France – Chenonceaux

It  is one of the few French chateaux around which, as far as I know, there clings no tragedy. Directly we see it, lying among the willows and sedges of the gentle Cher, we feel a sense of pleasure. This is a home, a real home; where we ourselves might live, and sleep, with-out being afraid of the ghosts which haunt most of the castles we have been visiting.

The castle is not very old, as French castles count age. It was built in the reign of Francis I. by Thomas Bohier, the great financier, as a home for himself and his family. As to its story, the servant who showed us round related it unconsciously, as she named the various rooms and their pictures.

” Portrait of a gentleman, supposed to be Thomas Bohier. It is attributed to Vandyke,” and we saw, looking out of its frame, a strong shrewd face, which seemed to be regarding, with a sort of amused contempt, the picture of the frivolous beauties whose expensive tastes had supplied his fortune.

” Chamber of Francis I.” Again we see the long-nosed Valois and his Italian daughter-in-law, Catherine de Medicis. Here is her cabinet; this very ceiling has looked down upon her wax-like face;and bulging eyes.

” Le Salon de Diane de Poitiers.” Ah yes, here on the splendid chimneypiece are the interlaced monograms of herself and her royal lover. And see, we have her as the virgin huntress, in blue, surrounded by dogs and cherubs, ” Par Primatice, Mack-me,” volunteers our guide, noting our interest.

And there is the portrait of Catherine herself, hanging in the very chamber of Diane, replacing her, just as she replaced her at Chenonceaux. The Queen had always coveted this estate, and no sooner was the breath out of Henry’s body than she seized the castle, giving Diane in ex-change the gloomy Chaumont, whither we will presently follow her. But, all the same, it is Diane who flits about before us through the old rooms and galleries. It was she who built this bridge over the Cher, finding it ” desirable to have a quick and easy communication with the farther bank, where is a thick sylvan wood, watered by fountains, and flowery as an April meadow.”

We crossed this bridge, passing through the long gallery which Catherine raised over it, for the giving of feasts, dances by torchlight, and other festivities,” as she said. But having reached the other end, we failed to find ” Diane’s flowery meadow.” Indeed, we only discovered an exceedingly objectionable smell, as though all the unsavoury memories, which have gathered round the Queen and the favourite, had risen from the past to poison the air of the present. Before it we retreated, wondering how Diane, herself such a lover of cleanliness, could have endured it. But as we strolled along the path by the river, where the briar roses grow wild and fragrant, the romance of the old place returned. The perfume of the flowers made us forget the scandals and quarrels of the Court. We thought of the boy King, Francis II., and his young bride, Marie Stuart, who spent their honeymoon here, and used to wander hand in hand along this walk of an evening. I expect they loved the roses too, and would sit watching the river as it flowed beneath the arches of the gallery.

And Diane’s garden—what stories can it not tell of masked balls and illuminated fetes? But she must have been growing rather old for such a life. It was a woman of sixty who passed down the avenue for the last time. I wonder if she noticed the trees as we do, the dwarf oaks of the forest-land, where later the Huguenots used to meet, and plot against the Duc de Guise.

Before we leave Chenonceaux there is one other memory we must evoke—a sweet and gentle memory, of one of the many victims of the manners and morals of those times. At her death Catherine de Medicis had left Chenonceaux to her daughter-in-law, Louise de Lorraine, who, after the murder of her husband, Henri III, came to live here. Very quiet and religious she seems to have been, a nun rather than a queen; devoting herself to the poor and sick; spending her life in doing good, so that the remembrance of La Reine Blanche, as she was called, on account of her white mourning robes, has come down even to the present day.