Sunday, January 26, 2020

Historic French Châteaux, Part 3: Château de Chenonceau

by J. M. Hochstetler
Southeast view of Château de Chenonceau
This is the third installment of a series I’m doing on historic French châteaux. France has a seemingly endless supply of these richly historic structures because of all the wars fought on its lands during the medieval period. The French word château applies to more than the English word castle, including palaces, mansions, and even vineyards, but for this series I’m focusing on actual castles and palaces. Today we’re taking a look at the très romantique Château de Chenonceau, which spans the River Cher near the village of Chenonceaux. It’s one of the most visited châteaux of the Loire Valley.
Mention of the fief of Chenonceau first appears
GNU Free Documentation License, version 1.2
View from west with 15th-century keep in foreground
in historical records in the 11th century. It was owned by Jean Marques when the original château was put to the torch in 1412 as punishment for his sedition. He rebuilt it and added a fortified mill on the site in the 1430s, but in 1513 his heavily indebted heir, Pierre Marques, sold the estate to Thomas Bohier, chamberlain to King Charles VIII. Bohier demolished most of the structure, retaining its 15th-century keep, shown in the photo at right, and built the main part of the existing château between 1514 and 1522 on the foundations of the old mill. Bohier and his wife, Catherine Briçonnet, hosted many French nobles there and also King Francis I a couple of times.

The château with del’Orme’s bridge without the gallery
Francis I in turn seized the château from Bohier’s son in 1535 for unpaid debts to the crown. After his death in 1547, King Henry II gave the château to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, who engaged the French Renaissance architect Philibert de l’Orme to build the arched bridge across the river. She added extensive flower and vegetable gardens and fruit trees along the river’s banks, laid out in four triangles in the formal sculpted French design, with stone terraces to protect against flooding. The crown retained ownership of the chateau until 1555, however, when Poitiers finally gained full possession after years of legal maneuvering. Which, unfortunately didn’t count for much since after the king’s death in 1559 his formidable widow and regent, Catherine de’ Medici, forced Poitiers out and made it her own favorite residence. Hence the château’s nickname of Le Château des Dames. As queens will do, Catherine spent extravagantly, adding new gardens and throwing spectacular nighttime parties. France’s first fireworks display took place in 1560 as part of the celebrations surrounding her son’s crowning as Francis II.
Interior of the gallery that spans the river
Designed by Jean Bullant, the grand gallery that extends the length of the bridge and sets the château apart from any others was built between 1570 and 1576. Catherine also added rooms between the chapel and the library and a service wing on the west side of the entry courtyard. After her death in January 1589 the estate went to her daughter-in-law, Louise of Lorraine, wife of King Henry III. It would not be a happy residence for her, however. Just a few months later, in August 1589, she received news there of her husband’s assassination and spent the next 11 years, until her death in 1601, dressed in mourning and wandering the château’s corridors, which she had draped with somber black tapestries depicting skulls and crossbones.

During the following years the château changed hands numerous times, and many of its fine furnishings were sold off. The property gradually fell into neglect until the 18th century, when it under the ownership of the Dupin family it became a centre for arts and intellectuals with such notable Philosophes as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu regularly attending gatherings there. When the property was threatened with destruction during the French Revolution, it was narrowly saved by Madame Dupin pointed out the bridge’s importance for local transport across the river.

The château was finally purchased n 1913 by the Menier family, famous for their chocolates, who still own it today. During WWI it was used as a hospital, and in WWII it became a link and escape route between the Nazi-occupied territory north of the Cher and the Vichy zone to the south. It suffered damage in the Cher River flood of 1940, and then again in June 1944, while occupied by the Germans. Bombed by the Allies, the chapel was hit and its windows destroyed.

In 1951 the Menier family hired Bernard Voisin to restore the dilapidated structure and the gardens to a reflection of its former glory. An architectural mixture of late Gothic and early Renaissance styles, the château and its gardens are open to the public, and with the exception of Versailles is the most visited château in France.

Enjoy the brief video below by Rick Steves on Chenonceau!

For me, there’s just something about that arched bridge over the river that makes Chenonceau an incredibly swoon-worthy castle, right in league with Neuschwanstein in Bavaria. What do you think? Do you have a favorite castle that just makes you sigh? Please share your fantasies with us!
J. M. Hochstetler is the daughter of Mennonite farmers and a lifelong student of history. She is a professional editor, a publisher, and the author of award-winning historical fiction whose books have been endorsed by bestselling authors such as Lori Benton, Laura Frantz, and Jocelyn Green. Her American Patriot Series is the only comprehensive historical fiction series on the American Revolution. She is also the author of One Holy Night, the Christian Small Publishers 2009 Book of the Year, and co-authored the award-winning Northkill Amish Series with Bob Hostetler.


  1. It would be amazing to see a castle because of its' grand scale! Thanks for posting, and including the Rick Steves clip!

    1. Wouldn't it, Connie? I just love that it crosses the river--so romantic! Thanks for stopping by!

  2. I don't know which one is my favorite. This is the only one I think I've seen.

  3. Bev, you can choose others than the ones I've covered too--any in Europe and England or elsewhere. But I know not everyone is a great lover of castles like I am. Lol!