Among all the other cities of the Loire, is the favorite with the tourist. Here one first meets a great chateau of state; and certainly the Chateau de Blois lives in one’s memory more than any other chateau in France.
Much has been written of Blois, its counts, its chateau, and its many and famous hotels of the nobility, by writers of all opinions and abilities, from those old chroniclers who wrote of the plots and intrigues of other days to those critics of art and architecture who have discoveredor think they have discoveredthat Da Vinci designed the famous spiral staircase.
From this one may well gather that Blois is the foremost chateau of all the Loire in popularity and theatrical effect. Truly this is so, but it is by no manner of means the most lovable; indeed, it is the least lovable of all that great galaxy which begins at Blois and ends at Nantes. It is a show-place and not much more, and partakes in every form and featureas one sees it to-day-of the attributes of a museum, and such it really is.
All of its former gorgeousness is still there, and all the banalities of the later period when Gaston of Orleans built his ugly wing, for the “personally conducted” to marvel at, and honeymoon couples to envy. The French are quite fond of visiting this shrine themselves, but usually it is the young people and their mammas, and detached couples of American and English birth that one most sees strolling about the courts and apartments where formerly lords and ladies and cavaliers moved and plotted.
The great chateau of the Counts of Blois is built upon an inclined rock which rises above the roof-tops of the lower town quite in fairy-book fashion. Commonly referred to as the Chateau de Blois, it is really composed of four separate and distinct foundations; the original chateau of the counts; the later addition of Louis XII.; the palace of Francis I., and the most unsympathetically and dismally disposed pavilion of Gaston of Orleans.
The artistic qualities of the greater part of the distinct edifice which go to make up the chateau as it stands to-day are superb, with the exception of that great wing of Gaston’s, before mentioned, which is as cold and unfeeling as the overrated pal-ace at Versailles.
The Comtes de Chatillon built that portion just to the right of the present entrance; Louis XII, the edifice through which one enters the inner court and which extends far to the left, including also the chapel immediately to the rear; while Francois I., who here as elsewhere let his unbounded Italian proclivities have full sway, built the extended wing to the left of the inner court and fronting on the present Place du Chateau, formerly the Place Royale.
As an architectural monument the chateau is a picturesque assemblage of edifices belonging to many different epochs, and, as such, shows, as well as any other document of contemporary times, the varying ambitions and emotions of its builders, from the rude and rough manners of the earliest of feudal times through the highly refined Renaissance details of the imaginative brain of Francois, down to the base concoction of the elder Mansart, produced at the commands of Gaston of Orleans.
In the earliest structure were to be seen all the attributes of a feudal fortress, towers and walls pierced with narrow loopholes, and damp, dark dungeons hidden away in the thick walls. Then came a structure which was less of a fortress and more habitable, but still a stronghold, tho having ample and decorative door-ways and windows, with curious sculptures and rich framings. Then the pompous Renaissance with “escaliers” and “balcons a jour,” balustrades crowning the walls and elaborate cornices here, there, and everywhereall be-speaking the gallantry and taste of the knightly king. Finally came the cold, classic features of the period of the brother of Louis XIII.
In plan the Chateau de Bois forms an irregular square situated at the apex of a promontory high above the surface of the Loire, and practically behind the town itself. The building has a most picturesque aspect, and, to those who know, gives practically a history of the chateau architecture of the time. Abandoned, mutilated and dishonored, from time to time, the structure gradually took on new forms until the thick walls underlying the apartment known today as the Salle des Etats probably the most ancient portion of allwere overshadowed by the great richness of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
From the platform one sees a magnificent panorama of the city and the far-reaching Loire, which unrolls itself southward and northward for many leagues, its banks covered by rich vineyards and crowned by thick forests.
The building of Louis XII. presents its brick-faced exterior in black and red lozenge shapes, with sculptured window-frames, squarely upon the little tree-bordered place of to-day, which in other times formed a part of that magnificent terrace which looked down upon the roof of the Eglise St. Nicholas, and the Jesuit church of the Im maculate Conception, and the silvery bell of the Loire itself.
The murders and other acts of violence and treason which took place here are interesting enough, but one can not but feel, when he views the chimney-piece before which the Duc de Guise was standing when called to his death in the royal closet, that the men of whom the bloody tales of Blois are told quite deserved their fates.
One comes away with the impression of it all stamped only upon the mind, not graven upon the heart. Political intrigue to-day, if quite as vulgar, is less sordid. Bigotry and ambition in those days allowed few of the finer feelings to come to the surface, except with regard to the luxuriance of surroundings. Of this last there can be no question, and Blois is as characteristically luxurious as any of the magnificient edifices which lodged the royalty and nobility of other days throughout the valley of the Loire.
