from among their own class: countrymen like Stofflet and Cathelineau, as well as noblemen like Bonchamps. For four months their armies won several important engagements in support of the Church and the king; they captured Cholet, Saumur and then Angers. The Convention, the Republican government of France between September 1792 and November 1795, replied by sending in several army units. The royalist Whites were severely defeated at Cholet on 17 October by General Kléber and General Marceau and compelled to retreat. As they fled, they were pitilessly massacred and the remnants of the great Catholic and Royal Army were exterminated in the Savenay Marshes beyond Nantes. By way of reprisal against the local population the Convention appointed General Turreau in January 1794 to clean up the country. From February to May his infernal columns converged on the centre, killing women and children and setting fire to villages.
The war was followed by sporadic outbursts of guerrilla activity: daring exploits, ambushes and even assassinations. Jean Cottereau , also known as Jean Chouan, was the leading figure who gave his name to the movement. The country people maintained a relentless resistance. At the end of August a faint peacemaking gesture was made under the authority of General Hoche . Charette and Stofflet, who continued the struggle, were arrested and shot in February and March 1796. The insurrection in the Vendée came to an end under the Consulate, a triumvirate including a certain General Bonaparte set up in 1799 to provide stronger government than the existing Republican regime with its divided factions. The war left in its wake widespread ruin and an entrenched bitterness which was revealed later in the very rigid political attitudes of the people of Maine and Anjou.
From War to War
October 1870–January 1871
After the fall of the Empire, France recovered its balance under the stimulus of Gambetta who arrived in Tours by balloon on 9 October, having escaped the Paris siege. The Bavarians, who were victorious at Artenay, had already captured Orléans (11 October) and indicated that they would link up with the Prussian army at Versailles via the Beauce. Châteaudun put up a heroic resistance for ten hours on 18 and 19 October and was bombarded and set on fire in reprisal.
The army of the Loire was formed under the command of General d’Aurelle de Paladines ; two corps, the 15th and 16th (Chanzy), formed in the Salbris camp, set out from Blois for Orléans. The engagement took place at Marchenoir and then at Coulmiers on 9 November: the French were victorious and General Von der Thann was forced to evacuate Orléans. Meanwhile the 18th and 20th Corps tried to check the advance of the Duke of Mecklenburg on Le Mans and Tours but they were beaten on 28 November at Beaune-la-Rolande by Prince Frederick-Charles who had hastened south from Metz. On 2 December the 16th and 17th Corps were defeated at Patay and Loigny where the Zouaves under Lt Col de Charette, the great-nephew of the famous Vendéen Royalist, fought with distinction. Although cut in two the first army of the Loire survived. Orléans had to be abandoned while the government retreated to Bordeaux (8 December).
A second Loire army was formed under General Chanzy ; it resisted every enemy attack and then retrenched on the Loir. On 19 December the Prussians captured Château-Renault and two days later arrived in front of Tours but did not besiege the town. The decisive battle was fought between 10 and 12 January on the Auvours plateau east of Le Mans. Chanzy was forced to retreat towards Laval; Tours was occupied and Prince Frederick-Charles took up residence at Azay-le-Rideau. The armistice was signed on 28 January 1871.
The Americans set up their headquarters in Tours while the first Sammies disembarked at St-Nazaire and were billeted along the Loire.
On 10 June 1940 the French Government moved to Tours, and Cangé Château, on the south-east edge of the town, became the temporary residence of the President of the Republic. On 13 June the Franco-British Supreme Council met in Tours; at Cangé the Council of Ministers decided to transfer the government to Bordeaux. During that week of tragedy the bridges over the Loire were machine-gunned and bombarded; floods of refugees choked the roads. The towns were badly damaged. Two thousand cadets from the Cavalry School at Saumur excelled themselves by holding up the German advance for two days along a 25km/15.5mi front. On 24 October 1940 Marshal Pétain met Hitler at Montoire , and agreed to his demands; collaboration was born. The Gestapo in Angers unleashed a reign of terror in the region.
