The Chateau of Chenonceau is one of the great sites of France – built beside, and across, the river Cher in the heart of the Loire valley.
In the early 1500s the original builders began by demolishing an old castle and mill beside the river. The original castle keep was rebuilt in the new Renaissance style and a small and exquisite residence was created alongside. In 1535 the Château was appropriated by King Francis I in lieu of unpaid debts and the Chateau began its royal career.
In 1547 Francis’s son and successor, King Henry II gave the Chateau to his mistress, the beautiful and businesslike Diane de Poitiers. Henry was at that stage 28, Diane nearly twenty years older, and he had been fascinated by her for over twenty years ( they first met when he was seven!). This did not go down well with his wife, Catherine de’ Medici, to whom he had been married in 1533 – when they had both been just 14 years old.
Diane was an astute and intelligent companion for the King, encouraging him to raise a family with Catherine and advising him on diplomatic and state affairs. How that must have galled Catherine, who had fallen deeply in love with her husband when they were first married, despite his obvious infatuation with the older and more glamorous Diane.
In the dozen yeare in which she owned Chenonceau, Diane enriched and embellished her castle. She built the bridge across the river Cher, which linked the main building with the further back of the river and planted the first of the beautiful formal gardens beside the entrance.
However, in 1559 disaster struck. Henry II died as a result of a dreadful injury during a tournament (in which, incidentally, he had been sporting the colours of Diane de Poitiers rather than those of his wife, the Queen). Catherine lost no time in evicting Diane from Chenonceau, making her take on the smaller and less sophisticated chateau of Chaumont in exchange.
As Catherine settled into a widowhood that would see her act as Regent of France and principal advisor to three of her son’s in succession ( kings Francis II, Charles IX and Henry III), she also undertook to make Chenonceau into the most beautiful and magnificent chateau of the Loire.
She used the bridge built by Diane as the basis of the splendid two-storey Medici Gallery, stretching across the river Cher and providing space for magnificent parties and receptions. She incorporated the entwined letters H and C (for Henry and Catherine) in the lavish decoration of her private apartments, even including a portrait of herself in widow’s weeds above the enormous fireplace in what had been Diane’s bedroom. And she laid out her own formal garden, to complement that created by her predecessor.
From the tiny study and library of Chenonceau, she ran the country during some of the most difficult and turbulent times. At a period when women were not considered fit to rule in their own right she managed to keep the Valois monarchs on the French throne until her death in 1589. Quite an achievement for the little Italian princess who had been ignored by her husband.
Today the palace is crowded with visitors, exploring the royal rooms and the glorious gardens. The exquisite planting of the formal beds and the richness of the enormous vegetable and flower gardens are carried into the Château through constantly changing displays created by floral artists working in a studio in the chateau’s home farm. These fabulous arrangements – pieces of art in their own right – bring an immediacy and glamour to the palace that both Diane and Catherine would certainly have relished.