The interior court is partly surrounded by a colonnade, quite cloister-like in effect. At the right center of the Francois I. wing is that wonderful spiral staircase, concerning the invention of which so much speculation has been launched.
The apartments of Catherine de Medici were directly beneath the guard-room where the Balafre was murdered, and that event, taking place at the very moment when the queen-mother was dying, can not be said to have been conducive to a peaceful demise.
Here, on the first floor of the Francois I. wing, the queen-mother, held her court, as did the king his. The great gallery over-looked the town on the side of the present Place du Chateau. It was, and is, a truly grand apartment, with diamond-paned windows, and rich, dark wall decorations on which Catherine’s device, a crowned C and her monogram in gold, frequently appears. There was, moreover, a great oval window, opposite which stood her altar, and a doorway led to her writing-closet, with its secret drawers and wall panels, which well served her purpose of intrigue and deceit.
A hidden stairway led to the floor above, and there was a chambre-a-coucher, with a deep recess for the bed, the same to which she called her son Henri, as she lay dying, admonishing him to give up the thought of murdering Guise. “What,” said Henri, on this embarrassing occasion, “spare Guise, when he, triumphant in Paris, dared lay his hand on the hilt of his sword. Spare him who drove me a fugitive from the capital. Spare them who never spared me. No, mother, I will not.”
As the queen-mother drew near her end, and was lying ill at Blois, great events for France were culminating at the .chateau. Henry III. had be-come King of France, and the Balafre, supported by Rome and Spain, was in open rebellion against the reigning house, and the word had gone forth that the Due de Guise must die.
The States-General were to be immediately assembled, and De Guise, once the poetic lover of Marguerite, through his emissaries canvassed all France to ensure the triumph of the party of the church against Henri de Navarre and his queen–the Marguerite whom De Guise once profest to lovewho soon were to come to the throne of France.
The uncomfortable Henri III. had been told that he would never be king in reality until De Guise had been made away with.
The final act of the drama between the rival houses of Guise and Valois came when the king and his council came to Blois for the assembly. The sunny city of Blois was indeed to be the scene of a momentous affair, and a truly sumptuous setting it was, the roof-tops of its houses sloping downward gently to the Loire, with its chief accessory, the coiffed and turreted chateau itself, high above all else.
Details had been arranged with infinite pains, the guard doubled, and a company of Swiss posted around the courtyard and up and down the gorgeous staircase. Every nook and corner has its history in connection with this greatest event in the history of the chateau of Blois.
As Guise entered the council chamber he was told that the king would see him in his closet, to reach which one had to pass through the guard-room be-low. The door was barred behind him that he might not return, when the trusty guards of the Forty-fifth, under Dalahaide, already hidden be-hind the wall-tapestry, sprang upon the Balafre and forced him back upon the closed door through which he had just passed. Guise fell stabbed in the breast by Mantles, and “lay long uncovered until an old carpet was found in which to wrap his corpse.”
Below, in her own apartments, lay the queen-mother, dying, but listening eagerly for the rush of footsteps overhead, hoping and praying that Henrithe hitherto effeminate Henri who played with his sword as he would with a battledore, and who painted himself like a woman, and put rings in his earswould not prejudice himself at this time in the eyes of Rome by slaying the leader of the church party. . .
It was under the regime of Gaston d’Orleans that the gardens of the Chateau de Blois came to their greatest excellence and beauty. In 1653, Abel Brunyer, the first physician of Gaston’s suite, pub-]shed a catalog of the fruit and flowers to be found here in these gardens, of which he was also director. More than five hundred varieties were included, three-quarters of which, belonged to the flora of France.
Among the delicacies and novelties of the time to be found here was the Prunier de Reine Claude, from which those delicious green plums known to all the world to-day as “Reine Claudes” were propagated, also another variety which came from the Prunier de Monsieur, somewhat similiar in taste, but of a deep purple color. The potato was tenderly cared for and grown as a great novelty and delicacy long before its introduction to general cultivation by Parmentier. The tomato was imported from Mexico, and even tobacco was grown.
In 1793 all the symbols and emblems of royalty were removed from the chateau and destroyed.
The celebrated bust of Gaston, the chief artistic attribute of that part of the edifice built by him, was decapitated, and the statue of Louis XII. over the entrance gateway was overturned and broken up. Afterward the chateau became the property of the “domaine” and was turned into a mere barracks. The pavilion of Queen Anne became a military magazine, the Tour de l’Observatoire, a powder-magazine, and all the indignities imaginable were heaped upon the chateau.
In 1814 Blois became the last capital of Napoleon’s empire, and the chateau walls sheltered the prisoners captured by the imperial army.