The Resistance was born in 1941; the information and sabotage networks, the underground forces and the escape agents (the demarcation line followed the River Cher and ran between Tours and Loches) hampered the movements of the occupying forces who responded with torture, deportation and summary execution. In August and September 1944 the American army and the forces of the Resistance achieved control of the area with heavy losses.
Development of the Châteaux
The first châteaux (5C–10C)
In the Merovingian period the country was protected by isolated strongholds: some had evolved from Gallo-Roman villas (country estates), which had been fortified; others were built on high ground (Loches, Chinon). Generally they covered a fairly large area and served several purposes: residence of important people, place of worship, place for minting money, agricultural centre and place of refuge for the population. This type of stronghold continued under the Carolingians but the growing insecurity in the second half of the 9C introduced a wave of fortification in an attempt to counter the Viking threat.
The early castles, which were built in haste, rested on a mound of earth surrounded by a wooden palisade; sometimes a central tower was erected as an observation post. The structure contained very little masonry. Until the 10C castle building was a prerogative of the king but thereafter the right was usurped by powerful lords; small strongholds proliferated under the designation of towers – the keep had been invented.
The motte castle (11C)
The motte was a man-made mound of earth on which was erected a square wooden tower, the keep. An earth bank protected by a ditch supported the perimeter fence, which consisted of a wooden palisade and enclosed an area large enough to contain people from the neighbourhood. The keep was built either as the last place of refuge or at the weakest point in the perimeter fence; some castles had more than one motte. In several of the Angevin castles built by Fulk Nerra the keep protected a residential building erected at the end of a promontory, as at Langeais, Blois and Loches, which are typical of the Carolingian tradition.
The stone castle (12C–13C)
By the 11C some castles had defensive works built of stone. The keep was still the strongest point and took the form of a massive quadrangular structure. The keeps at Loches, Langeais, Montbazon, Chinon (Coudray) and Beaugency are remarkable examples of 11C architecture.
The 12C keep overlooked a courtyard which was enclosed by a stone curtain wall, gradually reinforced by turrets and towers. Within its precincts each castle comprised private apartments, a great hall, one or more chapels, soldiers’ barracks, lodgings for the household staff and other buildings such as barns, stables, storerooms, kitchens, etc.
The tendency grew to rearrange the buildings more compactly within a smaller precinct. The keep comprised a storeroom on the ground floor, a great hall on the first and living rooms on the upper floors. The compact shape and the height of the walls made it difficult to besiege and only a few men were needed to defend it.
In the 13C, under the influence of the crusades and improvements in the art of attack, important innovations began to make their presence felt. Castles were designed by experts to be even more compact with multiple defensive features so that no point was unprotected. The curtain wall bristled with huge towers and the keep was neatly incorporated into the overall design.
A circular plan was adopted for the towers and keep; the walls were splayed at the base; the depth and width of the moat were greatly increased.
Sometimes a lower outer rampart was built to reinforce the main rampart; the intervening strip of level ground was called the lists. Improvements were made to the arrangements for launching missiles: new types of loophole (in a cross or stirrup shape), stone machicolations, platforms, brattices etc.
The 13C castle, which was more functional and had a pronounced military character, could be built anywhere, even in open country.
At the same time a desire for indoor comfort began to express itself in tapestries and draperies and furniture (chests and beds), which made the rooms more pleasant to live in than they had been in the past.
The late medieval castle
In 14C and 15C castle-building the accent moved from defence to comfort and decoration. The living quarters were more extensive; large windows to let in the light and new rooms (state bedrooms, dressing rooms and lavatories) appeared; decoration became an important feature.
In the military sphere there were no innovations, only minor improvements. The keep merged with the living quarters and was surmounted by a watchtower; sometimes the keep was suppressed altogether and the living quarters took the form of a rectangular block defended by huge corner towers. The entrance was flanked by two semicircular towers and protected by a barbican (a gateway flanked by towers) or by a separate fort.
The top of the curtain wall was raised to the height of the towers which were crowned by a double row of crenellations. In the 15C the towers were capped by pointed, pepper-pot roofs.
Other fortified buildings
Churches and monasteries, which were places of sanctuary and therefore targets of war, were not excluded from the fortification movement, especially during the Hundred Years War.
