Much history has been written about the Château de Chenonceau, the second most visited château in France after Versailles. And, what stands out consistently is the part that women played in the development of that history. Such was the impact of these women that Chenonceau is often referred to as the Château des Dames.
For the most part, these were not women that loved to keep the home fires burning while their husbands were away at war. They were strong, powerful, and ambitious. Business-minded and sometimes ruthless, they were no strangers to intrigue, deception, larceny and infidelity.
Katherine Briçonnet (1494–1526)
Katherine Briçonnet and her husband, Thomas Bohier, purchased the site in 1512 with the view to building a Renaissance château. They demolished the old fortified castle and mill, but left the Marques Tower (from the previous owners).
As the treasurer of wars in Italy, Thomas was often away. His absence left Katherine to supervise the construction work. She made many significant architectural decisions, among which were the addition of turrets and the design of the staircase. Instead of the classical circular staircase, she designed a straight staircase to take advantage of the light from the openings onto the Cher.
Unfortunately, Thomas did not return from Italy. He died there in 1524. Katherine died two years later. The original main doors of Chenonceau bear the arms of Thomas on the left and Katherine’s on the right.
Their motivation in building Chenonceau is obvious as witnessed in the words carved on the door:
S’il vient à point, me souviendra
(If I manage to finish it, I will be remembered)
The Château remained with the Bohier family until François I seized it from Thomas and Katherine’s heir, Antoine, for unpaid debts.
Little did Katherine know that she would be more or less forgotten because of the remarkable women who came after her and made Chenonceau their home.
Diane de Poitiers (1499-1566)
Diane was part of one the most infamous love triangles in history. Henri II and his wife, Catherine de Medici, played the other two roles.
A respected noblewoman, Diane was well educated, learning Latin and Greek. She was also a keen hunter and sportswoman.
As a lady-in-waiting to the Royals, Diane had known Henri since he was six years old. On instructions from Francois I, Henri’s father, she became his mentor at the age of ten. Despite a 20 year age difference, a close bond developed between Henri and Diane.
Diane did not seek the love of Henry, but she did all that it was in her power not to let it go. As a result, she had to live in a ménage à trois: the King, the Queen and the mistress.
Despite apparent rivalry, the two women were forced to get along with each other. Diane even gave Catherine advice on lovemaking and also nursed her through a bout of scarlet fever.
After the death of François I in 1547, Henry II offered the Château de Chenonceau as a gift to Diane, but it was giving Diane the Royal Jewels that really got up the nose of Catherine.
Diane became fervently attached to the Château and its view along the river. By building the famous arched bridge on the Cher and joining the Château to its opposite bank, she made the architecture of Chenonceau unique in the world.
She then oversaw the planting of a garden, but no ordinary garden. This garden was not to potter around in and get your hands dirty. It was a major work and took four years to build. It was practically in the river and needed large walls to protect it.
The garden became a lavish status symbol and a statement of Diane’s power and influence. Henri even had to raise a special tax to pay for Diane’s extravagance.
Diane’s garden was both decorative and productive. There were 300 apple trees planted around the wall, so fruit would have been in abundance. The myriad of plants provided flowers for every room, as they do today.
The terrace that goes around the garden was not for access; it was for showing off, parading and prancing, viewing the garden from above and looking inwards with the Château in the background.
A perfect example of an enclosed and protected Renaissance garden, it became the blueprint for future French gardens.
Ownership of Chenonceau remained with the Crown until 1555 when, after years of legal and political intrigue, it finally fell to Diane.
Catherine de Medici (1519-1589)
In 1558, Henri was critically wounded in a jousting accident. Diane attempted to get to him by climbing the fence, but did not succeed. She may have felt helpless, but also fearful of the Queen. Without Henry, she no longer had any influence.
Catherine immediately exerted her authority. Henry lingered for days before he died. He was alleged to have called out repeatedly for Diane. However, she was never summoned nor admitted, and on his death, she was not invited to the funeral. She was forced to watch the procession from a window. None of Diane’s and Henri’s symbols (black and white flags and coverings, the crescent, the reverse HD sign) were evident on the King’s casket.
Catherine was eager to expel Diane from Chenonceau, but as the Château did not belong to the Crown, she could not take it by force. Also, she did not want to offend Diane’s many friends and allies. Instead, she maneuvered Diane to exchange Chenonceau for the Château Chaumont. At the same time, she retrieved the Royal Jewels.
Catherine then made Chenonceau her favourite residence. She proclaimed her power by building her own garden on the other side of the drawbridge.
In many ways, it was similar to Diane’s, inward and enclosed. Catherine used it for secret meetings and political maneuverings,
As Regent of France, Catherine governed France from the Green Study. She spent a fortune on the Château and spectacular parties. It was at one of these in 1560 that the first fireworks display seen in France took place, to celebrate the crowning of Catherine’s son Francis II.
Her most impressive construction was the three-story wing, which extended across the existing bridge that Diane had designed. The Grand Gallery, located on the ground floor of this wing, made a splendid ballroom. It was first used as such in 1577 during the extravagant and sumptuous celebrations to honour Catherine’s son King Henri III.
