West Virginia University in Vendée, France
Nobles and Knaves, Knights and Dames...
June 30, 1999
Just after breakfast and before leaving for our ride through the Valley of the Kings, I couldn't resist taking this picture of the hedge of "genêt" growing just outside our hotel on the outskirts of Tours. It is the plant, "genestas" in Latin, from which Henri de Plantagenêt's family took its name, which literally means "he planted genêt." The warriors of this clan wore the flowers in their cap so their soldiers could more easily follow them into battle.
Our route today takes us up the Loire Valley toward Chambord. Along the way we see several castles, each full of history and legend.
Below is Amboise, where Leonardo da Vinci, a friend and companion of François Ier, spent the last years of his life and where he was buried after his death in 1519. The castle is most famous in France as the place where a delegation of Protestant ambassadors was captured and massacred in 1560. They were on their way to meet with Francois Ier's grandson, who had inherited the throne after his son Henri II (de Valois, not to be confused with the "English" Plantagenêt of three centuries earlier) in nearby Blois. Word had gotten out that the Protestants planned to kidnap the new king, and Catholic forces preempted the attempt here. The hapless Protestants were by turn thrown into the Loire, decapited, or simply hung over the castle walls. As a warning to others, the heads hoisted on poles and the bodies hung over the walls were left for days. Legend has it that young François II along with his wife Mary Stewart (Mary Queen of Scotts) and his mother Catherine de Medicis celebrated the event by picnicking amidst the stench of the rotting bodies. The young king Francois II would die just months later in 1560 and his wife would return to her native Scotland to lead the Catholic forces there against the Protestant Queen Elizabeth. Her head was not long in falling as well. Catherine de Médicis would continue to rule in France through her next two sons Charles IX and Henri III. These years of religious strife are among the most troubled in French history, and the events stand in striking contrast to the beauty of the homes to these men and women of great passion.
Diane de Poitiers was a late favorite of François Ier who died in 1547, and she continued her influence by winning the heart of young Henri II. The recent American movie Ever After is in part based on their love. Always a practical man, however, François' ambitions in Italy led him to marry his son to the wealthy and powerful Catherine de Médicis. When Henry died in his jousting accident in 1559, Catherine confiscated Diane's beloved castle of Chenonceau (which we visit later today) and offered her the castle of Chaumont which we pass by below. Humiliated, Diane refused to live here and died not long after in nearby Anet.
Below is the city of Blois, the favorite residence of the early Renaissance kings. Louis XII and Anne de Bretagne lived here and it is from here the Louis took his nephew François d'Angoulême out to the country for their favorite sport of hunting. Louis and Anne having no male heirs, they took care to marry their daughter Claude de France to the young François. This marriage assured that Brittany, the last great independent province, would be united to the French crown. It also strengthened François' claim to that crown, a claim which until then was tenuous at best. The result was the reign of François Ier, a king who would now focus all his attention on the long coveted riches of Italy. The hunting he did in the nearby forests would fix his decision to built the greatest castle of his day in the woods where he hunted with his uncle Louis XII. For today's WVU-Vendéens, all this simply translates as Chambord.
François hoped to make Chambord the symbol of all the wealth and power of France, all the glory and beauty of Italy. The awe-inspiring elegance of this castle is not lost on the WVU-Vendéens below. Click on the picture for a full-screen version of this shot.
François' love of hunting led him to build the castle deep in the forest. In fact, the site he chose was largely swamp land. The building stone was delivered here by river from the Loire up the canal below which was dug through the swamp land. The foundation is in fact built on gigantic oak pillars planted in the marshy land. Properly treated oak has the propery of becoming even harder under water, thus allowing this great structure to withstand the ages.
François' friend Leonardo da Vinci is said to have designed much of the castle, including the famous double spiral staircase below.
Since François' time a favorite game has been for the men to go up one spiral and the ladies to go up the other. Our guide divides our visit along the same lines today. Each group can see the other as we climb, but never the twain shall meet!
As noted yesterday, the Salamander is François's emblem, but so is the "F" surrounded by the woven cords. François' mother Louise de Savoie had him educated by the "Cordeliers," an order devoted to knowledge and the arts. The cords here are in their honor.