The towns and some of the villages also turned their attention to defence and built ramparts round the residential districts. In 1398, 1399 and 1401 Charles VI issued letters and ordinances enjoining the owners of fortresses and citizens to see that their fortifications were in good order.
From the end of the 13C fortified houses were built in the country districts by the lords of the manor; they had no military significance but are similar in appearance to the smaller châteaux .
The attackers’ first task was to besiege the enemy stronghold. The defences they constructed (moat, stockade, towers, forts or blockhouses) were intended both to prevent a possible sortie by the besieged and to counter an attack from a relief army.
In the great sieges a fortified town grew up in its own right to encircle the site under attack. In order to make a breach in the defences of the besieged place the attackers used mines, slings, battering rams and siege towers. For this they had specialist troops who were experts in siege operations.
The advent of the cannon altered siege technique. Both attackers and defenders used artillery: the firing rate was not very high and the aim was even less accurate. Military architecture was completely transformed; towers were replaced by low thick bastions and curtain walls were built lower but much thicker. This new system of defence was perfected by Vauban.
The Renaissance château
In the 16C military elements were abandoned in the search for comfort and aesthetic taste: moats, keeps and turrets appeared only as decorative features, like at Chambord, Azay-le-Rideau and Chenonceau. The spacious attics were lit by great dormer windows in the steep pitched roofs. The windows were very large. The spiral turret stairs were replaced with stairs that rose in straight flights in line with the centre of the main façade beneath coffered ceilings. The gallery – a new feature imported from Italy at the end of the 15C – lent a touch of elegance to the main courtyard.
Whereas the old fortified castle had been built on a hill, the new château was sited in a valley or beside a river where it was reflected in the water. The idea was that the building should blend in with its natural surroundings, although these were shaped and transfigured by human intervention; the gardens, laid out like a jewel casket, were an integral part of the design. Only the chapel continued to be built in the traditional style with ogive vaulting and Flamboyant decoration.
The Court in the Loire Valley
A bourgeois court
The court resided regularly in the Loire Valley under Charles VII whose preference was for Chinon and Loches. These visits ended with the last of the Valois, Henri III. Owing to the straitened circumstances to which the King of France was reduced, Charles VII’s court was not particularly glittering; but the arrival of Joan of Arc in 1429 won the castle of Chinon a place in the history books. Louis XI disliked pomp and circumstance. He installed his wife Charlotte of Savoy at Amboise but he himself rarely went there. He preferred his manor at Plessis-lès-Tours where he lived in fear of an attempt on his life. According to Commines, his only interests were hunting and dogs.
The queen’s court consisted of 15 ladies-in-waiting, 12 women of the bedchamber and 100 officers in charge of various functions including the saddler, the librarian, the doctor, the chaplain, the musicians, the official tasters and a great many butlers and manservants. Charlotte was a deep-thinking woman and a great reader; her library contained over 100 volumes, a vast total for that time. They were works on religious thought, ethics, history, botany and domestic science. A few lighter works, such as the Tales of Boccaccio , relieved this solemnity. In fact, compared with that of Charles the Bold, the royal lifestyle seemed homely rather than princely.
A luxurious court
In the late 15C, Charles VIII acquired a considerable amount of furniture and numerous other decorative objects in order to embellish the interior of the Château d’Amboise. He installed hundreds of Persian carpets, Turkish woollen pile carpets, Syrian carpets, along with dozens of beds, chests, oak tables and dressers. The rooms and sometimes the courtyards (in the case of prestigious events) were hung with sumptuous tapestries from Flanders and Paris. He also endowed the château with an extensive collection of beautifully crafted silverware, and a great many works of art, mainly from Italy. The Armoury (note the inventory dating back to 1499) contains several sets of armour and outstanding weapons having once belonged to Clovis, Dagobert, St Louis, Philip the Fair, Du Guesclin and Louis XI.