Louise de Lorraine (1553-1601)
With the death of Catherine in 1589, the Château passed to her daughter-in-law, Louise de Lorraine, wife of King Henry III. She had little time to make her mark on Chenonceau as her husband was murdered eight months after she received her inheritance.
Told of her husband’s death, Louise immediately fell into a state of depression. Inconsolable, she painted the ceiling of her bedchamber with the colours of mourning (black and white) and decorated the walls with dark tapestries stitched with symbols of mourning, sorrow and death.
Always dressed in white, she earned the nickname of la Reine Blanche (the White Queen). Surrounded by nuns, she devoted her life to reading, charity work and prayer.
Her death marked the end of the Royal presence at Chenonceau, and it fell into a period of decay for more than a century.
During this period, much of Chenonceau’s contents were sold off, with many items ending up at Versailles.
Louise Dupin (1706-1799)
The next lady to make an appearance on the stage at Chenonceau was Louise Dupin. Her husband, Claude Dupin, acquired the Château from the Duke of Bourbon in 1777.
Louise restored Chenonceau to its former splendour with new furnishing and decorations. She spent every Autumn with her friends from the world of finance and the elite of literature, arts and sciences.
She started a salon by entertaining leading intellectuals such as Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau became Louise’s secretary and tutor to her son.
Louise is credited with saving Chenonceau from the ravages of the French Revolution by claiming it as the only link between the villages of Montrichard and Bléré, and that its destruction would not be in the best interests of the local villagers.
The last heir of the Dupin family sold Chenonceau to Madame Pelouze in 1863.
Marguerite Pelouze (1836-1928)
Another very colourful lady enters the Chenonceau story. Marguerite was born into an extremely wealthy family, with her father, Daniel Wilson Senior, making his fortune from installing gas lighting throughout Paris.
Losing her parents at a young age, she becomes responsible for her younger brother, Daniel Wilson Junior. A strong bond developed between them; some say an incestuous one.
In 1857, she married Eugène Philippe Pelouze, physician and son of the chemist Théophile-Jules Pelouze (whose name is one of 72 inscribed on the Eiffel Tower). The couple had no children. The marriage was dissolved at the request of Eugène Pelouze in 1869. It is pure speculation that he found his wife in bed with her brother.
Marguerite spent her considerable inheritance for the purchase of Chenonceau in 1864. Daniel, meanwhile, spent his on gambling, women and politics. However, he had one thing going for him. His sister had for years been President Grévy’s lover and was able to arrange his marriage to the President’s daughter, Alice.
Installed in the Elysée Palace, Daniel started on the repair of his wasted fortune by illegally selling Legion of Honor medals, using the presidential letterhead and seal. The scandal broke, and forced the resignation of the government and the President.
Back to the main story. Between 1867 and 1878, Marguerite undertook major restoration works. Her ambition was to recreate Chenonceau as it was in the 16th century under Diane de Poitiers. She removed much of the changes introduced by Catherine de Medici, including the entry Caryatids (figures of Hercules, Pallas, Apollo, and Cybele) to the park.
She built or rebuilt several chimneys in the Renaissance style including those in the bedchambers of François 1 and César de Vendôme.
She restored the kitchen that is located below the ballroom, worked on the restoration of the gardens and planted trees along the drive leading to the Château.
Once the work was completed, she organised lavish parties, entertaining such famous guests as her lover, President Jules Grévy, and pianist Claude Debussy, who played in her chamber orchestra.
Despite her colossal fortune, the escapades of Marguerite Pelouze resulted in the accumulation of debts that lead to her losing Chenonceau in 1888.
Simone Menier (1881-1972)
In 1913, the Château finally passed to its current owners, the Menier family, a dynasty built on chocolate.
During World War I, Chenonceau became a hospital for wounded soldiers, with Catherine de Medici’s gallery converted into a 120-bed ward and surgical facility. Simone Menier, the Matron, ran the hospital with her husband George. The Menier Chocolate Company covered all expenses.
Over 2,000 soldiers were treated here and a plaque in the Gallery commemorates these soldiers and their nurses. Flowers are changed every week under the plaque, and they are always in the Tricolore of France: red, white and blue.
In World War II, Chenonceau was again in the thick of it. The Cher formed the dividing line between Nazi-controlled France and free France. The Nazis controlled the far side of the bridge, and the Château side was free.
The Nazis conducted a deforestation programme and guards patrolled the river to prevent people from crossing. Nonetheless, Simone Menier was able to help Jews and French villagers to escape by unlocking the gallery doors whenever the patrols were out of sight.
In 1951, the Menier family began to restore the Château and its gardens (ravaged by a flood in 1940) back to its former glory.
Built by Katherine Briçonnet, embellished by Diane de Poitiers and Catherine de Medici, marked by the grief of Louise de Lorraine, saved by Louise Dupin, restored by Marguerite Pelouze and protected by Simone Menier, the Château des Dames has left its mark on history.
Château de Chenonceau
37150 Chenonceaux, France
+33 2 47 23 90 07
9:30 am to 5-8:00 pm (Seasonal closing hours)
Car: A10 from Paris (exit Blois or Amboise). Train: TGV Paris to Tours then TER to Chenonceaux.