Examine the Francois I Wing
Francois I had many passions: hunting, warring, women and building. He was married to Claude de France, Louis XII’s daughter, who had lived all of her life at Blois. They grew disaffected with Amboise and decided to upgrade Blois into their royal residence. With the fortress NW wall as a backing Francis had Domenico da Cortona, whom Charles VIII had brought back with him from Italy, build this early Renaissance dwelling. The attraction was the dominating octagonal staircase in the courtyard which served as the stage prop for elaborate court receptions. Aside from a great deal of decorative stonework (much of it replaced or restored) it gets its appearance of regularity by the pilasters and window treatment. The asymmetry is due to the fitting it in and the subsequent obliterations for other building. It quickly became clear that there would not be enough room, so a second tier of suites was built beyond the fortress wall and cuts were made in its thickness to connect them. This clever add-on was also asymmetrical, but the facade design using disconnected loggias, windows, gargoyles and balconies deludes the eye into seeing regularity. (Our Things to Do Tip on the Outside has a picture of this facade).
Château Royal de Blois: Fireplaces, Part II
“It is not a woman, it is monarchy itself that has died!”
— Jacques Auguste de Thou (1553-1617) French historian, his exclamation when he heard of the death of Catherine de’Medici at Château Royal de Blois on 5.January.1589
There are some women who have a long-lasting impact on human behavior. Catherine de’Medici, Queen of France was one of those women. Here is how her influence is felt even today.
In the 16th century the Medici family was among the most powerful in the world. Their banking empire stretched across Europe. This wealthy clan ruled Florence, and later Tuscany, for several hundred years. They were great patrons the arts; the family produced three popes; and they married into enough European royal houses to ensure their lasting influence. This included the 1533 betrothal of 14-year old Catherine de’Medici to France’s Henri, duc d’Orleans. He would become the next king, Henri II, and Catherine would be his Queen.
Feelings of insecurity overwhelmed the diminutive Catherine as she prepared to face the dazzling French Court. For help she turned to a clever Florentine artisan. She expressed her fear of disgracing herself and her family unless she impressed the Court at her debut ball. Her confidant was her cobbler!
What he created for this tentative teen-aged girl would captivate the entire Court of Catherine’s father-in-law, François I: a silk shoe with a four-inch heel. For Catherine, he had concocted something that gave her an allure, but also gave her the physical stature she wished for.
High-heeled shoes quickly caught on with fashion-conscious women, as well as men, of the French Court; their popularity spread among the nobility throughout Europe. Both men and women continued wearing heels throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The French Revolution saw to it that wearing heels would decline in France because it was associated with the aristocracy. Throughout the first half of the 1800s, flat shoes were worn by both men and women; but the high heel resurfaced later in the century, almost exclusively for women.
Thus, because of her insecurities, Catherine de’Medici helped women through the centuries gain some self-confidence by way of a little extra height , and the adage ‘Necessity is the Mother of Invention’ surly applies, for Catherine de’Medici is the mother of the modern high-heeled shoe.
These grand fireplaces, with their polychromed and ornately carved royal emblems, were refurbished during castle renovations of the 19th century by Félix Duban, who took his inspiration from the royal emblems depicted in the Book of Hours of Louis XII’s queen, Anne, duchesse de Bretagne. Those royal emblems include the porcupine of Louis XII (see photo #5) and the ermine of Anne de Bretagne (see photos #1 & #2).
Château Royal de Blois: Wallcoverings, Part I
“Good morning. Madame, please excuse me. Henri de Guise is dead and will no longer be mentioned. I have had him killed, only anticipating the same plan he had against me. I could no longer tolerate his insolence.”
— Henri III to his mother, Catherine de’Medici, at the Château Royal de Blois
In 1588, Henri, duc de Guise, a.k.a. le Balafré [Scarface] (1549-1588), Lieutenant-General of France, forced the king, Henri III (1574-1589), to convene a meeting of the Estates Generals. Guise, nicknamed ‘the King of Paris,’ was the leader of the Catholic League, a political/religious organization at odds with the king over the place of Protestants within France. The League wished to eradicate the Huguenots, as French Protestants were known; the king was looking for a compromise. Most of the 500 deputies of the Estates Generals, as well as the King of Spain, supported Guise.
Feeling threatened and outnumbered, Henri III, to save his throne, believed his only alternative was to eliminate his rival. At Château Royal de Blois the rooms on the second floor of the François I Wing, where the murder took place, can still be seen. These rooms serve as an art gallery for a series of 19th-century Romantic paintings on the subject of the duke’s assassination.
On morning of 23.December.1588, the king summoned Guise to his private office. Guise left the Council Room and walked to the king’s chambers. Before he could enter the office Guise was set upon by eight swordsmen. He managed to defend himself by killing four of his assailants and injured a fifth before being murdered. Guise staggered about the room making his way to the king’s bed and fell down, reciting Miserere mei Deus, “Have mercy on me, O God.”
It is said that the king slapped Guise’s face and said, “My God, he looks even taller dead than alive.” The next day, the Cardinal of Lorraine, Guise’s brother, was murdered in his jail cell by the king’s bodyguards. Their bodies were burned and the ashes thrown into the River Loire. Eight months later Henri III was murdered by Jacques Clément, a monk and member of the Catholic League.
The wall covering within the castle is quite striking. Just as with the ceiling decoration, these elaborate decorative walling coverings date from 19th and 20th century restoration. The royal fleur-de-lys and the ermine badge of Anne de Brittagne (see photos #2 & #3) figure among the motifs used, as well the crowned ‘H’ for Henri II (see photo #5).
An Architectural History of Chateau-Building
On our second visit, we took our four grown sons and their wives to spend an afternoon at Blois. In the morning we had visited Chenonceau from our base at a"bed-dinner abd breakfast" chateau near the Chambord (See Lodging Tip under Centre-Chateau Colliers).After previously sightseeing at most of the prominent chateaux in the valley, we chose the three finest and most varied examples to visit as their first taste. The chateau is a partial textbook of architecture of castles, at least as living quarters. (we had seen Versailles from Paris days earlier).
"What We Missed"
Each of our trips to Blois have been day trips. The first time we devoted a little energy to seeing the outside of the castle and some of the old town. It is quite a climb up and down. We looked into the Cathedral at that time, but took no pictures because we were not experienced enough to recognize its finer late Gothic rebuilding.
The chateau is minimally furnished. It is really a set of museums and plays host to any groups of French schoolchildren since some of France's history (including murder) took place here. We went for the beautiful architecture in many styles. There are preserved archeologic remains and original castle stone carvings, a picture gallery and authentic pieces and reproductions that emphasize the history in appropriate places.