A gallant court
Louis XII , who was frugal, was the “Bourgeois King” of Blois. But under François I (1515–47) the French court became a model of elegance, taste and culture. The Cavalier King invited men of science, poets and artists to his court. Women, who until then had been relegated to the Queen’s service, were eased by the king into a more prominent role in public life as focal points of a new kind of society. He expected them to dress perfectly and look beautiful at all times – and gave them the means to do so. The King also ensured that these ladies were treated with courtesy and respect. A code of courtesy was established and the court set an example of good manners.
François I divided his time between Amboise and Blois. The festivities he organised were of unprecedented brilliance. Weddings, baptisms and the visits of princes were lavishly celebrated. Sometimes these celebrations took place in the country, as on the occasion when the reconstruction of a siege was organised; a temporary town was built to be defended by the Duke of Alençon while the King led the assault and capture. To increase the sense of realism, the mortars fired huge balls. Hunting, however, took pride of place; 125 people were employed in keeping the hounds while 50 looked after the hawks.
Upon his return from Italy, he had Chambord built and spent the rest of his life there.
The last Valois
Under Henri II and his sons, Blois remained the habitual seat of the court when it was not at the Louvre palace in Paris. It was Henri III who drew up the first code of etiquette and introduced the title His Majesty, taken from the Roman Emperors. The Queen Mother and the Queen had about 100 ladies-in-waiting. Catherine de’ Medici also had her famous Flying Squad of pretty girls, who kept her informed and assisted her in her intrigues. About 100 pages acted as messengers. In addition there were 76 gentlemen servants, 51 clerks, 23 doctors and 50 chambermaids.
The King’s suite included 200 gentlemen-in-waiting and over 1 000 archers and Swiss guards. There was a multitude of servants. Princes of the blood and great lords also had their households. Thus, from the time of François I, the royal entourage numbered about 15 000 people. When the court was on the move, 12 000 horses were needed. By way of comparison, in the 16C only 25 towns in the whole of France had more than 10 000 inhabitants!
Queens and great ladies
Whether they were queen or the current royal mistress, women at court played an increasingly important political role, while the lively festivities with which they surrounded themselves made a major contribution to the sphere of cultural and artistic influence of the royal court.
Agnès Sorel graced the court of Charles VII at Chinon and at Loches. She gave the King good advice and reminded him of the urgent problems facing the country after the Hundred Years War, while the Queen, Marie d’Anjou, moped in her castle.
Louise of Savoy , mother of François I, was a devout worshipper of St Francis of Paola. This religious devotion, mingled with the superstitions of her astrologer Cornelius Agrippa, was barely enough to keep her insatiable ambition in check. She lived only for the accession of her son to the throne and to this end she upset the plans of Anne of Brittany by making him marry Claude, daughter of Louis XII.
The love life of François I featured many women, including Françoise de Châteaubriant and the Duchess of Étampes , who ruled his court until his death.
Diane de Poitiers , the famous favourite of Henri II, was a remarkably tough woman. She retained her energy, both physical and mental, well into old age, to the amazement of her contemporaries. She made important decisions of policy, negotiated with the Protestants, traded in Spanish prisoners, distributed honours and magistracies and, to the great humiliation of the Queen, saw to the education of the royal children. Such was her personality that almost every artist of the period painted her portrait.
The foreign beauty of Mary Stuart , the hapless wife of young King François II, who died at the age of 17 after a few months’ reign, lent an all too brief lustre to the court in the middle of the 16C. She is recalled in a drawing by Clouet and some verses by Ronsard.
A different type altogether was Marguerite de Valois , the famous Queen Margot, sister of François II, Charles IX and of Henri III. Her bold eyes, her exuberance and her amorous escapades caused a great deal of concern to her mother, Catherine de’ Medici. Her marriage to the future King Henri IV did little to calm her down and was in any case later annulled.
Catherine de’ Medici married the Dauphin Henri in 1533 and was a prominent figure at court for 55 years under five different kings. Although eclipsed for a while by the beautiful Diane de Poitiers, she had her revenge on the death of Henri II by taking Chenonceau from her and building the two-storey gallery across the River Cher. With the accession of Charles IX she became regent and tried to uphold the authority of the monarchy during the Wars of Religion by manoeuvring skilfully between the Guises and the Bourbons, making use of diplomacy, marriage alliances and family intrigue.