France – Chinon

WE have reached Chinon. How charming, even in its decay, is this old royal castle of the Plantagenets. What must it have been in its splendour!

Originally, like all these ancient residences, it was a mere fortress commanding the valley of the Vienne. It has seen the Romans, the Visigoths, the Franks, and later, the English or rather the Plantagenets.

You will remember how Matilda, the only remaining child of Henry I., married the hand-some young Count of Anjou, Geoffroi le Bel. That is how Chinon came into the possession of the English Crown. I do not think Matilda ever lived there, but her son, Henry II., made it his l”avourite home. After he had added to the old fortress, strengthened the ramparts, and built the splendid apartments destined for him-self and his Court, it must have been a truly royal residence.

It was evening when we arrived, for we had spent the morning at Loches, and loitered much on the way. In my tiny room, at the Hotel Boule d’Or, I lay all night listening to the rushing of the Vienne, here broad and opulent, as befits a river which has known so many royal persons. How many songs it sang in its rich deep voice!

Next morning, as soon as we had finished break-fast, we set out for the castle. Up and up we climbed, through the shadowy streets of ancient grey houses, till we reached La Tour de l’Horloge, and, entering the precincts, I presently found the window-sill of what was once a great hall. There, seating myself, I looked down over the roofs to the bridge built, it is said, by Henry Plantagenet. Up in the ivy sparrows are chattering; and swallows flash past my window, stretching their wings in preparation for their long flight southward. Down in the town a church bell is tolling mournfully, and I begin wondering vaguely whether it is for the passing of the soul of Henry, or Richard, or Jeanne d’Arc; for the centuries are dissolving, the past is the past no longer, as I sit there in my window at Chinon.

Boom! goes the great bell. Hush, the birds are all- talking about it. The swallows have brought the news of the meeting of the Kings of France and England at Colombiers. It was Henry who arrived first, they say, ill as he was, bent double with pain.

” Marshal,” he groaned, ” good gentle sir, a cruel agony has seized me by the heels. I have never suffered as I am suffering now.”

” Sire,” cried the Marshal, lie, I pray you, beneath this tree, and rest a while.”

We all know the story of the meeting which followed; of the disgraceful terms of the treaty which Henry found himself forced to sign; of the kiss of peace he was obliged to give his traitor son, Richard, and the curse he muttered as he did so.

It was to Chinon he was borne, after learning at Azay-le-Rideau that his youngest and favourite child, John, had also deserted him for the King of France. The news had broken his heart.

“Enough,” said he, “you have said enough! ” and turning to the wall, he began to shiver. His face became first red, then white, his pain such that he could neither hear nor see, and when he spoke, no one could understand what he said. So they brought him along by the banks of the river to Chinon—a knight holding his feet, and his illegitimate son, Geoffrey, perhaps the only person who loved him, supporting his head and driving away the flies which were settling fast on his poor pinched face. Suddenly the King opened his eyes and smiled faintly.

” My son,” said he, my very dear son, you have always been faithful to me, and grateful as sons should be to their fathers. If God is gracious enough to cure me of this illness, I will make you the greatest and most powerful among the great. And should I die without rewarding you, I pray God to give you what you deserve.”

As I sit in the window I fancy I can hear them moving the dying King into the Chapel of Saint-Melaine. There, before the altar, he died next day; and when the few barons who had remained faithful to him arrived, they found him stripped, by his worthless servants, of his very sheets, lying there all but naked, so that a certain William Trihan had, for very shame, to fling his mantle over him. And the following day he was borne to the Abbey of Fontevrault, where he still lies, for all I know, together with his old sceptre, and round his head the bit of gold fringe, which was all they could find him by way of a crown. And if you go to Fontevrault you will find his effigy lying in the South transept beside that of his son Richard. They say that as the King’s body lay in the choir of the great Abbey Church awaiting burial, Richard came and stood looking down upon him, when the limbs of the corpse began to quiver, and blood to flow from every pore.

It was but ten years later that Richard himself was brought to Chinon. We have so lately visited Chalus that I need not remind any one of his wound. It had suppurated on the long and trying journey, for he had insisted on being taken to Chinon, his favourite home. He must have suffered horribly. It was a dying man who was brought into the town that March evening of 1199. They had reached the cross-roads when the King stopped them.

” I can go no further,” said he; ” I am dying.” There was, close at hand, a dependence of the castle. You may see it to-day, Le Grand Carroi, a fine old half-timbered building. They call it still “the House of Richard.” There they took him; it would at least spare the painful jolting climb up the hill. So he died, and from one of those broad low windows his soul passed out to meet its deserts. Such was the end of the Lion-hearted.

” Will Madame not come and see the castle? ” It is the gardienne, disgusted with what she takes to be my want of interest.

” To be sure. Tell me, where was the chamber where Jeanne d’Arc found the King.” The woman brightened instantly.

” Voila! ” she cried, pointing to where a chimneypiece can still be seen, hanging high upon a tottering ivy-mantled wall.

” That was the Grande Salle, and there you see the very hearth by which the Dauphin was standing.” And she went on to tell of the Maid’s arrival at Chinon; how she was carefully watched for ten days to make sure she was not a witch, and finally, one evening, when the hall was lighted up with torches, presented to the King, or as the woman called him, perhaps in imitation of Jeanne, ” le Dauphin.” The girl was brought in. dressed as a man, still wearing the sword given to her by Baudricourt of Vaucouleurs, and before her walked the Comte de Vendome. It is said that the King, in order to try the Maid’s powers, had disguised himself, and commanded one of his courtiers to represent .him. But she knew him at once, and, going straight to him, took him aside and spoke to him in private.

While the woman was talking, we had crossed the bridge over the moat into the third court, once the soldiers’ quarters, where is the donjon, or Tour de Coudray. The great round keep, with its stone floor and groined roof, was a strange bed-chamber for a young girl. Yet it was here the Maid slept during her stay at Chinon. The little chapel of Saint-Michel, where she used to pray and converse with her heavenly visitors, has disappeared; the foundation only remaining. But the keep is there, rising from a tangle of trees and grasses, approached by a clipped yew hedge. And as you stand within the gloomy cell the thought suddenly leaps into your mind that these very stones have listened to the Maid’s voice; that this roof has looked down upon her as she slept; that from this low doorway she set out for the siege of Orleans. We can see her springing lightly on to her great black charger, and flourishing the little battle-axe she always from henceforth carried; while at her side hangs the great sword of Abderahman, which she had sent for from the Church of Saint-Catherine-de-Fierbois, where it had lain since the days of Charles Martel.

” Come, my lords,” she cries, stretching out her hand toward Orleans, ” let us be off. In a short time we will return to this noble castle, bearing to the Dauphin, our master, the news of the deliverance of his good town of Orleans. After that we will take him to Rheims, where he shall be consecrated in the name of heaven.”

And then? Well then, you turn away and go down into the town with a much more vivid sense of the story than you had when you came up!

Down on the quay you will find a statue of Rabelais, who is supposed to have been a native of Chinon. And indeed his wit may well have had its origin in this smiling town, where, like the young Gargantua, the children of the country still spend their time ” drinking, eating, and sleeping; eating, sleeping, and drinking; or in sleeping, drinking, and eating.”