The grand portrait of François below is unfortunately counterlit by a nearby window.
The portrait of François' son Henri II is less grandiose but better lit.
Below is the room decorated for Louis XIV, who was inspired by Chambord in his construction of Versailles over a century later.
Our lunch today is at the "Hostel du Roy", or the House of the King. Each plate is decorated with . . . a salamander!
Our next stop is at the wonderful "castle of the ladies," Chenonceau. Surely one of the most beautiful structures in the world, this castle was built with the fortune of François' chief tax collector, Thomas Bohier. Since Bohier spent much of his time with the armies in Italy, his wife Catherine Briçonnet designed and oversaw the contruction of this palace. It has several features that make it an ideal residence for the great ladies of the Renaissance.
The gardens of Chenonceau are not the least of its charms.
Built across the river Cher, Chenonceau is actually a bridge and was even used in World War II by those fleeing German Occupied France toward the free zone here on the southern shore of the Cher.
Today's group poses on the walls that surround the gardens.
When Thomas Bohier died, François examined the books and found his tax collector deeply in dept to the crown. The castle was confiscated and soon given over to the young Henri II. Henri's favorite Diane de Poitiers became the lady of Chenonceau. Diane's years here were among the happiest of Chenonceau. But upon Henri's untimely death in a tragic jousting accident, his queen Catherine de Médicis found the means to strike the grieving Diane an equally fatal blow. She offered to exchange her castle of Chaumont for Diane's beloved Chenonceau. Diane was in no position to refuse the "offer," and she would finish her days in dispair at the loss of the two loves of her life: Henri II and Chenonceau. Below is the portrait of Catherine de Médicis in the suite of rooms she occupied here.
The emblem of Henri II and Catherine de Médicis is the "H" enlaced with two "C's" (one forward, one backward). Is it a coincidence that we also see a "D" in this monogramme? The admirers of Diane de Poitiers think not...
Upon Henri's death, his and Catherine's three sons (François II, Charles IX, and Henri III) would rule in succession over some of the bloodiest years of France's history -- the religious wars. Each would try different solutions to the strife, ranging from marriages and treaties of tolerance to assassination and massacre. The greatest of the massacres occurred during the marriage of the Protestant Henri de Navarre to Henri and Catherine's daughter Marguerite de Valois (Queen Margot). The Saint Bartholomew's day massacre of 1572 saw the death of some 30,000 Protestants throughout France. Having no male heir, and seeing no end to the bloodshead, the last of the sons, Henri III, recognized his Protestant cousin Henri de Navarre as legitimate pretender. He hoped this would bring peace, but was himself assassinated by the fanatic monk Jacques Clément in 1589. Catherine de Médicis having died the same year, Henri's widow became the lady of Chenonceau. Louise de Lorraine loved her husband deeply and would live out her life in deep mourning. The colors white and black being symbolic of grief, Louise de Lorraine designed the room below for her retirement from the world.
Louise wore a white dress the rest of her life as a sign of her loss. She thus was known here as "La Dame blanche" or the Lady in White. The cross made of bones with the spades and picks, along with the cornucopia of eternal tears, were chosen by Louise de Lorraine to decorate the walls of her final castle.
Before leaving Chenonceau, I crossed over the Cher to woods on the other side. The sailboat below is lowering its mast to cross under the castle.
We are soon back aboard the Vendée-Mobile. As we cross back into Vendée, I was able to capture this evening shot of Giles de Rais' castle in Tiffauges. The ruins of "Blue Beard's" fortress seem as dark as Louise de Lorraine's last residence, and the stories of the children devoured by this ogre are only slightly more horrific.
It is Wednesday June 30 as I publish this page. We have taken a day off from class to gather our forces for the last leg of WVU-V 1999. Tomorrow we will hear the first reports of our individual culture projects, and from what I have seen thus far they promise to be very enlightening. A welcome change from the abodes of Louise de Lorraine and of the monstrous Blue Beard.
Stay tuned to WVU-V!
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